“Here is the key,” Éowyn said pulling it from her bag as they stood before the cottage. “Ah, two of them. I had it copied, since I did not trust myself not to lose it. Keep one of them in a safe place, if you are like me.”
And the others stood back to look at Meleth’s and Serilinn’s new home.
It was a simple stone cottage like most in Ithilien with a thatched roof and green-shuttered windows, and ivy growing up one wall. It had been well looked after, obviously, and had the beginnings of a flower garden all about, daffodils and narcissi and hyacinth blooming already, amongst new curling ferns gleaming with dewdrops, and tall pines and firs and cedars standing a good way out, lindens and oaks and chestnuts and larches closer by, and a rustic wooden bench out front backed by flowering bushes and birch saplings. And all about were rugged mountains and more trees in variegated greens, some covered in white buds, and misty silvery clouds and hurrying streamlets that twinkled and glistened in the noonday sunlight. The roar of a waterfall could be heard a ways off, and Éowyn said it could be seen if one walked about a quarter-mile down the road and rounded the bend. Wild flowers sprang up everywhere, and birdcalls could be heard from closely neighboring forests. Two or three other cottages could be spotted in the distance, along with flocks of sheep and cattle grazing in high meadows, with their young skipping and frisking close by.
“I do not see how even the Blessed Realm could outshine this,” Meleth said softly.
Greenjade nodded his agreement; he could find no words. He thought he had seen beautiful countryside before. Now it all seemed pretty threadbare compared to this.
“I hope someday Calador will look like this,” Serilinn said where she stood holding the tiny new Finduilas. Little Elboron broke away from his nurse and ran out to inspect the back yard, although he had seen it before. Still, one never knew; something new might have sprung up back there while he was gone. Nilde ran after him. Faramir laughed gently as he watched his son and the dog.
Sméagol went after them, wishing to avoid Faramir, although the Prince had been quite kind and gracious to him, as Aragorn had been, even apologizing to him for the way his men had treated him.
“I had forgotten how it looked myself,” Radagast said. Rusco flew up and fluttered after Nilde, not wishing to miss out on whatever it was the others discovered back there. “It has been a very long time since I was here. It was far wilder and more rugged, when last I saw it. Now it appears much as it did in former times.”
Serilinn brought the baby back to the nurse. “I feel like running myself,” she said giggling.
“Don’t you wish to see the inside?” Meleth said laughing. Serilinn laughed also, and followed her and Éowyn into the cottage, the others coming in after them, Radagast and Sméagol and Greenjade carrying the baggage.
The house was well and simply furnished, with white lace curtains at the windows and woven rugs, a small fireplace with a round mirror over it, flanked with candles, and colorful blankets on the chairs and couches. The walls were whitewashed, and a tapestry showing a tree full of birds hung on one of them. Down the hall there were two small bedrooms with tiled stoves in them, and latticed windows with milky glass, and beds with nicely worked coverlets and embroidered pillows on them. And at the end of the hall was a room that opened out back and could be used as a workroom. It had only a table and two chairs.
“It’s all so cozy and delightful,” Meleth said. “It looks as though someone lives here already…well, but perhaps it’s a little too neat for that. What think you, Serilinn?”
“I think it suits us exactly,” Serilinn said. “So quaint and charming.”
Faramir laughed. Greenjade tried not to, but suddenly he couldn’t keep it back either. He thought Serilinn must be well accustomed to having people laugh at the things she said by now. But did she like it?
“I quite agree,” Faramir said smiling, “and I’m glad you like it. But if the two of you ever hanker for finer quarters, our estate is always open to you. And it is but fifteen miles away.”
“Oh, of course we shall visit from time to time,” Meleth said. “But not so often, I think. This house speaks to me as if it knew me. I’ll not wish to tear myself away.”
“I’ve engaged a housekeeper for you,” Éowyn said. “She lives just around the bend. Her name is Mistress Amdir.”
“Oh, I need no housekeeper!” exclaimed Meleth. “I can keep house myself.”
“But you’ve your wedding gown to make,” Éowyn reminded her with an arch glance toward Greenjade. “And Serilinn’s bridesmaid dress as well.”
“It will not take me so long,” Meleth said. “I’ve a great deal done on it already. I do not wish it to be very elaborate. And Serilinn’s is made already.”
“Well, but please allow Mistress Amdir to come and work for you at least once a week,” Éowyn pleaded. “She lost both husband and son in the War, and needs work badly. She does much washing for others, but needs what she can get.”
“Oh, in that case, I shall let her come,” Meleth said. “The poor soul. Has she any other children?”
“A daughter, but she has married and lives in a different village,” Éowyn said.
They went to look at the stable, and found a snowy mare within. Meleth barely repressed a squeak.
“Her name is Nimrodel,” Éowyn said. “I thought it a good idea for you to have something to ride. You do ride, yes?”
“Aye, but with no great skill,” Meleth said. “I suppose I shall get in some practice now. Thank you so much, my lady. This is a wonderful gift I did not expect.”
“She’s quite gentle, and has been ridden before,” Éowyn said. “She is four years old.”
“I’ve never seen a lovelier horse,” Serilinn said going up to stroke Nimrodel’s muzzle. “Is she of the Mearas?”
Éowyn laughed a little. “I think not. I had her from a man who has lived long in Ithilien. Is there anything you could wish for that you have not here?”
“I should be ashamed to ask for any more, in very truth,” Meleth said.
“What of you, my lass?” Éowyn said.
“I only wish I could live here all the time, instead of at the school,” Serilinn said clasping her hands. “I suppose that is wicked and ungrateful of me. But it’s so.”
“Well, if you are not happy at the school,” Meleth said, “perhaps we can take you out, and I can teach you here. But I would like for you to be with other girls for a while. At least, could you give it a try, for the Queen’s sake?”
“I will,” Serilinn said, “but I do not expect to be happy there, and shall greatly look forward to the weekends when I can be here in this sweet place with you, Nana Meleth.”
Arwen had turned back for home after registering Serilinn at the school. The brothers had remained at Emyn Arnen, helping to hold down the place, but said they would come out next day. The first night at the cottage would be for Meleth, Greenjade, and Serilinn alone. The others would stay at the inn nearby.
“I hope Nilde likes it here,” Serilinn said later on, watching Elboron pet the dog. He was a dark-haired, rather serious little lad, who was quiet much of the time, but every once in a while he would speak up and say things that sounded like afterthoughts. Before little Finduilas was born, folk would ask him if that were his brother or his sister in there. And once he said, “No, it’s my best friend, and that is a very good thing!”
Greenjade recalled what Eldarion had said to Beregond upon hearing that Elboron had a baby sister at the age of three. The little Prince had shrugged saying, “I had a baby sister when I was three. Tell Elboron it isn’t such a big deal once you get used to it.”
“She is a nice dog,” Elboron said as Nilde licked his hand. “And she thinks I taste good, but I don’t know why.”
The others laughed.
“It is because you are so sweet,” said his doting mother.
“Nay,” he protested. “I licked myself yesterday. I’m not sweet at all. I’m rather salty. I suppose Nilde likes salt.”
The others laughed more.
“That you are,” his father agreed. “Why did you lick yourself?”
“I just felt like it,” Elboron said shrugging.
“How would you like to have one of her pups?” Radagast asked.
“Which pups?” Elboron said.
“They are inside of her now,” Faramir said, “just as Finduilas was inside your mother before she was born.”
“Are they kicking her in there?” Elboron asked. He touched Nilde’s flank.
“They may be,” Éowyn said. “Can you feel them?”
“I feel something,” the little boy said. “I hope they don’t bite her in there.”
The others laughed.
“So would you like to have a puppy?” Radagast asked him.
Elboron nodded. “I shall call it ‘Whippersnapper’,” he said.
The others laughed uproariously.
“Where did you hear such a name as that?” Radagast asked when he could get his breath.
“Bergil calls me that sometimes,” the little boy said. “I don’t know why.”
“Bergil is in the army now also,” Serilinn said, “and will go to Mordor also. Mikala is not happy about it. She should be proud of him. I think he looks very handsome in his uniform, and I shall tell her so.”
It was nearly sunset when the others finally left and Greenjade, Meleth, and Serilinn were left alone in their cottage. Nilde had insisted on going with Radagast. They all wondered how they were going to keep her from following him to Mordor.
“We’ll have to lock her up,” Greenjade said in answer to Serilinn. “Much as we may hate the thought of it, but I see no other way.”
“Poor Sméagol,” Serilinn said. “He loves her so much, I don’t see how he will bear it apart from her.”
“But he will see her again in three months,” Meleth said with her incorrigible optimism. “And she will be a mother by then…and I shall be a bride, Greenjade will be a father, and you will have two parents. It will be a joyful time for all.”
On the last day at Ithilien, they all spent it at the palace in Emyn Arnen. They tried to make merry, but no one felt much like it. So eventually they settled down to conversation. The adults alternately talked of politics and the trouble in Harad, and listened to Éowyn’s stories of her patients. Faramir was doing a good bit of writing, she said--not that he had much time for it. He had written of his time as a Ranger and some of the history of Ithilien, and he had also written a little storybook for Elboron, which the little boy proudly showed them. Faramir had even drawn pictures for it. He didn’t think they were very good, but Elboron loved them. He spent a good deal of time looking at them and trying to copy them. Serilinn said she thought they were excellent. He was having Minas Morgul rebuilt as well, and restored to it its former name of Minas Ithil. He spoke much of this project. Legolas's father, Thranduil, was the one in charge.
“So you are Frodo’s stepson,” Faramir had said to Greenjade earlier in their meeting. And so Greenjade found yet another to tell him of his stepfather. The days and nights passed, in bittersweet peace and a feeling of togetherness that was all the more beautiful and poignant since it would soon be a thing of the past, never truly to be recaptured. Sitting up on the veranda in the evenings looking out over the mountains and waterfalls, which abounded in precipitous splendour, hiking up steep trails and standing high on cliffsides gazing down at it all, riding horseback through the valleys starred with yellow and white and orange and purple flowers, fishing in the clear streams and pools, watching the children playing with Nilde and and chasing butterflies and holding the baby all warm and soft in her infinite sweetness. Greenjade had held her also, although he didn’t want to at first, but Serilinn insisted, and he wept inside to think he had never held one of his own children like this…and he wondered what Nell was doing now, and if her child were a son or a daughter, and whether it resembled him or her, or both of them, and what she had named it and whether or not he would ever see it and if it would ever think of him….
“Well, here we go,” he said as he helped Radagast and Sméagol load and hitch up the wagon once more. It was early in the morning, cool and cloudy, likely to rain. “It’s off to Mordor with us. Tra la la la, we’re on our way. The road goes ever on and on…”
Elladan jabbed at him with his elbow. Greenjade narrowly avoided it, trying to laugh, but it did not come off well.
Sméagol was weeping a bit, wiping his nose on his sleeve. He had already bid farewell to Nilde, who was locked into the courtyard. She was not aware yet that the others were leaving. Elboron was with her, having told the others that he must take “wonderful care” of her now that she was going to have children.
Rusco would not be going either. “He has found himself a sweetheart,” Radagast had said with a deep sigh as he watched the finch building a nest with his new mate in a tree near the cottage, and Serilinn had rejoiced that he would be nearby. “I shall miss him very much also, but I doubt he would have been happy in Mordor, either. This is just the place for him, and I am glad he has decided to settle here.”
Legolas had joined them. He had left Minas Tirith a week or so before the others, to fetch Gimli and see his father in Ithilien. The dwarf came riding behind them on a small pony, looking most uncomfortable on it. He would be going to Mordor also, and work alongside of Radagast and Sméagol.
Bergil came along on his horse, in uniform also. His father and mother and his two younger sisters were there with him, seeing him off. He would ride with them and the twins. He did not look happy to be going either.
Beregond would escort Serilinn to her school the next day. She would only have time to stop at the cottage to get her things. She told Bergil’s sister Ivrenel, with whom she had pledged eternal sisterhood, that she wished she were coming to the school with her. Ivrenel, who was eleven, said she might go next year, if her mother would let her, but feared she was too stupid to pass the test. Her tutor was always getting onto her for daydreaming, as it was. And she was simply awful at mathematics; she wished it had never been invented, she said.
“I could help you,” Serilinn said. “I’m not fond of it myself, but Nana Meleth says I’m better than she was at my age. Ada Greenjade says I am amazing, but I doubt that very much. I detest long division. I see no point in it.”
“I hate it all,” Ivrenel said. “I’m afraid if I went to that school, they’d laugh at me.”
“I fear that too,” Serilinn admitted. “But if they do, I suppose I shall just have to endure it.”
“They won’t,” Ivrenel said looking at her with worshipful eyes. “You are so beautiful and smart, all will adore you. I wish I could go along just to take care of you, like Sam.”
“Well,” Radagast said at last, “are we ready?”
Serilinn ran to Radagast and embraced him, then Sméagol, Legolas, Gimli, and lastly the twins, who had not yet mounted their horses. Elladan gave her a light kiss on the lips, unable to hold back any longer. It fairly took her breath away. Ivrenel stared open-mouthed at her sister and then at her mother.
Greenjade kissed Meleth lingeringly, and gazed deeply into her eyes one last time, reminding himself that when next he saw her, she would be in her wedding gown. It made him dizzy just thinking of it.
“My very own true love,” he murmured as he at last separated himself from her, and then Serilinn came and embraced him also.
“My darling lass,” he said as he held her in his arms one last time. “Write me often, yes? I did give you the address of our outpost?”
“Aye, Ada Greenjade,” she said choking up. “I will write every day.”
“Not every day,” he said. “You won’t have time. Once a week, or even once a month, will be sufficient. And not to fear. You will do splendidly, I know.”
“You write me too, Ada,” she said. “I will look forward to your letters. They will be as a breath of fresh air in a…a very stuffy room.”
He laughed just a little, until he saw tears seeping from her eyes. He kissed them away silently.
And embraced her and Meleth both.
The Black Gate loomed straight ahead, although it was no longer there.