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Far Beyond Mirkwood, Chapter 22/?

Authors: Mary A and Malinornë
Pairings: Mainly Thranduil/OFCs
Warnings: Some adult language, sadly no nudity.
Disclaimer: This is a work of amateur fanfiction of the parody type and is meant solely for entertainment purposes, no profit is made.
Chapter summary: The Royal Party leaves Rohan toward Gondor, Mary and Mal cope with the carriage ride, Thaladir keeps everyone in line. Thranduil is visited by a mysterious elf.

~ Mary ~

After the parting feast in the Golden Hall, and my recitation before King Eomer describing my kidnapping, I felt much too excited to go right to sleep. Thaladir, however, was determined to force me into my bed. The seneschal made dire warnings of how unsettled I would feel upon arising if I did not 'achieve the correct proportion of conscious inactivity', which is what he thought human sleep felt like. He was very annoying.

"Exactly what time are we leaving tomorrow?" I asked. Anborn was beside me, after I had grabbed onto him, but the seneschal told me that I was forbidden any visitors to my room.

"The simplest way to discover our traveling schedule of the morrow would be to consult your itinerary, Lady Mary," was Thaladir's oh so wise reply. Before I could say a word back, the old elf reached into his sleeve and pulled out a parchment scroll, tied with a tiny ribbon.

"Put this addendum with your itinerary, Lady Mary. Its inclusion will be part of your room inspection in the morning." We had reached the women's guest wing of the Golden Hall, and Thaladir let me have a moment of privacy to say goodnight to Anborn. I pulled him into some shadows.

"The last time I saw my itinerary, you had it," I whispered.

"I gave it to you at the inn by the ford," Anborn reminded me.

"I am very sure that I didn't touch it," I moaned, and then added, "But you must have your own? I am sure that Thaladir made extra copies for emergencies like you."

"A ranger would never carry written instructions, my lady," Anborn explained. "I memorized mine, and then destroyed it."

"Well, I'll think of something to distract him tomorrow," I decided, nodding toward Thaladir's stern back. It took only another moment to whisper my plan for how we would spend the rest of the evening, and then I loudly kissed Anborn goodnight. After I was finally escorted to my room by the seneschal, I climbed out of my balcony and into the ranger's waiting arms. We went to his room, with a much larger bed.

"Why did you tell Thranduil that you want to marry me?" I asked.

"I did not tell him so," Anborn said, to my surprise. He chuckled and then said, "He told me so, and it was the truth." He seemed eager to say more, but I told him the topic was off limits.

The next morning, I awoke swinging my fists at any convenient target and screaming bloody murder. Anborn was already up, and dressed. He jumped on the bed beside me and tried to calm me down, but I hit him anyway. It made me feel much better.

I was in a foul mood and I was sorry, later, about taking it out on Anborn. During what little sleep I had finally snatched, however, I had been assaulted by a terrifying nightmare, and waking up to see his smiling face did not help. He made me tell it to him, which might not have been a great idea.

"I was being kidnapped again," I told him. At first, it felt good to confront the demons in my head, which were still fuzzily haunting my mind. "I was in the carriage and it was going very fast, almost flying over the road, but I wasn't with Edric this time."

At this point, I had to stop, and think about what I was going to say next. While remembering my dream out loud, the kidnapper's face had come clear to me. It had been Anborn. "Never mind," I said. "I forgot all of it already."

How could I tell him that I had dreamed he had taken me away from Thranduil? Against my will? Because he wanted to marry me? How could I tell him that I had felt true terror while traveling with him to Ithilien?

In the dream, the carriage flew as if it had wings, making it impossible for me to jump out, and Anborn cruelly ignored all of my pleas to turn back. We ended up at a cozy little hovel in the woodland, which was covered with ivy and had a little white picket-fence around it. He carried me through the gate, onto the front steps, and into a suddenly wide open door.

Once inside the dreary home, Anborn set me down on the floor and kissed me sweetly. Instead of slapping him, I sighed with happiness. Perhaps, I thought, this is where I always belonged. I was not going to fight my fate anymore.

"Do you know what I want to do right now?" I whispered to my handsome ranger. He nodded, and took one of my hands into his. With a tender smile on his face, he led me down a short corridor and then into a tidy little kitchen. He handed me an apron and said, "I am so hungry that I could eat orc-meat, so don't worry about burning dinner."

That is when I woke up screaming.

Our departure from Rohan did not go off on schedule, but not through any fault of mine. Any direct fault. I was awake on time, and dressed, despite Anborn's despair over my slow-motion departure from his bed and my grouchy attitude toward him. I made it back to my room before anyone saw me, but the presence of a screaming woman in the men's guest quarters had to be investigated. This delayed us by only a few minutes, because Anborn confessed immediately.

I was doubly irritated with the ranger for that. Thaladir was sure to remember how he had warned me about not getting enough sleep, and how it could have a less than desirable effect on my mood, and despite my best efforts, he found out I had not even been in my own bed. To top it all off, I had made us late. He was right again, I was wrong again, and the grouchy old elf was not going to let me forget about it.

But he did forget to ask to see my itinerary.

~ Mal ~

As expected, Thranduil would say nothing about what he had told his seneschal in regards to me, but he made it clear that there would be no more embarrassing misunderstandings of the kind that I had encountered the previous night. Naturally, Thaladir had the right to decline, and I would not have had it any other way, although I thought I knew him well enough by now to know that he would hardly say no to intimacies, provided the timing was suitable for his busy schedule and the settings seemly.

This agreement, however, changed nothing in the old elf's behaviour toward me in daytime, whether in public or not. He was still the perfect seneschal, expressionless except for when something had earned his malcontent, which, I had to admit, seemed to happen more seldom than in Mirkwood. I almost came to miss his puckered-up lemony lips and the deep wrinkle on his forehead.

He did, however, show some of that on the day of our leaving Edoras. Having organized the travel perfectly, he should have been able to relax, but instead he seemed to fuss over everything and everyone. I think he came to my room at least thrice to make sure no garments were left behind, checking even my underwear to tick it off in his list. I told Mary about it and later heard a very loud throat-clearing from her room, followed by giggles. She had put on a double layer of panties as a joke. It really was fun, even if it was childish. Even Miriel giggled behind the seneschal's back.

Farewell ceremonies were short, and not too ceremonial. Again, the inhabitants of the city lined the stairs and path down to the gates, where our carriages were waiting. As we walked down, single-file, I looked around to see if there were any familiar faces, and I had the feeling that during our stay here I had met half of Rohan. There were men I remembered from Eomer King's feasts, others who had been in the welcoming party, women I had seen in the market and children who had been watching whenever one of us left the Golden Hall.

There was a particular face I searched for, hoping not to find it, but he was there. In the last row of people, on the lowest level next to the city wall stood the rat-faced little merchant I had helped with his business. I winced when he took his hand out of his pocket, thinking he meant to hand me a sample of his merchandise, but instead he lifted it to his cap - very similar to the ones favoured by dwarves - and took it off as he bowed. His smile was friendly and I had to smile back.

The gates were open and our carriages stood between two rows of horsemen. Thranduil and Eomer said a few short words, clasped each other's elbows in a suitably manly way, and then each of our party bowed to the kings and took our places. Thaladir checked that all was in order, and then we left. The people cheered, but I didn't think it was because they were happy to be rid of the elves. I wondered if Eomer would act on the idea of sending a group of unwed women to Lorien to find fathers for their future children, but even if that would not happen, the relations between the Rohirrim and their elven neighbours were better now than they had possibly ever been.

Our journey was easy. The road to Gondor was a well-used one, as even and well kept as anyone could wish for, and no navigation skills were necessary either, as it followed the White Mountains, with only a few narrow paths leading off to smaller settlements in the Eastfold. I kept gazing up towards the snow-capped peaks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beacons placed on some of them, even if I knew from Thaladir's lectures that the hills that had this age-old warning system were located much farther to the west and any hope of seeing them until we passed into Anorien was futile. Still, it was a nice pastime while nothing much happened.

We passed a few inns along the way, simple establishments that were placed at regular intervals to provide warm meals to travellers. It would have been nice to visit one, even just to freshen up and look around, but Thaladir insisted that we should make use of the provisions Eomer had left with us and - although he didn't say it - not waste the Royal Mirkwood Treasure on simple comforts we could well do without.

The weather held, most of the time, and even on the rainy days we were none for the worse. Thranduil's carriage cum throne room was big enough for all of us to take refuge in and picnicking in there became a habit, even if the seneschal insisted that it was not what the vehicle was intended for. Mary and I giggled each time he said it, sharing glances between ourselves and the Elvenking, as we knew very well what the enormous bed that took up most of the interior when not folded away, was for.

We spent alternating nights there, with His Majesty, but I do not think anyone was lonely. Thaladir welcomed me under his blanket any time I asked nicely, and Ithilwen and Anarion had the habit to sneak away after the evening meal, as did on occasion Haldir and Miriel. It was mostly Anborn who sat late at the fire, singing to himself about lost maidens and heroic quests into the wilderness. His voice was pleasant to listen to.

On the third day of leisurely travel we reached the wood that marked the entrance to Gondor, and that was also where something happened that came to change our travel plans.

~ Mary ~

There is absolutely nothing more irritating than a smug elf. Not that the average elf is humble, unassuming, or modest. They all think of themselves as much more clever than even the most brilliant human, but they are usually not obvious about it. Mostly, they are above flaunting their superior intellect and unerring sense of cause and effect. Since they hate offering advice and refuse to take responsibility for the mundane affairs of mortals in Middle-earth, this is rarely a problem. There are always exceptions.

Such as, for example, the tendency of a certain elf I know to lord it over a person after making a series of accurate predictions of how a lack of sleep will make an average mortal woman feel in the cold, cruel light of dawn, while traveling out on the road. For days, whenever I had to face Thaladir, he grinned at me, or made the slight grimace that passes for a grin on his frowny face. No one else besides me could see it. I finally started turning in earlier, just to deny him the satisfaction of hearing me groan in the mornings.

Now that I had my occasional nocturnal magical 'visits' to my chambers back in the Mirkwood caves, courtesy of my wonderful king, I was no longer as homesick as I had been on the way to Rohan. This did not make being confined in a carriage any easier to bear. Mal and I were almost immediately allowed to ride together in the same one, after I had made it a point, when we had to ride apart, to holler questions to her at the top of my lungs.

At first, we talked about how much we had enjoyed Rohan, and the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people. Mal asked me questions about my kidnapping, but she did not seem very impressed with my descriptions of the various forms of sexual depravity I had imagined being forced to perform, for the dwarves. She raked over my explanations as if she were using a fine tooth comb, and I had to admit that I did not really know what was planned for me. Satisfied, she smiled at last.

It was not more than a day into our travels, however, that I tried to bring up the subject of how to cope with Anborn. He rode his own horse, and usually stayed close to my carriage. Mal would nod and smile politely at him, and I wondered, with a burst of wicked inspiration, if my loyal ranger could be convinced to pursue her instead of me. The right words dropped into a casual conversation with either one of them could set the stage.

Naughty images of the king's concubine being abducted by Anborn danced merrily through my mind for a few heady moments. Then I remembered how Mal was not allowed to consort with humans. Anborn might be tempted to stray from my side, but Mal would not move a finger toward him without Thranduil having ordered her there.

Maybe I could convince Mal to feel tempted, too, if I approached her in the right way.

"Elf penises are magical," I stated to her, as if it was a debating point.

"I thought you found everything about elves to be magical," was her bored rebuttal.

"No, just Thranduil, of course. He is completely enchanting in every aspect of his perfect self, but he is a king, you know, and that's why he is magical all over. He can't help it."

As if on cue, Anborn rode close to the carriage and asked if we were doing well. We told him we were fine, and I thought Mal's expression was a bit wistful when he was called away from us by Haldir.

"What I meant to say," I continued, after Anborn was out of hearing range, "is that all elves are different in bed than mortal men are. Don't you think?"

Instead of answering me, Mal sighed and stared out at the landscape.

"You have more experience with elves than I do," I added, after it was clear that she did not want to talk about this subject. "I haven't bedded Anarion, yet." I twisted around in my seat to wave at Mal's dutiful bodyguard; he rode just behind the carriage. After smiling at him, I glanced over at Mal.

"Goodness!" I cried. "Don't look at me like that! You make me feel like an axe murderer. I am not interested in bedding Anarion, just curious. I wouldn't...Mal, you know me better than that. Besides, it would kill Ithilwen." After I sat and thought about it for a minute, I gasped. "Oh, actually it might kill her."

"It might?" Mal's voice was barely above a whisper, she was that shocked. I could tell that she believed I was going to seduce her bodygaurd when she was not watching. I wanted her to believe it.

"Mal," I said with heavy exasperation, "if I wanted to play around with Anarion, I would ask the king, and I would have it done before you could stop me and I certainly wouldn't ask your permission first."

It took me almost a half an hour, after I said that, to convince her that I had not ever lain with Anarion. "Mal," I asked her quietly, in a hurt tone of voice, "why are you so grouchy?" Before she could answer me, Anborn came over to check on us again. She brightened up and smiled at him in such a dazzling fashion that he nearly fell off of his saddle. I had to stifle a chuckle. After he left us alone, I sighed.

"Mal," I said, "you aren't missing anything, believe me." She sat silently, as if she did not know, or did not want to know, what I was referring to. I kept talking. "Except the way he is different from an elf in almost every way that there are differences."

With a grin on my face, I let that sink in, and then, realizing that my silly plan to get her together with the ranger would never work, I changed my mind. I said, softly, "In the end, I would rather suffer Thaladir's smug little grins for the rest of my life, because every great once in a while he can be a remarkably cuddly elf, than be married to Anborn. He wants to marry me, the idiot."

A not very surprised Mal was in full agreement with me on my last point.

~ Mal ~

We were travelling along the road that skirted the southern edges of Firien Wood, with trees only occasionally continuing on the other, mountain, side of it, when Haldir, our customary scout, suddenly stopped short, raising his hand in a gesture for the rest of us to do likewise.

My carriage was the first one now - Mary and I took turns - with only Ithilwen and Anarion on horseback between me and Haldir, and my horses had good warning, thus drawing to a halt quickly without any fuss. I could tell from an indignant sound behind me that Mary's had not been that lucky. A slight shake and the sound of stumbling hooves much closer behind me than they should be confirmed that she had nearly run into me. Loud squeaking and rattling came from further back, the telltale sign that the king's carriage had stopped, too.

Then Thaladir came, trotting past me on his grey steed, both as dignified as befits a member of a royal suite. Haldir was yet standing still, merely turning his head very slowly this way and that, searching for something. The seneschal joined him, soundlessly gliding from his horse to the forest floor. He began to gaze into the trees, too, and though no weapons were drawn, I began to feel anxious.

The horses were calm, though, and Ithilwen drew to my side to put a calming hand on my arm. I was going to ask her if she understood what was happening, but she hushed me, shaking her head. She looked more excited than afraid.

Now Anarion and Haldir left their horses behind and went a few steps into the trees. Thaladir remained on the road, but he continued to peer into the wood, and the foliage that shadowed us. I think I saw the flicker of a light somewhere deeper within, but my eyes might have been mistaken; it was hard to tell in the middle of the afternoon, even if the sun was hidden behind clouds. When I looked again, it was gone.

So were the two scouts. I tried to pick up the sounds of their feet, even though I knew it was pointless. With my fingers I imitated feet moving, and Ithilwen caught my question. She nodded and pointed ahead. They must have walked fast to get that far already.

Then Thaladir suddenly shouted something towards a spot above his head, loud and clear, but in a language I didn't understand. His irritation was obvious. From behind came a deep, rumbling sound; whatever was happening amused the Elvenking. His hearty laughter seemed to fill the air and drenched out what else his seneschal communicated to the trees. I saw Thaladir pointing to the ground, several times, each of them seemingly more annoyed.

Thranduil came to his rescue. He uttered one word, in that same incomprehensible language, and suddenly something - someone - dropped from the tree and onto the road. He bowed to the king, and then again to Thaladir, in a somewhat ironic way.

Then I realized where I had seen that kind of person before. He was an elf, unmistakably, but his movements were quicker, his eyes narrower and there was less of dignified calm and more of watchful vigilance to his appearance than the ones in our company. But I had met his kind before, on that night deep in Mirkwood forest when Thranduil had visited the wildest of his subjects - the wood-elves that preferred their old way of life in the wilderness to the more civilized surroundings of the king's caverns and the flets around it. Whatever he was doing here, he was a very long way from home.

Now he scurried past me and as I turned my head I saw him running along to Thranduil's carriage, where he stopped, bowed again, and said something to the king. The king replied, and then the two of them went into the wood. Thaladir announced that we would stop for the night there, and then he followed Thranduil, leaving to the female elves and Anborn to make camp. Mary and I tried to be helpful as well, but we were both too busy discussing what the wood-elf's appearing might mean, to think much about what we were doing. Eventually Miriel told us to just let the horses loose and then relax while they did the rest.

Haldir and Anarion returned with firewood in their hands, but no news of other visitors. Apart from a few deer, a boar with piglets, and more rabbits and foxes than they cared to count, there was nobody else in this part of the forest. The wood-elf had come alone.

Shortly thereafter, when a tasty stew of dried mutton (courtesy of the Rohirrim) and edible roots dug from the marshy soil at the nearby Mering Stream was cooking over the fire, Thranduil and Thaladir returned with their guest, all looking happy, but secretive. Anborn lifted an eyebrow as he added a handful of herbs to the pot, but Thaladir just stared at him.

The king insisted that our guest should have the first bowl of stew, and ordered a bottle of the best wine we still had with us to be opened. I thought the seneschal would protest, but he just fetched a bottle, poured a spoonful or so into everyone's cup, and handed the remainder - more than two thirds of the contents - to the wood-elf, who greedily put the bottle to his mouth, draining most of it in a series of gulps that would have been worthy of a hobbit. Then his eyes became merry, losing some of their previous shrewdness, and he laughed. It was a contagious sound and soon all of us were laughing.

It turned out that Ferolas understood Sindarin very well, and spoke it too, albeit with a strange accent. He was not too impressed with our tales of Edoras and all the people there, but he thought we were brave to go there voluntarily. My recount of the days spent in Fangorn were more to his taste. He had never been there, as his kind preferred not to travel, but it was obvious from the way his whole being seemed to light up at the mention of the ents, that he would have enjoyed it.

Mary tried asking him what he was doing in this part of the world, but he wouldn't say a word, and it wasn't because of her pronunciation. I repeated the question, trying to enunciate it better each time, until he began giggling. After a glance at Thranduil, and a benevolent gesture from the king, he admitted that he had come to deliver a message. Whatever its contents were, it was not for my ears. Nothing more was said about it, and in the morning, Ferolas was gone.

For the next few days we moved on towards Minas Tirith. The terrain was still very similar to that around Edoras, with mountains on one side and green plains of the other, and the most visible sign that we were now in Gondor were the guards in black and white that we saw outside the inns. There were the beacon-hills, too, but even though Thaladir tried to point them out to me, carefully naming each one, I could not make out the actual signal post. I had to take his word that they were indeed visible to humans when lit.

Druadan Forest was the next familiar place on the map, but to my disappointment the road bent around it, not even coming near the trees. Ithilwen reminded me that such was the agreement with the inhabitants there; in return for their help during the recent war, they were to be left undisturbed by the Gondorians. In any case, even if following the Druedain's paths would have meant a short-cut, it would hardly be possible with the carriages. We were close enough to our goal as it was.

~ Mary ~

The only person who was not concerned, or amused, about Anborn's domestically inclined intentions toward me was Thranduil. The king may have felt amused, but he did not laugh himself half to death the way Mal did in the carriage, the day I told her. When I confronted the king about what I had been told, he denied planting the idea of marriage in the ranger's mind.

"It was hardly a secret to him, you know," said Thranduil. "He believes that you are inadequately protected in a dangerous world. I merely brought it out into the open and warned him not to become overly attached."

"Do you think he will try to kidnap me?"

One of Thranduil's elegant eyebrows was lifted nearly to his hairline as he said, flatly, "You believe that I would allow what is mine to be stolen from under my nose."

"Maybe not stolen," I answered, "but given away, maybe yes." In my mind, I could see myself being handed over to Anborn for his services rendered to my king. It would be cheaper than a pouch full of precious gems, and Thaladir would probably approve it. My nightmare about the hovel in the woodland still disturbed me, when I allowed myself to remember it, and I was seeking reassurance.

"What has the ranger done to me to deserve such a fate as you?" If Thranduil had not grabbed and kissed me, right after he said that, I might have been angry. After he broke the kiss, he growled, "I am far from finished with you, yet." It was the most reassurance I could expect from the king. I felt relatively safe.

After we left the plains of Rohan, I felt less afraid of my bad dream and more concerned with not losing my mind to utter, unrelenting boredom during the long wearying days of being watched over by a love-sick ranger and a grouchy seneschal.

The landscape changed dramatically, after the wide open plains, but there was a sameness to the mountains, trees, rivers, and valleys we passed beside, rode over, or drove through. The ancient road we rode on was less travel-worthy in some places than the newer one we had left behind. The dwarf road builders were going to join the two roads together, and repair this old one, but not for many more months. The conditions played havoc with Thaladir's itinerary, and the hastily prepared additional scrolls flew out of his sleeve like small white birds every other day.

"Lady Mary," Thaladir said to me one day, after I had complained once too often about how long it was taking to get anywhere at a snail's pace, and had suggested a great alternative, "there is no justification for ordering an eagle-back flight to Gondor when we are being given the opportunity to visit some of the most important areas in recent history and see the aftermath of the great wars first hand."

All in all, the seneschal kept the carriages running as slowly, smoothly, and boringly well as only he knew how to do. The historical places and battlefields we traveled beside, over, or through, were dull and tame in comparison to the Mirkwood forest. At times, I felt that I would have to scream from the monotony, but I felt too paralyzed with boredom to do more than yawn. One day, when I was too cranky to ride with Mal, we were all halted abruptly, with the closely grouped carriages nearly hitting each other, which was in itself was a nice, exciting change of pace.

I beckoned Anborn over to my carriage, and he told me that there was an elf in the trees ahead and we both watched Anarion and Haldir enter the forest to find him. The experienced ranger was not sure what realm the hidden elf was from, or why he was here. He did believe that he was waiting for us, but not with any deadly intent.

Thaladir was angry, and from the way he acted I could tell that there was no doubt in his mind who the mysterious elf was and were he was from.

A lovely wood-elf eventually showed himself to us, and by his dark clever looks and stand-offish behavior, it was obvious to even my inexperienced eye that this was neither a Lorien nor Rivendell elf. From his dress, I could tell he was from the tribe of the wildest elves of Thranduil's forest. It was shocking to see him so far from the dark woods. I had been taught that they were forever bound to their beloved trees and enchanted rivers.

The quiet elf kept himself apart from the rest of us during dinner, and drove me mad with curiosity. Even though I had never visited his area of the forest, when I lived in Thranduil's caves, the sight of the wood-elf made me miss all of the other elves back home. Even Helca. If only we were headed in the opposite direction. He seemed restless when asked questions, but he was not interested in anything else we talked about.

Eventually, Mal was able to tease the shy elf into warming up and answering at least one question. He was a messenger, he admitted, chosen because he was the swiftest runner. That was all he would say about his unexpected appearance in our midst, which launched a new sleeve-load of itinerary changes from the seneschal's robe.

After he left, melting into the trees almost instantly, I wondered what he had to tell Thranduil, and if we would turn back for the caves. When it became obvious that we were still on the way to Gondor, I still wondered if Celeborn had sent him, or Legolas? To which of the shared realm elf-lords did his tribe feel allegiance toward during Thranduil's absence? Perhaps neither of them; it might have been a message sent from Galadriel, or even Elrond. I grew more intrigued, because I had nothing else to occupy my mind.

To my annoyance, Thaladir would not answer any questions, and Anborn was just as uniformed as I was. Haldir and Anarion had understood his strange language, but they told me that there had not been anything of importance revealed when the wild elf spoke it.

Thranduil was not particularly affected by his visit, although his perfectly disciplined features would never reveal what thoughts and schemes lie beneath them. It bothered me not to know what he had learned from the wild elf messenger. When I had a chance to be alone with the king, I teased and hinted and finally asked outright about the visitor. He informed me that I would make a better housewife than a spy.

~ Mal ~

Minas Tirith, the White City of Gondor, was visible from afar and its shining buildings attracted the eye as soon as we rounded Mount Mindolluin, the last of the tall peaks of the White Mountains. Another, more sinister, view were the ruins of a great wall that seemed to run from the feet of the mountain all the way to the Anduin river. I had heard that it had been severely damaged in the war against Sauron, but seeing it with my own eyes was something different. With nothing but peace all around us, the war had seemed part of the same distant past as the great battles in Thaladir's history lessons. The scattered stones, unmarked by time, told a different story.

My thoughts were gloomy as we passed through the wall and into the area known as the Pelennor fields. Once intended for the farmlands providing the city's supplies, it had instead become a battlefield. According to Haldir, who rode by my side part of the way, crops had been sown further down the road, but we agreed that it would take many more years to reconstruct the farms that had been destroyed, and even longer to restore the population.

"These lands have much to thank the Lady of Rohan for," he suddenly remarked, "as has all of us." I nodded, at a loss of things to say.

What was there to be said of an action like hers that wouldn't sound totally stupid coming from someone like me? I would have been terrified just to ride to battle, knowing that my loved ones could be killed, even without the likely prospect of having to fight and kill someone myself. True, she was raised in an entirely different society, where such things were normal at bad times, but did that make it a lot easier?

I knew that the title 'shield maiden' was one of old, more of a mark of honour and noble birth, than an actual title of a female warrior. Nobody had expected Eowyn to fight, and still she had done it. For the love of her people? That was something too abstract for me, encompassing feelings I had never had. I had caught glimpses of it in Mirkwood, noticing the Elvenking's relation and interaction with the elves there, but it was not something I had really experienced for myself.

Maybe Aragorn had been the one to trigger off a secret dream of heroic deeds far from the reality of running her royal uncle's household. But was a romantic fantasy enough to face the grim reality of war? Would I have done something like that to follow Thranduil? Could I do it now?

With a sense of shame I realized that the answer was 'no'. No matter how much I professed to love him, or how much I kept telling myself that I would do anything to remain by his side, I could not hide from myself that I was too much of a coward to even seriously contemplate picking up a sword and try to do fatal damage with it. Not even if ordered to, much less voluntarily. But Eowyn had not only done that, she had fought on the battlefield alongside the men of her realm, she had rid the world of the evil Witchking, the mightiest foe present, and she had survived.

And, perhaps even a greater wonder, it had not made her unbearably proud. She was one of the sweetest people I had met so far, and even when conversation during meals had turned to matters of war, she never mentioned her own conquest. I respected her for that almost as much as for the deed itself. I sighed. If I had just a small percentage of her courage, perhaps I could be of real use to the Elvenking, and not just entertain him in bed or carry out the odd diplomatic mission that required nothing beyond loose morals.

"My lady, it is His Majesty's urgent wish that you ride with him."

I realized with a start that I had begun hearing Thaladir's voice some minutes ago, but it had not until now penetrated my thoughts. We were standing still, and the seneschal was close to stepping down from his horse to physically move me from my carriage to the king's. I quickly jumped to the ground and went to the larger carriage, where Thranduil was sitting on the coach box, reaching out a hand to help me join him there.

He said nothing, but his arm around my waist and his merry mood helped more than words, and after a meal I got other things to think of than comparative studies of courage, and self-pity. Instead of continuing straight ahead towards Minas Tirith, we turned left, towards the river. Puzzled, I looked around.

"We go first to Osgiliath," explained Ithilwen, smiling broader than I had seen her do for a long time, maybe since back in Mirkwood.

"Was that what the messenger said?" She nodded and urged her horse forward, to join Anarion and Miriel, who were now at the head of our caravan. Apparently, she couldn't wait to get there, but what a wood-elf had to do with Osgiliath was beyond me. Why she and the other Mirkwood elves would be so happy to see what was probably still a rubble of ruins was likewise incomprehensible.

That was until we came closer. Indeed, the former city on the river was in ruins, but they were beautifully lit by the sunset behind us; instead of a dirty greyish white that I suspected was closer to the truth, the marred walls and colonnades shone with a yellow and pink hue that made them more stunning than a royal castle. And there, on top of a low fence someone was sitting, someone who's hair was gleaming with the same enchanting colours. I could not make out the face, but it was not necessary. Thranduil's cry of joy as he rushed past all the horses and carriages to embrace his son said it all.

To be continued, after a longer break (see below).

Dear Readers:
On January 19th, nearly a month ahead of her scheduled appearance, little Ruth Ella Susanna was born to our dear Malinorne. This surprise appearance has temporarily brought this part of the Mirkwood Adventures series to a hastier conclusion than anticipated! Mary and Mal shall return, probably during late spring, to return to their travels and share them with our loyal readers!

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Chapter posted: February 6, 2008

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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"