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Legolas shivered. It was odd in someone who had seen centuries pass and considered them of little moment, but the evidence of Gondor’s retreat chilled him. Chilled him rather more, in truth, than the Wood-elves’ long retreat from Dol Guldur to their final refuge in the north-east of the Greenwood. So short a time – and so little remembered. At least, in his homeland, every retrenchment, every loss, every fallen tree, every abandoned glade was mourned in elven song. Here …
He looked again at the tumbled stone of the chimney, the broken walls, now home to a variety of small creatures and wondered who had lived here and what story the abandoned house could tell.
Not, he suspected from the scars of fire and the occasional piece of rain-leached bone, a happy one.
‘Are there many places like this throughout the woods?’ he asked.
Faramir looked up from where he crouched over the dislodged well-cover. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied. ‘Ithilien was the garden of Gondor, once.’
‘Sorrow hangs in the air,’ the elf said. ‘Pain and dread.’
The man sighed. ‘I have often thought so,’ he admitted. ‘There is some … remnant of horror that lingers around the places where terrible things have happened.’ He stood up and folded his arms defensively. ‘Of course, I have often been accused of being too imaginative.’
‘Who dwelt here?’ the elf enquired. ‘Do you know?’
‘Before my time.’ The new Prince of Ithilien raised an eyebrow. ‘These woods were deserted before I was born. I daresay I could find out if you wished to know. There are maps and tithe books and lists of those who owed military duty. Records of births and marriages. Deaths. Changes of tenancy. And the archivists throw nothing away, no matter how outdated or useless.’
Legolas caressed a sapling that was growing between the grassy cobbles before the doorway. ‘The past should not be forgotten.’ He sounded sombre. Something about this ruin grieved him. He had seen the wreckage of battle and the destruction that had touched the White City, but this small tragedy touched something in him. It was personal, he decided. Not the great sweep of history, not even a footnote: a single bloom rather than a field – and so it made more impression.
‘Do you think the family escaped?’ Legolas looked round at the evidence of past occupation. A piece of carved wood that might once have been part of a cradle, a rusted pot, a turned timber, a shattered bucket – all half-buried in the advancing green and consumed by time.
‘I doubt it,’ the man said with distaste. ‘From the looks of it, they left it too late … and orcs are both hungry and spiteful. They would not let anyone get away to warn others of their coming. While human raiders … in some ways they are worse.’
‘Ithilien is a beautiful place, Faramir,’ Legolas said, ‘but it will take time to dismiss the shadows that permeate it and make it fair again.’
‘There are worse places than this,’ the former Captain of the Ithilien Rangers said in a voice low enough that only an elf would have been able to catch the revulsion in his tone. ‘Places that will never be cleansed.’
The elf turned, his face fair and young, but his eyes surprisingly deep and understanding. ‘I have seen Dol Guldur,’ he said. ‘Show me the worst – and we will decide how to deal with it.’
As they left, he gazed again around the small farmstead, returning now to the forest.
The Archives smelled of age, dust, oblivion. Men, it seemed, were good at keeping records of property and rights, good at self-justification – less good at recording those deemed insignificant.
The archivist spread out the map, holding its corners down with velvet-covered weights. ‘That part of Ithilien, my lord, was abandoned some … years ago.’ His gnarled finger trailed over the parchment and the elf watched him. ‘If you are correct as to the location …’ Legolas raised an eyebrow, ‘then the smallholding was part of the dower lands that Túrin’s widow held until her death, that then passed to Turgon and became absorbed into the holdings of the Steward’s family.’ He tapped at the small sketches of farmhouses and vineyards. ‘Not that the lands have added much value to your estate, my lord,’ he added dryly. ‘Not since the Dark Tower was rebuilt.’
‘Does anybody know who dwelt there?’ Legolas asked, his voice as cool as the wash of a forest stream.
The elderly archivist straightened up. ‘The manorial records should have some information,’ he mused. He peered at the books and scrolls cluttering up the shelves and shook his head, wandering off to lose himself in a more distant alcove.
‘Why does it bother you so?’ Faramir asked, watching the elf carefully.
‘People should be remembered,’ Legolas shrugged. ‘They should not be nameless – they have a right to be mourned.’ He turned away from the table, looking distastefully at the records stored round the walls. ‘My adar can remember the vaulted ceilings of Menegroth – trees that drowned before the founding of Númenor – he knew Elros, talked with Elu Thingol, quarrelled with Gil-galad. No elf who ever lived has been forgotten – somewhere their memory lives and is treasured. But mortals …’ He made a gesture that somehow indicated helpless incomprehension. ‘Do they not matter?’
The archivist walked back into the measured silence, laden with several books and an armload of scrolls. ‘Here,’ he said, poring over the topmost book, ‘we have the court rolls – a Dínen inherited the holding in 2893, taking it on after the death of Thondor … that was his father. He paid two pigs and a hogshead of cider from his orchards … and accepted a rent that was rather less than ancestors had paid. Of course,’ he murmured, ‘Ithilien was becoming ever more dangerous and many holdings were vacant by then.’
Silently, Legolas removed the scrolls and set them down before the old man dropped them, allowing him to deposit the stack of books. The archivist opened a book bound in blue leather and turned the pages over, confidently seeking some piece of information that he, at least, knew was concealed in the depths. ‘In … let me see … 2996 … the militia took two young men from the holding to serve in Ithilien’s forces. It does not name them, I am afraid … just states that the farm provided its due.’
The archivist did not appear to notice Legolas’s frown as he turned to another weighty tome and began to turn the pages. ‘Dínen married in … 2878.’ He hummed with apparent interest. ‘Their first child was born the next year.’ He turned the pages over, his eye scanning the tightly written pages efficiently. ‘They had … let me see … three sons and four daughters before the woman died with the last child.’
‘Her name?’ the elf asked.
‘It is not listed,’ the archivist admitted. ‘See – here? ‘Dínen’s wife and infant daughter’ – it is not uncommon for the family of the landholder to remain nameless – until, at least, the eldest son succeeds, when his name will be recorded as heir.’
The elf’s face was politely incredulous. ‘Are you suggesting that … wives and … children have no importance?’
The elderly man concentrated on the records. ‘Those who are of noble houses,’ he said, ‘are recorded – it is essential for the Lords of Gondor to have an accurate record of their ancestry. Sometimes,’ he murmured, ‘heirs fail in the male line and it becomes a matter of importance to track the closest male heir in the distaff line.’
Faramir intervened before the elf decided to express his opinion more forcefully. ‘The laws and traditions of Rohan are rather different,’ he said. ‘It is a man’s responsibility to care for his sister’s children – Éomer King is sister-son to the late King Théoden.’
‘Individuals,’ Legolas said distinctly, ‘whatever their gender, are equally important. Would you consider your future daughters to be no more than game pieces to your house?’
‘I would not dare.’ A sudden smile made Faramir look much younger. ‘They would doubtless gut me – should their mother spare me that long.’
The archivist, clearly too wrapped up in his research to notice the living, unrolled a thick tube of papers and began to sort through them. ‘There should be an inventory of Thondor’s possessions, should you be interested.’
Legolas stood up. ‘If you could assemble the information,’ he requested, ‘and let me know when you have as much as you can find …’ He waited as the old man bowed his head in acknowledgement. ‘I look forward to reading it.’
The Steward’s pleasant farewells reinforced the message and he followed the elf up from the dry depths of the library. ‘Too much for you?’ he asked.
‘Shadows.’ Legolas flipped a pale hand. ‘Lists of goods and pages of names. It does not bring me any closer to those who dwelt in that haunted glade.’
‘Perhaps, on the other hand,’ Faramir considered, ‘I know some people who could.’
‘Men’s lives are an … an eyeblink to elves,’ the Steward said without any of the envy that sometimes tinged mortals’ references to the Firstborn, ‘but six score years is not so long to those of Númenorean descent – and there is a reason why many of the Rangers of Ithilien choose to serve there.’
He pushed open the tavern door and eased his way into a room filled with the fumes of ale and the fug of too many people. Legolas turned up his nose – crowds of men in confined spaces tended to turn his stomach rather, but his curiosity impelled him to follow. One or two heads turned towards them, but that was all it took.
‘Captain!’ And older Ranger, his hair sporting more grey than black, was the first to greet Ithilien’s Prince – calling him by a title that clearly meant more to those in this dimly-lit room.
Faramir moved through the groups easily, greeting his men, listening to their words with that intent expression that he showed when he was hearing more than was being said, and making sure that no-one was ignored. He was a natural leader, Legolas realised – one with his skills refined in the crucible of war. Aragorn was lucky to have the young Steward at his side.
‘Would you prefer the courtyard at the back, my lord?’ the older Ranger asked. ‘The Captain will be with you soon – but we have missed him and he would not want to cheat us of his company too quickly.’ A glance freed them a table under a nodding canopy of twisted wisteria and a raised finger brought one girl to the table with a jug of wine and a cluster of cups, followed by another with a tray of bread, cheese and pickles.
‘Join me,’ Legolas invited. ‘I daresay meeting you was one of the reasons that Faramir brought me here – let us get the preliminaries out of the way while he is … otherwise engaged.’
The Ranger looked surprised, but sat, accepting a glass of the deep red wine. He said nothing, the tilt of his head inviting the elf to speak. The ability to remain silent was one of the characteristics of Rangers that Legolas found he could appreciate. Unlike field troops, those who relied on sensing anything unusual among trees understood the value of listening.
A crack of laughter distracted them, but the elf felt the man’s gaze return to him and he sipped at the rough wine in order to give him a bit more thinking time, before putting the glass down and spreading his hands on the table as he started to speak.
Faramir joined them as the tale approached its end, pouring himself a glass of wine and listening to the elf’s words.
‘Dínen …’ the man said thoughtfully. ‘Son of Thondor.’ He shook his head slowly.
‘Do you have no idea, Mablung?’ Faramir sighed. ‘I hoped …’
‘My wife was always better at keeping track of who married whom and how many children they had.’ The Ranger scratched his beard. ‘And you are asking me to remember what my grandparents talked about when I was army-mad and unable to believe that old people had anything to say from which a young blade could learn.’ He shrugged. ‘I will ask my mother, Captain,’ he said. ‘She will remember, if anyone does.’
Faramir raised his eyebrows. ‘I did not know your mother was still in good health,’ he observed.
The Ranger raised his glass in salute. ‘Not only in good health for her age, but formidable,’ he grinned. ‘She refused to leave the city when it was under siege – and says that now she is going to reap the rewards of peace. Why do you think I volunteer so enthusiastically to spend time as far away as I can?’
‘Would she be willing to speak with me about her memories?’ Legolas was intrigued.
‘Willing?’ Mablung laughed. ‘A visit from the Elf Prince who rode with the King? She might not admit to it, but she would be beside herself. She would not let you escape until she had stuffed you with her special nut pastries and birch wine and poured out every memory she could uncover that might be of any interest to you.’
The wine was pale and clear – and very strong. The old woman smiled as the elf sipped it cautiously before taking a larger mouthful and swirling it over his palate.
‘My daughter makes it now,’ she said, ‘but I taught her well. It cuts the sweetness of the pastry – which she also makes.’ She shook her head. ‘They will not let me bake any longer – they feel the fires are too dangerous and the knives too sharp.’
‘It is a child’s duty as well as its pleasure to care for its parents,’ the elf remarked.
Thimbriel made no attempt to conceal the fact that she was staring at him, having already told him simply that one of the advantages of being old was not having to pretend. ‘You would know, of course, what it is to see your parents descend into a second childhood,’ she said dryly, ‘and die witless and feeble.’
‘I have lost friends and family,’ he said with a small smile, ‘and seen those tormented beyond their endurance – but, no, you are right. We are immune to the … physical ravages of age.’
‘Why does this matter to you then?’ she asked. ‘It was, after all, over a long time ago – and any pain has long since been spent.’
Legolas hesitated, then put a hand into his pocket and drew out a small figure, no longer than his own hand. The doll had been carved from a piece of hard wood, pinned so that the arms and legs moved, and its face was ornamented with a perpetual smile. A twist of thread caught in the joints suggested that it had once been clothed while a patch of glue stuck to the head still trailed a knot of dark hair.
‘Ah.’ The old woman examined the elf’s face as he touched the object with gentle fingers, almost as if it could feel his caress. ‘A child.’ She did something that very few would dare and closed her gnarled fingers over his. ‘I imagine that children are – both uncommon and very special among those who live indefinitely.’
‘We prefer to wait until they can be brought into a world in which they can be safe.’
She sighed. ‘We do not have the choice.’ She squeezed his fingers and would have released his hand, had he not turned and clasped hers. ‘Those who fled Ithilien sought refuge where they could,’ she said, her voice taking on the rhythm of a story-teller, ‘but whenever possible they settled close to those they knew. They were farmers, hunters – people who understood the woods, who loved open spaces – but many among them sought work in the city. They had learned, do you see, the value of walls between their families and the evil that sought to conquer them.’ Her gaze was sorrowful. ‘But many still refused to see what was happening – they were sure they could hold on … wait until the darkness faded and the light returned.
‘I never knew Dínen – he was one of those who could not be driven and would not be led. I know his name only because his older sons … Well, I know not if they had more sense, but their duty took them from the holding to serve in the army. A cousin of mine married Drambor – who was the second son. Very bitter, he was, at how little help Ithilien received. The demands on Gondor’s garden did not reduce, but who cared for those who worked the land? While farmers’ sons were taken to die in battle, the fields were left to women and old men and boys. Rents still had to be found and taxes paid.’ She stopped, her eyes distant as if she was listening to people long dead, and then she sighed. ‘Of course, I only knew him in his middle years,’ she said more briskly, ‘when he was already long married and a father. But he was an angry man – powerful and outspoken – one who felt cheated of the life that should have been his. He never forgot that his father and sisters and his little brother had died for Gondor just as much as any soldier.’ She touched the doll. ‘I imagine it belonged to Feinwen,’ she said. ‘She was … about eight. Her older sisters would have been almost grown – too old, at any rate, to treasure dolls.’ She smiled. ‘Drambor named his first daughter for his baby sister and brought her up on tales of a little girl playing joyfully among the trees.’
She felt his sorrow and moved her thumb against his hand in an age-old gesture of comfort. ‘She would have been dark-haired and grey-eyed – like most of those who dwelt in Ithilien. I expect the hair on the doll would have been clipped from one of her sisters – and one of her older brothers will have carved it for her as he sat by a camp-fire and thought of home.’
‘It is … evidence of love,’ the elf said. ‘Something that has remained – over the change of seasons and growth of the Shadow. Something that is still there to be seen, now that people are able to return to the woods.’
‘Love …’ Thimbriel smiled. ‘If that was what you sought, you were asking the wrong people, my lord,’ she said. ‘You will not find love in the account books of landowners.’
‘In Rohan,’ Legolas told her, ‘the history of her people is kept alive by the voices of those who sing the songs and recount the tales. They remember what Gondor records in history books – and what Gondor fails to see as important.’
‘Whatever she suffered – whatever they all suffered,’ the old woman said softly, ‘it is over now. They lived, and died, and moved on. Do not let their fate concern you.’ She looked at the smile on the face of the little wooden doll. ‘Let Feinwen’s doll be … a symbol for you. The past is past – but Dínen’s blood still flows among some of those who would follow the Prince back to Ithilien and we will start again, and be welcomed back to the lands we left.’
‘Do you think anyone would mind if I kept this?’ the elf asked.
Thimbriel shook her head. ‘There are some things it is better to forget,’ she said. ‘Let those who settle there make a fresh start, free of the ghosts that haunt the place.’
‘I shall never understand men,’ Legolas admitted, almost shyly. ‘Not fully.’
‘Why would you?’ The old woman’s face was tranquil in the sunlight and she looked at ease with the wisdom that comes with great age and an increasingly tenuous grasp on the practicalities of day-to-day living. ‘Why would you want to?’
‘The memory of their tragedy will not die as long as I live,’ he said, ‘and I will live as long as Arda endures.’ The elf caressed the child’s toy before wrapping it in a fine handkerchief and restoring it to his pocket. ‘It is little enough to offer, but perhaps it will be enough to … to lay the ghosts, and make it possible to start again.’
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