The company now left the forest and reached a rugged heathland studded with accumulations of white limestone rocks overgrown by hardy bushes and twisted trees, as well as a multitude of different herbs, and flowers that love barren, stony ground. Where the sunlight was already touching the ground, lizards and all sorts of beetles were astir, warming up on the rocks for their daily business. The air smelled of thyme and sage and rosemary, or of bay, juniper and terebinth, when the riders passed a thicket of these plants.
Dol Arandur was in full view now, the buildings glowing in the sunlight. Faramir halted his horse for a moment, gazing at the settlement. The place had always been in the possession of the Stewards, but when Sauronâ€™s shadow lengthened and Ithilien became a dangerous place, with evil spreading from Morgul Vale and the city therein, the last inhabitants had fled across Anduin and sought refuge in Minas Tirith or the western fiefs. The small village and the fair houses of Dol Arandur had slowly decayed. From time to time the rangers would camp there, but other than them no one had lived in the Emyn Arnen until after the War, when Ithilien began to slowly be resettled, and Dol Arandur was being rebuilt. For this they had mostly used the old plans, although some modifications and improvements had been introduced as well. And the gardens were mostly new, devised by Legolas and Ã‰owyn, although it had been taken care to preserve as many of the old trees as possible. Also now there was again a small village adjacent to the Stewardâ€™s home, and it was growing, for Ithilien had become a popular place to live â€“ some people claimed it was because taxation was less severe than in some of the other fiefs, but Faramir knew this was not the sole reason. People valued the fair clime and fertile soil, as well as â€“ and this was a point that pleased him especially â€“ approving of the way the fief was being governed.
Now as he gazed upon his home, he was again stricken by the beauty of the place, and again he silently thanked Aragorn for granting him Ithilien as his fief. He had loved the land ever since he had first come here as a boy, and later when he had been a young recruit among the rangers this love had deepened. For many years the woods and hills had provided a retreat from the coldness he had often experienced in the Stewardâ€™s house in Minas Tirith, and to see them gradually fall under the shadow of Mordor had been a grief to him. Now Ithilien was welcoming him displaying its full glory, or so it seemed to him, and he felt his anxiety lessen and being replaced by elation.
â€œHope theyâ€™ve prepared a good breakfast for us,â€ he heard Edrahil murmur to one of his companions.
â€œAh, but they donâ€™t know weâ€™re coming,â€ the other replied. â€œOi, captain, how about sending someone ahead to announce our arrival?â€ he then called to Faramir.
â€œBut that would spoil the surprise, Targil,â€ Iorlas told the other. â€œUnless of course he doesnâ€™t mention who we are having with us.â€
â€œI can ride ahead, captain, if you wish,â€ DÃrhael volunteered eagerly. "My horse is still fresh."
â€œYeah, but you canâ€™t keep a secret to yourself, lad,â€ Mablung said. â€œLet us ride on now. In half an hour we will be there, to there is no need for sending someone ahead.â€
â€œYes, let us ride on,â€ Faramir agreed, breakfast being (quite uncharacteristically, he thought with a slight smile) the last thing on his mind right now.
The crossed the heathland and followed the road as it wound down into a wooded valley where the swift narrow stream that ran through the garden and fed the ponds around Dol Arandur leaped merrily over a sequence of small waterfalls, filling the air with a fine mist that hung between the evergreen trees and laced the ferns and mosses on the rocky sides of the vale. A slender bridge had been built over the stream. Behind it the road climbed up again until it found an old wall now overgrown with ivy and wild wine and trailing clematis and honeysuckle. It once had been part of a building, a mill as the old maps and records of the place indicated, yet it had long fallen in ruin. Only one wall and an arch through which the stream issued were still intact. The former had been transformed into the southernmost wall of the gardens. The road then ran alongside the wall or the evergreen hedge that in other places fenced the garden, until finally it reached the village, there joining the main road to Dol Arandur in the village square, and thence leading on to the main gate.
When the company approached the bridge, Faramir thought he suddenly heard a sound different from the gurgling of the river and the music of the birds overhead: someone was singing. As they drew nearer, he saw that some washerwomen were rinsing laundry in the stream, singing a merry tune that went well with the melody of the water. When they noticed the horsemen, however, they ceased and gazed at the company curiously. One of the women shyly raised a hand to salute one of the rangers, who blushed violently. His companions seized the opportunity and teased him mercilessly.
â€œGood morning, ladies,â€ Mablung called towards them.
â€œGood morning, masters rangers,â€ a resolute-looking woman replied. â€œWhat news from abroad?â€
â€œMost excellent news,â€ Mablung returned, smiling broadly. â€œThe best we have been able to bring in a long time.â€
The women exchanged excited glances. â€œDo you bring tidings of the Lord Faramir?â€ one asked. â€œThatâ€™d be high time. Yestereve I spoke with my sister-in-law whoâ€™s a servant up there, and she told me that apparently the Lady was in great distress last night. She couldnâ€™t say what had happened, but she said sheâ€™d heard from someone whoâ€™d waited on the Lady and her guests that sheâ€™d been weeping and weeping for a long time, always clutching her little boy to her â€“ oh, and what a cute lad that is. We thought that perhaps she had received word about her husband, and we really felt sorry for her. Sheâ€™s been through so much lately, with the Lord kidnapped and she left with three little children to raise. So do hurry on, if you indeed have good news! She needs these most urgently, the poor thing.â€
â€œBut before you leave, canâ€™t you tell us a little of your tidings?â€ another woman asked sweetly, winking at Mablung.
He shook his head, upon which a look of disappointment stole over her face. â€œI cannot tell you of my tidings, but I can show them to you.â€
With that he moved his horse so that the women could see who had been riding behind him. Faramir, despite still being greatly troubled by what he had just heard, could not help but smile upon seeing their expressions. They stared at him as if he was a ghost that had just formed out of the river-mist. A girl let drop a piece of cloth she had been wringing, and it hit the water with a loud splash. An older woman swayed and had to sit down on a large rock, fanning herself with her hands.
The resolute-looking woman only nodded gravely as she stood with her hands on her hips, studying Faramir intently. â€œThatâ€™s about time!â€ she stated. â€œThereâ€™s not much left of you, my lord, if you forgive me saying so, but I doubt the Lady will mind. Iâ€™ve always held this Southron fare is unhealthy, but donâ€™t you worry, theyâ€™ll get you back into shape in no time. Hurry on now, and donâ€™t keep her waiting any longer! If youâ€™re lucky, sheâ€™s in the garden right now. Iâ€™ve heard she likes to take the children there before it gets too hot.â€ With that she turned to the girl to scold her about the fallen piece of laundry.
The company took their leave of the women who were now talking agitatedly, and crossed the bridge. Next to the wall Faramir reined his horse again. There was a small gate here, overgrown as well because it was little used. Nevertheless there were two guards positioned nearby. The men had seen the company, but apparently they had not been able to find out what all the excitement down at the water had been about. One of them came forward and opened the gate, after Mablung had knocked a signal on it.
â€œGreetings, Mablung,â€ he said when he recognised the ranger. â€œWhat did you do to the ladies down there?â€
â€œWe shocked them with good tidings.â€
â€œIndeed. How nasty of you. What can I do for you? You know you wonâ€™t be able to enter with your horses.â€
â€œThere is no need for that, Falborn. Only two or three of my company need to pass, and the rest shall take care of their steeds.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ Falborn asked somewhat sceptically. â€œYou know that I have to check their identity first, and perchance even wait for word from Beregond to give them clearance. I donâ€™t know all the lads of your company, and you do remember that weâ€™re under strict orders concerning security after all thatâ€™s happened recently, donâ€™t you?â€
Mablung smiled mysteriously. â€œI doubt you are going to have any trouble with the identity of one, at least.â€ With this he signed to Faramir to come forth. In the meantime the Steward had dismounted (again with help), and now he walked towards the gate. Falborn saw him, frowned, looked to Mablung as if expecting some kind of jest (because the rangers were notorious for their pranks), then looked to Faramir again. His face paled, then split into a broad smile.
â€œWhat say you, Falborn, may I pass?â€ Faramir asked, smiling as well.
Falborn only nodded, still too surprised to speak, and waved him through. Mablung dismounted as well. â€œI shall accompany you, captain,â€ he said. â€œIorlas can lead the company for the rest of the way.â€
â€œDo you fear I will not manage to keep on my legs on my way through the garden?â€ Faramir inquired after he had taken leave of the rangers, and Falborn had shut the gate again behind them.
Mablung only shrugged. â€œYou should have someone with you,â€ he said, â€œto be prepared for all eventualities.â€
So they set out along a winding path that climbed up along the inner side of the wall. â€œWhere shall we look first?â€ the ranger asked after a short while. â€œLest we spent hours roaming the gardens when they are up in the house.â€
â€œLet us have a look around the ponds,â€ Faramir said, his voice betraying the excitement and apprehension he felt.