Rowan had left the house in the dark, just before dawn. Mum would find the note scribbled by candle light when she came down to make breakfast, its words carefully chosen. “Gone walking. Going to visit Martha and will not be home until late tomorrow.” Propped against the tea pot it looked quiet innocent. Its wording implied that she would be staying with Martha overnight and, as she had done that before, mum wouldn’t be too worried. Visiting Martha, however, was not what Rowan had in mind at all. She needed time to cool off and she needed to be alone to do it.
Deegan had been more than usually mean yesterday. Rowan had been reading granddad’s book and her brother had snatched it from her and threatened to throw it in the fire. Deegan hated the fact that she could read, he hated granddad, he hated the world in general and, most of all, he hated Deegan. Her brother had been devastated when daddy died and he had bottled up his grief until it had soured every part of him. Rowan was two years his younger and the only other person on which he could vent his anger. Knowing why he behaved that way, however, did not make him any easier to live with and Rowan was getting fed up of being the target of his venom.
She had chased him around the kitchen table for fully half an hour, trying to retrieve her most treasured possession. The book was all she had to remember granddad by and Deegan knew how much she loved it. Granddad had said that it was a history book but Deegan insisted that it was just a children’s story book. It told of a time when elves lived in Middle Earth and Deegan didn’t believe in elves. When she had tried to read passages out loud to him he had just snorted and mocked, telling her it was time to grow up and live in the real world. He believed only in what he could see and touch.
Deegan had finally relented when he heard their mother coming downstairs and Rowan had run straight to her room, hiding her tears from mum. Over the rest of that afternoon she had laid her plans to visit the valley, and now, in the midday sun she was nearly there.
She resented the two hours spent with Martha this morning but Rowan felt it was important to keep to the text of her note to mum. Of course, she didn’t tell Martha of her plans to visit the secret valley. As far as her friend was concerned Rowan was just out for a days walk. Had she known that Ro was intending to camp out for the night, by herself, Martha would have reported straight back to her own mother and Rowan would have found herself being marched home. They shared a late breakfast and then Martha had walked with her to the end of the lane, before waving her off and heading back to the farmhouse.
Rowan could sense the valley now. It had a presence that could be felt by those sensitive enough. Every time she came here she was surprised by the moment of silence. It had worried her the first few times but now she just accepted it. One moment there would be bird song and the next, silence. Then, with her next step, the world would burst in to sound again. Only, the sound was different, crisper somehow, there were more birds and, in the distance, the rush of a river. The light had a golden quality that deepened all colours and yet there was a clarity to it that brought everything in to sharp focus. It was like stepping through a doorway to another place.
From being a little child she had heard tales of the secret valley of Imladris but, as far as she knew, she was the only person who had found it for many years. Those that did speak of it shuddered, saying that it was a place of strange magic. Granddad had told her differently. He said it was an elvish place and that it would only reveal itself to elf friends. Rowan was pleased to think that the valley considered her a friend but she was sorry to think that she would never be able to share it with her grand father. His death, in last winters’ influenza epidemic, had left a hole in her life that she didn’t think she would ever be able to fill again. He had comforted her when daddy died and, for a long time, he had managed to deflect some of Deegan’s anger from her. Now he was gone she felt naked and more alone than she thought possible.
This would be her first foray in to the valley proper. Over the past year, since she had stumbled upon it, she had only had time to explore its borders. Her home was too far away to allow her to spend much time if she was to get back before supper. Today she intended to go deeper within its ancient woods. Were there any elves left? She wondered what she would do if she met one. Would she even know that it was an elf? Granddads’ book implied that they looked much like mortals, apart from the ears and the fact that they never grew old. If one stepped up and offered to shake her hand would she recognise it?
Rowan began to pick her way downwards, through tall stands of moss covered trees and ripples of bright bird song. The sun was hot, but beneath the canopy of green leaves it was cool and pleasant, the air redolent of damp earth, evergreens and bluebells. Whole swathes of blue flowers spread beneath the trees on either side and their combined scent made her head swim.
She had been on it for several yards before she realised that she was walking down a track. It was visible rather by the thinning of the undergrowth than by an absence of it but it ran in a narrow line snaking between the trees before her. The ground was undisturbed and she felt a thrill as she realised that she was the first person to walk this way for a long time. A black bird burst up with an alarmed cackle from the undergrowth behind her and Rowan spun round to see what had startled it. Did she see a flash of gold? No, it was just the sun on the leaves. Take a deep breath and try to slow your heart beat, she berated herself. Ro hadn’t realised just how excited she was. This was silly. There was nothing in these woods that could harm her, was there? Another deep breath and she resumed her journey downwards.
In places the path became steps, their unsteady surfaces a testament to the destructive power of rain, frost and plant and all the while the roar of falling water grew louder. Rowan was so intent on following the trail that she almost missed her first glimpse of the valley. She had thought she heard a twig snap to her right and it was as she glanced up that she first saw the riven dell.
Framed between two ancient and gnarled holly trees was the most spectacular picture Rowan had ever seen. The mountains rose, sheer, on three sides and down two of those, several waterfalls cascaded loudly down the rock face to the narrow valley below. Their white spray stood out stark against the grey mountains and their feet were wreathed in magnificent rainbows. The roar of the water, echoing off the mountain sides, would have been deafening if it had not been softened by all the trees, growing on the slopes. And what trees there were. Some were tall and straight, their silver bark dazzling in the sun. Others were deep green, their conical symmetrical shapes a counterpoint to the huge spreading canopies of oak and chestnut. Never had Rowan seen so many different types of tree in one place but one thing they all had in common. Each was a perfect specimen. None had been blasted out of shape or stunted by wind. None had been burned by lightening or attacked by disease.
It was as Rowan was admiring a particularly stately ash that she made out the shape of buildings on a rocky shelf to the left, far below her vantage point. The green tiled roofs were covered in moss, almost lost in the verdant colour of the forest around them, and the balustrades of its many terraces and balconies were cloaked in ivy. No smoke rose from chimneys and she could see no movement of man or animal. All seemed peaceful. A careful scrutiny of her surroundings revealed another faint trail to her left and Ro began to follow it downwards again. Behind her a shadow flitted softly from tree to tree.
The valley listened. The other had shared years with it but this was a new creature. She carried pain and hope. It was the first new spirit to reach Rivendell in many a decade. Over centuries this place had been tended by elven hands. Their power had seeped into it until it had a measure of life of its own. It had been wrapped, almost alone, in its memories for decades but now it had found someone new to share them with. The valley sensed her receptive mind and reached out to heal.
The way was difficult at first but, after a while, Rowan came to narrow curving flight of broken steps, leading to a large terrace of cracked paving. At their foot she found herself entering its precincts between two tall statues, clothed in the delicate tendrils of morning glories, their upheld arms wrapped in green leaves. The terrace was hemmed on two sides by buildings but no balustrade or building divided it from the woods surrounding it on the other two sides. It was obvious that trees had always grown thick and close around the stone walls and, over the decades, nature had reclaimed much of the buildings, although nature had never wholly been excluded from them in the first place. Now, unchecked, the branches of trees had shattered delicately carved arches, their roots attacking the carefully laid pavements. It seemed that the house was being broken down and returned to the soil.
Rowan stepped in to the centre of the open space, the lowering sun still burning through her shirt. To one side a large, pink granite, pedestal leaned drunkenly. There was no sign of weather on this stone, each line standing as crisp as the day it had been carved, save for one small nick on its upper surface. Grass had forced its way between the sandstone blocks at her feet. It seemed such a lonely place. A sudden gust of wind tugged at the branches around her and in the whisper of their leaves Rowan thought she heard voices. “You have my sword……….my bow…..axe”. She turned slowly, her eyes tracing a circle around her, but all was empty. She shrugged off the experience, knowing that the surroundings were likely to make her imagination play tricks.
Beyond the terrace the main bulk of the house raised its grey stone and bleached wooden columns, to catch the last copper tones of the sinking sun. Rowan picked her way across the tilting pavement to the still elegant arches of the ground floor. Inside it was dark and cool, the sun so low behind the trees now that it hardly pierced the gloom. She stood, just inside, waiting for her pupils to adjust. There was a musty smell of dried leaves and decay. Somewhere above her head birds had made a nest amongst the rafters and Rowan could hear scrabbling and shrill cries of the chicks, demanding to be fed.
When her eyes finally became used to the dim light she found that she was in a large space. To her right bookcases were built in to the walls, their shelves empty now. Ahead was a balcony and at its centre she could see the back of a large robed statue. What would it have been like to live in such grandeur? There was nothing like it in her village. Had great lords discussed matters of grave import here, among the rows of books? A stray breeze sent a drift of last years leaves across the dust covered, tiles of the floor and, within the rattle of their passage, Rowan thought she heard a firm voice stating, “The ring cannot stay here”. She paused; again not sure of what she had heard. Stepping slowly, her boots leaving a trail of prints on the dusty floor, she climbed the few steps that took her up to the balcony. The tall statue at its centre held out an empty shield to the faded murals on the wall before it. Their images were flaked and mould covered, unreadable to her in the gloom.
Turning to look back at the room below, Rowan opened her imagination and let the visions come tumbling out. Tall people with fine features, the delicate tips of pointed ears peaking out from long golden hair, strolled in two’s and threes across the open space. Long robes swirled, grey and green, and silver fillets, bound across pale foreheads, caught the light of hundreds of flickering candles. Soft, measured voices drifted in lilting converse on the early evening air and around all, a haunting song floated, its language unknown to her. And had lovers sat in the shadows here, exchanging secrets? Imagination had never prepared her for what happened next. A soft, woman’s voice, near her left ear, spoke a name out of legend. “You are Isildurs’ heir, not Isildur himself”. Rowan turned and fled.
From a doorway to her right a slight figure watched, shaking his head.
The sun had sunk so low now that it was barely lighter on the terrace than it had been inside. A cold pool settled in the pit of her stomach as Rowan suddenly realised that she had no option but to stay the night in what was now a very frightening place. She had, at first, assumed that the sounds and feelings that had been troubling her were merely her own imaginings, the projection of her wishful dreams upon this ancient valley. But the voice on the balcony was nothing of her making. It had been conjured up by the place itself. Rowan had the distinct impression that the whole valley was alive and focussed on her.
But Rowan did not want to listen to a valley. Valleys were not supposed to be alive. That implied magic and Deegan had told her many times that magic did not exist. On the other hand, Deegan had also told her that the valley did not exist and that elves were creatures out of children’s’ stories. She had found the valley late one winter afternoon. What, now, of the rest? Had she just experienced elven magic? Had real elves lived here once? Were there still elves in Middle Earth?
Rowan searched for somewhere, away from the ghost filled room and the exposed terrace, to spend the night. It was almost full dark so she could not go far for fear of tripping over some errant root or loose cobble. She had almost given up hope when she found the little shelter along a path, away from the main part of the house. It’s back wall and roof stood on a promontory, overlooking house and waterfalls. The other three walls were replaced by slender, carved columns, some flecks of gilding still caught in their weather scoured crevices. Rowan ate a small supper of dried fruit and bread and then rolled herself in her blanket to pass the night. She did not expect to sleep.
In a large, overhanging oak tree, nearby a figure settled back silently and set his mind to protect her. Lovingly he held back the memories of his people, quieting the chattering stones, stilling the whispers of the breeze and the dreams of ancient trees. Gently, he wove the threads of peaceful sleep through her racing thoughts and smiled as he sensed her heart settling into a smoother rhythm, her breathing slow, her eyelids droop.
Rowan awoke with a start, aware that some noise had pulled her out of sleep but not able to identify what that noise had been. She started to pack, her only thought, to escape from this haunted place. To dream of such things was not the same as experiencing them. This was her last great adventure. Only waiting for a cue to share again, Rivendell responded with a memory of its own and, out of the hiss of the distant waterfall, a wistful voice slipped into her mind. “I’m not like you.” Snatching up her gear she ran back down the path, oblivious to the danger from root and bramble.
Once back on the open terrace Rowan stopped to draw breath. From somewhere, deep inside, a spark of courage flared up and she pulled herself erect. Her voice shook but it was loud enough to be bounced back by the walls of the house behind her. “What do you want from me? You should be ashamed, going around scaring people like this.” Echoes were the only response.
Feeling stronger, now that she had dared to challenge the place, Rowan began to search for the path back out of the valley. Everything looked different in the sharp morning light and, although she found the steps between the statues, once at the top of the flight she could not remember whether she should turned left or right. The way to the right was more thickly wooded so she decided to go left, simply to avoid the shadows.
He spoke silently to Rivendell. She was afraid. She needed comfort.
Walking was easier, and the path less overgrown. For some time, now, the valley had not attempted to communicate and Rowan almost began to like the place again. Through a gap between two hawthorn bushes she saw the narrow arch of the bridge, spanning the river and she was struck by a deep sense of peace. Early morning sun was casting long shadows from surrounding trees on to its crumbling, lichen covered stone. Rowan became aware that a silence had fallen around her. She could hear no bird and even the river muted. A flicker of movement on the bridge drew her eye. Within the shadows two deeper shadows grew. The tall couple stood, looking deep in to each others eyes. The woman’s hand reached up to caress his face. Rowan held her breath, lost in the beauty of their love, and then a sudden gust of wind tossed the trees, the shadows moved and the figures were gone. For some reason the vision had not frightened her. Rowan sighed, wondering who it was that the valley was remembering.
Her path lead on, steadily rising, through bluebell sprinkled coppice, thickets of hawthorn and elderberry. Finally, the trees thinned and she found herself standing in midday sun only yards from where she had entered the day before. She turned for one final look. She would not come back to this place again. Rivendell deserved to be left undisturbed with its memories. Rowan realised that she was smiling. She knew, now, that granddad had been right. Once upon a time elves had lived in Middle Earth. But, her pleasure was tinged with a sadness, because it was clear that they lived here no longer.
As she turned to set her face for home, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of gold amongst the leaves of a holly tree in the valley below. Turning back, her eyes widened and her lips formed a silent “Oh”.
Standing among the branches of the ancient tree was the most beautiful being Rowan had ever seen. The strong breeze was whipping his long golden hair around a finely chiselled face. Tall and slender, the guardian was dressed in green and grey and in one hand he held an intricately carve bow. The other hand he raised in farewell and she heard his voice, blown to her on the obliging breeze, “Namarie”. Rowan blinked wind tears from her eyes and he was gone. For a moment, she considered going back to look for him, but she doubted that she would ever see him if he did not want to be found. He had probably been shadowing her all the time and, only when he chose to reveal himself, had she seen him.
He had seen her dreams and given her a precious gift. Now, whenever life was too hard and harsh for her she could remember this valley and his shining face and know that the world had not always been so; that once there had been a glorious race of people called elves, and Rowan could dream that, perhaps, one day they would return.