New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson
Titles

What Matters Most
Part One
by Sheila Paulson

Summary: After TSbyBS, Blair longs to get away for awhile to a place where loyalty and friendship were respected. Thanks to Incacha and his shaman abilities, they suddenly find themselves in a whole new world. Originally published in Tribal Lore 2; crossover with The Lord of the Rings movie universe.

Disclaimer: The Sentinel characters belong to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount, and not to me. LOTR belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien and New Line Cinema.

Blair Sandburg gazed unseeingly out across the city of Cascade, scarcely noticing the clouds that piled in from the direction of the Pacific. In his mind, he saw the television cameras and the eager reporters agog to hear his statement, the way their eagerness had changed to disgust, although no less avidly, when he confessed himself a fraud. Frauds made good press, which was why his name was all over the news, not only here in Cascade but nationally. Blair Sandburg, fake. Yeah, great image. Booted out of Rainier, all chance of doctorate left behind, he faced a future that seemed desperately uncertain despite Jim's and Simon's offer to give him a badge and let him join the team at Major Crime once he qualified at the Police Academy.

The first drops of rain touched his forehead, but he scarcely felt them, so light a mist it was. Natural for the Pacific Northwest. Instead of withdrawing into the loft, he stayed in place, letting the wind snarl his long hair. They'd probably make him shear it off to regulation length when he went to the Academy, and while he knew it would be easier to take care of short, he wasn't sure he would know himself when he looked in the mirror. Blair Sandburg, cop? How hard it would be to substitute the new title in place of the old. Blair Sandburg, anthropologist. Blair Sandburg, the world's only living expert on Sentinels.

Well, he was still that, and he supposed he was still an anthropologist, even if he had no university affiliation. Not many jobs out there for discredited anthropologists, though.

Jim wasn't home yet. He'd been late every day this week. Of course a couple of times he'd stopped off to see the doctor who had treated his leg wound when Zeller had shot him. He wasn't limping now, not as much as at first, and he carried the cane because Blair insisted, prone to forgetting it if the resident nag didn't call it to his attention.

Jim... They were still a little stiff together. How could they not be? The world had changed, and Blair, who had come to the certain realization that career came in a distant second to Jim, had no regrets, except that he could not have thought of a way to protect Jim that would have protected him, too. He hadn't, not in the time allotted, and not since. Even if a few friends at the University were trying to help him, he had no faith in their success. His mentor, Eli Stoddard, was outspoken in his support of Sandburg, and his tenure stood him in good stead. Chancellor Edwards might glare at him every time she saw him, but Eli didn't care.

Jim's dad had even stepped in and offered to pay for legal service. There was, he insisted, grounds for a lawsuit against the university, and also against the New York publisher, Sid Graham, since Blair had given neither of them permission to have anything to do with the fatal diss. But he held back. What would a lawsuit do but thrust Jim once again into the public eye? The hoo-hah had all but died down, and Blair wouldn't risk starting it up again, not for a million dollars. Jim's identity as a Sentinel must be protected, no matter what Blair endured, for Jim would never have been outed to the world if not for the dissertation. Even now that he had been booted out of Rainier, Blair feared some criminals would still believe Jim possessed heightened senses and would use that against him in creative ways that would put Jim's life in danger.

The rain picked up, sudden stinging drops, very chilly for the beginning of June, and Blair retreated a step, out of the wind. He ought to go in, but he stayed. If only he could think of a way to put things right. He wished he could be sure he and Jim were good, that Jim was safe. For that, he would gladly abandon his career and the hope of being Doctor Sandburg.

How he wished he and Jim could get away for a few days, somewhere free of publicity and paparazzi, free of the curious stares of even the other cops in the bullpen, a place where they could unwind, test the new borders of their friendship, make certain they hadn't lost the most important part of it. *It's about friendship*, Blair thought, remembering the words he had spoken to Jim after they had returned from Peru that time. It still was; it had to be. Friendship and loyalty: what could be more important? Blair had sacrificed his career for that, and even if offered a chance to undo it, he wouldn't, not if it meant Jim would be imperiled.

*I'd do anything*, he thought wearily, scrubbing the rain from his face. If a few hot tears mixed with the chilly precipitation, who would see them? *Just for a chance to get away from here for a time, to be with Jim where we could talk -- well, as much of a heart-to-heart as Jim is likely to allow. If only we could be in a place where people understand why I did what I did. Either the people I meet every day think I'm the biggest phony since the Cardiff Giant -- and that was pretty damned big -- or they consider me a damn fool for not grabbing the brass ring.*

He shivered in the rain, then he grimaced and went inside for a jacket, just as the loft door opened and Jim came in. For a moment, they froze, staring, then Jim frowned. "What the hell.... You're soaking wet, Sandburg, and I can see you shivering."

"I was on the balcony."

"In the *rain*?"

Blair gave an uneasy shrug. "I was thinking," he mumbled.

"Well, shrug off that wet shirt and dry yourself off, and next time you want to think, sit on the couch and think where it's dry. Are you *nuts*, Sandburg?" He glared at Blair, who could see Jim's jaw tighten.

"Probably," he said wearily in hopes of fending off a stern lecture on the need for common sense.

Jim took the damp shirt when Blair stripped it off, and instead of hanging it up, he tossed it aside where it slithered off the arm of the sofa and landed on the floor. *Whoa, major violation of the house rules*. Grabbing up an abandoned flannel shirt of Blair's Jim thrust it at him. "Put that on. It's warmer."

Blair obeyed. He wasn't as soaked as he had thought he was, just damp and chilly, and Jim's senses would be able to measure that. "Now," he said when Blair had slipped his arms into the sleeves and done up the buttons, "sit." He steered Blair to the couch and thrust him onto it, his hands firmly gripping Blair's shoulders. Warmth radiated from the touch. "What's going on? Pre-academy jitters? Anybody hassling you?"

"No," Blair replied and gestured at the phone. "I let the answering machine take all the calls, but the ones I heard weren't press or people telling me I was an idiot. It doesn't matter. I was just wishing...."

"Wishing what?" Jim sounded curt, but his face wasn't. His eyes weren't. "Come on, Sandburg, you've been glooming around here for the last two days. What is it? You don't want to go to the Academy?" There went the jaw muscles again, tightening up. The way Jim ground his teeth, it was a wonder they weren't stubs.

"It's not that," Blair said. "I...well, I've always liked riding along with you. I won't enjoy the gun thing, but I'll do it if I have to, if it means protecting innocent people. It's just " He chopped it off, ducked his head, and said very fast, without looking at Jim, "I was just wishing we could get away and find a place where they where they respect loyalty and friendship."

"There are a lot of guys at Major Crime who respect the hell out of you, Sandburg," Jim replied. "Every damn one of them will be glad to have you on the team officially, and you know it."

Blair did know it, and it everything much more bearable, that he was valued by Jim's team, even by Captain Banks. He nodded. "That means a lot, man. But I just wish we could get away, even if it was only for a week or two, somewhere completely different, where we could be sure...."

Jim let a hand fall on his shoulder. "Be sure of what, Sandburg?"

He hesitated, then he said in a small voice, "That we're okay."

Jim reared back and stared at him. "You think we *aren't* okay? After what you did to protect me, Sandburg..."

"And I'd do it again, just like you've been my blessed protector from the start. But we need to...to clear the air, I guess. I don't know, man. It's just a feeling I've got. I need to get away, not for long, just for a while."

Jim stiffened and a wariness, almost a suspicion, filled his eyes. "You want to take off?"

"Not alone," Blair said very fast. He didn't want Jim to believe even for a second that he meant to run out and leave him in the lurch. "I don't know if you could even get away with Simon and Megan both recovering, too. If you can't, maybe even a weekend would do it. But...."

"If it's what you need, Sandburg, I'll get away. I'll work something out. Where do you want to go? You said a place where they respect loyalty and friendship. You're not thinking about some weird hippie commune, are you? Or visiting the brothers?"

"No, I hadn't gotten that far yet. The monastery might be good, but that doesn't feel quite right. I don't know. I'm not even sure there is such a place. I just have this urge... It's weird. It's as if it's calling me calling both of us. If I opened up to the Shaman thing I could go there."

"Spirit journey?" Instantly Jim's face grew wary, and Blair could feel his resistance kicking in. That angle of his Sentinel abilities had always made him nervous. Even after the fountain and Blair's drowning, after seeing the ghostly Molly, Jim couldn't quite buy into the mystical. "This isn't going to be some kind of mumbo jumbo game, running around in the jungle like the jaguar and wolf, is it?"

Blair looked up and grinned. "No, I think that would be really pushing it. But, I don't know. Maybe they could help."

"Sandburg, you are a certified lunatic. What do you mean, they could help? They're not exactly travel agents."

"I know. I just had the feeling that if I let myself think about them and sort of drift, I'd come up with a great answer."

He could feel Jim struggling against his skepticism. "Come on, Chief, you're still talking about the kind of stuff your mom would buy into. Twilight Zone time."

Blair chuckled halfheartedly. "Yeah, Naomi would get off on that, wouldn't she? But she'd have a different reason. It would be all about her cleansing her spirit or something to do with chakras, or tracking down ley lines or something. I guess all I want to know is that I did the right thing and that there are people out there who will understand people who don't already know me, I mean." He frowned and made an impatient gesture. "And that's stupid, because the last thing I'd ever do is *tell* anybody."

"So let me get this straight, Sandburg. You're not talking about a real place like Cleveland or Samoa?"

"If it wasn't a real place, the people wouldn't be real, Jim. No, I'm not talking about the spirit plane, not really. I just kind of think it might be a...a conduit."

"The Shaman of the Great City," Jim said, and if he still sounded hesitant, he also sounded amused and tolerant and fond. "Hell, Sandburg, you gave up your whole life for me. If you want to sit here and meditate and wander around on some other plane of existence, who am I to stop you?" He removed his shoulder holster, set the weapon aside on the table, sat down beside Blair. "Okay, great Shaman, what do I have to do?"

The trust in his eyes nearly made Blair's mist over. Knowing how much Jim hated this kind of thing, he smiled all over his face. "Oh, man, Jim...." he breathed. "Hell, I'm winging it here. Maybe I'm just looking for a name of a place. But to spend time with people who don't know a thing about Sentinels, who never watch CNN or read the newspapers.... Just to know that when I turn a corner, somebody won't point me out and snicker behind my back. That's all I ask."

"Damn it, Sandburg, the next time somebody snickers, you tell me and I'll wipe the grin off his face so fast he won't know what hit him."

Blair chuckled. "And then they'll say Sentinels are super fast, too. Jim Ellison, the Six Million- Dollar Man."

"Give me a break, Sandburg." Jim looked at him, then he slung his arm around Blair's shoulders. "Okay. Do your mystical stuff."

Joy permeated Blair's very being, that Jim would do this for him. It gave him the impetus to start the process, to close his eyes and lean trustingly into the circle of Jim's arm, seeking the deep meditation he had taught himself after Incacha had bestowed the way of the Shaman upon him. The Chopec Shaman sometimes visited Blair in dreams, and he had never known if they were actual visitations or merely his subconscious guiding him. He didn't need to know. What mattered was that he could learn from the experience, and anything he learned could help Jim.

The darkness behind his eyelids mutated into a jungle glade. Before them waited jaguar and wolf, side by side, gazing up at them with glowing eyes. Blue eyes, Blair realized, just like Jim's and his own. They didn't speak. That wasn't their way. Sometimes they mutated into other forms, but they did not do so this time. Instead they moved apart a pace and the near-transparent form of Incacha appeared between them to settle a hand on the head of each of the spirit guides.

"Enqueri," he said to Jim. In dreams and meditation, Incacha spoke fluent English. Or maybe, Blair realized, he simply heard the Peruvian Indian in English instead of Chopec. "Young Shaman. You come on a quest."

"We do," Blair said.

"You have come for the bonding ritual between Sentinel and Guide."

Jim and Blair exchanged glances. That hadn't been what they had thought their adventure would be, but now, it made complete sense. Neither of them knew what the bonding ritual would entail, but now sounded like the perfect time for it. Blair sneaked a look at Jim. They stared at each other, then Blair nodded.

"Yeah, I guess we have," Jim replied.

"So be it. You, young Shaman, have defined the parameters of the journey you must walk. Know it is real, not illusion. You will be there in flesh and not in spirit. Should you suffer injuries or die while you are there, it will be real, not illusion, and you will not return home. At the end, you will be gifted with a choice. I will not tell you of it now, for it would cloud your experience. It is a valid choice, one you will not understand until the end. Should you succeed and wish it with all your hearts, you will return to this place as if you had never left it, but the memories of your experience will remain."

"Do you mean no time will pass here while we are gone?" Blair asked.

"Time is relative," the Shaman said.

"E=mc2," Blair muttered involuntarily, and Jim tightened his grip around Blair's shoulders and gave him a little shake.

"Where will we go?" he asked.

Incacha smiled. "To a place where loyalty and friendship are valued," he said, "as the Shaman of the Great City has requested."

He faded away, and the jungle faded with him.

Blair blinked. They had arrived on a wide expanse of land, on a day maybe twenty degrees cooler than the one they had left behind, under a wide and soaring blue sky. A little breeze tugged at Blair's hair, and he could smell the clover that bloomed in the long grass. There was a road beneath their feet, not a paved one but a dirt road that ran straight as an arrow toward the great fortress that towered before them, rising up out of the plain as if it were an extension of the vast mountain range that began just behind it. Built in white stone, the city looked both magnificent and battered, and piles of rubble lay beyond its walls. Large scorched areas on the plain marked the place where huge fires must have burned here and there, and the clover rose up out of marred grass. Off to Blair's left, what looked like a broken sword lay in a tangle of brush. Yet in spite of the evidence of trouble, the day felt calm, tranquil, peaceful.

The huge fortress city rose in seven narrowing levels like a ziggurat, and a great sweep of rock thrust out through all the levels as sharp as the prow of an ocean liner. From the top level, that he guessed must be at least seven hundred feet above the plain, a tower rose to nearly half again the height of the city, slender and graceful, thrusting into the sky like a pointing finger.

A huge rampart wall ran around the lowest level that Blair could see was lined with soldiers in armor. He and Jim had been spotted. Voices called, distant arms pointed in their direction.

"Uh, Jim...."

"Take it easy, Sandburg." Jim stood at his side, his eyes wide with staring. He would be able to see the distant armored guys far more clearly than Blair would. "Just stand there and try not to look threatening. Those guys are on edge, and they're gonna think we were sneaking up on them to get this close without being spotted. It wouldn't occur to them that we materialized out of thin air; and if it did, that would probably freak them." He looked around. "We did materialize out of thin air, didn't we? I have to say, Chief, you bring me to the most interesting places. Where the heck are we anyway?"

"I don't know. Medieval Europe?" Blair hazarded. "But I don't remember anything like that fortress." He turned slowly. Behind him ran a great river, straddled by the ruins of another city, even bigger, if not higher, than the white fortress. Beyond the river, in the distance, another range of mountains rose, bare and stark, and from behind them, a faint wisp of cloud rose into the endless blue sky. "You got me, Jim. I don't have a clue."

"Is it *real*?" Jim demanded.

"Incacha said it was real, that what happened to us here was really happening and not illusion. So I think if somebody showed up at the loft looking for us, we wouldn't be there."

"Well, that beats the heck out of sitting on the couch like zombies and looking transparent," Jim said wryly. "I'm gonna listen in on those guys. Poke me if I zone."

"I will," Blair replied. "But you haven't zoned in ages." He positioned himself beside Jim and clasped his wrist. "Go for it."

Jim closed his eyes and assumed the tilt of his head that always meant he was listening to distant voices. After a minute, he began to speak. "They're talking English, Sandburg, or I'm hearing English. They're wondering if we're something called orcs, but they don't think so. They're gonna send guys out to check us, and they're telling them not to let us try anything. They're gonna have swords and bows and arrows, and I think the best thing we can do is just stand still, hands out to show we're not armed." He shook himself out of the intense focus. "They're sending for the Steward, whoever he is, to tell him about us. They don't think we're an advance party from the army because we're dressed odd." He looked down at his shirt and slacks. "It doesn't look odd to me."

"It will to guys from the middle ages," Blair replied with a glance at his flannel shirt and jeans. "I wonder where the army was. They had a battle here, I think."

"Yeah, probably with catapults to bring down so much of the stone. Look, you can see some scaffolding; they're working to fix it. It can't have been that long ago because it still looks pretty raw. The guys look like us," he added reassuringly and then his mouth quirked. "Well, more like you. They've got long hair."

"Hey, I'm in style," Blair said with a grin. "Medieval fashion plate." Jim grimaced.

The gates of the city must have been battered down in the attack because Blair could make out small figures pulling away a makeshift barricade from the area where the recessed gates had once stood. As soon as it was clear, a dozen men on horseback rode smartly out, some with swords in hand, others with great bows. Longbows, Blair realized. One of them could put an arrow through a man at a great distance, even a man in armor like the soldiers wore.

"Medieval weapons," he said. "The English longbow was "

"Come on, Chief, I don't need a lesson in the weaponry of the Middle Ages. We're in this together, and if these are the guys who are into loyalty, let them see us standing here protecting each other."

Blair grinned up at him. In spite of the galloping riders and their weapons and the fact that he had none at all, it felt good to stand here at Jim's side.

As the riders surrounded them, they positioned themselves back to back. Blair grinned up at them. "Uh, hi," he said with a quick smile and spread out his hands pacifically. "We're harmless. We don't mean any threat to you."

"So you would claim, even if you did," the officer replied. "What weapons carry you?"

Jim hesitated, then he must have remembered he'd taken off his gun. "I have a small pocket knife," he said and pulled it out very carefully. It was a Swiss army knife.

"What manner of weapon is that? It has no blade," objected the officer.

Jim opened out the main blade. "It's more of a tool than a weapon. Various small blades can be pulled out like this and folded away when they aren't needed. I don't fight with it." He passed it up to the man who drew out every blade he could find, even the fingernail clippers and corkscrew.

"And you?" the officer looked down at Blair when he had returned all the blades to their place.

"I'm unarmed. You can check if you want to, but I don't have any weapons with me." He looked up at the man. He wore a helmet that rose to a point at the top, and his armor was plate armor, with an embossed and stylized tree design on the breastplate.

"We will do so when we return to the city. What is your purpose here?"

Blair hesitated. "We're strangers on a journey," he said. "Uh, take us to your leader."

*****

"Think you the army will return this day?" Éowyn of Rohan asked Faramir. The two of them sat in the garden of the Houses of Healing, for although both of them had suffered wounds in battle, they were mended and well enough to be freed from treatment. Éowyn had chosen to help in the Houses of Healing, for wounded men still needed treatment, and she had pledged to serve life and not death. Faramir met with her daily, glad of a chance to set aside for a time the duties that pressed upon him as Gondor's Steward.

He smiled to look upon her golden beauty. She had also pledged herself to him. He had loved her from the moment he had first seen her, but it had taken her longer to look to him, for she had believed she loved Aragorn. How well Faramir could understand that. The little he had seen of the long-awaited King before Aragorn had led the combined armies of Gondor and Rohan off to Mordor to confront Sauron and distract the Mordor orcs from the passage of Frodo to Mount Doom had proven Aragorn was a great and noble man, one Faramir would be proud to serve. He loved his King with a loyalty he knew would last lifelong and had from the moment Aragorn had called him from the shadows and saved his life.

"They could return yet today, but I think tomorrow more likely," he replied. "They have the wounded to carry to the city and the wains will move slowly. I would have them come, and soon, for I would wish Aragorn to see to Frodo, as he helped me." Idly he rubbed his shoulder where the arrow had driven deep. Still tender to the touch, the wound no longer hindered him nor cried out in protest when he moved abruptly.

They both looked toward the room where Frodo Baggins lay sleeping. Since the Eagles had borne him and the stalwart Sam to the city after the fall of Sauron, Frodo had lain unwaking. The healers all insisted it was a healthy sleep, a healing sleep, that Frodo had been so drained by the power of the One Ring that he needed to rest. He took food when it was given, usually by his devoted Sam, and drank water, and sometimes would call out Sam's name, but he slept on. Not even Gandalf had yet roused him, and the White Wizard had suggested none try.

"We must let him regain his strength," he had said only several hours earlier when Faramir had asked, fussing over the hobbit who lay so quietly. His wounds healed, and his flesh took on a more healthy color each day, but Faramir longed for him to open his expressive eyes and realize he was safe and the world was whole because of his courage. "When the time comes, he will awaken, and I think it would serve him best if his friends could be around him then. How joyful he will be to see Merry and Pippin and the others of the Fellowship."

"Even more joyful will he be to see you, Mithrandir," Faramir had reminded the wizard. "For he believes you fallen. I still remember when we met and he told me that there had been nine of you, sent from Rivendell. 'One we lost in Moria,' he said, and I did not dream he meant you. Glad I am I did not realize, for I already labored under the weight of Boromir's fall, and to lose you, too...."

"Here I stand before you," Gandalf had said with a smile. "I, too, am glad you were not burdened with that news. We may yet this afternoon expect our brave army. I would that it should be so. Aragorn must look to Frodo. We will let our King visit him."

"And draw him back to us," Faramir had smiled. "The hands of the King are the hands of a healer, as I know to my great benefit. Without our King, I would be dead now."

"So you would, and grateful to Aragorn I am. I would not lose my most ardent pupil." He had smiled fondly and clapped Faramir on the shoulder. "I will see to Frodo until Aragorn returns, and Sam will aid me for his is an uncommon loyalty."

"Uncommon indeed," Faramir had replied and departed, meeting Sam on the way.

The hobbit had smiled up at Faramir, for the two of them had come to terms with each other after Faramir had freed Frodo to continue his quest. Sam had no idea what a remarkable hobbit he was, and even if Faramir had told him how heroic folk considered him, he would merely laugh and shrug it off and return to Frodo. A modest hero indeed, and one to whom Faramir would consider himself indebted for all his days.

"You are thoughtful," Éowyn said softly and clasped his hand, recalling him to the present.

Their love for each other was so new that a mere touch could make him smile, and he caught up her hand and kissed it. "I was thinking of Frodo and Sam."

"Everyone thinks of them often," she replied. "I often sit with Frodo and sometimes sing to him. Sam will talk to me; not, I think, because of anything I have offered but because he needs to speak, relating to me their adventures. He does not realize how brave he is, and speaks only of Frodo's courage and endurance. I tell him all I know, that the Fellowship are returning safe and sound and my brother," she added with a smile. "I still recall Sam's amazement when he first saw Gandalf. He is often excited to think of Frodo's surprise when he awakens."

"Would that I could be there to see such a joyous reunion," Faramir replied. "I hope it is this day. You will be glad to see your brother. And I will be...glad, if nervous, to speak to him."

"You need not be," she replied serenely. "For I will tell him myself that we are pledged and he will not deny me." She laughed. "I think he will be greatly pleased. He will have heard many tales of you during the march to and from the Black Gate."

Faramir felt color touch his cheeks. "My men are loyal. They are Aragorn's men now," he added. "Éowyn...." and let his voice trail off.

"Yes, I will be glad to see Aragorn," she said easily. "He is a great hero of my people. The men found in him one they could follow, and he saved Rohan. Always I will admire him, but I am not so young and foolish as I once was, to confuse admiration, hero worship, with enduring love." She smiled up into his eyes. "I was content to bask in his glory, but never did I imagine myself sitting across the breakfast table from him or holding his child in my arms."

"And you do those with me?" he asked, and smiled, for he often imagined their life together. "So, too, do I."

"With him, I never thought of the future," she said. "With you, I think of it often, where we will live, how I will learn your favorite foods, how we will come to have jokes together, and how we already will turn and catch each other's eye and guess what the other thinks."

"You reassure me, my heart," he said. "I see Aragorn, and I think of the future, how I will stand at his side and serve him with all my loyalty. I imagine what great deeds he will perform for my city, for Boromir's city, and how I have found in him a leader worthy of all my devotion. How could any not love him?"

"Any with a true heart could not fail to do so," she said. "But the love of a leader is not the same as the love of a man." She lifted his hand and kissed it. "So we will have no more of such foolishness, my dear heart."

He would have drawn her into his arms, even in the presence of several recovering men who sat here and there on the benches, but distant shouting rose from below, and instead he jumped up and drew her toward the rampart. "It may be the army is returning," he said eagerly, although he expected them not, for he thought it yet too early.

Instead of an army, he saw two men standing out on the plain, on the road from Osgiliath. They were too distant to make out details, but even from this high he could determine they wore no armor. A troop of cavalry rode out to meet them.

"Aragorn and Éomer would have sent an advanced party mounted," Éowyn said at his side. "They are not soldiers, I think."

"I must go down," Faramir decided. "Wait here, my heart, and I will send word to you when I learn their purpose. They may be refugees, for people have filtered into the city over the past month or so, even before the siege and Battle of the Pelennor. Sauron is fallen. Even if they be his spies, two men will be no great threat."

"Go armed," she urged him.

"I will strap on my sword as I go. And my devoted bodyguards will accompany me." He nodded to the two men who awaited him at the doorway. Since he had awakened to discover he had become Steward, he had been granted bodyguards without even thinking of it. The men knew what was required. At first they had been somewhat distant and formal, and he realized that had been his father's style, to hold himself aloof and superior. It would not be his own. The men were soldiers and he was a soldier even if his birth had made him Steward. When Aragorn came and the winged crown was placed upon his head, Faramir would still be Steward, but not ruler. To serve as Steward to such a noble King appealed to Faramir, and gladly would he fulfill his office.

They reached the courtyard of the first level as the cavalry brought the two strangers into the city, and Faramir, surrounded by his bodyguards, had his first glimpse of them. One was much his own height, the other perhaps half a span shorter. The tall one wore his hair so short, Faramir could not but wonder if it had been shorn due to an illness, but the other man's hair looked like that of any man in the city. Different was their clothing, though. The shorter man wore a hardy pair of dark blue trousers and a shirt in plaids, and strange shoes that looked as if part of them were made of tent canvas. The other's shoes were black leather, and he wore dark grey trousers and a light blue shirt, the cut of which was different than any Faramir had seen. Neither wore a sword, but then the soldiers would have removed their weapons.

The soldiers herded them into the city and halted them near the statue in the center of the court. Faramir saw the shorter of the two looking up at the great mounted figure with awed eyes.

It was the taller man who created chaos, however. He stopped abruptly and jerked up a hand. "Listen," he said.

Those closest fell silent, their curiosity spelled out upon their faces. Faramir took a step closer, only to halt when the man said, "Don't any of you hear it? Someone is calling for help."

Confusion touched many faces. It was the short man who looked up at him in surprise. "What do you hear, Jim?" he encouraged, although he clearly heard no cries for aid.

"Over there. Under those stones." Jim strode past the soldiers to a pile of rubble that Faramir was certain had not been there the night before.

"Part of that wall toppled this morning, my lord," his bodyguard, Tarnan, said. "They meant to bring it down for it was unsafe, but it gave way on its own. It was in the dawn hours and none was near."

"Someone was near," Jim said, and started tossing away the stones. "Don't you hear him? He's very weak and hoarse now from calling out, but alive."

It might be a trick. He might be making a play for sympathy. But several soldiers jumped to help him and they flung away the stones and bricks. The short man looked around, saw Faramir and noted the way the men bunched protectively around him, and he hurried over, trailing escorts, his hands spread to display a lack of weapons. "Are you the Steward?" he asked. When Faramir inclined his head in confirmation, he continued. "I'm Blair Sandburg. They said they would send for you or that you would hear our arrival and come. You have to believe Jim. If he hears somebody trapped under the stones, then somebody's there. He...uh, has really good hearing." He gazed at Faramir, his blue eyes wide, his face earnest.

"It's a trick," scoffed one of the soldiers.

But Faramir stared into Blair Sandburg's gaze and felt the truth of his words. "If it is," he said, "what harm to dig among the stones? And if it is not, then we must dig harder."

Several other soldiers joined in, and after a mere moment, one of them cried, "I hear it, too, Captain Faramir."

Faramir smiled faintly at the reminder of his former rank. "Dig quickly," he said and moved to help.

A few more moments' work revealed a small sheltered alcove deep beneath the stones and, lying curled up within, sobbing, a small boy no more than six years old. The soldiers cried out, but it was Jim who eased him free of the rubble, moving him gently and with great caution, speaking softly to the child, asking him where he hurt. "I was a medic," he said. "I'll see to him until your doctors get here." He examined the child with signs of knowledge.

Doctor? Faramir had come upon that term in his reading. "Send for the healers," he cried. "We must make certain the lad is not greatly hurt." Two soldiers raced off to do his bidding.

"He's mostly bruised and frightened," Jim said, holding the child in his arms. "No real bleeding, but he's cold." When someone in the crowd offered a cloak, Jim wrapped the boy in it, and then smiled at him. "Tell me, young man, what were you doing down here?"

"I didn't make the stones fall," the boy whispered, his voice raw from shouting. "My brother said the King might come today so I slipped away to wait for him because I truly want to see him, and then the wall fell on top of me."

"We'll get you cleaned up and the healers will examine you," said Jim. "And then you will be ready to greet the King." He looked around and saw Blair Sandburg standing beside Faramir.

"Jim, this is the Steward," Blair Sandburg introduced. "I think his name is Faramir. Should it be Lord Faramir, sir?"

"The title comes strangely to me yet, for I am newly Steward and rule the city only until the King takes his crown. My name is Faramir, and I thank you for this child, for all children are precious to us." He bowed to Jim, who could not return the bow while he held the lad, but who inclined his head.

"And you, lad?" Faramir prompted.

"I am Tal, my lord," the child gasped. "I live on the third level with my mother and my big brother. She is a washerwoman for the city."

"Well, Tal, I will send someone to your mother, for she must be vastly worried."

The boy shivered and ducked his head against Jim's shoulder. "She'll whump me."

"I think that she will not, if I ask her to spare you," Faramir returned, smiling faintly. "In my family, it was my father who did the, er, whumping, for I had no mother when I was your age. Know that parents do it out of love for you and fear that you were in danger." He tugged the boy's tawny locks. "When I was but a year or two older than you, I got into trouble, just as you did."

Tal perked up and stared, wide-eyed, almost forgetting his peril. "Did you, my lord?" Clearly he found it inconceivable that Faramir had once been a small boy. "What did you do?"

At Faramir's side, Blair Sandburg nodded as if he realized Faramir wished to soothe the child. Faramir shared a smile of understanding with him. "I was greatly wicked," he said to the lad. "I climbed the White Tree."

Tal gasped and so did several of the soldiers. "Not truly?"

"Truly. And I fell out of it into the fountain and I broke my leg. You were far luckier than me, my young fellow, for your misfortune was accident and mine deliberate. I was punished for it, too." Why did Blair Sandburg start at the mention of the fountain?

"Whumped?" Tal asked, eyes wide, for no doubt he could never imagine anyone daring to whump the Steward of Gondor.

Faramir laughed. "Well, no, for remember, I had broken my leg. Instead my father whumped me with words. He was a stern man, my father. But he said I was brave, for I did not cry out when they mended my leg."

"I won't cry out when the healers take care of me, either," Tal insisted and held up his head proudly.

Faramir rumpled his hair, brushing away some of the crumbs of stone. "I know you will not. And now here are two healers, and they will take you to the Houses of Healing." He smiled at the lad as Jim passed him over to them to bear away to the Sixth Level.

Freed of the burden of the child, Jim bowed, copying, no doubt, the actions of the people who had greeted Faramir when he arrived. He looked rather as if bowing were not a familiar custom. "Jim Ellison," he introduced himself. "And my friend, Blair Sandburg. We aren't enemies, and we aren't orcs. We're...," He hesitated and his brow puckered. "What are we, Sandburg?"

"Seekers," Blair Sandburg replied.

"Seekers?" Intrigued, Faramir studied them. "What seek you? For we are a city battered by war. It is a war we have won, thanks to the greatness of our future King and the incredible heart of a small hobbit, but I sense you mean us no malice. Come, speak. What seek you?"

The two men exchanged a look. "It's kind of hard to explain," Blair replied. "We've had hard times, too, although it was personal, not our whole country like you had. I wanted to come to a place where loyalty and friendship were valued, and so we found ourselves here."

A strange answer, but one Faramir himself could value and appreciate. "Loyalty and friendship are deemed great virtues in Minas Tirith," he gestured to include the White City, "and indeed in all Gondor. As it is in all lands, there are those whose hearts are less than true, but our people have been harshly tested, and we have endured. If that is your purpose, I stand in pride for the greatness of my folk. We will speak together."

"We don't know who they are, Captain," cautioned one of the bodyguards. "It could be a trick."

"If it is a trick, why free the lad?" Faramir asked.

"To lull you, and to drive away suspicion," the man insisted stubbornly.

"I think it is not so, but I know I must be wary," Faramir replied. "Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, the world has been vastly perilous these many years. Our great enemy has fallen, barely a week past. His spies may yet linger, even here amid our own people. You come untimely, and you wear strange garb. You couch your reply to my query in riddles. My heart would urge me to trust you, yet for the sake of my people, I must be cautious, and so guards will accompany us. In spite of that, I bid you welcome to my city." He looked at Jim Ellison. "Despite your uncommon short hair, you bear the appearance of a ranger, one who has faced dangers in perilous lands and fought bravely."

The two looked at each other and Blair Sandburg grinned. "He's got you pegged, Jim," he said, and the strange phrase indicated confirmation of Faramir's estimation.

"Yes, I was a ranger," Jim replied.

"In the North, amid the Dúnedain?"

"No, in a distant country called Peru," Jim replied. "But I did live in the wild and fought there to protect the people. Looking at you, I can tell you haven't always been the Steward, and not only because I've heard you called 'Captain Faramir.' Soldiers can recognize one another."

Faramir inclined his head, then spoke to Blair Sandburg. From the first he had felt a surprising kinship for the shorter man. "You are no warrior, I deem."

"No, I'm a...a scholar," Blair Sandburg replied, evidently trying to find a way to define his work in terms that would be grasped here. "A teacher, and one who studies the peoples of the world and their customs and histories."

"A lore master," Faramir exclaimed with delight. "Then we have much in common, you and I, for that was always my dream, to study the history and lore of Middle-earth. Yet it was not to be, for I was born the Steward's son in a time of war, so I became a ranger out of Gondor's need. Now my father and brother have fallen, I must serve as Steward and rule here until Aragorn is crowned, and then serve as Steward to the King."

"I can't be a student of lore, either," Blair Sandburg replied. "I had to give it up to protect Jim. Now I'll be a--a kind of soldier, I guess."

To sacrifice his dream for the sake of a friend spoke well of Blair Sandburg. They stared at each other with great fellow feeling. Then Faramir nodded once. "Come," he said. "We will see you garbed in the style of the city, and we will dine together. It is possible the King may yet arrive this day, so there is much to do. I have studied the ritual of surrendering authority to him, and I am prepared for his arrival, yet there are many tasks that await me. But your coming is strange to us and I must take time to examine it from all angles. I would bid Gandalf join us, for he will be curious as well."

"Thank you, my lord," Blair Sandburg said, throwing himself into the style of the city, and bowed. He thrust out a hand and poked Jim Ellison hard, and Jim Ellison played up and bowed, too, but he rolled his eyes at his friend.

Faramir looked around and beckoned to a young soldier. "Send word to Mithrandir to meet me in the Steward's quarters, and order a luncheon. I will escort our visitors there myself." He delegated another soldier to relay a message to Éowyn that he would be busy for a space. He would meet with her later and tell her of the newcomers, when he had learned more of their story.

His bodyguards singled out several additional soldiers to serve as escorts, and the party started along the ramp that led to the upper levels of the City.

****

When Faramir's message reached Gandalf, he was sitting with Samwise Gamgee in Frodo's chamber, the pair of them watching the Ringbearer sleep. Sam had been talking in fits and starts, relating their adventures on the way to Mordor, failing to recall what he had already told Gandalf, for all his thoughts were on Frodo. Every so often he would look up at Gandalf, worry in his eyes. "Shouldn't he be waking now? It's been a long time, days and days."

"Yes, Sam, it has, but he heals. Every day his color is better, and already the marks on his neck from the weight of the Ring on its chain have closed over and display healthy flesh. He takes food and drink and the healers come and move his arms and legs for exercise. He must sleep until he is ready, for none have ever borne such a great burden as he. Let him sleep and heal, and when your friends return with the army, mayhap he will rouse to their coming."

"I hope he will," Sam said. "I feel like I've been sitting beside his bed forever."

"So, too, did you sit in Rivendell. I am certain he knows you are here, because he takes his food from you more readily than from any other. I think he does not rouse to my voice, for he would believe me dead yet, and it would seem like the voice of a dream."

"It still seems like a dream to me, Mister Gandalf, sir," Sam said. He chafed Frodo's hand gently. "When I looked up and saw you bending over me, I couldn't hardly believe my eyes." Such a smile he offered.

"You and Frodo were a wonderful sight to me, Sam, for we feared for you so greatly, and not just those of us who are blessed to know you, but all the folk of Middle-earth."

"Well, Mister Frodo deserves that," Sam insisted. "He's the greatest hero that ever was and the bravest hobbit of all time. I told him once that someday there would be tales about us, that children would ask for stories about Frodo and the Ring."

Gandalf smiled gently. "And what did he say to that?"

Sam's face reddened. "That I was forgetting one of the chief characters and they would also want to hear about Samwise the Brave," he admitted in a near mumble without meeting Gandalf's eyes.

Gandalf laughed and patted Sam's shoulder. "Why, so they will. Faramir related to me the way you spoke to Frodo in Osgiliath about the great stories and how people in such tales had chances to turn back but they kept going because they were holding onto something. I believe Faramir remembered every word. That there was good in the world and it was worth fighting for, you said. Faramir confessed to me it inspired him to free Frodo to continue his quest. So you see, young Samwise, you played your part in the saving of Middle-earth."

Sam reddened further. "It was only the truth, Mister Gandalf. I wouldn't have understood before, but now I do. And I think Captain Faramir, I mean Lord Faramir, would have understood anyway before much more time had passed, because he's a brave and honorable man."

"But it was your words that stirred him. Yes, in the end, I think he would have freed Frodo without your prompting, for there is remarkable strength in Faramir, but at times we all need to hear great truths spoken."

"Great truths? From *me*?"

"From any with a wise and caring heart." Gandalf tightened his grip on Sam's shoulder. "Doubt not your worth, my friend. I know you will never lose your humility, and that is yet another sign of your merit. I asked you once to stay with Frodo and not to lose him, and you stayed all the way to the Cracks of Doom. I ask you now to stand by him, for the Ring will color his memories, and trouble his dreams, and he will need a friend more than ever." He tilted Sam's chin up so they were face to face. "That does not mean you should not marry your Rosie when you return home. But you must stay Frodo's friend."

"Well, that's just silly, Mister Gandalf, sir. As if I'd ever do anything else."

Gandalf laughed, a hearty, delighted sound that made Frodo turn his head in its direction and smile in his sleep. "I know that, Sam," he said. "I know."

A soldier appeared in the doorway before Sam could reply. "Mithrandir, I am sent from the Lord Faramir to summon you. Two strangers have arrived who must come from a distant land, for their garb is very strange and they arrived without even swords. Faramir bids you come and join him to take luncheon with them." He was breathing hard as if he had run all the way from the first level. "I'm sure he thinks you will be able to tell if they are friend or foe."

"Indeed?" Gandalf tilted his head and studied the soldier. "I will come."

The man looked past Gandalf, his eyes enormous as he took in the sight of the sleeping Frodo. "The Ringbearer mends?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes, he does." Gandalf smiled gently down upon Frodo. "And well guarded by a true friend. Samwise, I need not tell you to stay with Frodo. I must go to Faramir's aid."

"You be careful, Mister Gandalf. Those strangers might be evil."

"And they might be true of heart. I think you may trust me to know the difference." He bowed to Sam and the sleeping Frodo and followed the soldier from the chamber.

****

When Gandalf saw the strangers, they were garbed as men of Gondor and looked no different from any other men, save that one of them wore his hair so short it was no more than mere bristles upon his head. The other's hair was as long as Faramir's, dark and wavy, and he looked around the chamber with a wide and curious eye, yet hovered rather close to his friend. At the sight of Gandalf, the eyes widened still further and he drew in a sharp breath.

"What is it, Chief?" the taller man inquired. From the intensity of his stare, Gandalf almost had the feeling he could look right through the wizard all the way to his heart and soul.

The man who had been called 'Chief' nodded at Gandalf. "I think he might be a Shaman," he said in an undertone.

That made Faramir look at Blair in surprise. "Shaman? That is an ancient term, not commonly in use. I have seen it in old manuscripts, long ago."

"It is a word out of history," Gandalf agreed, "yet it signifies a wielder of power. I am a wizard, Gandalf the White, not a Shaman, yet you, I suspect, *are* one."

"Well, a beginner, anyway." He bowed to Gandalf almost with relish as if it were a newly learned art and one he found delightful. "I'm Blair Sandburg, and this is my friend, Jim Ellison."

Gandalf returned the bow. "Mae govannen, as the elves would say."

Both men stiffened, and Blair Sandburg's voice emerged in a squeak. "*Elves*? There are *elves* here?"

Faramir arched a brow at Gandalf. "There are none in the city at this moment. For many years, the people of my city feared and mistrusted the elves. That will change now, I deem, for Legolas Greenleaf of Mirkwood is as a brother to our new King, and he will return shortly with the army. And with him, Gimli, son of Glóin, who represents the dwarves."

"What have you gotten us into, Sandburg?" Jim Ellison cried. "Fairy tale central."

"Fairies are myths," Faramir interjected, his voice very dry. He and Gandalf exchanged an amused glance. "But if you live in a region without elves and dwarves, perhaps they would seem mythical to you."

"In our land, there are no elves," Blair explained. "Only old legends. There are dwarfs, but they are people whose biological condition produces short limbs. I think the dwarves you mean are considered part of folklore tradition. I'm an anthropologist, and I know a lot about folklore."

"Anthropologist?" Faramir echoed. "If I take your meaning properly, you are a student of the origins, myths, and culture of a people."

Blair Sandburg bobbed his head. "That's right. I'm not actually working as an anthropologist now." Sadness darted across his face, and Jim Ellison touched his shoulder as if in consolation. Then Sandburg smiled and it lit his face. "Well, I guess I am right this minute, because I don't know anything about this culture."

"Come on, Sandburg, you'll always be an anthropologist," Ellison said. "It's what you are. It might not always be what you do, but that won't change it."

Gandalf thought that perceptive. He knew not why Sandburg could not pursue his career of choice, but many reasons might hold people from their dream vocations. Faramir was a prime example of that. He would happily have immersed himself in exactly the type of studies he had listed to Sandburg, but his country had needed soldiers, so he had made himself into a ranger of great skill and leadership abilities, all of which would stand him in good stead as Steward. Now he would do as he had long wished to do, serve peace.

Sandburg flashed a brilliant smile at Ellison, then he looked up at Gandalf. "We don't have wizards either in our world, only in legends. Merlin is the most famous of them. I don't suppose he came from here?"

"I know of no wizard who goes by that name," Gandalf replied. "In truth there are only two wizards now remaining in Middle-earth, of which I am one."

"And the leader of the order of wizards," Faramir said fondly. "Mithrandir, I requested your presence for these two are strangers to Gondor, and, I think, to Middle-earth."

Gandalf felt his eyebrows rise, yet in his heart he had known that from the moment he had seen them and felt the incipient power in Blair Sandburg. It was a gentle power, a questing rather than the ability to do great workings, a tie with the earth and with creatures of the spirit. Such was not the way of magic in Middle-earth. The Valar often worked with their representatives in the world rather than in direct intervention, yet that was also different. Although these two appeared in every way to be of the race of men, Gandalf sensed subtle deviations. A different history, a different origin. The Valar had made the world out of the void, made the stars and the sun. Could other beings have made different worlds? Or did these two come from copies of Middle-earth that had begun the same and then grown different? Did they come from the future, when all would surely have altered? If elves, dwarves, and even wizards were but legends to them, who was to say they came not from a future world after the elves had passed beyond the sea to the Undying Lands? Gandalf would go to Valinor himself, although not for several years, for his tasks here were ending, and no doubt Radagast the Brown would sail from the Far Harbor, and then no wizards would remain, either.

"We're strangers here, yes," Blair Sandburg said. "We don't even know where Gondor is, and we call our world Earth, not Middle-earth. We're on what we'd call a spirit journey."

"Yet you are here in flesh, not spirit," Faramir said.

Sandburg bobbed his head. "We don't really understand it, either."

"Yet it was you who brought the two of you here," Gandalf said.

That made Sandburg blink. "Jim? I thought it was you know, the spirit animals, even Incacha. That's the Shaman who passed his power on to me when he died," he added for the benefit of Gandalf and Faramir. Wizard and Steward exchanged a doubtful glance.

Jim Ellison threw up his hands and shrugged. "Don't look at me. I leave the Twilight Zone stuff to Sandburg."

A zone of twilight? Gandalf frowned. "I understand, I believe. Yet you did not enter Gondor, and Middle-earth, without purpose. Faramir summoned me because he knows I would sense the truth in you. Tell me why it is you have come?"

They looked at each other, then Sandburg said, "I'd better tell, Jim. I may not understand it all, but I've got a few ideas."

"Go for it. But "

"I know." Something passed between them, an understanding, a promise. Gandalf sensed no malice in it, but rather an urge for protection. Sandburg offered Jim a smile before he faced the others. "Jim has a secret I can't share, but it's one that might have endangered his life in our world, and I swear it won't harm anyone here. I...I wrote a paper about it, and I knew it could never be published, uh, shared with the world. I was trying to tell myself I could alter it so no one would guess it was about Jim, but before I could do that, my mother found it and tried to help me by arranging to have it published. Jim's secret came out and there was a lot of publicity the news was spread everywhere. It would have endangered his whole career. Do you have policemen here? People whose job it is to stop criminals and protect the citizens?"

"We have soldiers whose job it is to protect," Faramir replied. "Some of the city guards also deal with those who would violate the law. It is a respected profession."

Sandburg offered a grin to Ellison. "Well, once all this came out, Jim wouldn't have been able to do his job. Criminals would know the way to hurt him, and some of them even treated him as if he was famous, asked for his autograph." When he saw that Faramir and Gandalf stared at him doubtfully, he added, "In our culture, some people think it's exciting to collect the signatures of famous people. Anyway, I knew I had to do something to save Jim. I hadn't meant to expose him and I'd tried to stop it but I couldn't. My mom had thought she was trying to help me. She hadn't known about Jim, either." He sighed. "So I called a press conference."

Another term from his world. "We know not what that means," Faramir said.

"I called those together who spread the news. Town criers? People who post stories?"

"There are those who spread the word of battles and even who post lists of events," Faramir said. "Such reports are nailed to walls for all to read. Go on."

"Well, I got a lot of those people together and told them my paper was a fraud, that it was fiction, and that I was nothing but a liar. That Jim was just an ordinary man. I lost my job; I can't be an anthropologist any more. But I made sure Jim was protected as well as I could."

"That required great courage," Gandalf said.

"He shouldn't have had to do that," Ellison said stiffly. "When the story became public, I was so cold to him; I wanted to throw away our friendship and just go back to being a loner, and avoid everyone. It wasn't until Sandburg threw away his career for me that I admitted none of it had been his fault and that I knew he was trying to protect me. I told him what a great friend he was, but I should never have doubted it."

Gandalf regarded them steadily. "At times, doubts force their way into our hearts. There are none in the world who have not faltered at times."

"So do I know," Faramir said hastily. "For I almost brought Frodo to my father, and that would have brought about the ruin of the world."

"You realized your error in time; and even in a sense protected Frodo by keeping him and Sam with your rangers, always moving closer to the Morgul Vale. They might have encountered the orc army sooner had you not done that. Or entered Mordor before Aragorn could lead the army to the Black Gate to draw away the orcs."

"That alters not what I almost did," Faramir said. He offered Gandalf a smile. "You have told me the end result is what matters, that and what I have learned through the experience. Doubts come to all. It is how we ultimately resolve them that will be counted."

"Jim's been great ever since," Blair said.

"If I could make it up to you...."

"But you are, Jim. You came here with me when it's sooo not your thing. You trusted me enough to risk this."

"Well, yeah, Sandburg. As soon not trust myself."

"Ah, you progress," Gandalf said. "I sense a wariness in the two of you yet. You are rebuilding the bridge between you."

"That's why we came," Sandburg said. He smiled faintly in Ellison's direction. "We didn't set out to come to Gondor because we didn't know Gondor existed. What we wanted to do was to come to a place where loyalty and friendship were valued. And somehow, that brought us here."

Faramir smiled. "Loyalty and friendship are true virtues," he said. "I have seen it so often I can never doubt. I would have ridden to the Black Gate with our brave army, even if I feared they might ride to their deaths, had I not been too gravely wounded for the journey. None hesitated. None made excuses to stay behind out of fear. Many of our wounded tried to convince the healers they were well enough to ride to battle. I have been so vastly proud of my people."

Sandburg's ready smile flared out. "Oh, man, that's great. And the army won, didn't they? That's why that little boy was down there, waiting to see the King?"

"Little boy?" Gandalf echoed.

"It is a brave tale, Mithrandir," Faramir replied. As he spoke, a servant entered, bearing a covered tray. The savory aroma of baked fowl wafted before him. He set it on the table and removed the cover. A goose, perfectly baked, gently steaming, bowls of potatoes, beans, a loaf of crusty bread. "Ah, our luncheon has come." Faramir gestured all to the table and they positioned themselves. "We will serve ourselves, Halfion, and I thank you," Faramir told the servant. "We would have ale as well."

"It is coming, my lord." He bowed and withdrew just as another servant entered with a huge pitcher. He poured it out into the flagons, bowed, and withdrew.

The party gathered around the table, and Faramir served portions of all onto their plates. The servants would wait within earshot of a call, should he need more, but Faramir preferred to converse with the two new arrivals in private. Their avowed purpose in coming here was a great compliment to Minas Tirith and Gondor, and he had sensed no lie in them, only the evasion over Jim Ellison's secret. Yet he believed he suspected what it was.

"Tell me now of the child," Gandalf urged when all had their food.

Faramir related the tale of the lad who had sneaked away at dawn to await the King. "He emerged unharmed save for bruises and a scrape or two. The healers would see he was fit before he was returned to his mother."

"Ah." Gandalf studied Jim Ellison. "You heard his cries when none else did. It would appear your hearing is as sharp as an elf's."

"Elves have heightened hearing?" Blair Sandburg asked quickly, eagerness springing to vivid life upon his face. "Really? Oh, man, that's so great. Do you think this Legolas Greenleaf will talk to me about it?"

"I will ask him to do so," Gandalf offered. "That intrigues you, young Sandburg?"

"Well..." Dismay spilled across Sandburg's face, and his eyes widened with horror. "I...well, I don't know anything about elves," he said in a small voice. "It would be so cool to find out." He risked one quick glance at Ellison, who sat rigid in his chair, his jaw tight.

Ah. The problems that had arisen between them, it seemed, were not entirely resolved. Yet it had been Faramir, not Sandburg, who had spoken of an unusual hearing ability. Sandburg had only reacted impulsively when he heard of the powers of the elves. Guilt blazed on his face, as bright as a beacon, and he carefully did not risk glancing in Ellison's direction.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Ellison blurted out. An odd turn of phrase, perhaps an idiom in their land.

"I'm sorry, Jim," Sandburg said in a small voice.

"You don't have one damned thing to be sorry for. By now everybody in Minas Tirith knows I have exceptional hearing. It's not like we're going to stay here forever, and if you can't trust the Steward of the City and a wizard not to go around blabbing to everybody, when they sound like the kind of guys who consider loyalty and honor important, then there's nobody you can trust."

"I just got a little carried away, Jim. It's the elves. I just can't imagine what it's going to be like when we meet one. I shouldn't have "

"I hear better than most people," Jim said tightly. "Big deal. For all I know I'll be nearly deaf compared to elves."

"And can you walk atop the fallen snow without sinking deep within?" Gandalf asked, allowing amusement to show upon his face. "I have seen Legolas do that. I have seen him look across vast distances and see clearly what is but a blur to men, and even to wizards."

"Walk on top of the snow?" Sandburg echoed. "Well, we get a lot more rain than snow where we live," he admitted. "We get some snow, but people shovel it, so we don't usually have to wade through it. Boy, that'd be a useful gift in a blizzard."

As a matter of distraction, it served nicely, although Gandalf exchanged glances with Faramir, and saw he also realized this. Sandburg wished to avoid any speculation about Ellison's eyesight. Why would more powerful sensory abilities create chaos in a society? Here in Middle-earth, such would be valued, especially among the soldiers and those who must travel wild lands.

"We, too, clear away the snow from our pathways when it falls upon the city," Faramir agreed. "We will use sleighs in deep snow." He looked a question at Gandalf.

The wizard beamed upon the two visitors. "There are many races in Middle-earth. You know naught of hobbits, whose feet are covered on top with thick hair and who wear no shoes even in the deep winter snow. The great Eagles have the ability to speak when most birds are silent. Shadowfax, the great horse who carries me, is the lord of all horses and he can understand human speech. Elves are fleet of foot, and dwarves are great artisans. Among men, abilities differ. Faramir is the finest archer in Gondor, yet nearly all have some skill with a bow. A unique ability is a gift from the Valar, and should be cherished, not concealed. Come you from a world where such abilities would be exploited?"

The two exchanged looks. "He's a wizard," Sandburg said as if continuing a conversation. "They know things. He knew I was a Shaman. I wouldn't go around telling people back home. They'd think I was nuts."

"Nuts?" echoed Faramir doubtfully.

"It's a slang term for crazy. Mad?"

"Ah." Faramir replied. "You come from a world where people are required to conform to certain standards, and those who are different are perhaps shunned, mocked, or exploited?"

Again, a hesitation. Then Ellison nodded. "There are people in our world who would do all those things. I like to think they're not in the majority, but they're the loudest and most outspoken, and sometimes it's hard not to believe they represent everybody."

"But they don't, Jim," Sandburg insisted. "I know there are a lot of problems in our society, but I have to believe most people are decent."

"All societies have folk who revel in spectacle," Gandalf said. "The men of Middle-earth are no different. They will avidly regard a visiting elf because they have most likely never seen one before, and will wait, agog, for evidence of elvish power. I think in your world there is a greater and faster spread of news than in ours."

Sandburg nodded. "There is."

"Then that makes it harder. Here, the people only know that you, Jim Ellison, heard a child in need and saved him, and they will bless the fact that you have sharp ears."

"That's the way it ought to be everywhere," Sandburg cried. "People using whatever gifts they have for the greater good. I wish it was that way all the time."

"So, too, do I," Faramir said. "Even here it is not always as it should be. We have been at war for so many years that people have grown fearful and reclusive and shunned strangers. Aragorn will change that, I think. The fact that a hobbit has saved the world, another has saved my own life, and a third the life of my wife-to-be has made the city value hobbits greatly. A dwarf and an elf fought to defend this city and rode to the Black Gate to battle. Those who have fought at their side will relay their courage to all they meet. Aragorn, it is said, was raised for a space in Rivendell ah, that is an elvish settlement far north of here across the Misty Mountains. He values many elves as his friends, and Gimli, son of Glóin, is also his brother. In our world, our people's hearts can expand to take in all the races. Think you we would exploit or shun you, Jim Ellison, for gifts you possess, gifts which would benefit all people?"

"You see, Jim," Sandburg reassured him. "It's different here. That's why we came, I think."

Ellison frowned and looked around uncomfortably. "God, Sandburg," he said after a minute. "I'm so used to needing to watch my every step."

"Not around people who know you, Jim. Look at Simon. He's always been there for you. Megan knows, and she's on your side. All the guys at Major Crime know, even if they have to pretend they don't."

"You need speak no such secrets to us," Faramir said. "Mithrandir?"

"You ask if you may indeed trust these two?" the wizard asked Faramir. "Indeed you may, for they mean no harm to this city. They have come to heal their spirits and reforge the bond between them, a bond already powerful. For as long as they stay here, they will be welcome in this city. They will know when the time has come to return. Until then, let them meet our brave companions when the army returns. Let them speak to Frodo when he awakens. I sense no evil in them."

Sandburg and Ellison exchanged a doubtful look, and it was Ellison who spoke. "You're taking us on faith?"

"No, Jim Ellison. I am taking you on the strength of a wizard's heart. Should there be malice within you, no matter how well concealed, I would sense it. I sense it not. In your friend I sense fledgling ability, not as a wizard, to perform great workings, but in a subtler magic, bound to the earth and the warmth of his heart. I also sense death and reawakening." He smiled gently. "Not all would, but I, too, have died and been sent back, for my work was not yet finished."

Sandburg's mouth fell open, and Ellison's face tightened and he looked quickly at Sandburg. "You know about the fountain?" he blurted.

"I know not the details of your friend's rebirth, but I recognize in his spirit that he has crossed into the darkness and been drawn back, by the power of the Shaman that lives within him, and the power of the bond of friendship. And," he added with a twinkle, "the power of that which you name Sentinel."

"He can draw folk from the dead?" Faramir cried.

When Ellison and Sandburg stared blankly at Gandalf, the wizard shook his head. "No, that is not his gift. Yet there is a tie between these two which is powerful, its strength based for the most part on the depth of friendship, and yet a smaller part on the ability that dwells within each. Come, Faramir, surely you doubt not the strength of friendship, you who have been so greatly touched by the words of Samwise Gamgee."

"I doubt it not," Faramir said. "I have seen its workings in many ways. Small Pippin, leaping onto the pyre to save my life, when our friendship was but new." Awe shone in his eyes. "Legolas and Gimli choosing to walk the Paths of the Dead with Aragorn." He bowed his head. "My brother, fighting to the death to protect Merry and Pippin. Ah, Gandalf, there are no words great enough to praise friendship and loyalty."

Sandburg nudged Ellison. "See, Jim," he said with a huge grin. "We came to the right place."

"Yeah, Sandburg, I think we did."

"Good," said Gandalf warmly. "Good. Now let us dine before this delicious feast cools." He raised his glass. "I drink to new friendships."

"To new friendships," the other three echoed, and raised their own.

*****

Continued in part two...