New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson
Titles

What Matters Most
Part Two
by Sheila Paulson

See part one for notes and disclaimer.

Aragorn, son of Arathorn, reined in as the army left Osgiliath, prepared to ride across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. The great White City awaited them, rising up out of the plain, battered and weary but already, he was certain, beginning to mend. The sun hovered, ready to sink behind Mount Mindolluin in the west, but its golden light touched the returning army, warm and welcoming, and made the Tower of Ecthelion gleam 'like a spire of pearl and silver'. Boromir's words spoken in Lothlórien returned to him. Boromir had so loved this city. *I will not let the White City fall*, Aragorn had promised the dying Boromir, and he had arrived in time to save it with the army of Oathbreakers. It was Frodo who had saved Middle-earth, though, and he hoped with all his heart that he would return to Minas Tirith and find Frodo restored and waiting for him. Frodo had survived, for Gandalf had sent one of the great Eagles to bear the news to Aragorn. Loud had rung the cheers of the men when the word spread among them.

Eager were the men to return home to their wives and families, to their city, to a world that must now learn the way of peace. It would be an easy lesson, Aragorn thought, one they would relish. No more would Mordor loom over all, brooding with dark menace. He would see that fell land purged, but none would ever dwell there, at least not for many lifetimes.

As for Aragorn, he would return to Minas Tirith, not to a family, for he had none save distant kin of the Dúnedain, his foster father, Elrond of Rivendell, who would no doubt one day depart these shores for Valinor, and the members of the Fellowship who had become as family to him. Yet Gandalf awaited him there, and Gandalf had long been both friend and mentor. Glad he would be to see the White Wizard once more. Faramir, too, was one who would, Aragorn hoped, become as kin to him, for they would stand at each other's side for many a long year. Faramir, he deemed, held a strong remnant of the blood of Númenor flowing in his veins. Aragorn had sensed it in him, more than he had in Boromir. Faramir's mother and his uncle of Dol Amroth had possessed some elvish blood, it was said, and while that was not enough to grant Faramir the long life of the elves, it and the blood of Númenor would give him more years than most. Faramir's loyalty was already won, and what Aragorn had seen of him and had heard from Gandalf on the march to the Black Gate had convinced him this younger son of Denethor would be a great asset to Aragorn and to Gondor.

Legolas, of course, had been his brother for many a long year, and that would never change. He looked at the elf, who rode at his side, Gimli behind him. Who would ever have believed those two would become as brothers, when their initial encounter in Rivendell had held so much hostility. Hope Aragorn saw in it, hope for the future of Middle-earth, and if he must knock a few stubborn heads together to achieve the kind of peace and unity he intended, so be it.

Merry and Pippin rode with them, too. Merry rode behind Éomer as he had done on the journey to the Black Gate, proud to be in service to Rohan's King. As for Pippin, there he sat on the great white Shadowfax. When Gandalf had departed with the Eagles, he had freed the lord of the Mearas to go where he would, yet Shadowfax had remained. Pippin did not ride him solitary. He would speak quite earnestly to Shadowfax, requesting the horse help to bear those whose light wounds enabled them to walk most of the way rather than ride in the wains, to ease their passage. Pippin had been scrupulously fair about it, seeing each injured man had his turn. So close to the city, the men had been heartened and had chosen to walk the last way, so Pippin perched in solitary splendor upon the great white horse, one hand lightly tangled in his mane. He and Merry held such eagerness to see Frodo and Sam that Aragorn almost bade Pippin take Merry up behind him and gallop ahead, but he knew neither would agree. They would feel their place was to remain with the army.

Behind him, the men bunched, impatient to be home, and Aragorn smiled at Legolas and nodded. They rode forward side by side. *Rode home*, he thought, for so it would become.

"You are seeing the ending of your freedom," Legolas said too softly for the words to carry beyond Aragorn and Gimli.

"The weight of my responsibility," Aragorn replied. "Yet it is one I accept willingly." He laughed. "I am sure the pomp and ritual will often drive me to utter distraction when I am accustomed to going where I would, free of attendants, bodyguards, and hangers-on. This ride shall be my last moment of freedom."

Legolas gave a gentle smile. "You are the King, Aragorn. You need not hinder yourself with a great gaggle of bodyguards. Yet it will be their duty to guard you. I see it now, King and bodyguards walking companionably together, conversing about all and sundry, with any of your people free to approach you."

"That is not a bad thing," Gimli remarked. "For who would wish to harm him? He has already fought for Gondor and saved Minas Tirith. The people will welcome him and strew flowers before him and call out his name." He laughed. "They will hold up their babes for you to kiss, laddie, and the lasses will giggle if you so much as smile upon them."

"Fie, Gimli," Aragorn said, laughing. The picture his dwarf friend painted was far too vivid. "When that happens, I will draw you forth, and Legolas, and the rest of the Fellowship, and see that you enjoy just such greetings."

Gimli squirmed in the saddle. He might enjoy distant adulation, but no more than briefly. Fortunate it was that the world would soon settle into daily normalcy. Once the coronation was past – and Aragorn feared it would be a fearsome ritual – he might find peace in daily life.

He looked around. During their absence, the remains of battle had been completely cleared away from the Pelennor. Men there were, and yes, women, too, working in the fields, seeing to the planting of crops. Excellent, for a good harvest would be needed this year to hearten the folk after so many lean years. The marks of the pyres where the orc carcasses had been burned still showed raw and stark in the grass, and in many places, it was torn up from the tromping feet of the great mûmakil. Yet the spring grass would grow over all. April it was, the trees budding, new growth everywhere. This time next year, there would be no trace of battle marks. Perhaps even by midsummer the traces of fighting would be gone.

As for the great city, the closer they came, the more Aragorn could see that repairs had begun. Here and there, scaffolding marked the walls, and men worked replacing brick and stone. Battered the White City might be, but still it endured.

They had no doubt been seen as they emerged from Osgiliath, for the temporary gates had been flung wide. Here came riders galloping to meet them, and people crowded onto the walls. He could see folk waving, and hear their cheers.

Pippin rode up near Aragorn. "Everybody's ready to welcome you, Strider," he said with a quick grin that suddenly widened. "Maybe I should say 'your majesty.' Should I?"

"No, Pippin, it sounds good to be Strider. Soon I will be hedged about with people who will bow to me and treat me with such formality that I must learn to endure. Glad I am of my friends who knew me before such a dire fate."

"Dire fate?" That was Éomer of Rohan. "Like you, I am newly King, and would alter the reason, had I the power. Yet the world is new, and we have new places in it."

"We do. Glad I am to have Rohan at my side as a firm ally."

"As I am glad to have Gondor there." He smiled suddenly. "Yet in spite of all, my most earnest wish is to suddenly gallop across the plain and reunite with my sister. She will surely be well now."

"She will, and Faramir, too. Let us hope they have heartened each other, there in the Houses of Healing. I did not ask him to see to Éowyn, but I know he would do so, in honor of her rank." He smiled suddenly. "I know little of Faramir, mostly from his brother's tales as we journeyed south from Rivendell, but I think he is kind, and of a good heart."

"He is," Pippin said. "I know him a little, and hope I can know him better." His eyes shone with a combination of hero worship and genuine fondness. "He is so brave, and so strong. I told him he was strong, and I was right."

"I see Faramir has one devoted adherent," Legolas said softly.

Pippin's face reddened. "Well, I am in service to Gondor and he's the Steward," he said. "I know you will be crowned, Aragorn, and everybody considers you King now, even without your crown, but Faramir has ruled in your absence."

"And will, officially, until I am crowned," Aragorn replied. "The men have spoken of him as we rode, and I know him to be worthy." He smiled at Éomer. "He will have seen to your sister's comfort, of this I have no doubt."

They drew closer to the city, and the armed escort who had ridden out reined in before them. "My lord King," cried their captain. "We have come to escort you to your city, where the Lord Faramir waits to surrender it to you."

Aragorn threw a comical look at his friends. "So it begins," he said under his breath, then he bowed his head to the officer. "I am ready."

*****

Faramir stood before the gates of the City, baton of office in hand, awaiting the King, and as many people as possible had crammed into the square to welcome him to Minas Tirith. The child Tal bounced up and down in the front ranks with his mother at his side, his face alight with eagerness. Jim Ellison looked around at the eager throng and, at prompting from Sandburg, dialed down his senses so the overwhelming noise of the crowd would not deafen him. The smells were different from home, and he had to adjust his sense of smell, too, although they were not really unpleasant, just different. He had half expected reeking middens and sewage running down the streets, but in spite of being primitive in comparison with Cascade at the end of the Twentieth Century, Minas Tirith was well planned. Middens there might be, but not along the public thoroughfares, and Gandalf had said there was an excellent hydraulic system here. Sandburg, of course, had wanted to see it, and had been fascinated by the working of the privies. Not exactly flush toilets as they had at home, but far better than outhouses, with actual running water. Probably pumped from the mountain range behind the city.

He and Sandburg had arrived on a festive day. Once the army had been spotted, people had rushed to gather to welcome home their new King. Garlands hung on every door, and women of the city, in their long gowns, held small bouquets that Gandalf had explained they would strew before the returning soldiers.

The wizard had escorted Ellison and Sandburg to a place where they would have a good view of the events of the day. He had even told them that a banquet was planned for the evening. Although it had not been known if the army would arrive this day or the next, the chefs of the city had prepared to fix the food for a great banquet to be held in the Hall of the Kings on the seventh level. "You two must attend," he said. "You are, in a sense, visiting dignitaries, and I would have you meet Aragorn and the rest."

"But we aren't anybody important," Sandburg had protested, although his eyes gleamed eagerly at the thought of seeing an actual elf. He'd been so excited over the thought of elvish sensory abilities that he had nearly given away that Jim was a Sentinel. Gandalf had known the term and had appeared impressed, but Jim didn't think it could matter here. They were only visitors, and if elves could do that, maybe nobody would think it was remarkable that a man from a distant land could do the same. He'd nearly jumped on Sandburg for it, and the look in Blair's eyes had proven he knew it, and that he was going to pull the guilt number over it.

He'd been right to suggest this little trek into fantasyland, wherever the heck they really were. They still had a ways to go before they were at peace with each other.

Sandburg scrambled up on a stone abutment to see better. "They're coming," he cried. "I can see the King."

"How the heck do you know which one the King is, Sandburg?" Jim raised his voice to be heard over the excited cries of the crowd.

"Well, he's got that White Tree emblem on his chest, and the soldiers who rode out are deferring to him. There's something about him, Jim. Come on up; there's room."

"I'll see him when he comes in," Jim said. "I've got a good view." He looked across a cleared roadway, opened up to allow the army to pass through once the welcome ritual had been completed. He could see Faramir standing there, very tall in what must be formal garb with a classy cloak. Lots of folks wore cloaks here, and Jim had seen Blair looking at them wistfully. If he wanted to go around looking like a character at a Renaissance Faire, fine, but Jim was okay without one. He could imagine Rafe and Brown's comments if they could see him now in this weird brown tunic thing and leggings.

Sandburg's garb was dark blue and it suited him somehow. The long hair helped; he fit right in here, although most of the guys had beards, even if scruffy ones like Faramir's. Gandalf's was longer and white to go with the long flowing hair.

As Jim watched, Gandalf took his place beside Faramir, who looked at him and smiled with sudden warmth. The wizard clapped him on the shoulder in a fatherly fashion. Those two were clearly old friends.

"Here comes the King," Blair said and bounced a little on his stone. Jim saw the party dismount, and there was Aragorn, with the White Tree emblazoned on his chest and an air about him that would have singled him out in any crowd. He passed the reins of his horse to an officer. Beside him a man with flowing white-blond hair, and –what the heck! -- ears like Mister Spock looked around with interest. Was that an elf? Beside him was a little guy with an elaborate beard, carrying an axe. The dwarf. They could have stepped right out of *Grimm's Fairy Tales*. Another man dismounted beside Aragorn and pulled off a helmet to reveal fair hair and a strong face. Aragorn clapped him on the shoulder and they gave each other bows, and as they did it, both faces quirked with shared amusement.

Then came two more little guys, although they didn't have all the hair the dwarf did. They were smaller, too, thinner, and clean-shaven, even if they wore formal garb, and, like the elf, they had pointed ears. One of them had a black tunic with the White Tree logo on it, and the other wore garb in reds and greens to match the blond man at the King's side.

"Those are halflings," one of the men near Jim explained. "The one in the garb of Gondor lit the beacon fires to summon Rohan to our aid and then saved Captain Faramir's life, and the other stabbed the Lord of the Nazgûl so that the Lady Éowyn could slay him, for no man could. Halflings are great heroes, despite their small stature."

Jim had heard of the Lady Éowyn. Gandalf had said she and Faramir were engaged, and that both had been wounded in battle and unable to ride out with the army. He looked around to see if she had come down, but he saw no one who might fit the role. On the other hand, what did he know about how people dressed here? Any of these women could be duchesses, for all he knew.

Faramir approached Aragorn and raised his voice so that all could hear. "The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office," he said to Aragorn and held out the baton of his office.

Sandburg nudged Jim excitedly. "Isn't this great, Jim?" he asked so softly that none but Jim could hear him. Yet the elf turned his head in their direction at the query. "Being here now. It's like seeing history as it happens."

Aragorn accepted the baton, bowed to Faramir, and returned it. Was he supposed to do that? "That office is not ended. It shall be yours and that of your heirs as long as my line shall last."

Faramir's face blazed with gratitude and with admiration for his King, and he bowed very deeply. Then he faced the waiting throng. "Men of Gondor!" he cried in a ringing voice. "Hear your Steward. Here is one who comes to claim the Kingship at long last, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor, who has led our army in triumph. I say he is gladly welcome. Shall he be our King?"

The people shouted, "Yea!" in a great voice and began to cheer.

Faramir raised his hand and they fell silent at once. Perfect crowd control. "In days of old, the King received the crown from the hands of his father, but that is not possible here, for the last King vanished more than a thousand years ago into the darkness of Minas Morgul. His crown awaits. At our King's pleasure, we have ordered the day of the coronation to allow time for his people to gather from all parts of his realm to witness the great event. Yet now shall he enter into this city and I will serve as his Steward and do what must be done to keep the city until the crown rests upon his head."

"Gladly will I welcome you as my Steward," Aragorn replied, "and will defer to you until I am officially crowned, for you know Gondor and Minas Tirith, and I must yet learn. But learn I will, and I vow that I will serve Gondor with all the strength of my being, and my heirs after me."

That won another round of cheers. Jim dialed down his hearing another notch, for the roar was thunderous, like the cheers of the crowd at a Jags game when somebody had just come through with a spectacular slam dunk. Sandburg looked down at him from his perch to make sure Jim was okay; he checked so automatically that it felt completely normal for him to do it. To think that Jim had tried to distance himself from Sandburg after the diss came out.

Aragorn drew attention to his companions, introducing first the blond man. "Here stands Rohan's King, Éomer, son of Éomund, nephew of Théoden King, who came in answer to the beacon. Bid him welcome for Gondor and Rohan shall be as brother Kingdoms."

That drew more cheers. Aragorn smiled, clapped the King of Rohan on the back like he would a good buddy, then clasped the shoulders of the elf and dwarf. "Here is Legolas, son of Thranduil, Prince of Mirkwood. And Gimli, Glóin's son. These two have journeyed at my side even unto the Paths of the Dead."

The crowd would yell itself hoarse in another minute. Legolas stood, tall and confident, and smiled gently, and Gimli shuffled his feet, puffed out his chest, and muttered something to the elf that made him laugh.

"And here are two brave hobbits, Peregrin Took, Knight of Gondor, son of the Thain and the Took from the distant Shire, and Meriadoc Brandybuck, Esquire of Rohan, son of the Master of Buckland in the Shire. Bid them welcome."

The crowd roared once more. The two hobbits grinned and muttered a few quick words to each other and Peregrin Took, the one with the White Tree on his tunic, bowed flamboyantly to the crowd, his smile a mile wide. His friend poked him in the ribs, just like Blair might do to Jim. Then Aragorn rested his hands upon the shoulders of elf and dwarf. "Let us go in," he said, and Jim, who had focused on him, heard it spoken over the cheering.

Peregrin Took threw himself at Faramir, who caught him up in his arms and hugged him enthusiastically. "I'm so glad you're better," the hobbit cried. "You look wonderful. I have never seen you so happy."

"Why, Pippin, how could any be sad when the King has come at last? And when my hobbit friend has returned. We will talk together, you and I, at the first opportunity."

He set Pippin on the ground, and Pippin at once hugged Gandalf, too. The wizard looked startled, but his face warmed and he knelt beside the hobbit. "Ah, my fool of a Took, you have returned a hero."

"Well, I don't know about that," Pippin said, scuffling his feet. He wore no shoes, Jim noticed, and neither did Merry, but the tops of their feet were covered with curly hair. "But I returned, anyway, and Merry, too. Gandalf, how is Frodo?" That made Merry look up at the Wizard, too, their two faces anxious and expectant.

Aragorn halted immediately. "Frodo. Gandalf, I must go to him. Does he do well?"

Gandalf fell in beside him and began to speak in lower tones, and the two hobbits crowded close to hear. Jim could have listened, but he already knew how Frodo was, so he left them their privacy. Then the Wizard led the King and hobbits away, and Faramir smiled after them, then nodded to Legolas, Gimli, and King Éomer. "If you will come with me, I will see you to your quarters. My lord King, your sister is well – radiantly so -- and awaits you in the Houses of Healing, for she would greet you privately. Fear not; she is dismissed from there, but has graciously helped care for our wounded. They love her and vie for her attention."

"Aragorn said he was certain you would see to her comfort," the King replied as they passed Jim and Blair. He didn't notice them in particular, but Faramir did and beckoned for them to follow.

"To see to her comfort has been my honor," Faramir replied, "for never has Gondor been graced by a maid so fair and brave."

Éomer turned his head abruptly and stared at Faramir, speculation so vivid in his eyes it would not have required a Sentinel to see it. "I cannot but be glad to hear my sister is valued," he said.

"Valued indeed." Faramir looked around, saw that Legolas and Gimli were watching with avid interest and that Sandburg had crowded close, grinning like an idiot, and color touched his cheeks. "My lord King, I would eagerly speak with you of the Lady Éowyn, but would vastly prefer to do so without this avid audience."

Sandburg's face fell, and Gimli gave a huff of disappointment. But Legolas grasped Gimli's shoulder. "Come, Gimli, we will go to the Houses of Healing, to see Frodo and Sam. We know the way."

Faramir bowed to him. "I would not detain you when you wish to see your friends again." He hesitated. "And here are two visitors to the city who had awaited me to return to the upper levels. Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, who have come from a world beyond Middle-earth."

That even erased the rather avuncular expression from Éomer's face. "I would hear more of this," he said, then added to Faramir, "after we converse, of course."

"This interests me as well," Legolas said. He bowed to Sandburg, then to Jim, only to halt and regard Jim with suddenly narrowed eyes. "It interests me greatly. Come, we will grant Faramir his privacy and his dignity at such an important moment."

"Well, I do not know that I am ready to go to the Houses of Healing," Gimli muttered to himself, and Sandburg nodded. Jim could tell he would have loved to wait and see if Faramir meant to ask for Éowyn's hand like suitors used to do in the old days. Faramir caught Blair's eye and sent him a look of entreaty, and Sandburg grinned, gave him a thumbs-up, and shooed Gimli toward the ramp.

Legolas fell in with Jim behind them. Then as they left behind an eager crowd of soldiers reuniting with their families, the elf said under his breath, "I sense a difference in you. You are of the race of men, yet there is an aura I have not sensed in any before."

Jim gritted his teeth. From what Faramir and Gandalf had said, elves were supposed to have all kinds of abilities. He hadn't expected an elf to look at him and know he was a Sentinel, just like that. What the hell did he say now?

On the other hand, it wasn't as if he and Blair were here for anything but a visit. What did it matter if an elf could look at him and know him for what he was? From what he could sense of the elf, he didn't seem the type to blurt out all his secrets. Hopefully that meant he wouldn't blurt out Jim's either.

But his muscles grew taut and the old fear of being discovered and identified returned.

Sandburg, walking with Gimli and talking to him eagerly, suddenly fell silent and looked over his shoulder. "Jim? You okay?"

He nodded and gestured Sandburg to go on, and he did, although his steps lagged, and he must have wished for Sentinel hearing, for his head was cocked to listen.

They stepped aside to allow the wagons bearing the wounded from the battle to pass them on their way to the sixth level, then resumed their climb. Legolas waited until Sandburg and Gimli had moved a little distance on. "I meant not to distress you," he said. "I merely felt great curiosity. You are one whose senses are as acute as an elf's. I see it in your eyes, and in the way you tilt your head to listen. I noticed you in the crowd and saw how their mighty roars made you wish to ease back."

"They were pretty loud," Jim said. He could admit that without making any concessions.

Legolas inclined his head. "With elves, control of our senses is automatic. When aught is too loud, we control the level of our hearing without the need to consider it. Yet even then we hear, but filter what is extraneous." He smiled suddenly. He looked younger than Sandburg, but his eyes held an agelessness that made Jim wonder if he wasn't a whole lot older. "We do not speak of this with those who are not of our people. Aragorn knows, for he was raised in Rivendell and understands the way of elves better than any of the mortal races." His eyes warmed. "He is my brother, of course, although our blood runs different."

"You can share things with your brother you can't with strangers," Jim said, feeling like he owed Legolas something for his frankness, yet the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained even that was hard to say.

"And your brother, although not of your blood, walks with Gimli," Legolas suggested gently. "Gimli, too, becomes kin to me. We have faced death together, expecting to fall, but content that it be at the side of a friend. That, too, I sense about you, that you enjoy such a close friendship."

"Can elves read minds?" Jim asked tightly.

"Delve into your thoughts?" the elf shook his head, making the long braids at the sides of his face bounce. "No, and I would not, even if I were gifted with that ability. I merely understand the look of friendship." He hesitated, then continued. "Yours has healing cracks within it. It has been wounded but is mending."

"Yeah, wounded pretty much by me," Jim admitted. He couldn't remember ever having a conversation like this with a stranger before. But then this was the place where friendship and loyalty were understood. Maybe if everybody understood it, it didn't make them uneasy to talk about it.

"Such wounds would have a sharing. It could not entirely be one-sided. Yet Blair Sandburg feels a great urge to protect you."

Jim nodded. "Yeah. And he calls me his blessed protector."

"That is a fine way of speaking. Come you here to heal your wounds?"

"That's about it," Jim admitted.

"Then you come at a time of great rejoicing. This world has been freed from darkness."

"We heard about Frodo," Jim admitted. "He's a hobbit like Pippin and the other one? How could a little guy like that save the world? You'd think they'd have found somebody bigger who could fight off these orcs I've heard about, and not have to worry about the danger."

"In Lothlórien, an elvish city of surpassing beauty, the Lady of the Golden Wood told Frodo that even the smallest person can change the course of the future. Doubt it not."

"Well, he did it," Jim agreed. "And I have to say Sandburg came along when I needed help the most and changed the course of *my* future." Man and elf looked at each other with sudden understanding. "And he's a lot bigger than a hobbit," Jim concluded.

They laughed together, then Legolas said, "I will speak of your abilities to none, unless it be needful to save a life."

"If it's needed to save a life, I'd expect you to," Jim acknowledged reluctantly. He hadn't hesitated to help the kid buried in the rubble, after all. This wasn't his own 'great city' to protect, but a Sentinel was a protector, maybe wherever he went.

"Well spoken," Legolas approved. "Come. I, too, am eager to see Frodo."

Gimli called over his shoulder, "Well, it's not the dwarf who's dawdling. Pick up the pace, laddie." He caught Jim's eye and winked, then he resumed his conversation with Sandburg.

"Dwarves," said Legolas loudly enough to ensure he would be overheard, "have a most annoying way with them."

"Hmmmph," snorted Gimli, but Jim saw him smile, even if it was buried in the thickness of his beard.

Maybe elves and dwarves weren't that different from men, after all.

*****

The watcher brooded, silent and impassive, on the third level of the city, as the King's party passed. Folk who had not crowded into the main courtyard lined the roads, cheering and excited, waving to the King, and the watcher observed that the King returned the greetings, smiled upon his people, and sometimes paused to speak to individuals. Faramir had spoken with the King at the city gate, and the people had cried out in delight to see King and Steward together in amity. Had the King held himself above the people's beloved Faramir, the people would have hesitated, but the King held himself above none. As he moved on, leaving Faramir to see to the new King of Rohan, the King bowed and smiled to the people of the city. Once he knelt to speak to a tiny girl, winning a peal of delighted giggles from her and a doting smile from the child's mother. Another time he paused before a blind man and conversed with him a moment or two. The watcher heard him describing himself and the members of his party in such vivid terms that the man might see them with an inner eye. He accepted a bouquet from an elderly woman, who beamed up at him and drew a rapturous breath.

"That I have lived to see the King and have him greet me so kindly."

"I hope I may greet all kindly," Aragorn returned. "I must learn to know my people and my city. It is I who thank you for this excellent welcome."

Yes, the King seemed a fine and noble man. It was a pity the watcher would need to cause him pain.

There came two halflings in the King's train, and the watcher nodded approval. None could doubt the courage of the halflings, for the Ringbearer had helped to save Middle-earth. The pair spoke eagerly with each other, and the one who had saved Lord Faramir's life wore the livery of Gondor. He called out greetings to people he had met when he was in the city before, and some of them cried, "Pippin! Pippin!" at the sight of him.

The dwarf was acceptable, the watcher supposed. He talked with a dark-haired man who was one of the pair who had appeared so mysteriously out on the Pelennor, and both enjoyed the conversation. Dwarves were blunt and hearty folk, it was said, and this one was a friend of the King. Strange it was to have a dwarf in the White City, but so be it.

It was the elf who made the watcher's gut tighten and his eyes narrow. Elves were treacherous. Even if this one had not yet betrayed the King who gave him trust, it did not mean he would not. Elves held their own council and their purposes were not as men's. The Lord Denethor had not trusted them, and he had been wise in that regard. The watcher remembered the elf he had once met upon the road, who had looked at him with cool, measuring eyes, and seemed to scorn him. He had looked down upon him as if from a superior height, as if he ruled all Middle-earth, and that was not to be borne. He had been treacherous. Elves were perilous. With their long, long lives, they could wait for vengeance and revel in the deaths of their enemies without needing to do so much as lift a finger. The scorn of the elf he had met on the road still burned. What right had an elf to set himself above mortal folk? Were they not all born of the One? Had other elves but this one come to aid the White City? The Rohirrim had come, might the Valar bless them, but only one elf had come. That proved how little they had cared for the well-being of all. One had come, and that was insult in itself.

Well, that elf could go again, and since he would not, it was the watcher's duty to see to it. Already he planned, for surely a time would come when he could remove the elf. It was said they slept little and would stand under the stars late into the night. Unwary, the elf would expect no treachery.

The one who walked with him was the man who had freed the child from the rubble. A good man, to care for the safety of a stranger, but then what man would not protect a child? Yet he had saved the lad through his hearing, which was said to be remarkable. He might be a threat to the watcher's plan. His unfamiliarity with the city would serve the watcher well. Surely he would explore out of curiosity, and the King would not see him guarded if he was deemed honorable.

The elf must vanish first and be held in secret while the watcher learned the depth of his evil schemes. But then the man must be guarded and watched and prevented from interfering. If his hearing led him to the elf, then he, too, must be taken. There would be no need to keep him alive for questioning. No. If he came too close, he must also be slain.

The watcher stood silent and expressionless as man and elf passed, and not by so much as one twitch did he reveal the depth of his loathing for elves. If none else would see to it, he would protect Minas Tirith and remove this canker from the land.

*****

Faramir and Gandalf had introduced Jim and Blair to the King as they made their way to the Houses of Healing, and that evening they had been invited to join the King's party for dinner. Blair had never imagined being invited to dine with a King, and he bounced on his feet in excitement, even if Jim gave him a wry and understanding grin at the sight.

The lady Éowyn had come, side by side with her brother, the King of Rohan – and that made two Kings for the dinner. Blair wished he could brag about this when they went home, but he knew he wouldn't be able to say a word about it, except maybe to Simon, who wouldn't want to know.

Éowyn was gorgeous. Back home, Blair would have been thrilled to get to know her, but she was so obviously taken that he hadn't done more than talk to her politely when the chance came and enjoy the view. There was no law against window shopping, after all, as long as he didn't get obnoxious about it.

It was King Éomer who made the announcement of his sister's betrothal to Faramir and joined the hands of the engaged couple in a gesture that might be a tradition in his land. The pair smiled at each other, and Aragorn beamed at them like a proud father.

"I see my wish that you find joy has been fulfilled," he said to Éowyn.

She smiled up at him. "It has, Lord Aragorn. You were far wiser than I."

He chuckled. "I will not claim wisdom. I was merely a stand-in for the one who was to come. Glad I am to find it was my Steward." He bowed to Faramir. "Blessings upon you both."

"Thank you, my lord King." Faramir bowed back. People sure did a lot of bowing in this place. Faramir looked happy enough to float through the air, and that made Pippin beam.

The hobbit went up to Faramir. "I'm so glad you're happy now," he said in an undertone.

"It is in part thanks to you," Faramir replied. "I would not stand here in bliss if not for your bravery."

Pippin's face turned vivid red. "I had to," he said. "And now you're the Steward and you're going to be married. I wish...." His voice trailed off.

"What do you wish?" Faramir asked him gently. "Speak."

Pippin ducked his head. "I was just going to say.... I wish Boromir could see you now."

"Pippin!" Merry chided.

"No, fault him not," Faramir told the other hobbit. "I have thought of my brother and know he would be elated for me. Glad I am you remember him fondly, Pippin."

Faramir's brother must be dead. Blair exchanged a questioning look at Jim, who gave a faint shrug.

Pippin saw the exchange of glances and looked at Faramir, who nodded. "Boromir died fighting to save Merry and me from orcs," Pippin explained. "He was so very brave." He glanced over at Sam, Frodo's companion, who had come to the dinner even if he didn't really wish to be parted from Frodo, and added, "Well, he *was*."

Sam nodded. "I know. Mister Frodo and I talked about him sometimes when we were traveling, and Mister Frodo says the Ring was so powerful, Boromir couldn't help being affected. And that Boromir had called to Frodo to forgive him. Frodo did. He's got a great heart, has Mister Frodo. He said he understood. So don't you go feeling bad about that, Captain Faramir. When Frodo wakes up, he'll tell you himself."

"That is very generous of you, Master Samwise." Faramir smiled down at the hobbit.

Gandalf came and spoke to Faramir then, with a quick smile for Sam, and Blair could tell, as he'd noticed before, that the wizard and Steward were good friends. Watching Gandalf interact with Faramir reminded Blair of Eli Stoddard and the support he'd always offered Blair.

Frodo had not yet awakened, but all of the returning party had visited him, and the healers had evidently told them Frodo could rouse at any time. Sam had proclaimed that he'd left a message with the healers to run to him immediately if Frodo seemed to be waking, so he would not have to awaken among strangers. Blair didn't understand much about this Ring of power that Frodo had carried into Mordor, but it sounded like bearing it had been a horrific task. Good thing it was destroyed.

He and Jim had enjoyed the meal – the city had gone all out for their King – but had not joined in the conversation very much. These folk were reveling in their victory and their reunion with Gandalf. They were polite enough to see Jim and Blair were not ignored, and Faramir spoke for a space with Blair, telling him of the creation of the world, of a distant land beyond the sea where the Valar, evidently some kind of gods, were said to dwell. Elves were leaving Middle-earth to go there where they would live forever in the land of Valinor. Probably something like Avalon, he figured. Would Legolas go there? He and Jim had talked a bit, but there hadn't been time for Jim to tell him about anything they'd said. Blair hoped he'd have a chance to talk to the elf. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever expected to run into one. Look at those great ears!

In spite of the bizarre nature of their situation, Jim seemed a little more at ease than he had been for a long time. He was not yet fully relaxed, and Blair knew part of that was because his weirdness quotient had never been very high, and part because of everything that had happened with the diss. He had the feeling that Jim might be doing a little guilt for the way he'd reacted, but Blair didn't want him to feel guilty. He still wasn't sure how much of Jim's reaction had been a kind of genetic imperative, a form of protection, rather than something that could more easily have been controlled.

Ancient Sentinels probably hadn't had to hide their abilities, but ancient Sentinels had lived in a world where they were believed in, valued, needed. Jim was needed, too, but he had to operate in secret. That made Blair smile. Being a cop was sort of like Jim's cover identity. Clark Kent to the Sentinel Superman. He could imagine Jim's reaction to such a wild theory and the grimace that would cross his face. Probably better not to spring it on Jim.

Would the need for concealment always be a barrier to Jim's total acceptance of what he was? What would it be like to have such an incredible gift and be able to use it only in secret? Blair thought being a Sentinel would be like grabbing the brass ring, but that was only the perspective of an outsider. He understood Jim as much as anybody could, but he knew he could never fully comprehend how it must feel to be a man like Jim, who had the fierce need for control in his life. The Sentinel thing must feel like a wild spiraling further and further from control. The slightest misstep would expose him to the horrors of publicity and the kind of chaos that had surrounded him when the diss had hit the news. He walked a perilous road, and it was up to Blair to make it as easy for him as he could, not create new problems.

He'd been such an idiot. How could he have failed to password-protect the diss? How could he have imagined he could think to submit it and still protect Jim? He'd been defensive, then hurt, over Jim's reaction, but that was past. They had to find a way to come to terms with it, a way to deal should exposure come in future. Once the fickle public might regard as a fluke, a publicity stunt. Twice and everyone would know he'd lied to protect Jim at the press conference.

Were they living on borrowed time?

"Do you live a long ways off?"

Peregrin Took gazed up at Blair. He was probably two feet shorter than Blair as he stood there on his bare, hairy feet.

Blair grinned down. Used to often being the shortest guy at a party, he felt kind of weird to tower over four people. Gimli was taller than the hobbits, but not by much. Merry Brandybuck was about the same height as Pippin, and Sam just a bit shorter. Sam's attention was clearly given over to thoughts of Frodo. Blair could appreciate that kind of loyalty. No doubt the minute the party ended he would race to the Houses of Healing so he could watch over Frodo. Now he sat beside the King, who talked to him kindly.

Blair grinned at Pippin. "Yeah, about as far as you can get, I think. Even farther than your Shire. I saw some maps of Middle-earth, and Faramir showed me where you were from."

"It seems ages since we were there," Pippin said. "It's been more than half a year. Sometimes I think I'll never get home." Then he smiled. "They say Frodo will be all right and that he could wake up soon. I can't wait."

"You and Frodo are friends?" Blair asked.

Pippin gave a vehement nod. "Merry and I both are. We came along with him and Sam because of that. Frodo's my second cousin once removed on his mother's side – she was a Took – and third cousin twice removed on his father's side."

Blair blinked. "That must have been complicated to figure out."

"Oh, no. We love genealogy in the Shire. Merry is kin to Frodo, too." He waved a hand at his friend, who was deep in a long, involved conversation with the King of Rohan. "Merry and I are first cousins. His mother is my father's sister. Do you have ties of kin in your world?"

Did they? Blair thought of his mother and all the chaos she had created on her most recent visit to Cascade. He thought of Jim, estranged from both father and brother, although those bonds were beginning to mend. Yet, Blair did have ties with his kin, and he would never want to sever ties with his mother. Jim, too, had become kin, if not blood kin.

"We do," he replied. "Jim and I aren't related, but we're still...like brothers?" He glanced sideways at Jim, who had been conversing idly with Gimli and the King of Rohan, and Jim looked back and smiled.

Pippin looked over at Jim. "He thinks so, too. Where are you really from, then?"

"Pippin always asks a lot of questions," said Merry, joining them. "He's always poking his nose into things."

"Am not," Pippin replied automatically, then he grinned. "Maybe I am. He doesn't have to answer, if he doesn't want to." He offered up a smile.

"I'm not sure where we're from in comparison to here," Blair replied. "Or even how we got here."

"Mayhap the Valar guided your footsteps." Gandalf came up behind Pippin and rested a hand on his shoulder. "It could be you were meant to come here, and that is reassuring."

Jim threw a doubtful look at the wizard and his shoulders lifted in the faintest of shrugs. That kind of weirdness would not go down with him, but he seemed more inclined to take it from Gandalf than he did from any of the others. "Reassuring?" he echoed, moving closer.

Aragorn looked up from his conversation with Faramir, Legolas, and Éowyn. "When Gandalf speaks like that, it is well to listen. He said in Moria that it was encouraging that Bilbo had found the Ring, and in the end, that was true."

"Do you know the future, Gandalf?" Blair asked, wide-eyed.

Gandalf chuckled. "Not as you mean it, Blair. But to see with a deeper perception, why, yes, at times that is gifted me. It could mean your coming here will be of great value, above and beyond pleasant company, and your own healing. So we will hope." His eyes crinkled with warmth. "And in the end, if only healing comes of it, why, that will be a blessing, indeed."

It was left for Pippin to stare up at the wizard. "What does that mean?"

"It means, my young fool of a Took," Gandalf said with a stern look that failed to conceal his fondness for the hobbit, "that for now, the future must take care of itself."

*****

"What do you think of Gandalf?" Sandburg asked as he and Jim were preparing for bed that night in the chamber that had been allotted to them. Servants had gifted them with voluminous garments that looked like nightshirts for sleeping, and were evidently to be worn over pairs of leggings, and Jim was trying to determine if he could ignore his without giving offense and just sleep in his shorts. While they were gone, new clothing had been stacked on a table in sizes that would fit them both, including the local equivalent of underwear. When in Rome....

"Gandalf? He's got a great line in mystic-speak," Jim replied.

"I think maybe wizards are supposed to talk like that," Sandburg replied. He pulled the nightshirt over his head and craned his neck to look at himself. "Middle-earth fashion statement. Do you think people here always wear this much to bed?"

"Well, it's not as if they have central heating," Jim replied with a gesture at the huge fireplace in which a servant had built a roaring fire. "Maybe they need it to keep warm." He poked his pillow. Down-filled, and so was the mattress. The sheets were rougher than he was used to, but the blanket was thick and fluffy. It was early April, they'd been told. It probably still got cold at night. "Good thing you don't have a camera," he said. "If you describe this thing to anybody back home, I'm going to have to hurt you."

Sandburg's eyes sparkled with humor as he gestured at himself. "Well, I haven't got any room to talk, have I?" He sobered. "So do you think Gandalf's right, that maybe it's meant we came here?"

"Meant how, Chief?"

"Well, you did save that little boy. Maybe that was why."

"Then why didn't we go home after?" Jim looked out the window; the view revealed the top of a square tower and in the distance the Anduin Valley, the river silver in the moonlight.

"Because that's not the only reason we came," Sandburg said. "Maybe we're just not ready yet."

They looked at each other and then away, and Jim hoped Sandburg wouldn't say anything about the real reason they had come. They were doing better. He knew they were doing better. Sandburg was his guide and he wouldn't sacrifice that for anything, but that didn't mean they were fully comfortable yet. Maybe they needed more time. Jim's fear that Sandburg would speak out and give him away hadn't departed. He knew Blair wouldn't do it deliberately, but that he might get carried away with eagerness and let it spill out still worried Jim. He'd come pretty close when he had babbled out his excitement about the elves. Yet it had not backfired. Gandalf had read what they did not say, and had understood, and had not rushed to spread the tale of Jim's abilities to all the folk. At the dinner tonight, no one had stared at him as if he were a freak. Either they didn't know or it genuinely didn't matter.

"Hell, Sandburg," Jim burst out. "I think in a place like this, we're gonna be okay."

Sandburg's face blazed with joy. "I think so, too, Jim." And then the smile widened into pure delight. "Isn't it great? Oh, man, Jim, to think we've talked to an elf! Nobody at home will ever believe this."

"Yeah, right, Sandburg. We're gonna walk into the bullpen when we go home and tell them we traveled to another world. Next thing you know Simon will send for the guys in white coats to take us away."

"Simon won't. He'll just groan and say, 'I don't want to know.'"

Jim had to give him that. It was exactly what Simon would do.

Sandburg poked his mattress and grinned. "I don't know about you, Jim, but I'm about ready to crash." He climbed into bed.

Jim got into his. Comfortable. He hadn't expected to sleep easily; how could he when he was caught up in something as weird as this. But sleep came down on him like a blessing, and the next thing he knew, it was morning.

*****

Pippin's smile stretched all the way across his face when he emerged from Frodo's chamber with the other members of the Fellowship, leaving Sam within. When he saw Faramir waiting a little distance away, he came running to him. "Oh, Faramir, Frodo is awake."

"So the word reached me," Faramir replied. He looked to Aragorn, who walked between Legolas and Gimli, contentment and relief upon his face. "A joyous reunion."

"For our Fellowship," Aragorn agreed. He rested a hand upon Faramir's shoulder. "At that moment, our only grief was that your brother could not be with us."

"Would that he had, for he would have wished an opportunity to make his peace with Frodo."

Pippin stared up at Faramir. "But he saved our lives. Merry told Frodo that, just now. We've been comparing stories a bit."

"Frodo said he knew it was the fault of the Ring," Gimli told Faramir. "And that he felt there was nothing to forgive. Are you going to visit him, laddie?"

"If it would not be too much for him, after so many visitors?" Faramir hesitated. He longed to speak to Frodo, but he would not go if Frodo were not yet well enough for prolonged company.

Gandalf laughed. "Ah, Faramir, you must go in. Frodo has been overjoyed to see us all, and astonished to see me. How he laughed with joy when he realized I lived. He will no doubt tire quickly at first, but I think it would do his heart good to see you. He asked after you."

"Did he?" Faramir's smile spread across his face. "Then I will go in, if only for a few minutes, for I long to speak to him."

Pippin caught up Faramir's hand and squeezed it. "It will be all right," he said. "I know Frodo will wish to see you."

The others cleared a path, and Faramir squared his shoulders and walked between them, noting their joy. In the doorway he paused, looking at Frodo, who sat propped with pillows in a bed that was too big for him, the sunlight from the window touching his hair. Sam had pulled up a large chair beside the bed and sat in it with his feet sticking out, smiling upon Frodo. They were speaking softly together.

It was Frodo who sensed a visitor and looked up quickly. Then a huge smile lit his face. "Faramir!" he cried. "Come in." He stretched out his hands in welcome, including the bandaged one.

The sight of such delight warmed Faramir through. He strode to the bedside, dropped to his knees, and clasped Frodo's hands, being careful not to press too hard upon the stub of his finger. "Frodo. It's wonderful to see you. I have long worried for your safety."

"And now I am safe." Frodo's hands tightened in Faramir's clasp. "Sam and I were greatly concerned for you, and now he has told me you were severely wounded. You look well, though. You look far better than when I last saw you."

"The world is free and peace has come. How could any not be joyful?" He released Frodo's hands. "Gandalf said you would be vastly surprised to see him."

"Astounded," Frodo confirmed. "I did not know such joy was possible as to awaken and see him standing at the foot of my bed. And then to see the others of the Fellowship, and now you. So many times, I thought none of that could ever happen."

"It did, and for that the world thanks you."

Frodo's eyes shadowed. "I want no thanks, Faramir. I did what I must, as did all. That my part led me to Mount Doom does not make it more valuable than anyone else's efforts."

"I doubt any in Middle-earth would agree with you, but I see you are a most modest hobbit. Pippin told me you would not wish for fame and glory."

"Pippin says he has become great friends with you," Frodo said.

"A friendship I value. He saved my life, but even had he not, he stood with me when I most needed a friend, and that is beyond price." He glanced sideways at the hovering Sam. "As you know well, Frodo, from the devotion of Master Gamgee here."

"I do indeed," Frodo agreed promptly.

Sam ducked his head and blushed. "Now, Captain Faramir," he chided.

"I said that gardeners must be held in high esteem in your land, and so they are," Faramir told him. He clasped Sam's shoulder. "We have in Minas Tirith two men who have come here because they sought a place where friendship and loyalty were valued. When I see the pair of you, I know they have come to the right place."

"Well, where wouldn't they be valued?" Sam asked simply. No doubt he could imagine nothing else. A truer heart Faramir could not envision.

But Frodo's eyes lit with curiosity. "It seems there is a tale in this, Faramir. Sit a while with me if you can, for they insist I remain in bed today, when I would rather be up exploring your fine city. I know you are the Steward now and rule Minas Tirith until Strider is crowned, but I would be glad if you could spare me that long."

"My dear Frodo, I would spare you the entire day, and I know Aragorn would not begrudge me one minute of it. But I am sure the healers have also instructed you to rest."

"Rest? They tell me I have been sleeping for days and days," Frodo said. "They will have me up from time to time, but I must wait here for this day."

"I, too, have been a captive of the healers, but I begrudge it not, for here in the Houses of Healing, I met the one I will wed. I am freed now, and when you, too, are able to go about, I will gladly introduce you to her."

"Pippin told me you were betrothed to Éowyn of Rohan," Frodo said. "Pippin talks without ceasing at times, and wanted me to know all that had passed. I will look forward to meeting her. If she is the one that has brought such peace to your eyes, then I am eager to see her."

"She will be glad to meet you, too." Faramir smiled at the thought of bringing Éowyn and Frodo together. "And then, when you are freed from here, I will show you the entire city, including my favorite libraries."

Frodo brightened. "Someone has told you I enjoy reading."

"Pippin did. He said I should find books for you, and indeed I have done so and will see them sent to you."

Sam gestured Faramir into the chair and then climbed onto the foot of Frodo's bed.

"Tell me of the two men you mentioned," Frodo asked when he had thanked Faramir for the promised books. He sat leaning against the huge pillows, his injured hand cradled in his lap, and prepared himself to listen.

"An intriguing tale it is, for I think they come from beyond Middle-earth. If you would like to meet them, I will arrange it, for Gandalf thinks it would benefit them to see you."

Frodo gave a wry chuckle. "I see I am to be made an example, no matter how much I would wish to be simply Frodo, yet I could not turn away any who value friendship so greatly that they have come from beyond the world to seek it out. Tell me their story."

Faramir smiled at him, and began the tale.

*****

Gimli set off with Aragorn on a tour of the damaged portions of the city, ready to offer his advice on repairs, for dwarves worked well in stone. Legolas saw them on their way and smiled to observe Gimli gesticulating and waving his hands at the sight of fallen stone. The pair had invited Legolas to accompany them, but he was curious about Minas Tirith and said he would take this time to explore it solitary. Aragorn had smiled and granted him freedom of the city, to pass where he would.

The White Tree, blooming afresh when it had long been believed dead, drew him, and he went to the Citadel, where he sat before it, breathing in the delicate scent of the pure white blossoms, and smiling at the pale green of new leaves, while the afternoon sun fell, warm as a blessing, upon his shoulders.

There in the April sunlight, Legolas was happy. Spring came to the world, the first spring without the fell threat of Sauron. It was as if Middle-earth had been born anew, and Legolas looked forward to visiting the great forests of the land, breathing in the aroma of moist soil and new shoots, feeling the sun touch his hair. That he also felt the pull of the sea, sharp and cutting as a blade, would need to wait, for he was not yet ready to depart these shores. But the longing for Valinor had awakened in him, and he could not deny it.

Other loyalties, though, bound him more strongly than the pull of the Undying Lands. The ties of his brotherhood with Aragorn would keep him here, he knew. How could he abandon his friend when the weight of Kingship had fallen upon his shoulders and he must learn to balance the new burden? Gimli, too, had become a brother. And then there was Mirkwood and his father's Kingdom. Legolas had responsibility there, too. Naught need be decided yet, and while there was spring in the land, and much to occupy his thoughts, the longing could be moderated. He let it retreat to a distant corner of his mind, to tend to when the time came, and concentrated upon the blossoms instead.

When he rose, peace had returned to him, and he set off to explore the city. The people greeted him as he passed among them, delighted, it would seem, to speak to an elf, and Legolas, who knew the men of the south had long been wary of elves, was glad to see such a happy change. The races held their differences, but his longstanding friendship with Aragorn, his growing kinship with Gimli, and his journey as part of the Fellowship of the Ring, had taught him that differences need be no hindrance to friendship and could often enhance it.

Wandering the streets, he found many narrow turns and steep secret stairways, and it pleased him to explore them. Although cold stone offered no warmth to his heart, this was Aragorn's city, and he would learn it well. Pausing here and there to greet an eager child, whose eyes would glow with joy and excitement at the encounter, Legolas felt gladdened.

As the afternoon drew toward evening, he started upward, ducking into a stairway he had used earlier, for he knew it would quickly bear him to the fourth level, where he could find a wider stair to climb the rest of the way to the Houses of Healing, where he meant to visit Frodo. The narrow passages intrigued Legolas for they were enclosed and often twisted, and would pause abruptly at unexpected landings where narrow doors opened off the stairway into what he suspected were, on occasion, private residences, or perhaps passages that led deep within the city. Here and there a sign would mark a shop, but most such doors remained anonymous. Once one opened as he passed and a maid as fair as an elf had emerged, clad all in grey, her mantle draped to reveal elaborate golden braids. At the sight of Legolas, she had started in surprise, then dropped a curtsey that would not have been out of place in a great lord's hall. "Mae govannen, Master Elf," she said in a voice scarce above a whisper, and added breathlessly in a voice that spoke of her youth, "That is all the elvish I know."

"And well pronounced, my lady." He bowed to her. "I thank you for your welcome to your city."

She smiled again, curtseyed a second time, and fled down the stairs, glancing over her shoulder, her cheeks rosy.

Such encounters gifted Legolas with brief moments of delight. So it was that abrupt footsteps behind him offered no cause for alarm, for he looked forward to another small charming meeting. He made to speak to the one who followed, ready to smile and move aside if the man's need for speed was greater than his own, but even as he started to turn, a great weight slammed into his head and drove him down into darkness.

*****

Continued in part three...