New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson
Titles

What Matters Most
Part Three
by Sheila Paulson

See part one for notes and disclaimer.

The day was passing, and already the light had shifted, for the great bulk of Mount Mindolluin to the west of the city would bring early shadows to Minas Tirith. For the third time that afternoon, Frodo's hand went automatically to his throat, to quest for the Ring that no longer dangled there on its chain. The stub of his finger throbbed each time he moved his hand, and he gnawed his lip at the reminder. With a hope that Sam had not noticed, Frodo slid his hand away in a gentle motion that stood less chance of being remarked upon by his most devoted guardian and let it lie upon the coverlet of his bed. Sam had not heeded the motion, for his head had lifted at a sound outside, and he jumped to his feet. Dear Sam. As loyal a bodyguard as ever there could be, even here in the White City where surely none could harm them or even wish them ill.

Two men appeared in the doorway, one tall with scarcely any hair at all, and the other, shorter and younger, his dark hair much the length of Faramir's. His eyes were full of eagerness, not necessarily to come and stare at the Ringbearer as if he were an exhibit at a fair, but as if he expected pleasure in each new encounter. The older man's face wore hesitation, almost a reluctance to intrude, as if he would understand that Frodo would not wish to be ogled. In that one glance, Frodo saw a man who would prefer not to have the eyes of the world fall upon him, and in that momentary reluctant gaze, Frodo saw a form of understanding.

"Uh, hi," said the younger man in greeting. "Gandalf said it was all right for us to come and visit you."

"If you don't mind," added the older.

Curious, wondering if these were the two Faramir had mentioned and who, he had claimed, had come from beyond Middle-earth, Frodo smiled. "Come in, and welcome." If Gandalf encouraged them, surely they were safe. He propped himself more comfortably against his pillows. "I am Frodo Baggins and this is Samwise Gamgee."

"I'm Blair Sandburg," said the one with long hair. "And this is Jim Ellison." They had two names in the way of hobbits, which intrigued Frodo, for out in the world of men, that seemed not to be the manner of naming.

"Tell me how it is you have come here," he urged. "For Faramir claimed you came from beyond Middle-earth."

Blair grinned. "We don't really understand how we got here ourselves," he said. "Gandalf wasn't surprised, so I guess you'd call it magic."

Sam's eyes narrowed, and he shifted closer to Frodo, determined to protect him, even against these two, although Frodo could feel no threat from either of them, and neither Gandalf nor Faramir had cautioned him to be on guard against them.

"Sandburg...." groaned Jim. "That's pushing it."

"Okay, then, Jim, you tell me how we'd be sitting in the loft one minute and standing on the Pelennor the next? If it's not magic, what is it?" Blair's eyes sparkled with humor.

Jim spread his hands. "Magic. Geez. More of the sixth sense thing." He rolled his eyes at Frodo, encouraging him to be amused at the idea, but there was no malice in the way he spoke to Blair.

A sixth sense? That fascinated Frodo. Gandalf and Faramir were wise to send these two. A distraction from dark memories was greatly welcome. "Faramir said you had come here to find a place where friendship and loyalty hold sway," he said. "If so, you could not have come to a better spot, for the most remarkable example of both I have ever known sits on the foot of my bed."

Sam's face flamed and he ducked his head. "Now, Mister Frodo, let's not be having any more of that."

Both men stared at Sam, then Blair studied Frodo. "Everyone has been telling us about you and the Ring," he said. When Frodo flinched, he shook his head. "No, we don't expect you to talk about it. I can tell it's been tough. We didn't come here because you're a celebrity, man, I swear it."

"He is one, and well deserved, too," Sam threw in.

"And so should you be, Sam, for I could never have done what I did without you." He shivered with memory. "Or without Smeagol." He looked down at his bandaged hand.

"Don't you think about that nasty Gollum any longer, Mister Frodo. He's gone and good riddance."

"I know, Sam, and I can only hope that it is what he would have chosen, for, I think, to live in a world without his Precious would have destroyed him."

Sam's face didn't soften when thinking of Gollum, but it did at Frodo's sympathy for the poor, doomed creature. "You've got such a good heart, Mister Frodo, that you could have compassion for the likes of him."

Blair and Jim exchanged glances; no doubt they had been told about Gollum already. "If this is a bad time...." Jim began and retreated toward the open door.

But Frodo cast off the dark recollection. "No, it is a good time. They tell me I must stay in bed until tomorrow, and the whole of Minas Tirith lies before me. Faramir has sent books, but the healers say I should wait a bit longer to read them, and they lie there tempting me so painfully." He gestured to the thick stack that sat on a chair across the room.

"Wow, books." Blair's eyes opened wide, and Frodo could tell it was only good manners that prevented him from rushing to examine them. Then he hesitated. "Maybe I couldn't read them. I think it's only, uh, magic, or whatever brought us here that lets us understand what you're all saying. I'm not sure it would extend to the written word."

"You are fond of books, Blair?" Frodo asked.

"Fond of them?" Jim snorted with laughter. "He stacks them on any available surface, sometimes the older they are, the better. I don't know how he'd ever find the time to read even half of them."

"Well, I'd like to learn about life here," Blair said. "That's what I study, the lives and customs and myths of people. Faramir has told me a lot, but he's so busy he doesn't have time for much of that, and I can't tie up his time just to answer my questions."

Busy he was, yet he had taken a whole hour with Frodo, and had departed with great reluctance. Frodo looked forward to his next visit, for now that the Ring was gone and Sauron fallen, he had discovered many interests he and the newly made Steward shared. "He must rule Gondor until Aragorn is crowned," Frodo said and sat up a little straighter against his pillows. He was not without energy, although he suspected he would tire quickly at first.

"I still can hardly believe it, that our Strider will be King," Sam muttered and shook his head. "You could have knocked me over with a feather when Legolas said he was heir to the throne of Gondor."

"I know, Sam. But he will be an excellent King." He turned back to his visitors. "You come seeking friendship and loyalty, I am told. Sam will not like me to keep referring to him, but even though I was bidden to carry the One Ring and he was not, he came with me every step of the way, fought a giant spider to free me, and even carried me up the slopes of Mount Doom when my strength was spent."

Sam's face turned a fiery red, and he hunched his shoulders. "I wasn't with you all the time," he said in a small voice as if confessing a great failure. He looked directly at Frodo for an instant, then bowed his head. "That Shelob stung you because I wasn't there to protect you."

"That was not your fault, Sam," Frodo said gently. "The Ring drove me mad, the way it did poor Smeagol, and I sent you away, when I knew in my heart that you only meant to protect me."

The two visitors stiffened and looked at each other in utter astonishment, Blair's mouth gaping open. Then Jim said in a taut voice, "You tried to drive him away when he only meant to help you?" In the words, Frodo heard no accusation but instead a striving for understanding, an understanding he seemed to offer to Frodo without hesitation.

"Jim...." breathed his friend and caught hold of Jim's arm.

"I did," Frodo said, surprised to discover how easy it was to speak of it to this strange man, who stared at him with eyes as blue as Frodo's own. "To trust Smeagol over Sam, I can see it now that it was the madness of the Ring. It only wished to return to its Master, and perhaps it could see that Sam would never allow that, that Sam was a threat to its dark purpose. Much better to force me to cast Sam aside. I would claim I had no power over it, but that is no excuse."

"I never blamed you, Mister Frodo," Sam said softly.

"I know."

They gazed at each other for a moment, and Frodo could see in Sam's eyes the fierce devotion that had never flagged, no matter how great the danger, nor even at Frodo's scornful and suspicious dismissal of him on the Winding Stair. In the end, the strength of a simple gardener from the Shire had heartened Frodo those last weary miles, for Sam had found the strength, even in the depths of his broken heart, to come after Frodo in time to rescue him not once but twice.

"Come on, Jim, it's a bad time; we should go." Blair's words cut through the intensity of the moment and jarred the two hobbits from their regard of each other.

"Don't you see, Sandburg," Jim said urgently, standing firm in spite of Blair's tug at his arm. "It's like what I did to you."

"What?" Blair blinked at him doubtfully, and his eyes widened.

"You were trying to help me every step of the way," Jim insisted. "Even when I was blaming you, when I knew it wasn't your fault, that you'd have never deliberately exposed me, and that everything you kept doing was to protect me." He turned Blair to face him and gripped him by the shoulders.

"I should have known the dissertation wouldn't fly," Blair replied. "I kept holding onto it, even when I knew there was no point, because it was so much a part of me, I didn't know what would be left if I gave it up. It was my life's work, but that couldn't matter more than your safety did."

"Oh, come on, Sandburg. You know what an idiot I was. I was so freaked, trying to protect myself from all the publicity, that I couldn't see how I was treating you. You were fighting like crazy to keep the news from getting out, and you gave up everything to protect me. And I told you I didn't want a partner any more."

Frodo didn't understand all that; he didn't know what a dissertation was some sort of document or treatise, perhaps? or what had happened between the two, but enough came through that he could only stare. "You treated him the way I treated Sam," he said in a soft voice.

Both men stared at him, then looked at the stalwart Sam, who had never once ceded his loyalty. "No," said Blair.

"Hell, yes," said Jim. "I didn't have an evil ring affecting me, either. I just had hell, I just had my own panic that people would find out about my senses and I took it out on you."

"Jim!" cried Blair sharply and grabbed his wrists. "You don't have to "

"Oh, come on, Chief, if I can't say it to the Ringbearer, there's nobody I can say it to in any world." He looked Frodo in the eye. "I have heightened senses. I guess what I've got is like what elves have here. Where we come from, there aren't any elves, and most people don't have the ability. There are a lot of elves here, but at home, there's only me. It's called being a Sentinel; it's my responsibility to use my abilities to protect the people."

"That sounds like a wonderful gift," Frodo said. He had rather envied Legolas's abilities as the Fellowship journeyed together, and had never thought them unnatural, just a gift that went with other attributes of the elves. Then he frowned. "But it isn't always a gift, is it?" Having already learned how it felt to be gaped at by the curious people had come and peered through the open door at him until the healers had put a halt to it he could imagine how difficult it would be to be exposed to the world for an ability that was uncommon. "All my life, I will be known as the Ringbearer and it will define me, that one thing when it is only a part of what I am. Not so much when I go home, because the folk of the Shire won't understand."

"Or care," Sam said darkly.

"Or care, but that doesn't matter," Frodo said. "It was for the sake of the Shire that I did it, so we could go on living in peace as we always have. I don't expect them to honor me. I'd rather they didn't." He looked up at Jim, who stared down at him almost urgently, as if he expected words of great wisdom, not because Frodo had borne the One Ring to his destruction but because doing so had changed him and taught him harsh lessons. "Is that it, because once your ability became known it would take away your ability to be simply Jim, as I am discovering it is hard to be simply Frodo?"

Jim nodded. He sat down abruptly in the chair Faramir had used. "I didn't think anyone could understand, even if Sandburg here tries. The thing is, he thinks it's a gift, a miracle. I suppose it is. Damn it, I know it is. But it's also a...."

"Burden," Frodo suggested without hesitation. "A great weight that you must bear, you and no other. One you would cast off if you could, so you could return to a time when life was simple and happy and you knew not what great peril was?"

Blair's eyes softened as he looked at Frodo, as if he understood utterly what Frodo meant, even if he had no way of feeling it all through him like Frodo did. "I keep trying to remind myself of that," he admitted. "A part of me thinks it would be the greatest thing in the world to have...." His voice trailed off and he cast a shamefaced look at Jim.

"Come on, Sandburg, don't pull a guilt number on me," Jim returned. "They know. If anybody has the right to know, it's somebody who can understand. He didn't ask to carry the Ring, they say. He took it because only he could and because it had to be done. I didn't ask to be a Sentinel, and there have been a lot of times when I'd have liked to scrap the whole thing and just be normal."

"But you didn't," Blair said in a small voice. "Because you're not the type who avoids your responsibilities."

"It's not the same," Jim said. "The Ring held the fate of the whole world. I'm just one guy, trying to be a good cop, in one town."

"It might not be the same in magnitude, but it is the same in a way," Frodo offered. He sat up straighter, and Sam hurried to thrust another pillow behind him. "It is a burden you cannot avoid, not and retain your honor." Frodo smiled gently. "In the Shire, we don't go around speaking of honor, but that doesn't mean there is none. My uncle, Bilbo Baggins, raised me, and he knew more of the outside world than any other hobbit until now. He taught me about honor and loyalty and made me see there was more to life than staying safe in the Shire."

"But you saved the Shire along with the rest of the world, Mister Frodo," Sam reminded him.

"Not I alone. Without you, I would have faltered so many times. Many others fought to defeat Sauron. Without Aragorn, without brave Théoden King, whom I wish I had been able to meet, without Legolas and Gimli, and even my dear Merry and Pippin, and so very many others, Sauron would not have fallen. I carried the Ring to Mount Doom, but this was not my solitary victory. We do not exist, each one of us, in isolation, Sam."

"We don't," Blair agreed. "We have to depend on other people. For a long time, I thought the best way to go through life was to keep everything casual. My mother's habit was to end relationships quickly, to 'detach with love', and move on. She thought she wouldn't get hurt that way. But it doesn't work, at least not for me. Jim and I...." He looked up at Jim, who quirked a crooked grin at him, "Well, I told him once I stayed because it was about friendship."

"That's right, it is," Sam said fiercely. "Every bit of it. Merry and Pippin coming with us because of friendship, and Legolas standing with Aragorn, and all the Fellowship supporting each other, every one of them, even Boromir. And then Captain Faramir, although I should say Lord Faramir now. Friendship and loyalty, just what he said you two came for."

"It would be very sad to live without friends," Frodo said. He looked up at Jim, whose brow was wrinkled with thought. "You would prefer none in your world knew of your gift. It might be some would abuse it or threaten it, or if not that, they would look upon you as one who is strange and different. In the Shire, to be different is to be thought odd. They thought Bilbo was cracked, and Sam's gaffer even said I was cracking." He smiled. "I said I was proud of it. Some folk thrive on being viewed so, and others do not. You, I think, do not."

"Boy, he's got you figured, Jim," Blair said involuntarily.

"Watch it, Chief." Jim elbowed him in the ribs. But he smiled as he did it.

The byplay reassured Frodo. They were friends indeed, and Blair would stand at Jim's side to face the chaos of scorn, speculation, and doubt.

"Sometimes I just wish I could be...normal." The words came out so softly that Frodo suspected that to make such an admission was, for Jim, a great concession.

"Jim, listen to me." Blair sat on the edge of Frodo's bed to bring him down to Jim's level, then looked abruptly at Frodo for permission. Frodo smiled and nodded. "Jim, listen. For you, this *is* 'normal'. You know that. There are different kinds of normal. It's normal for an elf to have heightened senses. Nobody thinks anything of it."

"Yeah, but there are a lot of elves."

"There is only one in Minas Tirith right now," Frodo offered softly.

"Back home there are people who have photographic memories," Blair said, and then added in explanation, "If they see something, they remember every detail of it. There are people who can run faster or jump higher, or people with IQ's so high they can't be measured. Everybody has something special, Jim. There are a lot of people who have one or two heightened senses. The problem isn't you. It's society's perception, and maybe we can't do anything about that, but you know everybody at Major Crime will support you. You know *I* will. If there are idiots out there in the world who obsess over the notorious, then all that says is that our society has problems, not that you aren't normal. I'm alive because of you, remember? And I'm not going anywhere."

Jim beamed at him, and a kind of peace flowed between them. "Just to Middle-earth?" he said and chuckled. Then he shared a gaze of great fellow feeling with Frodo. "We're both lucky, Frodo," he said. "Knowing we've got somebody who watches out for us like we do."

Blair's face blazed with a great smile, and so did Sam's.

Frodo put out his hand to Jim, who hesitated, looking at the bandage that covered the stub of his finger and wrapped around his wrist to hold the dressing in place. Very gently, he took the hand and held it so he put no pressure on the wounded place.

"Sam supported me even when I could not understand or appreciate it, but I appreciate it now, and will every day of my life," he said. "I will not embarrass him by reminding him of it each day that passes, but I will always know in my heart that I have been blessed with the most faithful friend any hobbit has ever had. If times are hard for you, Jim, you must look beside you and see that you, too, are blessed."

Blair's face reddened, but Jim turned his head and grinned at him. "Believe me, I do," he said. "Sometimes I'm a jerk." When Frodo looked doubtful, he clarified, "Sometimes I don't appreciate him as I should or I snap at him when I'm frustrated."

"Which proves you are no different from the rest of us, for no one is perfect," Frodo replied. He gave a laugh. "Listen to me, dispensing wisdom as if I were Gandalf."

"If anybody's got the right, you do," Blair said only moments before Sam would have said much the same. Frodo saw Sam blink in surprise.

"If anybody's got the right to kick some sense into me, you do," Jim said. "God, Sandburg, sometimes I'm the biggest idiot in the known universe."

"I can live with that," Blair replied, and his face was alight. "I've been doing that for the past four years."

Jim let go of Frodo's hand, wrapped his arm around Blair's neck and rapped on the top of his head with his knuckles. "Smartass," he retorted oddly. They beamed at each other, as if well satisfied.

"It won't be easy," Blair said suddenly, sliding away from Jim's encircling arm and looking up at him with a wrinkle of doubt on his face. "Going home, I mean. All the same problems will still exist."

"Yeah, but here's the thing, Sandburg. All this is shaking some sense into me. If Frodo can do it, I can. He had it a hell of a lot worse than I ever did. And Sam's lucky, too. He can go home with Frodo when they return to the Shire." He looked down at Sam. "What do you do there, Sam? What's your job, I mean?"

"I'm Mister Frodo's gardener. We Gamgees have been gardeners time out of mind, and my old Gaffer was Mister Bilbo's gardener, so now I'm Mister Frodo's."

Blair's face held a touch of envy. "You know where you belong in the world," he said to Sam. "That's a lucky thing."

"You belong with me, Chief," Jim said. "You're my partner, even if you decide not to go to the Academy. I'll work something out with Simon. Nobody's gonna leave you hanging out to dry."

Frodo understood the idiom perfectly well although he had never before heard it. "What you must do," he said, "and this is the last bit of 'wisdom' I will dispense to you." He chuckled. "What you must do is stand together. Even when things are most terrible, knowing there is someone at your side makes it bearable. I know."

"Ah, Mister Frodo..."

He reached for Sam's hand and clasped it.

Jim gasped aloud.

At once Blair caught his arm. "What is it, Jim? What's wrong?"

"Someone is calling my name." He closed his eyes and tilted his head in a listening attitude. "Can you hear it?"

Frodo listened as hard as he could, but he could only hear the sounds of the Houses of Healing: the footsteps of healers going about their business, the thump, thump, thump of someone passing on crutches, the distant laughter of a child, a hum of faint conversation from the nearest garden. "I don't hear anyone calling."

"Neither do I." Sam gazed up at him. "Is this the elf hearing you've got?"

"Elf hearing?" Jim echoed with a wry arch of his brow. "*That'll* go over big with Simon when I get home." He wrinkled his brow. "It's not a shout, but a soft repeating of my name, like somebody trying to get my attention."

Blair's eyes widened. "Jim! Do you think it's someone in the loft? Or the spirit animals or Incacha, telling us it's time to go home?"

"No," said Jim with certainty. "They don't call me 'Jim Ellison'. Incacha would call me Enqueri, and the jaguar doesn't usually go around yelling my name. And if we're still sitting on the couch back home and Simon came over, he wouldn't call me both names. No, it's someone here in Minas Tirith. That's the only place where they do that." He held up a hand. "I'm gonna listen. Don't let me zone."

Zone? Frodo knew not what that meant, but Blair moved into place beside Jim and grasped his wrist. "Got you covered," he said.

Then nothing happened. Jim stood, his eyes vague and out of focus, his head slightly bent, listening to a sound only he could hear. Would Legolas hear it as well?

"Focus," Blair said softly. "Find the direction, Jim. You can do it." He held up a hand to forestall the questions that bubbled at Sam's lips.

Wide-eyed, Sam watched him. He crept up to the head of the bed and placed himself between Frodo and the pair as if to protect him from this strange display, yet Frodo felt no fear, only concern. Could Gandalf be seeking Jim for some reason? Surely he would possess the ability to project his need in such a way. Yet Jim's brow crinkled, and his face hardened, and Frodo did not think that would happen if he merely heard Gandalf softly speaking from a distance.

Then Jim blinked and his eyes sharpened. "I have to go," he said. "Legolas is in trouble."

*****

Aragorn and Gimli returned to the Citadel in easy camaraderie to find Gandalf and Faramir waiting for them in the Hall of the Kings. A faint frown puckered the wizard's brow as the guards flung open the doors for Aragorn to pass within. Several courtiers hovered nearby, but when they would have approached Aragorn, Faramir put out his hand to restrain them as Aragorn and Gimli crossed the hall to meet the wizard and his Steward near the two thrones of the hall, the King's and the Steward's. The day had begun to fade into twilight and men hurried to light many torches and lanterns to bring the hall into brightness. A last slanting beam of sunlight fell upon the high throne at a sharp angle. Soon night would fall.

"My lord King," Faramir said urgently, and bowed his head to Aragorn. "There may be trouble."

"May be? What is it?" He looked to Gandalf. "What concerns you, my old friend?"

"I know not," Gandalf replied. The frown did not lighten. "It is a sense of peril, but it is not clear, a threat of danger, and it grows within me."

"I have ordered the city guards to stand at readiness, my lord," Faramir offered. His brow wrinkled. "I know not what it is, but if Mithrandir says there is danger, then there is danger. I value his insight too greatly to doubt him."

"You need not struggle to convince me," Aragorn replied. "For neither do I doubt him. Where is Legolas? He may offer us insight in this matter, for his elf abilities may grant clarity."

"I have not seen him for several hours," Faramir replied and glanced around the great hall, almost as if he feared he had overlooked the elf. "After you departed with Gimli to survey the battle damage, I saw him sitting before the White Tree in meditation, but when I passed that way again later to speak with the tradesmen's guild, he had gone. I will send for him."

"Do so," Aragorn commanded.

"Wait." That was Gandalf, his face grim before Faramir could take more than two steps toward the door. "The peril I sense touches him." Faramir halted, staring, then turned expectantly to Aragorn for commands.

"What?" Gimli had stood silent, but now he tensed and crowded close beside Aragorn, eyes narrowed as he looked up at him. "Someone threatens the elf? I will not be having it. Aragorn, we must find him."

The doors which the guards had closed behind them swung open, and Blair Sandburg ran in with Jim Ellison right behind him and a guard in armor at their heels. Ellison's face had tightened, and his mouth was hard. As they approached, Aragorn could see that his eyes had grown vague and distant and he followed Sandburg automatically, almost the way a duckling would follow its mother to water, as if he had imprinted upon him, and let that bond guide him while his senses focused elsewhere.

"Legolas is in trouble," Blair Sandburg called as they made their way across the great marble floor to the group beneath the high throne.

"How know you of this?" Gandalf asked, starting forward to meet them. "I had just realized the peril I sense touched him." There was no suspicion of the newcomers in Gandalf's voice, and that made Aragorn realize he, too, held no doubts of their purpose. On the previous morning, Jim Ellison had heard a child crying for help in the rubble when none but he could hear it. It might well be he could hear this peril as well.

It was Jim Ellison who replied. "He calls to me. I hear his voice." He grimaced as if such an admission would make all draw away from him.

Faramir nodded as Jim's words had confirmed his own thoughts. "As you heard the trapped child. Can you guide us to him?"

Jim Ellison frowned. "I think he'll let me know where he is. But there's a threat; he has been struck down and now lies bound in a dark place." His voice grew vague and his speech altered as if he repeated words he heard rather than using his own way of speaking.

Consternation ran through Aragorn. "Someone in Minas Tirith has done this? A traitor?" He felt the color drain from his face.

"He doesn't know who it was," Jim replied. He sounded as if half his awareness was directed elsewhere. "Someone knocked him out and now he doesn't know where he is, only that he's tied up and it's dark there. He feels cold stone around him."

"Is he hurt?" Gimli cried.

Jim winced at the volume of his shout. "Well, he's got a major headache, but I don't think they've done anything else to him."

"They?" Faramir echoed sharply. "It is a conspiracy?"

That made Jim briefly focus on Faramir. "Just a way of talking," he said. "I don't know if it's one or more than one, and I don't think Legolas does either."

"Can you speak to him, tell him we're coming?" Gimli demanded. He must have noticed how his shout had hurt, for he moderated his tone.

"I've been trying." Jim frowned, his every muscle taut. "I need to concentrate." He looked around warily at those who had gathered. The soldiers from the door had come closer and the courtiers bunched around, wide-eyed and speculative. From the way he grimaced at the sight and ducked his head, Aragorn suspected he hated revealing his powers before strangers. Then he straightened. "I'll do what I can," he said. "But I've gotta have quiet."

"Come on, Jim." Blair steered him over to the Steward's Seat. "Sit here."

Faramir nodded. "Sit, if that is your need."

Blair urged Jim to sit as if he hadn't even considered that it was not the right of any but the Steward to sit there. Aragorn had a sudden memory of Gimli sitting there when they laid their plans to march on the Black Gate, and smiled faintly, but the smile faded at once. That his friend had been struck down and imprisoned here in his own city was not to be borne. He hoped Jim would be able to guide them to Legolas.

Jim closed his eyes, and Blair perched on the arm of the throne and rested his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Go for it," he said. "We're all on your side."

All gathered near, and Gandalf murmured words under his breath in what must be an ancient tongue. At the sound, Jim looked up sharply, and momentary focus came into his eyes. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Offering you strength," Gandalf replied. "Shun it not."

"I can't shun it," Jim said. "Not when somebody's in trouble. Thanks." And then he closed his eyes and shut out the world.

*****

"Jim Ellison... Jim Ellison... Jim Ellison..."

The voice that had reached him when he sat with Frodo had been no more than a whisper, faint and distant, scarcely more than a subliminal sound but for the hiss of the sibilant S. It went on steadily and persistently, as if Jim were constantly being nudged to get his attention. The sense of the elf was very strong. He recalled his conversation with Legolas about the sensory ability of elves and how Legolas recognized the same gift in him.

"I hear you," he had responded in a normal voice. "I hear you."

To carry on a conversation in a normal voice with somebody who wasn't here was the kind of thing he'd never done before. Were elves telepathic? Listening to distant people, yes, but they'd never been able to answer. He was sure Sandburg would have thought of a solution to cover up at home pretending to talk on a cell phone leaped to mind. He had been with Sandburg on the way here, so anyone who might think that visitor with the unnaturally short hair was just talking to his buddy. Not that appearances mattered when a life was at stake. But here, in the Hall of the Kings, surrounded by Legolas's friends, he could relay what he had learned on the way here.

He was not sure how much Legolas could hear of him. Every word? Just awareness of presence? Even if elves were telepathic, Jim sure wasn't. Could Legolas be boosting his senses? The answers he had received were not necessarily in response to his questions, but simply the offering of information. Legolas was bound in the dark, spread-eagled on a table, each hand held too firmly in place to work at the knots. He had tried arching his body and flexing his muscles, but the knots were too tight and only cut into his wrists and ankles. He lay in an enclosed room with no windows, the only light from candles mounted on bare stone walls. The one who had struck him down moved just at the fringes of his vision and would duck away when Legolas turned his head.

"He speaks," Legolas breathed, his words far softer, so Jim had to focus deeply. Sandburg tightened his grip on Jim's wrist to keep him from zoning, but didn't say anything for fear of interfering with the link. Gandalf waited nearby, and he was chanting, but the sound was subliminal, and Jim marked it and allowed himself to ignore it, welcoming the warmth and energy it produced. It was almost as if the wizard's words boosted Jim's hearing, so every detail came clear. The words of the man who had captured Legolas suddenly reached Jim, and he didn't know if it was Gandalf's aid or an elvish ability that enabled it.

"You have polluted the White City too long. Elves do not belong here."

"The King has granted it," Legolas replied, his voice level and unchallenging.

"Long have we mistrusted elves. Long have elves scorned us." Hatred rang in the voice. "An elf insulted me and treated me with contempt. And none but you came to our aid when times were perilous. Should we trust elves?"

Jim shook his head. He could recognize prejudice when he heard it, as illogical as prejudice always was. To fault the elf who had fought to defend Minas Tirith made no sense. Yet blind hatreds held no reason.

"I do not speak for all elves," Legolas replied. "I speak as a friend of Aragorn Elessar, whom I followed along the Paths of the Dead. He is my brother."

"He is a man. You're an elf. There can be no brotherhood between races."

"So Sauron would have all believe. That was his strength, to twist and shatter loyalties. Your new King will see an end to that, to bring a genuine and enduring peace to Middle-earth. To do that, he must see the races live in harmony."

"Harmony? Distant harmony, then. You do not belong in Minas Tirith. You are not of Gondor."

"No, I am of Mirkwood, nor do I mean to dwell in Minas Tirith, but I would see my friend crowned King."

"You will not see tomorrow's dawn," spat the man who held him.

"Legolas. See if you can find out where you are," Jim prompted. He was barely conscious of the others gathered around him. Sandburg's hand was a circle of warmth around his wrist, and Gandalf had pressed his palm against Jim's back. The rest were vague shadows as Jim ventured deeper into concentration than he had ever done before. Odd there was no threat of zoning. He was in total control of his hearing, of all his senses. Was that the wizard's help? A weird link with the elf as if he had encountered another Sentinel, one who posed no threat to him as Alex had?

"Where have you brought me?" Legolas asked. "If I am to die, I would know the place."

"Why should I grant you answers? I owe elves nothing."

"You mean to take my life. What can it matter if you reveal our location? I can tell none."

"Then why do you want to know?" The voice grew suspicious. Jim could almost imagine narrowed eyes and quickened breathing as the bigot tried to reason out the answers.

"Elves live long," Legolas replied. "Death comes to us at times, when wounds are too severe. As it will when you plunge that knife you hold into my chest. Yet if I know not where I am, I will be lost forever." He was silent a moment. "You might revel in that. But why not tell me how clever you are, how you struck me down in the light of day and brought me here unseen."

"Very clever," the man who held him said. Jim could hear him breathing, harsh and triumphant. "None saw me, for I know the city well and followed you, waiting for you to lead me to a place where I could strike you down in safety. The narrow stairs, well enclosed, are little used."

Jim repeated that aloud, as he had quickly repeated all Legolas spoke in quick asides.

"Narrow stairs?" Aragorn said in the background.

"There are several enclosed flights of stairs between the different levels of the city," Faramir replied. "Some have passages that branch off them, tunnels that run through the mountain from one side of the city to the other. There are many chambers within, for storage of foodstuffs and weapons. Ask which level, Jim."

The urge was distant, but Jim heard it. "Where were you, Legolas? Which level?"

Legolas heard him. "I was between the third and fourth levels when you struck me down. Whence came we from there?"

"Beneath the mountain, secure in a stone chamber where none but those who guard the armory ever come, not this deep in the weapons rooms. In a time of peace, what need of weapons?" the man replied. "But it matters not, for soon you will die. You see the knife here? It is a fine blade, ancient, a Noldor weapon, well preserved. It will strike true, driving into your heart."

Jim could almost see the blade. He piggy-backed his sight onto his hearing, but it did not quite give him true vision. He had a vague and blurred image of what Legolas could see; were elves telepathic to project images? Or was the wizard giving him power? The blade glittered before Jim's eyes, the light of candles flickering and dancing in the polished steel. How could he see what was so far beyond his vision? Did the wizard enhance his senses? What he saw now was what Legolas must see, a swarthy man with narrowed eyes, very dark hair, and a well-trimmed beard, coming into sharper focus. From the little Jim understood of Gondorian fashions, the guy was dressed like a noble. The lining of the cloak that hung off his shoulders glistened like silk. He stared down at Legolas with hatred in his eyes, the utterly unreasoning hatred of prejudice. Jim could see in the glittering grey eyes that he believed the presence of an elf contaminated his city. A dangerous fanatic. Quickly, Jim relayed answers to the people who gathered around him and described what he could see of the room. He heard Faramir cry out with recognition.

"I know the place."

"Lead us there," Aragorn ordered.

Then they were all running. Even though Gandalf took his hand away and Sandburg let go so they could run, Jim didn't come near to zoning. He kept the link open and looked at the threat through Legolas's eyes. His senses thrummed with energy, as if he had shifted gears into overdrive and everything purred with power.

The man stroked the knife blade, then he took out a honing stone and sharpened it with loving strokes. His eyes glittered with insanity. How much time did Legolas have? Enough for them to arrive? If he knew they were coming, would he strike out more quickly?

"You will not escape me," the man said with a twisted smile. "Soon, now, very soon, I will kill you. Slowly, I think. First I will wound you and watch you bleed. Perhaps I will slice off a finger or two. A notable archer, they say you are. You would be no archer without a finger. Do elves grow back fingers, I wonder? Or would you be like the Ringbearer, to go with nine to your grave? No, I will not take a finger. I will not have you resemble the Ringbearer in any way."

"You tolerate hobbits, yet not elves?" Legolas asked, his voice utterly mild.

It felt weird to see from his eyes when he was speaking, as if, in a way, Jim's mind had been possessed. Once he would have broken the contact, repelled by such a thought, but he could not break it. Legolas offered no invasion and made no attempt to delve into Jim's thoughts. He merely offered what he saw. He spoke so calmly now as if he'd had hostage training and knew that to challenge and enrage his captor was to drive him more quickly to violence. How could he sound so self-possessed when the creep sharpened the knife he meant to kill him with, right in front of his eyes?

"The Ringbearer saved us. I will not make you resemble him. Instead, I think, I will put out your eye. Yes, that would be good. Both eyes, and then you will not know when the blade will strike."

Jim could feel Legolas's fear, driving through him the way the knife would, but he also felt the elf's self-possession and knew none of his dread would show upon his face.

The rescue party raced down the ramp to the sixth level, Faramir in the lead. Soldiers fell in with them, and Gandalf and Gimli ran side by side. One of the soldiers offered Blair a sword, and he took it and tested its weight as if he had held swords before and smiled briefly at the way it felt. Some kind of Society for Creative Anachronism thing?

Even though he had hardly ever held a sword, Jim would have taken one, but no one offered him one. Maybe they thought it would be too much to handle, that it would break his concentration. He thrust the thought aside. "Sandburg, tell them about not just crashing in," he said.

Sandburg gave a nod that Jim saw with only a portion of his vision. "If he's threatening Legolas and hanging over him with a knife, he might use it if we burst in on him. We might have to talk him down. We call it hostage negotiation."

"We will be swift and slay him," Aragorn said in a fierce, unyielding voice.

"Well, uh, Your Majesty, these are the kind of people Jim deals with in his job, and he's learned the best ways to stop them. He'll have chosen a secure place where he'll hear anybody coming. He's determined to kill Legolas, and it sounds like he wants to do it in a kind of ritual. He won't like it if you force him to act too soon, but he'll still do it."

"Where are you going?" The question cut across the tensions of the moment. Jim recognized Pippin's voice and had a glimpse of him and Merry hurrying to meet them. "Is something wrong?"

Faramir replied, although he did not slow. "Legolas has been taken prisoner by a madman who means to slay him. We go to rescue him."

"We're coming, too," Pippin cried and fell in beside them.

"He means to stab Legolas, and holds him in a hidden chamber. It is too dangerous."

"No, wait," Jim said. "Let them come."

"Jim?" Blair asked.

"The guy likes hobbits," Jim said. "And if it's dark and narrow, maybe they can get in where men couldn't. You two can fight, can't you? I've heard you've seen battle." They looked so little standing there; it would be like sending kids into danger. But Merry and Pippin weren't kids; they were adults who had been tested in combat and survived. Jim didn't doubt their courage. "It might help," he said. "Legolas thinks so, too."

"Legolas thinks so?" Merry echoed. "How do you know?"

"He's an elf, and Jim can hear things," Pippin explained as he fell into step. "I don't have a sword, though. I only wear it when I wear my livery." Merry was not armed, either.

"Down these stairs," Faramir directed and led the way down a narrow flight that was roofed over and doubled back on itself at several landings. When they had reached the fifth level, he hurried them across the great ramp to a similar flight. "This way. We are nearly to the place."

"Then we have to be quiet," Jim said. He listened hard to Legolas and his captor, but the man had fallen silent. Seated on a tall stool, he worked on the knife, and Jim could tell he meant to draw out the moment, letting Legolas's anticipation build, so that he would suffer with each passing second.

Jim wondered how a place as important as the city's armory could be left unguarded. "Wouldn't someone watch the door?" he asked.

Faramir gave a quick nod. "This is not the main entrance to the armory, but there should be a guard within. At the main entrance there would be more, but this way is little used and the passage narrow enough that one man can hold it, especially in such peaceful times as these." He reached the doorway and opened it carefully. It gave easily on well-oiled hinges. Faramir and Aragorn drew their swords. The soldiers already had theirs, and Blair carried his with only a slight doubt. That was Sandburg. He was always surprising Jim.

The passage under the mountain was lit with torches at regular intervals, and closed doors along the way were sometimes marked with signs to announce their function. Jim could speak the language or at least hear it in English but the writing was gibberish to him. He listened intently. There was breathing nearby. He pointed to a door. "Someone's in there. Just one, not Legolas."

"A grain storage," Faramir replied. He gestured for a soldier to open the door, and all brandished their swords. When the guard opened it on darkness, only Jim saw the shadowy form that lay sprawled on the floor in an aisle between barrels. The light from the passage made the pool of blood that spread beneath him glisten.

One of the soldiers grabbed a torch and held it up to reveal a fallen soldier. His breathing was harsh and gasping. Not dead, but wounded. Faramir ran to his side and knelt. "A knife through the ribs," he said. "It has missed his heart, but I fear it has nicked his lung. Captain Malkin, see his wound bound and bear him rapidly to the Houses of Healing." He touched the wounded man's forehead, then he rose to make room for the Captain. "He was removed simply to get him out of the way," he said tightly. "The man who holds Legolas will not hesitate to slay him, not if he would do this to an innocent man."

Gimli cried a wordless and anguished protest, and Aragorn muttered a curse under his breath. "Lead us to him, Jim. Grateful are we for your abilities, for we would have known too late if not for you." He looked in question at Sandburg. "If we need to speak to him in negotiation, have you skills in this area?"

"Well, uh, a little," Sandburg replied. "I had some hostage training anyway. I'll do it if you need it." He looked up at Jim, and they exchanged a look, creating for Jim a weird double image of Sandburg's earnest eyes and the strokes of the honing stone on the blade.

He listened with his normal Sentinel hearing, not the link that had formed between him and Legolas. "He's five doors down," he said. "The door is shut, so he won't have heard us yet. We have to be very quiet."

"Five doors down?" Faramir asked softly. "I know that room. The soldiers on guard duty take meals there. There is a large table and some chairs, but no weapons are stored there. It has one door." And then he smiled. "But there is a narrow crawl-way into it that would not be readily visible, nor would he feel a need to defend it if he should see it. A natural passage." He quickened his words as if he had seen the urgency on Jim's face. "I used to sneak into it when I was a boy and my brother was just beginning his training, to visit him."

"Then you know the way," Aragorn said. "You can lead some of us."

"No." Faramir shook his head. "It is too small for a grown man to fit." He looked at them and shook his head even at Sandburg, who was the shortest of them.

"We'll go," Pippin volunteered. "Merry and I. Give us swords, and we'll sneak in and then, even if he hears you coming, we can stop him before he can hurt Legolas."

Even as Jim watched the terrorist honing his knife, he saw Faramir stare down at Pippin in consternation. "It will be dangerous, Pippin," he said.

"It's more dangerous for Legolas. I have to do it. He's my friend."

"We both have to," insisted Merry.

Faramir looked down at them, his face filled with warmth and pride. "Ah, Pippin, already you have saved my life, and Merry, you have saved my Éowyn's. None doubt your courage."

"Or your skill with weapons," Aragorn said. "You were trained by Boromir, who was Gondor's greatest swordsman. Quickly, find them blades." One of the soldiers slipped away to obey.

Gandalf rested a hand on the shoulder of each hobbit. "Move carefully," he cautioned them. "Defend Legolas well and each other."

A soldier who had tiptoed down the passage returned in moments with two small swords. "Cadet training weapons," he said. "They should serve." He passed them to the two hobbits. Jim saw them test the heft of the blades far more expertly than Sandburg had tested his.

"Show them the passage, Faramir," Aragorn said. He dropped to one knee before them. "Jim will hear you as you creep to your destination. He will guide us. You may need to strike swift and slay him before we can enter."

"We won't let him hurt Legolas," Pippin vowed.

"We'll protect him," promised Merry. The two of them gazed up earnestly as if swearing sacred oaths.

"Hobbits are remarkable people," Gandalf said to Sandburg, who gazed down at the pair and grinned crookedly.

"They sure are."

Faramir led the two into a different room. "I will show you the way," he said.

Jim focused on the sound of hobbit heartbeats, marked it carefully, and let it become automatic to listen. His senses responded smoothly to every demand upon them; even the presence of strangers was no hindrance to what he must do. When Faramir returned, Jim judged the distance between Legolas's vision and the beating of Merry and Pippin's hearts.

"There," said the man. "It is nicely sharp now. Shall we test it."

"We're running out of time," Jim warned as the man rose. He moved slowly and deliberately, relishing each small motion, drawing nearer and nearer to Legolas. The hobbits were too far away to act. Would a sound in the passage distract him?

Jim gestured to Faramir, who was closest. "Walk down the passage, and whistle as if you were just passing by," he directed. "It will put you in good position. Don't slow when you go by the door unless I tell you to break in."

Faramir nodded. Whistling a merry tune, he strode down the passage as if he were in no particular hurry.

At the sound of the whistling, the terrorist froze. He raised the knife as if to plunge it into Legolas's chest, and Jim could feel the elf's panic, but knew none of it would show on his face as he gazed up at the terrorist. Both of them listened as Faramir approached and passed, and only when the whistling had died away did the man lower his arm and smile in a particularly ugly way.

"That would have been too soon," he said. "I want you to feel every moment of this." He brought the knife down and traced it idly across the front of Legolas's tunic. Legolas gasped involuntarily as the blade sliced the fabric, but Jim could tell it had barely touched the flesh beneath.

Beyond the room, Faramir crept back on feet that would be soundless to any but a Sentinel or an elf and positioned himself to break in.

"That was Faramir whistling," Jim warned Legolas in the same steady tones he had used all along to reach the elf. "He's outside the door. Help is coming, and I can see what you see. Hang in there, buddy. We'll have you out soon. Don't say anything to make him mad. If you want to pretend to be afraid, it might keep him trying to scare you and hold him off a few more seconds. I know you can handle anything, but it won't matter what he thinks of you. The guy's crazy."

"Ah," breathed the terrorist a moment later. "At last, you show your true heart. Coward, I name you. See the blade?" He brandished it before Legolas's eyes. "Shall I prick you with it." He brought it closer and traced it over the exposed skin of Legolas's chest. Jim felt a sympathetic flare of pain as it scraped the flesh, not deep enough to cause a serious injury but enough to draw blood. The hobbit heartbeats came nearer and nearer. They were almost there. Jim wished he could project his speech to them. He could feel the warmth of blood as if on his own chest, and the sharp sting of the blade.

"We're here." It was Pippin's voice, so faint it was no more than a breath and would not have sounded above the man's breathing.

"They're ready," Jim said. He beckoned to Faramir to return and mimed whistling. Faramir retreated a few steps and started up again, the same merry tune.

Exasperated, the terrorist snorted and approached the door. "If this be a game," he snarled, "you will have company in death, elf."

Pippin crept into the room behind the terrorist, who had gone to press his ear against the door. Legolas saw the two hobbits enter, and that allowed Jim to see them, too. Merry tiptoed to the table and sawed at the ropes that secured Legolas's arms. Pippin circled around the table, silent on his bare feet, and placed himself between Legolas and the terrorist.

"Now!" Jim urged.

Faramir and Aragorn hit the door in unison, driving it inward so hard it slammed into the terrorist and staggered him. Jim's double vision almost made him dizzy, but he partitioned it as if he were watching a split screen program on TV. The terrorist let out a despairing yell and whirled to run at Legolas, the knife raised to drive it into the elf's chest. Jim saw it through Legolas's eyes and through his own as he reached the doorway. For the first time since he had come here, he wished he had his Sig Sauer.

At the sight of the weapon-wielding madman charging at him, Pippin stiffened then he thrust his sword into the man's belly. For an endless moment, the terrorist hovered, impaled, long enough for Merry to circle the table and stand at Pippin's side, brandishing his own blade. Then the Noldor knife fell from the terrorist's hand and its tip drove into the floor, where it quivered, not an inch from Pippin's foot. A second later, he slithered off the blade and dropped to the floor. Dazed, his mouth hanging open, Pippin gripped his sword, its blade coated with the terrorist's blood. No one moved or even seemed to breathe.

Jim's vision abruptly returned to normal and the hyper-sensitivity trailed away, leaving him standing shaken and breathless in the doorway as Gandalf pushed past him to go to Pippin's side, and Gimli and Aragorn rushed to Legolas.

"Guardian of the Citadel indeed," Gandalf said in a voice full of warmth. "Bravely fought, young Peregrin."

"He was going to kill Legolas," Pippin said in a hollow voice. "I thought I'd never have to kill anybody again."

"Laddie, you're bleeding!" Gimli cried behind him.

"Scratches only," Legolas reassured the dwarf as Aragorn and Merry finished slicing away the bindings that held him. Aragorn and Gimli helped Legolas to sit and mopped at the blood from the cuts the terrorist had traced upon his chest.

Faramir rose from confirming the terrorist was dead, then he went to Pippin, knelt before him, and lifted away the sword. "Bravely fought, my friend," he said as he passed it to a soldier. "Once again you have saved a life. Gondor is proud of you." He put his arm around Pippin's shoulders. "You were not harmed?"

"No, but his blade almost stuck in my toes," Pippin said. He looked down at the fallen blade beside his foot.

"It is a blade of the Noldori," Legolas said. Rubbing his wrists, he rose, then he knelt and picked it up. "Like unto the blades you and Merry were given by the Lady Galadriel. You have earned this one, Pippin, should you wish it."

Pippin grimaced, then he accepted it from the elf and weighed it in his hand. "It would need to be cleansed," he said. "No, I don't want it, Legolas. It was used to hurt you." He set it on the table, then he flung his arms around Legolas's waist. "I'm so glad you weren't killed."

"I am rather pleased myself," Legolas said drolly. He looked at Aragorn and Gimli, who stood one on either side of him as if they had not yet realized they could stop protecting them. "Hannon le," he said to them, and let a hand fall upon the shoulder of each. Then he stepped away from them and met Jim in the doorway, who stood with Sandburg at his side. "You have saved my life."

"Not without a heck of a lot of help," Jim said. "It's just what I do."

"Don't let him be modest. He was great," Blair enthused. He still held his sword as if he didn't know what to do with it. "Jim, you were *incredible*. I never saw you so easy with your senses. You knew what to do every second."

"It was weird, Chief," Jim said. "I was seeing double for a while there, what I saw and what Legolas saw."

"Really? Oh, man, that's wild. We'll have to test for that when we get home. I've got some great ideas "

"Forget it, Sandburg. It's because he's an elf. He was probably boosting it."

"I could not have done such without your own skills, Jim Ellison," Legolas said. He pressed his hand to his chest and then rested it on Jim's shoulder, just as he had with Aragorn and Legolas. His cuts had already stopped bleeding. "Hannon le, Jim Ellison. I thank you. Had you not come to the White City, I would lie dead."

Jim wasn't familiar with the gesture, but he copied it. "I had a lot of help. I think Gandalf was boosting me."

"There was little need of boosting, only for clarity," Gandalf said. "Once you found the will and the vision, my boosting was no longer needed. Strength I gave you, no more."

Aragorn slung his arm around the elf's shoulders. "I know elves heal quickly, my friend, but let us take you to the Houses of Healing and see to these cuts. You were driven unconscious. I would have them make certain you will be well."

Jim drew a deep breath. He was exhausted. His muscles ached as if he had worked them as well as his senses. "Oh, man, I could use a nap," he groaned.

Faramir joined him. "You worked very hard, friend Jim. It is no wonder. What say you to a hearty meal first, once Legolas is treated in the Houses of Healing?"

"Yeah, Jim, you probably need to eat," Sandburg urged. "You had a real workout today."

The idea of a big meal sounded great. "I wouldn't say no to some of that excellent ale of yours, either," he said. "But first I've got to go and tell Frodo how it came out. He'll have been worrying with no word. I was with him when Legolas first contacted me."

"Then let us all go to the Houses of Healing. See to the body," he bade the soldiers. "We must learn his identity and discover if others share his unnatural prejudice."

"We will see it done, my lord."

Jim looked around at the assembled company. Aragorn and Gimli walked on either side of Legolas, each ready to support him, their concern for his peril fading into exuberant relief that made the entire trio smile as they spoke to each other. How subtly man and dwarf made sure the elf was guarded and supported, ready to reach out to him should his steps falter. It was like cops and their partners, the closeness between them. They weren't cops but they'd fought in battle together. The bond between them was so vivid none could doubt it. Jim liked that.

Faramir, Gandalf, and Merry seemed to be as determined to see to Pippin. Merry walked so automatically at Pippin's side that their steps matched perfectly, and Merry realized instinctively when Pippin hesitated as he circled around the body of the man he had been forced to kill. Faramir, whose life Pippin had once saved, looked as if he would go through fire for Pippin's sake in return, and when Pippin had stepped outside of the chamber, and looked up at Faramir as if for validation, Faramir beamed down at him.

"Very properly did Aragorn dub you a knight of Gondor, Pippin."

Pippin hesitated, then he threw a relieved smile up at Faramir. He didn't say anything, but he looked more at ease. Behind him, Gandalf bestowed on the unseeing Pippin a smile of great benevolence. Blair, at Jim's side, nudged him and nodded at them all.

"They're great people, Jim. Aren't they great people?"

"Yeah, I'll give you that, Sandburg. They sure are."

Blair suddenly realized he still held his sword, and he passed it to one of the soldiers who had come in answer to the summons. "Thanks, man. Glad I didn't have to use it. I'm way out of practice."

"Practice, Sandburg?" Jim raised a skeptical brow. "I didn't know you were a swordsman."

"I used to date a girl in the Society for Creative Anachronism," Sandburg replied. "I learned all about swords then. She was really into that kind of thing."

"And a big sword impresses your dates? Yeah, I can see where this is going."

Sandburg gave him a poke and put the sword from his thoughts. "Wow, Jim. This was fantastic. I wonder if it was like this in ancient times when Sentinels were known by the tribe. Just think what you could do if it was safe for you to use your senses openly in Cascade."

"We live in the wrong times, is that what you're saying, Chief? That I'm a prehistoric throwback or something?"

He half expected Sandburg to deny it, out of the wariness that had grown up between them out of the debacle over the diss. Sandburg did hesitate, then suddenly his face blazed with a smile. "If the shoe fits, Jim," he cried joyfully. "If the shoe fits...."

They grinned, suddenly completely comfortable with each other, and hurried after Gandalf and the others.

*****

Concluded in part four...