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Hearts of Men  by Aelaer

Chapter 1: Establishing Foundations

June 3, 3019 TA, late evening

It was a few minutes before the normal closing time. Bregon was already shutting down his small shop for the night; it was rare for someone to come in so late in the day, and today he expected no last-minute customers. When the man heard the small bell above the door tinkle, he raised his head up in surprise; he was nearly done closing shop and was not in the mood to deal with anyone at the moment. Nonetheless, business was business, and so he dutifully went to the front of the shop to see who was visiting at so late an hour.

He was astounded to see that, rather than a normal citizen such as himself in his shop, he was graced with the presence of what could only be described as a wealthy lord. The man looked to be several years younger than he was, yet the rich, colorful material that he wore was surely more valuable than anything he had ever owned in his life. Despite the fact that the man was at least a head shorter than he, his countenance spoke of confidence and power. Shaking himself out of his amazement, Bregon blinked and bowed deeply to the stranger. "How— how may I help you, my lord?" he asked.

The lord gave him a kindly smile. "Do you have some time to spare?"

"I— uh, yes, my lord, of course. How may I be of assistance?"

"Perhaps it would be best if we spoke in a more private setting," he suggested.

"Of course, my lord." Bregon led the lord upstairs, where his own bare private residence was above the shop. "May I offer you some refreshment?" he asked after the man had taken a seat. He dearly hoped that he would not ask for anything; Bregon had a hard time filling his own stomach already and could not spare food or drink.

His guest looked at the humble settings expressionlessly and replied, "I am well. Please sit down." Bregon took a seat across from him, wondering what in the world this nobleman had to say to the likes of him.

"How is business?" he asked conversationally.

"As well as could be expected in these times, my lord," Bregon replied. The recovery efforts to rebuild the country's economy were underway, but everyone knew that it would take years before Gondor was stable again. He considered himself lucky that he even had a place to own, unlike so many others.

"I see," the other man replied sympathetically. Bregon doubted he was sympathetic; what could a man of his type know of a commoner's plights, after all? He said nothing in response.

The lord smiled at the uncertainty that flashed across Bregon's eyes. "You doubt my compassion?" he asked with a raised brow. The cobbler was about to protest, but the man stopped him. "No, no, I understand! After all, what could someone of my status know of your troubles? You know my colleagues care little for the hardworking tradesmen of Gondor. I, however, am not like my colleagues."

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "No, my fellow noblemen care little for people like you; they do not understand your struggles to make enough just to feed yourself. They dine like ravenous pigs at the delights that the Citadel always offers now that we have a king again." At the mention of the king, Bregon's eyes darkened. "You look remarkably like Lord Elessar, my friend."

"So I have been told," Bregon said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"You rue it?"

"It— it is difficult to explain, my lord."

"You do not yet trust me, I see," the lord said, but rather than scorn Bregon still saw compassion in his eyes. "It was not chance that brought me here, Bregon— do not look so surprised!" he laughed as the other man startled at his name. "I am not the only one who knows the name of the cobbler who bears an uncanny resemblance to the King. As it is, about a fortnight ago you went to a tavern where you drank with one of my servants. He relayed your plight to me, and I was moved to come see you myself."

Bregon vividly remembered waking up with one of the worst hangovers some days ago, but could not remember the actual night that caused it. "I do not remember the encounter, my lord."

"Then I shall tell you what my servant revealed to me. He told me that he met a man that, at first glance, he thought to be the King. He soon found out that he was mistaken, but the subject was brought up and you poured out all of your feelings for our lord and your woes concerning the resemblance you two share."

Bregon, now thoroughly alarmed, stood up and looked at the lord with complete horror. He knew his thoughts about the king, and he knew that such thoughts were certainly treasonous! Now he knew the true nature of this visit.

The lord looked at him with pity. "I understand your fear, Bregon, but I spoke the truth; you do not need to fear me. I am not here on the behalf of Elessar, nor will this conversation reach other ears. Please sit down."

Bregon, still shaking, slowly sat down, his horror not yet abated. "How much, my lord?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"How much do I owe you for your silence?"

To his amazement, the lord let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, my good man! My apologies. I do not wish anything from you, and you need not buy my silence. No, Bregon, I rather came here to aid you."

"To aid me?"

"Yes. I am completely sympathetic to your plight, and both my servant and I agreed that what you have suffered throughout the last few weeks is unacceptable."

"You do?" he could not help but blurt out.

The other smiled. "Of course. After all, you have lived here much longer than King Elessar; who is he to claim your face? Since you have endured such hardships, I wish to help you."

Bregon immediately became suspicious. "What is the catch?"

"The catch? There is no catch! And as a symbol of my good will, I give you this." He untied a small purse from his side and put it on the table. Bregon heard the loud clunk as the coins in the bag bounced against one another and he could not help but stare at the pouch; the weight itself was enormous! The amount in there would surely feed him for a month!

"I do not understand," Bregon could only say as the lord pushed the pouch towards him. "Why me?"

"Why not you? Besides," the lord said, lowering his voice to a whisper, "you and I share similar opinions about Elessar." His tone became normal once more. "If you wish to listen to what I have in mind, I would have you come to my dwelling on the sixth circle on the morrow. You can, of course, think it over— you need not make a decision now! Please use tonight to make your choice; I will send one of my men tomorrow to come and escort you when the bells toll four times. If you do not wish to come, simply tell him."

"I— of course, my lord. I will certainly think your invitation over."

"Good." The lord suddenly stood. "However, I must be on my way now. I do hope you come; I think you will like what I have to offer. Have a good night, Bregon." With that, the man stood and left the small room. The small tinkling bell noted his departure and the cobbler remained sitting, still as a statue, his eyes unseeing as he absorbed all that had just happened.


June 4, morning

Bregon did not sleep well that night. After the mysterious lord left his home, he looked through the bag and could not even begin to add up all of the money that was in the purse. It was more coin than he had ever seen in his life, and he quickly confirmed its authenticity by comparing the money with what little was in his possession. Even if the coins were not real, the appearance and toughness of all the money in the bag would be accepted anywhere.

After putting the purse in a safe place under a loose floorboard, he had closed his shop, eaten a meal, and gone to bed early, questions rolling through his mind. Who was this strange lord and was he truthful when he said he wanted to help him? Did he truly dislike Elessar or was he actually a spy for the man? What would this lord do if he refused to go with his servant on the morrow?

Despite all of these concerns, Bregon did manage to finally fall asleep and woke at the toll of the first bell that came near sunrise. It was then that he made his decision. He did not want to see what happened if he denied this mysterious and likely powerful lord who had many resources. For all he knew, he would end up stabbed in the night if he did. There was also the small part of him that was not afraid of retaliation but rather interested in what this lord had to offer, especially when it came to his comments concerning Elessar.

And, in the end, Bregon had little to lose. He had no family that could be threatened, and no property that he particularly cared for. His shop was all he had, and what the lord had already given him last night was double the amount of all he owned.

He wanted to see more.

Just as was promised, a man came into his shop shortly after the fourth ringing of bells. He was well-dressed for a servant, his dark hair was short and neat, and he did not look wanting in health; in other words, he looked much better than the cobbler.

"Greetings, Master Bregon," said the stranger with a short bow. "I am Falasgal, representative of my lord whom you met last night." Bregon also bowed in greeting, but kept silent. "Do you wish to meet my lord once more?"

"Yes, I would, if he still wishes to see me," answered the cobbler, unsure if he would be glad or disappointed if the lord was not interested anymore.

"Then come with me, Master. I imagine my lord will keep you preoccupied throughout the day, so you may want to close shop." Bregon nodded and, as they stepped outside, pulled out a key and closed his small store for the day. They then started the long journey up to the sixth level, where, Falasgal explained, his lord resided.

"You likely do not remember me, but I am the one who drank with you at the Old Guesthouse some days ago," said the servant. Bregon was startled by the revelation, and also a little fearful; had he truly said as much as the lord last night had implied?

Falasgal seemed to read his mind and he smiled gently in response to the alarm on his companion's face. "You need not fear me, Master Bregon. I take little interest in higher politics, and only reveal what I hear from those in the City to my lord, for he is interested in the thoughts of others. He was fascinated by your remarkable resemblance to the King; at first I thought you were him!" He chuckled.

Bregon forced himself to relax and smile. "I am afraid drink loosens a man's tongue and has him say things that are untrue," he said, trying to defend himself against whatever he said that night.

His brown eyes only sparkled knowingly. "As I said, Master, I take little interest in politics or what others believe; I merely do what I must to earn an honest wage to keep myself and my family fed."

"You have a family?" Bregon asked, immediately jumping on the chance to steer the conversation away from himself.

Falasgal smiled. "Indeed, I do. I have my wife, two daughters, and three sons. They, however, are not here in the City; they live near my lord's estate in Lossarnach, which is located near the Crossings of Erui a few leagues south of Minas Tirith. I came with him to the City for the coronation, and while I expect we will leave within a few weeks, he did not leave as soon as I thought he would."

Already they had passed the second level gate and Falasgal had just politely called out the password for the third. The third level of the City was the highest Bregon had ever been in Minas Tirith and he was interested in seeing what the higher levels of the City looked like.

"And what of you, Master Bregon? Do you have a family?" asked the servant.

Bregon's eyes darkened. "Not anymore. My parents are dead. My wife bore me a son many years ago; it was the second baby that killed her. My son died in a skirmish in Osgiliath last year."

"I am sorry to hear that," said Falasgal, sorrow evident in his expression. "Your life has been a bitter one."

The cobbler said nothing in reply, and the two were silent as they continued to the fourth and fifth levels. Falasgal indeed knew the passwords for the levels, but Bregon kept his attention on his surroundings. The fourth level was made up of many shops that he doubted he could afford, and he knew that tucked in some areas of the level were homes and some of the more upper-class guilds, such as the Jeweler's Guild. On the fifth level were some more shops, but it was the private residences that dominated the level; many were larger than any home he could ever afford. He also noted that the higher levels were cleaner than the first and second levels, which simply could not stay tidy due to the constant amount of people ambling through the streets.

It was the sixth level, however, that astounded him. He did not even notice the double-take that a few of the guards shot him, so amazed was he by the beauty of this part of Minas Tirith. While he was no artisan, the architecture was painstakingly detailed and he could not see how anyone could not appreciate the large mural right beyond the gate. He was not sure what the scene was supposed to be, but it showed a tall, dark-haired man taking a fruit from what could only be the White Tree. The background, however, was nothing he had ever seen in Minas Tirith. Bregon had little time to closely inspect the mural as Falasgal beckoned him to continue forward.

They turned left as they entered the level and to the left, close to the gate, he saw a group of buildings surrounded by many trees and flowers; indeed, that one spot seemed greener than all other spots in the City. The scent that came from the area all but stopped him in his tracks. He could not remember the last time he had ventured out of the City and the smell completely overtook his senses.

"Those are the Houses of Healing," said Falasgal. "It is the fairest place in Minas Tirith, save, perhaps, the gardens of the King which few have seen."

They quickly passed the houses and, within a few more minutes, stopped in front of a large abode that was on the southwest part of the sixth circle. Bregon absorbed its largeness and took in the carved relief above the doorway with greedy eyes as he followed the other man through the door.

His eyes widened as he looked around the main hallway. It was rich, rich beyond anything that he had ever seen in any building. He barely heard Falasgal's order to wait as he took it all in. The tapestries, the paintings, the vases with the flowers— he did not recognize the flowers— the fine carvings on the wood. This lord certainly loved fine things, whoever he was.

Falasgal soon returned with the mysterious lord in tow. "Bregon! I am so glad that you accepted my invitation," said the smaller man.

"I found little reason to refuse, lord," said Bregon. "Forgive me, my lord, but I never learned your name."

"My apologies," said the lord with a smile, "I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Balandor. But come," he said suddenly, "it is a little early for the noon meal, but the walk from the first to the sixth level is tiring, and I imagine you are hungry now."

Bregon nodded. He had not left his shop to buy more food just in case the lord's servant had come early, and the food he had for the morning meal had been sparse.

Balandor nodded knowingly and led him into the dining room while Falasgal disappeared and left the two alone. Soon servants came in bearing more food than Bregon had seen at a table in years. He watched silently as he was served a large piece of meat and a bowl of soup; to his disposal were also different fruit and vegetables as well as bread. There were various spices on the table for his enjoyment as well. Spices. He seldom could afford salt, never mind salt, pepper, and other seasonings that he did not recognize.

He waited until the lord began to eat before he cautiously began to cut into the meat he was given. Venison, he discovered at the first bite. When was the last time he had venison?

When Bregon first tried the wine, he was immediately delighted by the taste. It was better than anything he had ever drunk in his life.

"Like it?" asked Balandor.

"It is wonderful," the other man admitted.

"It is my own creation," said the lord with a smile. "I am a wine merchant, you see. My estate in Lossarnach is surrounded by vineyards that have been with my family for a few generations. Before that, however," he paused briefly, "my family was nothing." Bregon put down his glass and glanced at the other curiously. "You see, Bregon," started the lord, "while I was born in my position, my great-grandfather had not a copper to his name. He did not let this unfortunate situation stop him, though. He worked in the vineyards of the estate that once belonged to a childless lord, and this lord noticed my ancestor and his hard work. The story goes that they became closer, despite the class difference that lay between them, and by the time my great-grandfather married the lord took him in as his own. He inherited the land at his lord's death, and it has been with his descendants ever since."

Bregon nodded, but confusion was evident in his eyes. "Why do you tell me this, my lord?" he asked.

"You work hard," said Balandor. "It was evident, considering the hour you closed for the night. Yet you, like many in this country, have fallen on hard times and are not rewarded properly for hard work. My great-grandfather was not caught within the middle of a war, nor did he lose his family to death. Yes," the younger man added in response to Bregon's surprise, "Falasgal told me what you told him, and I am only more convinced you deserve aid."

"I am grateful, my lord," started Bregon slowly, "but I am hardly the only one to lose my family in this city, and most folk work long hours. Why choose me?"

"Because," Balandor replied, "you are the only man in Minas Tirith who has not only lost his family, but his identity as well." The other man said nothing to this. "Life has been cruel to you; I want to reward you for what you do, despite the fact that it would have been easier to give up."

"One must work to feed oneself," said Bregon.

"There are plenty who have resorted to stealing," the other argued. "So what say you? Will you accept my aid?"

The cobbler was silent as he glanced at what he had just eaten. The food was delicious; better than any of his meals in many months. He knew that this Balandor would expect something out of him in return, though he was not sure what yet. Bregon found, however, that he was curious to see what would be demanded out of him— and, of course, he wanted more meals such as this.

"I will," he replied, and Lord Balandor smiled.

"Excellent. Once you are finished with your meal, we will begin."

Bregon frowned. "Begin with what?"

"Your lessons, of course. The only way your life will improve is to further yourself in society, and the only way that will happen quickly is if you are taught what you need to know."

He nodded. He had no idea what this man planned on teaching him, but he found himself more and more intrigued by what he was offering, even if one day it would all come with a price.

For now, he did not care. The day of payment would come when it would come, but for now he would try and enjoy himself and the fact that, for the first time in months, he was full after a meal.


June 4, afternoon

One month. It had been a little over a month since the day he was crowned, and the days had passed with little time for him to mull over his new life. Throughout the first weeks he was busy meeting emissaries from countries far and wide, as well as passing judgment over wrongdoers. He had expected embassies from old enemies who wished for peace, but he was surprised to see that even a small, ragtag group representing Dunland had come the day before the Rohirrim had set out to leave. King Éomer, too, had looked surprised, but any wrath he held against them for their past actions was put aside in Elessar's court.

Each day was busy with countless meetings, court hearings, and other public functions that left him with little time for himself. Any spare hours he did have he spent with the Fellowship and Faramir, which was too often not enough time. Each day— often late in the night— he would retire, and he would fall asleep before any thoughts could invade his mind.

But for the first time since May 1st, he found himself without any urgent meeting, an embassy to greet, or a court to proceed over throughout the afternoon. For the first time in many weeks he found himself contemplating other things rather than business or Arwen.

Arwen. He had said nothing about her to anyone, not even to his fellow companions of the Fellowship. Gandalf knew, of course, Legolas likely had guessed, and certainly some of the remnants of the Grey Company knew something. However, very few in Gondor were aware that he had given his heart to a lady, and already he was being offered many a woman's hand.

None of the offers, of course, were outright suggesting a union— other than that one uncomfortable incident with one of the chieftains of Khand— but he was no fool. He was well aware of the subtle flirting from many a lady of Gondor and his fellow Dúnedain heard everything said out of his hearing, and most of them were quite happy to report the rumors to him.

Meluion— the most carefree Dúnadan to ever walk on Arda— was the worst. He knew about the betrothal long before many others, but that did not stop him from reporting every single incident he heard. The fact that he knew he was distantly related to him ("Through Arassuil's third daughter," he'd proudly claim) and that he was over thirty years older did not help matters whatsoever.

"Now, my lord," he would start in a hushed tone when there was a chance, "I may be growing older, but I am certain there is something amiss here."

"What is it?" Aragorn would ask, both eager and reluctant to pursue the conversation. It was easy to recognize when Meluion was jesting, and the laughing glint in the eyes told the king all he needed to know.

"That lord you just spoke with— did you see his daughter?"

Oh dear. "I did."

"Well, she had that look in her eye. If you aren't careful, you'll be finding her trying to climb up to your balcony. But do not worry; I already have a guard for that position covered."

Yes, Meluion was certainly a character.

Still, he was glad that the older Dúnadan was by his side for the coronation. Seven other Dúnedain should have been there as well, but they had perished in the last days of the war, whether from being struck down in battle or breathing their last in the Houses of Healing. He remembered each man of the Grey Company that fell, but most often his thoughts turned to Halbarad.

Halbarad should have lived to see the days that he had dared to dream about. He was a most encouraging and supportive companion, and as he became older, was not afraid to rebuke his chieftain. Halbarad should have been the Steward of Arnor. In the end, Aragorn knew that his cousin would have likely not enjoyed the position and would have handed it off to his son as soon he was able so he could ride to Gondor and be at his king's side.

Or, at least, that is what Aragorn told himself now every time his thoughts strayed to him. Halbarad, after all, had always wished to pass in battle. "If I must go, then let me go fighting," he would say. His wife knew this and loved him all the more for it. Nonetheless, the days after Frodo and Sam had come back from Mount Doom, when he had finally allowed himself time for rest, those thoughts gave him no comfort then, nor did they now. They were just as little comfort as the tears that he had wept when he finally let the grief of his cousin's departure fall upon him.

In the end, Aragorn would rather have had Halbarad live to see his great-great grandchildren.

Since the end of the War, thoughts concerning his friends and loved ones went often through his mind. None of those subjects, however, were at the forefront of his thoughts currently; rather he contemplated where he should spend his time for the next few hours. That evening he was supping with the Fellowship in their house on the sixth level, and he planned to spend the rest of the night with them. Aragorn had already given them the time he would be arriving; he did not want to abruptly drop by, especially if the hobbits were cooking some sort of surprise. They did that for him as often as they could, and it touched him; he did not want to ruin the moment.

The king thought about going over some more paperwork— there was a great stack sitting before him— but he quickly tossed aside the thought. This was the first afternoon in a month in which he did not have any scheduled plans; he was not going to waste it with work that was not urgent. He and Faramir had covered the most pressing business within the first couple of weeks of May; if anything truly pressing came up, he would be informed.

As his mind went to Faramir, he suddenly knew what he wished to do that afternoon. The two men had often enough worked with one another during council sessions and through countless hours of paperwork, but he still knew little about the man himself. He wanted to know Denethor's younger son, Boromir's beloved brother, and the steward of his realm. He wanted there to be a mutual relationship of trust and friendship between them, and so far it was not quite there. That needed to be remedied.

Aragorn rose from his desk, opened the door and, with a nod to the guard at the doorway, left his office to find Faramir. He found his steward exactly where he thought he would be: his own study. The king rapped on the closed door, and after a clear "Enter!" peered inside.

"I hope I am not disturbing you," he said in greeting; Faramir had not lifted his eyes from his paperwork.

The younger man looked up in mild surprise to his liege-lord, but quickly masked his emotions and stood to greet him. "Sire, you are not disturbing me at all. How may I be of service?"

Closing the door behind him, he quickly cleared the distance between them and took the seat across from his steward, indicating with a nod that the other man was free to sit down. Faramir sat, his expression neutral, but a small light of curiosity was kindled in his eyes.

"How is your shoulder?" he began, indicating to the area which the Southron dart had hit him. "I haven't had a chance to see it since I returned from Cormallen."

Faramir seemed surprised by the question. "I believe it has now fully healed, my lord. There is no pain in the area."

"Good," said Aragorn with a nod. He sat back, relaxed, his glance on the slightly stiff posture of his steward. A less wary man would not note it, but already he was beginning to pick up the mannerisms of the younger man. Faramir, he suspected, was just as observant.

"I ask for no service at this time," he finally answered, "but merely ask for your company." If Faramir was surprised by this statement, he did not indicate it. His posture did not change, however, and so Aragorn continued, "Long hours have I worked with you these past weeks, Faramir, and yet beyond matters of state we have spoken little of other affairs. I have heard highly of you from many and already you have proven your worth throughout the War and beyond it. I would know the man who is to rebuild Gondor with me."

The younger man studied his king's relaxed demeanor and sincere eyes and relaxed his own guard. His first impression about the new king was correct; he was a good man. As Faramir had recovered, he did not wear his heart so openly to the king, unsure if his fevered dreams had seen the truth about him. This side of him, though, this side he had not seen since the day Elessar had healed him.

"What do you wish to know, sire?"

The king shook his head. "I would have you call me by my proper name, Aragorn, at the least in a private setting, if nowhere else."

Faramir allowed himself to smile. "Aragorn, then. What would you know?"

"All thoughts, any thoughts, anything you wish to speak about. I have the afternoon free, and I hope to spend it in time well used in the company of my Steward— that is, if there is no pressing work for him."

Faramir laughed heartily. "All work is pressing, and yet none of it pressing enough! Nay, gladly will I spend my time in leisure with you." He shook his head. "Any and all thoughts indeed! I will confess that most free time I have to think has been spent musing about a beautiful lady."

Aragorn's eyes lit up. "The daughter of Rohan still holds your heart and mind captive? Good, good, that is how it should be. Never before have I seen such joy within her as I saw in her last days within the City."

"Glad I am for her joy, and glad I am that King Éomer and you blessed our marriage."

"There is no reason not to bless such a union," said Aragorn. "Political advantages aside, the joy was evident when you two were with each other."

Faramir nodded and was silent; Aragorn, however, saw that something was still on his mind. "Feel free to speak your mind, Faramir. Is there something you wish to tell me?"

The steward slowly nodded and paused, as if trying to figure out the best way to word his thoughts. "Often, my lord, have you evaded the question of marriage when brought up by the Council."

"Just Aragorn, please," he said, "and I have. But there is a lady, as you may have guessed."

"So I did," said Faramir. "And are there heirs?"

"Not yet, no. The lady and I have yet to wed."

Faramir was surprised by this, though he kept it to himself. "Shall I tell the Lord Chamberlain, then, that there is to be a wedding planned?"

"I beg you, not yet. If plans must be made, I would ask you to make them, if you can. I will tell you when others may be told, but until that time comes, please keep it to yourself."

"It shall be done as you wish," he said with a slight bow.

Aragorn smiled. "And what of your own union? When do you plan on announcing it?"

"Éowyn and I decided to announce it when we are together again; Lord Éomer wished it to be after the funeral of King Théoden, so it will most likely be then. We will marry when our abode in Emyn Arnen is near completion."

"I heard that the construction has already begun."

"So it has. Beregond and a small company are overseeing the protection of the workers; there is rumor that some orcs still prowl Ithilien."

Aragorn nodded, frowning. "So I heard. Hopefully it is only rumor." His frown disappeared as he glanced at Faramir with slight amusement. "Speaking of guards, where on Middle-earth did you find a man like Galdir?"

Faramir chuckled. "His ancestors have long been Guards of the Citadel; his grandfather was a part of my grandfather's Guard, and for a short time, my father's. His father was one of few guards assigned to protect the White Tree, and Galdir, before your arrival, was assigned in the Great Hall in the White Tower. He is very alert and quickly rose through the ranks. I could think of no better."

"No better, indeed," said Aragorn, shaking his head. "The moment I step outside of my house or the tower I find him right behind me. It's quite disconcerting, and I have yet to escape his scrutiny."

"His grandfather was something like that, or so I have heard," said Faramir with a nod.

"It is uncanny," he argued. "He must understand that I will not be assassinated the moment I leave a building."

The younger man chuckled. "It has been a long time since we've had a king, lo— Aragorn," he corrected himself. Aragorn smiled. "I imagine that he and others of your Guard will be very protective for a while."

He sighed. "Well, at least I will have Meluion to keep me company and make light of the situation." Faramir searched his memory for the man who fit the name; he had seen little of the Dúnedain who accompanied Aragorn. "He is my kinsman who is most likely to make me both grimace and laugh at once," the king helpfully added.

The steward's grey eyes lit up in recognition. "Ah, yes, I spoke with him once. He was very merry. Will any of your other kinsmen stay here in the South with you?"

"One other: Halvagor, youngest son of my late cousin Halbarad. His eldest brother will be taking the Stewardship of Arnor."

Faramir nodded. "Halborn, yes, we have met. He is an intelligent and honest man. I met Halvagor once, but did not speak long with him."

"He speaks little, but when he does, it does well to pay attention. An excellent and observant warrior; Galdir seemed pleased to have him in my Guard, though he is still not sure what to make of Meluion." A chuckle escaped him.

Long throughout the afternoon the king and steward spoke about any and all matters that did not surround issues of the state, and as the day wore on they learned a little more about the other and began to respect one another more than they already did.

Soon enough the dinner hour came, and Aragorn realized that he needed to depart soon in order to make it in time to the Fellowship's guest house on the sixth level. As he stood to leave, he suddenly said, "Faramir, do you wish to join me for supper with the Company? I know the hobbits would be delighted to see you again."

"I do not wish to intrude—"

"Nonsense. A phrase common among hobbits is 'the more the merrier', and I know that everyone would be glad to see you once more. The hobbits cooked tonight, that I know, and they delight in sharing their creations."

Faramir smiled. "Very well then; I shall be pleased to sup with you and your companions this evening. Never before have I been treated to a meal made by the periannath."

"There is little better than a hobbit-meal, my friend, that you shall learn soon."

Quick notes:

*Dúnadan is singular for Dúnedain, and the Dúnedain are basically the remnants of the people of Númenor. For simplicity's sake only the Northern Rangers (characters Aragorn, Meluion, and Halvagor usually) are referred to as such in the narration of the story.

*The mural Bregon sees when he entered the sixth level is a depiction of Isildur taking a fruit from Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor before it was cut down.

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