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Hearts of Men  by Aelaer

And it is this chapter where you see why I put a character list in the prologue XD There are... a lot of characters.

Unfortunately I am not getting reviews from this website in my email, so I'll check back manually. Hopefully you all are getting alerts about my updates.

Oh, and you guys should know: by the time you see chapter four, I'll have changed my username. So yes, it will be me, but... a new me! XD I am changing it to a Sindarin name, I like Sindarin over Quenya...


Chapter 3: Distractions

June 21, evening

For over two weeks Bregon made his way up every day to the sixth level with Falasgal to Lord Balandor's home, and each day he found himself caring less about the consequences that all the free food, drink, and tutorage he was receiving would bring. His meals and lessons in the lord's home were far better than anything he could expect working in his shop all day, and his frequent nightly visits to the Old Guesthouse with what little coin he had could never compare.

While Bregon still did not know why he was being taught how to read and write fluently in two languages— and the tutor refused to say anything on the subject— he eagerly took in the free knowledge. Within two weeks since the beginning of the lessons, he showed a remarkable improvement. It was not long after this two week mark that Balandor invited the cobbler to stay at his home permanently for as long as he wished. Bregon quickly took up the invitation and closed his shop for an indefinite period of time.

The man was still suspicious about the whole situation, but as each day passed he allowed his guard to drop further. He certainly did not consider Balandor a friend, and he doubted the lord considered him as such either, but their relationship was cordial. Indeed, what Bregon truly liked about his situation was that he was being treated as if he were some noble guest. He could get used to the living arrangement. His only request so far— that he not shave his beard— was an odd request, but certainly not taxing.

That night it was only he and Balandor— and several bottles of wine— in the parlor. The topic of conversation quickly took a more thoughtful turn as the lord discussed some of his ideas for Minas Tirith and Gondor. Bregon found himself nodding in agreement to everything the other said, though if he were to be honest with himself, he did not understand a good half of it even sober. He had his strengths and weaknesses, and the finer tunings of politics was never one of his strengths. As the night wore on and he continued to help himself to generous amounts of wine, the politics became more confusing.

"What do you think, then, of Lord Hirion's proposal?" asked Balandor at the end of one of his long rambles. There was a slight frown on his face, for despite his question, he was sure that Bregon was beyond the point of thinking coherently. The other man failed to notice the expression.

"I agree with you," the cobbler slurred, shaking away some of the dark hair that fell in front of his face. "I agree with you on your— your position."

"The King has yet to name his own decision on the idea," said Balandor, "but I fear that he will not agree with me."

"The idiot!" Bregon shouted. "He should always listen to you, you know. You know Gondor. You help Gondor. You should be ruling."

Balandor laughed, his bright eyes twinkling in amusement. "I do not want to rule the country, Bregon. The question, however, is if you would want to rule, should you have the chance."

"Sure," the older man nodded with a lopsided grin. "And I'd name you my chief advisor, and we'd rule the land and make it rain gold!"

"You have interesting ideas, my friend," said the lord.

"Friend, eh?" Bregon laughed dourly. "Friend. Never thought I'd be friends with someone like you."

"But friend I count you, nonetheless," countered Balandor. "I do not give free lodgings to just anyone."

"Hmm." Bregon glanced at the other man darkly, an undisguised hint of suspicion in his grey eyes. "Free lodgings? I'm still wondering when I'll be made to pay for all of this." He watched the wine glass in his hand as if it were some enemy about to attack him, and after a long moment, set it down, his unsteady hand nearly tipping the glass over.

"Bregon," started Balandor seriously, "I have been providing you food and drink for over two weeks now. If there was a forced price to pay for all of this, I would have brought it upon you much sooner. You will not be compelled to do anything that you do not wish to do."

"But you want something of me," the other argued. "Tell me. Tell me now."

"I do," Balandor admitted with a small smile, "and I will tell you, but not just yet, and certainly not when you are in this intoxicated state. Nonetheless, I doubt you will disagree with my ideas; indeed, you might like them more than I."

"Curious," was his only response. He stood, slightly unsteady and did not spare the lord another glance. "I will retire for the night, then. I want to be alone." He left the room without another word. Balandor watched him leave, and when the door to the parlor closed he turned his attention to his own glass, his thoughts far beyond the shimmer of the red liquid.

***

June 24, early afternoon

Throughout the last few days the king had been distracted, and while most around Elessar did not notice this, Faramir had keen eyes. The distraction did not come often, but nonetheless it did come, and when it did his liege-lord's eyes would stare unseeing for a mere moment before returning to the present. Often when this happened he would look to the North.

When these brief episodes started to come more frequently, the steward took counsel with Mithrandir, the only other whom he dared to speak with about Aragorn at this time.

The wizard had smiled. "Your brief time of illness did not ruin your perception, Faramir. Indeed something distracts him, though few know of it. Do not worry!" he said when he saw the concern upon the young man's face, "he is well, and you will soon learn why he turns to the North."

This distraction, however, would never come during council meetings. Always Elessar had his mind on the conversation at hand, and his gaze pierced through every man in his presence. Never once had Faramir seen the other man raise his voice in council, and he hoped to never see that day. Many lords of Gondor who had not participated in battle had come back to the City once Sauron was defeated, and they were not afraid to test their new liege-lord, despite the support he had from the steward and the Prince of Dol Amroth. It angered Faramir, but Elessar always managed to handle all subtle tests thrown at him by others.

Faramir wondered, though, if he would see Elessar raise his voice today, for the lords were especially insufferable this meeting. There had been little on the agenda for discussion, for the king had wanted to do what he only called an "experiment".

"Experiment?" Imrahil had raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Aragorn had smiled. "A true man's nature can show when he chooses the topic of conversation."

So far the results were not promising. Once the items on the rather short agenda were discussed and decided upon, the king had asked what sounded like a simple question: what was, in their opinion, the most urgent topic to discuss next? The king's secretary, Mithor, had shot a brief look to his liege, clearly wondering if Elessar knew what he was getting himself into.

The steward wondered himself if he did, for the question was sure to let tongues fly as quickly as they could. And, as he expected, few lords seemed to agree with one another on what was urgent.

For one, the lords of Minas Tirith and the lords from other parts of Gondor did not see eye to eye with one another on seemingly any issue. Lord Eradan, the head of the Woodworking Guild in Minas Tirith and a rather loud, boisterous man had spoken first, ignoring looks from some members of the Council of Gondor who believed that the men of the Council of the City were below them and had no right to speak before them.

"I worry about the state of Ithilien. While I realize we still have soldiers fighting in the woods, I don't believe we have enough men. Already there have been attacks on those traveling in the area and I fear for the people's safety."

"The only thing you fear for is the safety of your wood," Lord Siranor of Pelargir had retorted with a snort. "The only men there are your lumbermen looking to make a swindle off honest citizens."

Lord Eradan looked deeply offended by the comment, but Lord Iorgil, an older, heavily tanned man who watched over the docks of Harlond outside of the City, had laughed. "Perhaps, my lord, but you do not live in Harlond and have not seen the refugees looking for a crossing to Ithilien, believing it completely safe now with the Dark Lord vanquished."

The debate had continued between the three for a while longer, only ceasing when the king had stopped it. Many members from both Councils looked relieved, but the slightly agitated expressions returned when the young lord Galabor of Anórien stood to speak. Aragorn only raised an eyebrow as Galabor said his piece. Imrahil turned his head, though whether to conceal his amusement or frustration Faramir could not be completely sure.

"We have already discussed this, Lord Galabor," said Elessar calmly. "We will look into this matter in the future, but there are more pressing concerns than changing the mint of Gondor's currency. And when we do," he added, "there is no reason to put my image on it."

Galabor looked disappointed but did not argue, for which Faramir was thankful. The almost worshipful way the lord from Anórien treated the king bothered not just a couple of people in both Councils.

"There is, my lord," started Angmoth of Lamedon tentatively, "a matter which I hesitate to bring up, but has been on many of our minds."

Elessar looked to Angmoth and nodded at him to continue. His father, Angbor, had led a great many troops from areas around the coast and came to Minas Tirith after the Battle of Pelennor Fields; his son had marched on to the Black Gate. Angbor had returned home to look after his own people and had allowed his son to represent him and their homeland.

The younger man was still for a moment before he said, slowly, "There is the matter, my Lord King, of securing your position as soon as possible. There has been no word, of, well—" He paused, as if unsure as to how to say it.

"What he means to say, my lord," said Lord Camaen of Lebennin with a slight smile, "is that most, if not all of us, wonder when you will name a queen."

The king's secretary put down his quill as he glanced at his lord, his curiosity getting the best of him. Mithor shot a look at Lord Húrin, Warden of the Keys and friend for many a year, to see if he knew anything on the subject, but the other man seemed just as curious as everyone else in the room.

Aragorn kept calm as he looked at the two lords. "Rest assured, my lords, that there is nothing to be concerned about, nor anything that needs to be discussed on this issue."

"Then there is a woman?" Bavanor, head of the Stonemason's Guild of Minas Tirith and nearly as renowned for his girth as the late Forlong the Fat, asked with a raised eyebrow.

Faramir watched as lords Hador and Balandor, both part of the Merchant's Guild, exchanged glances, but diverted his attention back to his liege to see how he would respond. He knew that there was someone, though he had yet to discover who it was. He was sure, however, that she was not yet in the City, and likely not yet in Gondor. Other than that, he was just as ignorant as the rest of the people in this room on the matter. Still, Elessar had managed to evade the questions for the last few weeks, but never before had it been asked in a council session.

"There is," he answered, "but that is all I will say on the matter."

Hushed conversation and murmurs flew around the large table as the king gave the confirmation, but Bavanor did not seem to hear— or simply ignored— his last part of the sentence. "We should know who it is," he argued. "There is no reason you should not tell the Councils— unless she is of an inferior nature," he suggested.

Galabor and Imrahil stood in their anger, and many other lords had expressions ranging from fury to utter shock as they looked at the outspoken man. The king was completely still, though those who knew him well saw that he was merely restraining his rage. Faramir saw the anger in his thinned lips and clenched fists, but said nothing.

It was, surprisingly, a woman's voice who broke through the stillness.

"It is not our place to question our lord's choice of queen," said Lady Mirdegil, head of the Jeweler's Guild in the City and the only woman part of either Council. "Nor, Lord Bavanor, is it our place to determine whether she is worthy or not. We are here to determine policies that will bring prosperity to Minas Tirith and to Gondor, not to gossip about proper choices of spouse." She fell silent again, but the small, lithe woman and her soft, but firm voice left the room completely still.

"We are done for today," finally said the king, and it was not difficult to see that he was furious. "Dismissed."

There was only the sound of the scraping of chairs as the members of the two Councils bowed and, without a word, left the room. The only ones who stayed were the king, his steward, his secretary, and Imrahil.

"How dare he!" said Imrahil angrily once they were alone. "He should be thrown out of Minas Tirith for his insolence!"

"It is tempting," was the only thing Aragorn said on the matter. He turned to his secretary. "You are dismissed, Mithor. I shall meet with you later to discuss tomorrow's agenda."

"My lord." The man stood, bowed, and quietly left the room.

The Prince of Dol Amroth was still red in the face but said no more on the subject and was not prepared to until his liege-lord brought it up. Aragorn, however, simply forced himself to unclench his fists as he stood and paced the council room. He stopped as he reached the window that looked to the North and gazed out onto the Pelennor. His rigid figure began to relax, and it seemed to Faramir that the king almost slumped, something he had never seen the man do before.

"Sire?" Faramir asked uncertainly.

Aragorn turned to acknowledge him, but when he was only greeted with silence, he turned and left the council chambers.

Imrahil's anger dissipated into concern as he watched the king leave. He turned to his nephew, his brow furrowed in worry. "What foul mood has taken Elessar? Never have I seen anger turn to sorrow so swiftly, and his anger was justified."

"I know not," said the steward. "I know not."

***

Balandor swiftly returned to his house and found Bregon practicing his writing. For a man who was practically illiterate a month ago, he was learning quickly more complicated Westron and Sindarin text as well as calligraphy. He still had a ways to go, but Balandor hoped that by the summer's end he would be adept in reading and writing both the Common Tongue and the Grey Tongue.

"You are back early," Bregon said in greeting.

Balandor ignored his hidden question and rather sat down, deep in thought. Bregon looked annoyed by the gesture but knew better than to try and pry any information out of him; the younger man would not say anything he did not wish to say. "I heard something worthy of note in the council today," he finally spoke.

"Yes? What was it?"

"Elessar has a lady."

Bregon raised his head from the parchment in surprise. "He is married?"

"He did not say if she was yet his wife, just that there was a woman."

"Interesting." He turned his head back to the parchment. "Any idea who she is?"

"Likely an unannounced arranged marriage with one of the lord's daughters, though I cannot begin to fathom why he does not speak about it. They could still be sorting out her dowry. It may be Imrahil's daughter, or Angbor's youngest; they are both attractive women."

"You do not think that it is someone from wherever he came from?"

"Arnor?" Balandor was silent for a moment. "Perhaps; if she were, then it is likely his wife. There would be no reason not to announce her to the Council, though. Even the lords Faramir and Húrin seemed not to know who this mysterious lady is."

"Perhaps she is not of noble birth." Bregon made a face. "You lords are always so concerned about lineage."

"Do not mistake me for those fools," Balandor suddenly snapped, and the older man turned to look at him in surprise; it was the first time he ever heard the usually emotionless lord turn to anger. "Besides," he continued, his calm countenance regained, "Elessar would not wed one of ignoble birth."

"Likely right," Bregon nodded, turning once more to the parchment. "Lords forbid he had a stain upon his reputation; he would not do that to himself."

The hate was evident in the man's tone, and the lord raised an eyebrow. "I would hope you do not speak of the King like that to others."

It was the cobbler's turn to snap. "Of course not. I may be a mere commoner, but I am no idiot."

"Mere commoner," Balandor mused. Bregon only turned angrily away from him and focused his attention on perfecting his script. 'You shall be much more than that when all is done.'

***

He found himself leaving the White Tower and striding quickly down the wide lane that led to the Court of the Fountain. He remembered vaguely acknowledging the saluting guards as he passed, but it was not until he reached the White Tree that he stopped.

Aragorn sat down upon one of the benches that surrounded the tree and stared thoughtfully at it. Still withered and barren it remained, despite the fact that he had ruled Gondor already for two months. He had hoped that it would bloom again and bring new life and hope, but it looked no healthier than it did the first time he laid eyes upon it when he came to Gondor as Thorongil so long ago.

His gaze turned from the tree and once more to the North. Was there, then, no hope for him? Elladan and Elrohir had left with Éomer's company to meet with Elrond, but there was always a chance that their father had a change of heart and would not allow Arwen to marry him. Would there not have been word from Edoras already if they had arrived?

The man could not help but worry, for his sign of hope and of a new age had yet to come, and the possibility of a future with no hope for himself looked all the more real.

"Ever looking to the North still, Aragorn?"

The former Ranger nearly jumped in surprise; he had not heard anyone approach. "Gandalf," he said in greeting. "My apologies, I did not notice you."

"And thus you reveal the depths of your thoughts," said the wizard with a small smile. He sat down beside the man and glanced casually at him. "I heard rumor of an interesting council session taking place not too long ago. It seems some members of your Council went a step too far."

Aragorn glanced exasperatedly at him. "I never knew you one to listen to court gossip."

"And I usually pay no mind to it, but I have all the evidence of its truthfulness sitting right beside me." The king softly snorted at the statement, but said nothing in return. "While others may not know, I am well aware of why your gaze ever turns to the North. Your Steward noticed it, you know."

"He would," Aragorn replied. "Faramir is very observant. Was it he, then, who came to you concerning his distracted king?"

"Not today, no," responded Gandalf. "I came on another errand, one that requires your presence."

Aragorn turned fully to the wizard, his interest in the conversation increased. He would rather not discuss his worries about Arwen, not even with his old friend; if Gandalf had something to distract his thoughts, he would gladly take on whatever he offered. "What is this errand?"

"A long errand," he answered cryptically. "It will take about a day, I imagine, and I plan on leaving tonight. Will you be ready?"

"I will, though Galdir will rue the short notice."

Gandalf chuckled. "Your Captain Galdir will rue it more that he cannot come— at least the whole way."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "I doubt he will be happy to hear this, but he must be content with it. Where do we go?"

"A short ways outside of the City, but beyond that, I will not say."

The man laughed. "Always speaking in riddles, my friend. Very well, then, I will be prepared to depart tonight."

"Very good. Meet me here an hour after sundown, and wear warm clothes; it might become a bit cold."

***

About half an hour later after his conversation with Gandalf, Aragorn found himself outside of Galdir's quarters. As the Captain of the Royal Guard, his quarters were on the Citadel level of the City, just behind the king's house. This arrangement made Galdir easy enough to track down; if not on duty, he was usually in his apartment with his wife.

While he knew that he legally had the right to enter any building in the Citadel without announcement or permission, the former Ranger could not see himself breaking any rules of propriety simply because of his new-found status. And so, despite the fact that it likely looked odd to any passerby, the King of the Reunited Kingdom knocked on the door of his captain's apartments and waited patiently for the door to be answered.

He heard shuffling and quick steps on the ground before the door was opened by a man nearly as tall as Aragorn himself. He bore the usual features of the Gondorrim with his dark hair and grey eyes, but he made himself stand out from the crowd with his commanding presence. It was no wonder to Aragorn that Faramir had chosen him to be the captain; he bore the mantle of leadership easily.

"My lord!" Galdir said in obvious surprise. He bowed before him before continuing. "How may I be of aid?"

"It is rather for your own relief than mine that I come here now," he replied with a slight twitch in his lips. "May I come in?"

The other man looked slightly stunned by the question, and, if it had not been the king standing at his door, would have likely shot him a look that clearly showed just how stupid he thought that question was. Since it was his liege-lord, however, he only nodded and stepped aside to let him in.

Aragorn was surprised to see that there was another man already inside. He stood as the king entered, bowing deeply. Galdir smiled slightly. "This is Galerthor, my son." He could see the resemblance; though he was more slender than his father, the young man bore the same strong chin and deep, dark eyes.

"Your highness," Galerthor murmured with another bow.

He bowed his head in greeting, and then frowned slightly. "I hope I am not interrupting anything?"

"No, sire," said Galdir. "He was just—"

"Are you ready to go, Galdir?" A woman began to descend the stairs. "You know how your mother gets when we keep her— oh, my lord!" She halted as she spotted Aragorn, curtseying quickly in greeting. "I did not realize you were here." She glanced at the other men with a raised eyebrow. "I would have expected my husband or son to tell me."

"Never fear, Mirloth, I just arrived," he said with a light laugh. "You are going somewhere?"

"Down to the second level to dine with Galerthor's family and my mother-in-law, my lord."

"Unless the King has need of me," Galdir clarified.

Mirloth frowned. "You haven't dined with your son's family in weeks, Galdir." She turned to Aragorn with a slight smile. "Surely you understand familial obligations, my lord?"

Aragorn laughed again. "I am sure that we could work something out. First, may I speak with your husband privately for a moment?"

"Of course," said Galdir. He shot his wife a look before leading the king to his office. After shutting the door, he led him to a chair and, at Aragorn's insistence, sat down as well.

"There is no need for such formality in your own residence, surely?" Aragorn asked, a smile forming easily on his lips.

"If you say so, my lord," Galdir nodded uncertainly. While he had been part of his Guard for nearly two months now, he was still not quite sure what to make of Elessar or his odd sense of humor. That conversation with his wife made him only more unsure. "What is it that you need of me, sire?"

"Not much, if you decide to stay behind. Mithrandir is taking me on an errand outside the City tonight. I assumed you would like to know ahead of time."

The air of command slowly started coming back to Galdir as he frowned at this news. "So soon, my lord?" he asked. "What is the nature of this errand that it cannot wait?"

"I do not know," he admitted. "Wizards are often rather secretive and he only spoke in riddles. I do not intend on altering his plans for the night, however." Galdir did not look happy at this revelation and made as if to argue, but Aragorn continued, "And I will travel alone, if need be."

"Now that is unacceptable, my lord," the other man shook his head. "Traveling outside of Minas Tirith without an escort... it will be short notice, but I should manage to alert the Guard about this—"

"Not all of the Guard," Aragorn warned. "I do not plan on making a fanfare of this. One or two at most, and most preferably my kinsmen."

"If you leave the City, my lord, I should like to be there," Galdir pointed out.

"And what of your wife?" he asked with a slight smile. "She is expecting you."

His face grim, he said, "She knows my duty is to you above all others— even if I miss 'familial obligations'."

Aragorn shook his head. "I would rather not have your wife's wrath on my head. We shall leave when you have returned to the Citadel."

"That is kind of you, my lord, but there is no need to—"

"I will hear none of your protests," he interrupted with a smile. "I will not take more of your time from your family. When you return, find only one other guard to come with us, and have it be one of my kinsmen, unless they are both engaged in other activities."

He shook his head. "I will do as you say— but I still do not like this," the captain stated bluntly. "It is dangerous outside of Minas Tirith, sire, and the Wild is filled with treacherous things."

"Verily I know that," Aragorn pointed out, "yet Mithrandir would not take me somewhere that is filled with danger; this trip should be no longer than a day, and there will be no flourish at my departure. Beyond you and a few others, no one will know that I am leaving."

"Very well then, my lord," Galdir said, resignation in his voice. "The Lord Faramir will have my head if anything happens."

"He will soon know of my plans," the king reassured him. "If there are any heads he will be having, it will be mine."

Galdir only shot him a slightly incredulous look as they stood and left the study. They found Mirloth and Galerthor waiting in the front hall.

"When will you return to the Citadel, my lady?" he asked.

She glanced at her son. "Your wife always prepares a lavish dinner, and my mother-in-law will want us to stay for a while, but if you have need of him, we could be back in three hours."

"Two," said Galdir.

"Two and a half," Mirloth said. Her eyes narrowed slightly as if daring her husband to disagree.

"Very good," said Aragorn before they could argue further. "I will see you in the Court of the Fountain an hour after your return." He bid them farewell, chuckling to himself as he left his captain's home. It was pleasant— and amusing— being with the family, but he had other things to do. He still needed to speak with his secretary to cancel all appointments for the morrow, tell Faramir that he would be away, eat an early dinner, and dress appropriately for travel before he met Gandalf for whatever this supposed errand was.

***

June 25, early afternoon

Lord Húrin, Warden of the Keys of Minas Tirith, was interrupted from what was considerably rather dull work by a knock on the door. "Enter!" he called, brushing aside his askew greying hair in impatience. It was the fifth time he had done it within the last ten minutes; he was about ready to shear it all off.

He was immediately cheered up by the sight of the king's secretary. "Mithor! This is a pleasant surprise; I hope you do not have ill news," Húrin added.

"Thinking positively, as you always do," the white-haired man remarked sardonically. "Indeed, no, I was just hoping that you were free to dine with me for luncheon."

"Is it already the afternoon?" he asked in surprise, glancing through the window for the first time in hours. "I am afraid my mind has been rather preoccupied with work."

"Then you are certainly ready for a meal," Mithor said. He quickly stepped outside to ask the guard to find someone who could go down to the kitchens and fetch them some food, and then came back inside the office, taking the seat across from Húrin. They sat in silence for a few moments as he finished writing down a quick note. As he finished, Húrin glanced up to see Mithor lounging back comfortably in his chair.

"You look rather relaxed today, old friend," the Warden of the Keys pointed out.

"I am all but off for today. Surely you heard that Elessar left the City for some errand with Mithrandir?"

"I did hear of it from Faramir, yes. That cannot mean you do not have some work you are behind on." Mithor only raised an eyebrow. "My apologies. I forgot to whom I was speaking to."

"I cannot help if I am more proficient than you," the secretary retorted with a small smirk.

"Bah!" Húrin scoffed. "You are a secretary to one man. Along with seeing to rather random aspects of the City, I also was fooled into accepting the job as the Royal Treasurer. One day I will have revenge on my cousin for convincing me that it would keep me 'active'."

"Revenge for what?" A muffled voice came through the door.

"For my lack of free time, my Lord Steward!" Húrin called out to him. The door opened and Faramir came in, followed by a servant who bore a large platter of food. After she was gone and the newcomer was settled, he continued. "I do not know how you managed to coerce me to agree to all of this," he nodded to the large stack on his desk, "but one day I shall have my retribution."

"It is hardly Lord Faramir's fault that you took on more than you can handle," Mithor said with a chuckle. "Nor is it his fault that you took on possibly the worst job in the Citadel."

"Besides," Faramir added, helping himself to an apple, "the stack on my desk is larger."

Húrin shook his head. "I can handle this quite fine," he said pointedly to the secretary, "and this is certainly not the worst position. That position belongs to Captain Galdir."

Faramir laughed. "Indeed! You did not see his sour look when I told him that I did not stand a chance in convincing Elessar to change his mind about leaving so soon and with so few. Even if I did, I wouldn't; I do not know what Mithrandir plans, but it would not be wise for me to interfere with him."

"Wise for you not to interfere indeed, my lord," Mithor nodded. "Do you know what sort of errand our king is on?"

"I haven't the foggiest," the younger man admitted. "I cannot begin to imagine what Mithrandir has to show Aragorn outside of the City."

"Perhaps it has something to do with the king's mysterious lady," Húrin suggested.

"I doubt it," the steward said. "I do not believe Mithrandir would keep it a secret from the King if it did, and Aragorn did not seem to know what the wizard was to show him, either."

"Wizards," Mithor shook his head. "I cannot say that I am saddened that I never got involved with one. They are rather unpredictable."

"He speaks in riddles, to be sure," Faramir confessed, "but he is a worthy mentor, and I trust him just as much as our liege-lord."

"It did not make Galdir any happier," Húrin pointed out with a chuckle. The other two joined him.

"Indeed not!" said the steward with a smile. "I imagine that he is on his highest guard even as we speak."

***

Ten minutes. Ten minutes were now passed and he had yet to completely beat down the urge to follow Elessar up the mountain path that he had taken with Mithrandir. Indeed, as every minute passed his urge only became worse. The worst part about this whole situation, though, was not that his liege-lord was completely alone with only a wizard as company, nor that he was strictly forbidden to follow him, but that his companion was completely and utterly nonchalant about these circumstances, which only drove him ever increasingly mad.

Galdir shot Meluion a dark look as the other man finished brushing down the king's steed and went to brush down his horse, humming as he did so. Humming! There were situations for humming, and this was certainly not one of those situations. Their king was all but alone on an uncharted mountain path, in a world where evil things still stirred despite the Dark Lord's fall, and this man had the audacity to hum as if everything was all right on Arda.

Meluion felt the dark gaze on his back, and rather than turning to acknowledge it, called out cheerfully, "My mother used to tell me, Captain, that if I frowned long enough, the expression would be stuck on my face."

"It is quite stuck already, Dúnadan," Galdir shot back, "and it will remain as such until Lord Elessar is back."

The older man, who had more strands of grey than dark brown on his head, turned to face him, amusement evident on his features. "Aragorn has been wandering the wilds on his own for longer than you have lived, Captain. I wouldn't worry too much about him. Besides, Gandalf would not lead him into unsafe territory."

"How can he know it to be safe?" the other man rebutted. "Before this day, I did not know that this path existed and I know the area around Minas Tirith well."

"If that is the case, then there is no reason that evil creatures know of it, either," Meluion countered, the cheerfulness still in his voice. Galdir only muttered something under his breath in reply and went to see to his own horse. The wizard's horse, Shadowfax, neither of them had dared to touch, and seeing as he had went off on his own soon after the wizard's departure, the decision was quickly taken out of their hands.

The afternoon wore on and soon the sun set beyond the western horizon. This did not sit well with the captain at all, considering that Elessar had yet to return. Meluion, of course, did not seem perturbed by this at all, and had spent most of the afternoon being incessantly cheery. The former Ranger attempted several times to have some sort of conversation with Galdir, but the other man was too distracted to be a decent converser. The older man had finally accepted defeat and was enjoying his pipe by the firelight when the captain suddenly and quite surprisingly spoke to him.

"That is a strange habit," he nodded to the pipe. "I have never seen such a practice before your kinsmen came to Minas Tirith."

"It seems to be secluded to Arnor," Meluion admitted. "It is likely because hobbits invented the practice, and it spread from their homeland."

"Hobbits?"

"It is what Halflings call themselves."

"Hobbit," he tried the name on his tongue. "What a strange word, yet fitting for them." Galdir stared at the pipe still. "Do all of the people in the North do it?"

"Not all of them— certainly none of the Elves!" Meluion said with a smile as he remembered his first time seeing Elrond's sons and their reaction to pipe-weed. "It's common amongst hobbits and other Men, including my own kindred, however."

"Do even the women smoke?"

"Occasionally. My mother was rather renowned for her constant pipe-weed smoking. My father was not fond of the practice and I still remember their arguments concerning it. They both passed on some time ago, though I can't help but imagining that they still argue about it now." He chuckled.

"I cannot imagine my mother practicing such a thing," Galdir admitted as he watched the smoke fly gently into the air. "She was never the type to experiment in such oddities."

"Does she live in the City?"

"With my son, Galerthor, and his wife. She did not take fancy to living at the Citadel."

"The heights?"

"Our Lord King, actually," he chuckled, slightly surprising himself; was Meluion's mood infectious? "She was not much pleased to learn of my new position in the kingdom." Now why in the world did he say that, and to the king's kinsman of all people? If he let this joviality continue much further he may find himself speaking with such familiarity to Elessar, and that was beyond reason.

Meluion burst out laughing. He glanced beyond Galdir and called out, "My dear kinsman! I am afraid that there are those not yet wiled by your immaculate charm!"

Kinsman? Galdir stood and turned, but beyond the firelight there was only darkness; the slight crescent moon illuminated nothing. For a split second he thought that the Dúnadan was playing him for a fool, but soon an answer came.

"And who would that be, Meluion?"

"The captain's mother!"

A burst of laughter shot through the air, and soon enough the king and the wizard came into view. Galdir stood tall and firm, ignoring the laughter and trying to figure out how his companion had detected them far sooner than he did. His thoughts were interrupted, however, when he saw that Elessar carried what looked to be a young sapling.

Meluion immediately stood when he saw the sapling, his eyes filled with wonder. "Aiya Eärendil," he muttered. "That is not..."

"It is," Aragorn confirmed. "It is a sapling from the line of Nimloth."

The other looked upon it with great wonder as Galdir came to realization. "That is of the same line as the White Tree," he said, forgetting himself as he gazed upon the plant.

Gandalf nodded. "And from this day forward the White Tree shall grow and blossom once more."

***

Rather than rest and wait for the morning, Aragorn insisted on riding through the night so he could plant the sapling as soon as possible. They rode softly, for not only was there little light that night, but the king feared to lose his light grip on the young tree. Despite this, the four managed to reach the Great Gate of the City just as the first light was showing beyond the mountains in the east.

They quickly rode through the first six levels of Minas Tirith unhindered, for most of the City was asleep or just awakening and there were few out. They soon reached the stables at the entrance of the Citadel, and Meluion saw that the horses were attended to as Aragorn and Mithrandir quickly made their way to the Court of the Fountain. Galdir was sent to find men and tools to uproot the old tree, and by the time all was prepared a small crowd had gathered around the king and the sapling in his hands. The murmurs around him only became louder as the old tree was uprooted, but by the order of the king it was treated with reverence and laid to rest in Rath Dínen.

The sun was rising as Aragorn knelt beside the bare patch of dirt that once held the withered tree. Gently he laid the sapling in the hole that held its sire and pressed the dirt about it to keep it steady. The young tree gladly took to its new home and did not sway or falter, but stood tall and unyielding.

Once finished he stood, ignoring the crowd and their excited whispers and focused his attention upon the sapling. The young morning light hit the white flowers the tree adorned and they seemed to glow even brighter than when he had first found the plant in the snow upon Mindolluin. He turned his glance to Gandalf, who smiled at him, and then looked to the North with a bright light in his eyes. The sign was here; his hope for a future with his beloved had finally come.


Notes:

*Aiya Eärendil: What I hope sounds to be the equivalent of the Elves' "Ai Elbereth" for the Dúnedain. In Quenya, because it's Important.

*It was editing this chapter that I learned how to use Periannath vs. Pheriannath vs. Periain (and that with the former two, it was *not* a case of local accent differentiations, but rather the sneaky nasal mutation). After debating which to use of the former two with the English "the" instead of a Sindarin article, I gave up and used the word Halfling. Elvish is hard. Throughout the rest of the story you'll likely see all variants of the word.

*Húrin as Faramir's relative is an idea that first saw the author Larner use, and shamelessly borrowed the idea because I do love the thought. Go read her stuff if you haven't, they are wonderful tales.





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