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Hearts of Men  by Aelaer

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Chapter 5: Preparations

Midsummer, morning

He awoke feeling groggy, but incredibly comfortable. He associated the comfort with the wonderful mattress underneath him; such luxury could only be his room in Rivendell. As he breathed deeply through his nose, he realized that none of the smells he associated with the valley came with it. The scents themselves were not at all unpleasant, but most certainly different. Too tired to open his eyes to see where he was, and sensing nothing even remotely dangerous in the vicinity, he slightly shifted and relaxed, not yet ready to wake.

Aragorn felt something move beside him, and before he could fully absorb that thought, something light settled on his bare chest.

Eyes popping open in surprise, he saw a pale, graceful hand. His gaze followed the length of the arm until it came upon a fair face crowned with waves and waves of dark hair. Such a beautiful creature could only be one person.

"Arwen!" he cried, sitting up in shock. What was she doing in his bed? As he went to scurry off the bed, he suddenly realized that he was wearing nothing. 'What have I done?'

She stirred and opened her eyes, smiling at him sleepily. "Good morning, my love."

He blinked, wondering why she was not as shocked as he was, and glanced at the room for the first time. They were in some sort of large bedchamber made of white stone and covered with expensive silks, soft rugs, and detailed tapestries. Suddenly, all the memories of the last few months came to him, and he took a deep breath. Minas Tirith. King. Yes, these were his bedchambers. And Arwen… Arwen was his wife.

When Aragorn did not immediately respond, she glanced at him worriedly. "Estel? Are you well?"

He turned to her and smiled. Lying back down, he said, "How could I not be, I who have the greatest, the most brilliant, the most beautiful wife in Arda? How am I so lucky?"

Her own smile widened as he spoke and she answered by embracing him. In his ear she whispered, "And how am I so lucky to have the noblest, the most selfless, the most loving husband there has ever been?" She kissed him softly near the ear, then his cheek, and then his lips, and Aragorn gladly returned her advances.

A few minutes later they lay there silently, content to simply be in each other's arms, listening to the soft sounds of the other's breath. Aragorn gently stroked her hair with slow repetitions while she softly inspected his free hand. Her heart cried for her husband as she saw the old, permanent scars beginning at his knuckles and continuing up his arm, but she kept her face peaceful and remained silent. Those were stories for other days; for now, Aragorn seemed not to worry about them, and she did not want to break the bliss of the morning by recalling his days of woe and terror.

After a moment of gazing only at the top of her head, his eyes strayed to the window. It was bright out and it was much later than he usually woke. 'How late is it?' he wondered. He glanced down again at the woman in his arms. He decided it didn't matter.

Before long, Arwen rolled to the side and glanced at him, a playful smile on her face. "It is growing late, Estel. Do you have any plans to rise from bed before the day is gone?"

He shrugged lazily and smiled. "Not if you are here."

She smirked. "Well, my husband, then I am afraid you must rise. I have a family that is expecting to see me at least once today— and they would like to see you, too, of course. Adar worried about you after you left Imladris, though he admitted it not to me."

"I will certainly see them," he said. His eyes followed her and he could not help but watch as she left the bed and put on a robe to cover herself. He did not notice the robe last night; then again, there was little he noticed the night before if it did not fully concern his beloved.

Aragorn turned again to look at Arwen, and a smile came unbidden to his lips. Last night was exhilarating and wonderful. So wonderful.

She felt his eyes upon her and turned. When she caught his look, she started laughing. "I now understand that look, o husband mine! But you must be content with memories for now, for the breaking of the fast has passed and we will miss the midday meal if we linger about much longer."

"You know as well as I that we can have food any hour of the day."

"But some sort of structure would be preferred," Arwen rebutted with a smile. She indicated to a door behind her. "I shall be in my bathing chambers. Best ready yourself for the new day, Estel, for it is our first together as husband and wife." With a parting smile, she left the room, closing the door behind her.

He watched the door for a moment longer before pulling himself out of bed, grabbing the robe at his bedside before heading to his own bathing chambers. He smiled to himself as he opened the door. Yes, today was a magnificent new day: it was the beginning of a beautiful new life with his beloved.


2 Lithe, midday

Bregon hardly touched his food as he watched the young lord sitting quietly on the other side of the table, barely veiling his impatience. The older man, confined to the house for obvious reasons, nonetheless heard from the servants about the arrival of Elessar's bride, and the unexpected fact that she was an Elf. An Elf; that made their already complicated situation even worse.

Balandor had arrived very early in the morning yesterday, and was out most of the day on business and most of the night for feasting. It wasn't until now that they had a moment to actually discuss this new development, and thus far, the other man was proving to be less than communicative.

"Well?" Bregon asked, minding to keep his short temper in check. Balandor raised his eyes to meet his, and wordlessly beckoned him to continue. "What are we going to do?"

"About what?"

'About what?' he silently raged. Out loud, he said, "About the Elf! It is said that Elves are unnaturally canny; we have no hope in tricking her, especially if she is as close to him as the servants seem to think she is. There is no hope of this working, not with her as Elessar's wife."

"You doubt too soon," said Balandor. He was silent for a moment as he mulled over what he wanted to say. "This operation is delicate. We must move slowly if we are to have any sort of success. There are other things to prepare before we begin to plan for her—or Elessar, for that matter. Be patient, and concentrate more on your studies and less on the future. From what I have seen, these sorts of situations tend to right themselves, and opportunities come at the most unexpected of times. Ours will come." With that, Balandor turned back to his food.

The older man was dissatisfied with the answer, but he realized that he would hear no more from the man upon the subject. He, however, was not so willing to let the matter of the new queen be set aside so easily. He made a note to think upon it over the coming weeks, and perhaps he would have a solution even before the well-prepared Balandor. It would, perhaps, show this self-assured, indeed, smug lord that he was not a simpleton. And, he had to admit, he would enjoy proving that.


July 1, afternoon

Bregon allowed himself a smile of self-satisfaction as the words came easily from his lips and neatly onto the paper. He always prided himself on being a relatively quick learner, and that small talent was proving more useful than he ever thought it would be. And ever since Balandor told him why he wanted him to study, he only increased the hours in a day that he practiced. The tutor nodded slowly as he glanced over the man's writing.

"Good. Very good. Well done," he said. "You still need some practice, but you are fast. Soon enough, all of this will come naturally."

"It nearly is already," said Bregon. "Well, the Sindarin letters and runes," he amended. "Quenya is strange, despite some similarities with Sindarin."

"It will come soon enough, if you keep up your studies," said the tutor as he prepared his belongings for departure. "As you likely know, this was our last day together. I wish you the best of luck in your future studies."

Bregon raised his head and watched the old man wordlessly. While he would not admit it, he would miss his guidance a little; he proved to be a brilliant teacher, even if he did tend to digress often. There was still one thing, however, that bothered him, and while he was sure that Balandor wished him to say nothing on the subject, he could not remain silent for any longer. He had to hear the tutor's part in the young lord's ambitious scheme.

"How deep are you in Lord Balandor's confidence?" he asked suddenly, even as the tutor stood to leave.

The other man turned to him, confusion evident on his features. "Confidence? What do you mean?"

"You know exactly what I mean," he retorted. He knew that this old scholar had to be part of the plans; why else would he say nothing about the obvious similarities between him and the king?

The tutor's brow furrowed as he gazed deeply at Bregon. "I am not sure what you think I am," he said, slowly, "but I assure you, Lord Balandor has not made me privy to anything that may seem disreputable to anyone."

The younger man did not believe the tutor was lying, but if that was so, then his lack of comments concerning his appearance was even stranger. "Why would you agree to give me tutelage if you do not know anything? Surely you must know something."

"I do not know anything," said the elderly man. "I have known Balandor for a long time, and it was a simple request of tutoring an acquaintance of his. I was happy to make it, and I am glad that I did, for it proved to be an interesting time."

"Yet you— a learned, observant man— have said nothing on what every fool notices about me the first time they see me!" said Bregon, his brow furrowed in confusion. "Why do you not acknowledge the obvious when I cannot escape it elsewhere?" Would all the educated lords of Minas Tirith immediately see that he was not Elessar as this tutor seemed to know the first day they met? Was Balandor playing him for a fool?

The old man was silent for a long moment. Just as he was about to leave the room in frustration, the tutor replied quietly, "Loyalty and the assurance of living the rest of one's years needless can convince a man to turn a blind eye to even the most apparent of schemes, Master Pupil." With that, he bowed and left the office and Bregon alone to mull over his last words.


July 2, morning

The carriage rattled uncomfortably over the uneven dirt path, the bumpy road made all the more noticeable by the tense silence within the cabin. Little was said between them as they left Minas Tirith for the countryside, and, judging by the other's consistently pensive mood ever since Elessar's wedding, Balandor doubted he would speak much, if at all, during the ride to Lossarnach, and he did not bother to try and engage him in unwanted conversation. It was to the young lord's surprise, then, when Bregon did speak once they were about an hour out of the City.

"Why did you not tell the tutor my name?" asked Bregon.

"It is safer that way," he replied.

"How so? He turned a blind eye to my appearance and your scheme; what difference does it make that we not know one another's names?"

Balandor seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering, though the former cobbler immediately wrote it off as a misinterpretation; the lord never hesitated. "If something was to go wrong and suspicions arose, you could not reveal his part in this and he could not be used as evidence against your legitimacy because neither of you can name the other."

The dark-haired man nearly did not catch the last part of the statement. 'If something was to go wrong' rolled through his head a few times before he realized the full impact of the statement. "If something went wrong? What is that supposed to mean?"

"We are taking this plan slowly for a reason," Balandor stressed. "You must have many more months in lessons before you can even hope to imitate Elessar in public, never mind privately. If you prove to be as quick in learning swordplay, riding, and politics as you have been in reading and writing, we might make our move around the new year."

"The new year! That is several months from now!" argued Bregon. "I shall be ready by the end of this summer, surely."

"Do not be a fool," retorted the other. "Elessar's skills in battle are renowned; even if they are exaggerated, he was surely trained well, he knows a fair bit of lore, and is certainly fluent in reading and writing Sindarin. We are taking the course that allows as few chances of mishap as possible, and that will take time." A bright glint entered his green eyes as he studied Bregon. "Do you wish not to go through with this after all?"

Bregon turned towards the window on the door, idly taking in the various pastures and small clusters of homes that formed loose villages before replying. "You know my answer has not changed. I saw it in your mocking gaze."

"My mocking gaze? You misread me," said Balandor, his sandy hair waving slightly as he shook his head. "Your disapproval of Elessar trumps mine."

"My reason is personal," answered Bregon. "Yours is merely politics."

"Hardly," he answered, but did not clarify. "Nonetheless, does your loathing for the man overcome any inherent desires to reveal everything at the first sign of trouble?"

The other laughed bitterly. "You fear that I would reveal this all to be your doing? I imagine that one of your informants would dispose of me soon after if I made such a decision."

"I thought we were past this distrust," Balandor noted wryly. "I have, after all, given you my reasoning for seeking you out in the first place."

"And I know that I am merely a means to an end," Bregon snapped. "I am no dotard. The only reason you find me so compliant is because I have the same desire as you. But to answer your question," he continued before Balandor could retort, "no, I shan't speak of you at the first sign of trouble. By that time we will have come too far to do anything but adjust to whatever comes."

"I am glad we are of the same mind," said the young lord. "Your eagerness to bring change to Gondor is invigorating."

He could not tell if the other was being sarcastic or earnest and so said nothing on it. "It shall be simple enough to act as Elessar; all I must do is act arrogant and haughty to all those of a class lower than I, such as you lords always do."

"You once again mistake me for my colleagues," was Balandor's only reply, and a silence engulfed the cabin and remained with them for the rest of the day.


July 3, evening

Balandor and Bregon reached the lord's estate by the afternoon of the second day after setting out from Minas Tirith, and once they cleaned up from the road (and Bregon had shaved off his beard, which had become rather long and unruly after so many weeks of unkempt growth), they supped privately. It was during this time that Balandor explained Bregon's daily schedule.

"It will be a rather dull schedule, I fear," the lord said in between a bite of his meal. "Swordplay and archery after breakfast, luncheon, time at the stables, time with the tutor learning history, arithmetic, and of course continued reading and writing practice, supper, and finally time amongst ourselves where we will continue to mark your progress and map out the course for the future— and I train your voice."

He was utterly surprised by his last statement. "My voice? What do you mean?"

Balandor chuckled. "You do not believe that because you share looks that you share his voice as well?"

The other man's grey eyes lit up with the clarification. "I had not thought of that."

"You have had little contact with Elessar," the lord's small frame moved in a half-hearted shrug, though his bright green eyes revealed his amusement. "I have heard him speak often, thankfully, and while your voices are not the same, they are not too different from one another, either. With enough practice you shall soon enough be speaking like him naturally."

"How does my voice differentiate from his?"

"Your voice is higher, and you speak a little slower than he does, especially in Sindarin. He also has a slight Northern accent that you will have to learn to emulate. These should all be easy enough to correct. Do not look so forward," he warned, "easy enough to correct, but you must make his voice second nature if we are to have any hopes of this succeeding."

Bregon only nodded and turned his attention back to his food. The sound of two men enjoying their meal was the only noise that broke the silence for the next few moments. "How long will I be in this routine of yours?" he asked. "You mentioned we would not move forward with the plan for at least six months, but I cannot imagine this routine remaining constant for so long."

"Your progress will be observed, of course, but as I said before, we shall not go back to Minas Tirith until you have become very proficient in all of these skills. Besides," he added, the candlelight creating a dancing light within his pupils, "even if this takes years, will not the reward be worth it?" The young lord idly wondered if the man's impatience would overcome his desire to be rid of the newcomer who possessed his features.

The slight upturn of Bregon's lips was the only answer Balandor needed.


The next morning Bregon was woken early by none other than Falasgal. "Good morning, Master Bregon," he greeted cheerfully. "Lord Balandor is seeing to a few things, so I am to keep you company this morning. When you are ready, I will be waiting outside your door to escort you to breakfast, and then to the grounds for swordplay."

Bregon swiftly dressed himself in a plain tunic and comfortable leggings before allowing the other to lead him down to the dining room, where there was already a light meal laid out for him. He finished quickly and soon enough the two were outside.

"Lord Balandor wishes to see you trained in the art of swordplay, and he has hired a master swordsman to teach you. Tell me, Master Bregon, have you ever heard of Master Rangil?" At Bregon's negative response, the servant continued, "He lives at Erui's Crossing, the large town that, as you might have guessed, is right at the Crossings of Erui. This estate is only about a mile northwest of it; if you climb the large hill just west of here, you'll be able to see the town and the river quite clearly. Master Rangil is rather renowned about these parts. He was, for a long time, a part of the patrols that went into Ithilien when none ventured there."

"He was an Ithilien Ranger?" Bregon asked, surprised. "Does he have the blood of the Dúnedain in him, then?"

"Not as far as he knows— aye, I speak the truth!" Falasgal laughed at the taller man's disbelief. "I have spoken to him many times about it, and he swears he has none that he knows about. He certainly doesn't look like most of the Rangers, anyhow; you'll find that you are much taller than him, and his hair was nearly as light as a Rohir's back before it started going grey."

"How did he end up with the Ithilien Rangers, then? I have heard that only those with Dúnedain heritage are of those patrols."

"For the most part, yes, or so Rangil told me. Nonetheless there are a few there who are not obvious Dúnedain— some, like Rangil, who look like they better belong to Rohan than Gondor. When I asked him how he came to join a patrol of such men, he answered vaguely; he mentioned something about being at the right place at the right time. He does not speak much about it.

"Nevertheless, as I said, he is very renowned around these parts. I know he trained my lord a bit in the art of swordplay when he was younger, as well as other lords and their sons around Lossarnach. He knows a fair bit on archery, too, and you will likely learn something about that from him as well. You are privileged to be under his tutelage."

Bregon nodded, and he could not help but feel eager over Falasgal's description about this sword master Rangil. If he was as brilliant as the servant claimed he was, then he would certainly become skilled enough to pass off as the king.

They came to a large, penned-off dirt area, where sat an old man that Bregon spared a passing glance. As they continued towards him, slow realization dawned on him, and when they stopped at the gate and no one else came into sight, he slightly frowned. 'Surely,' he thought, 'this is some sort of trick.' When Falasgal only gently nudged him towards the ancient creature, he knew this had to be a jest on Balandor's part. This man looked old enough to be his grandfather; surely he could not be a master of the sword, not at such an age.

He slowly opened the wooden gate and approached the old man, stopping about ten feet in front of him. He shortly bowed his head to him, and the other nodded slowly in return as he watched him with sharp, emotionless eyes.

"You must be Bregon. I am Rangil, and I'm to teach you how to use a sword. Tell me, have you ever used a sword before?"


"Hmm. Very well, then." He leaned over to his side and picked up two blunt, plain steel swords, handing him one pommel first. "We'll start off easy. This sword is meant to be used with two hands, though you could try with one, if you are inclined. Hold it in a way that seems most comfortable to you." Bregon removed the sheath and held out the sword in front of him, readjusting his grip as the old man remained sitting with his open blade. When the younger man stopped shuffling about, he slightly smiled.

"Are you prepared?"

Bregon nodded, hoping that the frail-looking old man would not break a bone when he struck his sword.

He did not even see the other's sword fall upon his. In a move faster than his eyes could catch, Rangil's sword struck his and his blade went flying out of his hands before landing a few feet away.

"I was not fair," Rangil said to Bregon's rather open-jawed look. "You obviously were not prepared; you seemed deep in thought. Again?"

Managing a nod, Bregon retrieved his sword and eyed the old man warily this time, his grip tight on the two-handed sword.

"Are you prepared?" Rangil said once more. The other man nodded, not once taking his eyes off him.

Despite his concentration, he still could barely see the sword master's blade before it connected with his own. Once again his own sword went flying and landed, again, a few feet away, clattering miserably in the dirt as it fell.

"You were not prepared," Rangil said with a slight shake of his head. "Pick up your sword, Master Bregon. We will do this again."

By the time half an hour passed, he was able to handle one strike from the old man while he was sitting. It took another half an hour before he was able to keep the sword from flying away when the old man stood. He could not imagine how long it would take for him to withstand him in a duel.

"I believe that is enough for today," Rangil said, calmly taking away the blunt sword from Bregon's limp hands. The sword master had hardly broken a sweat after the hour while the cobbler could feel the muscles in his arms burning. "Tomorrow we shall start the real work; your stance is atrocious."

Bregon ignored the comment, still coming to terms that he was soundly disarmed again and again by this frail-looking, ancient man. "Master Rangil, where did you learn such skills? Never did I see my son use such tactics as yours when he practiced."

The sword master, noting the use of past tense, mentioned nothing about the other man's son and directed his response to the question. "Long ago, when I first joined the Guard in Minas Tirith, I had the honor of learning under a skilled master. He was a lieutenant when I first came to the City and enjoyed teaching new soldiers with the old masters, though he certainly did not look much older than me. By the time I came into my third year in the Guard, he was a captain, and I had the honor of being part of his company. In all my years ever since I still have yet to come across as great a swordsman as Captain Thorongil."

Rangil smiled softly as he remembered his younger days. "The captain had us train often to meet his standards, and even when we did meet those high standards, he would still have us practice whenever there was time to do so. But mastery of the blade aside, Thorongil was also respected for his honor, wisdom, and loyalty. Too often are such virtues unappreciated." The swordsman sighed lightly as he sat back down. "But as it is, those are days of the past." He glanced up at the dark-haired man. "Tomorrow I will not be as lenient with you, and we will train for much longer. Are you prepared?"

'He calls what he went through today lenient?' Bregon thought in dismay, but only nodded in response. The sword master grunted, sheathing both of the blades swiftly, and with a quick farewell, left the younger man to ponder all that he had learned in the hour.


After luncheon, Falasgal led him to the stables. In the stables there was the carriage, about a dozen horses, and several tools, horse-related and otherwise. Leaning against one of the stable gates was a middle-aged, cheery-looking man. His short hair was a shade darker than his heavily tanned skin, and a rather large, dark mole sat on the edge of his nose. Bregon carefully kept himself from staring at it.

"Lithor, here is your new student. Master Bregon, this is Lithor, the stable master here. You won't find a man more knowledgeable about horses in Gondor."

"He exaggerates," Lithor protested, but he grinned. "Master Bregon, welcome to Lossarnach! I understand you came with our lord but yesterday."

"Aye, Master Lithor, that is so."

"Well, if you ever have a chance, explore the grounds: the grass is trimmed and well-kept, the vineyards are beautiful, and Lord Balandor keeps a colorful garden that he allows all in." The man caught Falasgal's expectant glance. "Ah! But yes, I have a job to do. Go on, Falasgal, I am sure you have other duties. I shall watch our guest for a while." The other rolled his eyes, but smiled and lifted a hand in farewell as he left. "Come with me, come inside." Lithor led him to the stalls, which stood on both sides of them. "Now, Master Bregon, have you ever ridden a horse before?"

"No; there are few horses in Minas Tirith."

"Ah, well, that is not a problem; it is never too late to learn. And we have the perfect horse to start off with." Lithor went and stood in front of a stall that held a buckskin horse. "This mare here is as gentle as a mother and won't let you fall off. She's perfect for any beginner. Once you become more comfortable with riding, you can use another horse." He jumped over the stable gate and grabbed the halter hanging on a peg on the post that stood in one of the corners of her stall. "Here, Bregon, you will put on the halter." He quickly showed him how to slide and secure the halter on the horse's head, and then grabbed the lead rope. Attaching it to the halter, he signaled to the other man to move out of the way as he opened the door and led the horse out. He showed him how to correctly coil and hold the rope and then handed it to him. "Here, you lead her outside to the hitching post."

As they walked the mare outside, Lithor continued to chat. "The best way to get used to a horse is to spend time around it, and there is no better way than preparing it for a ride. As it is, Master Bregon, you'll have to learn sooner or later; even Lord Balandor has seen to his horse from time to time! Sometimes there are not enough men, or time, for even lords to simply let others do it. So best we start now, so you can learn how to care for a horse quickly."

He merely nodded and led the horse to the hitching post. He made to tie the rope around the post, but Lithor stopped him before he could begin. "No! There is a certain way to tie it, a special knot that comes undone in an easy pull but cannot be undone by the horse." He showed him how to do the knot slowly a couple of times and then had Bregon practice until he had it memorized. Satisfied, he went back into the stable and brought out the rest of the horse tack, as well as a couple of brushes and a pick.

"It's important to keep a horse clean. You always should clean the hooves and brush its coat before and after every time you ride. Always look for brambles and other such things in the horse's mane and tail, and be sure to brush them from time to time to keep them from getting too tangled.

"Let's start off with the hooves. What you'll want to do is stand about here, closer to the front of the leg you're cleaning so you aren't kicked by the horse. If you're dealing with a horse that's being a little skittish, be sure to calm it down before trying to get it to raise its hoof for you. Now, start here with the horse's foreleg. And what you'll do is slide your hand down her leg and grab here, just above the pastern." He held her leg and she automatically raised her hoof. The man grinned. "Now, if a horse you work with is a bit more stubborn than this girl here, you can say 'up' or 'hoof' or whatever commands the horse responds to. Be sure to hold the hoof rather than the leg." He let the hoof go and moved away. "Now, you try."

Bregon, to his knowledge, did everything that Lithor had done, but it still took a couple attempts before the mare would lift her hoof. The stable master nodded in approval. "Right, well done." He handed him the pick. "Now, when you clean the hoof, work away from you, from heel to toe, and avoid that soft spot right there." The man did as he was told, and soon enough he had cleaned all four of the mare's hooves. Lithor then showed him how to properly brush the horse, and before long they were working with the tack.

"I tend to put on the saddle first," he said, "though I've seen others put on the bridle at the start. Putting on a saddle is easy enough. First you lay on the saddle blanket, then the saddle, and then you fasten the girth to the saddle and bring it around the underside to the other side of the saddle. You want it secure, but not too tight, and be sure not to do it when the horse is in the middle of a deep breath— girth will be too loose, otherwise. Look out for wrinkles in the saddle blanket." Bregon, with Lithor's help, soon had the mare saddled; the horse was impeccably patient, idly swishing her tale from time to time as they worked.

"The stirrups are attached to the saddle and can be adjusted for your length. The easiest way to find a good length for you is to attach the stirrups, and then, with your hand touching this area where the stirrups are attached to the saddle, adjust it until the stirrup is the length of the bottom of your arm." Soon enough, both stirrups were adjusted for his height.

"All that is left now is the bridle," said the stable master. "Now, while some horses are trained well enough not to wander off, many still will if they are not secured, so we'll leave the halter on as we're putting on the bridle." He undid most of the halter but left it hanging loosely around the mare's neck. "I'll put on the bridle today while you watch, and you can give it a try tomorrow."

He slowly put the bridle on the horse's head, explaining each step as he went along. After he was finished, he swiftly attached the reins and handed them to a surprised Bregon. As Lithor undid the halter, he said, "We'll need the brushes, pick, and halter again, so we'll leave them here for now. You can lead her out to the ring."

Within minutes, they were in an enclosed ring and Lithor was expecting Bregon to mount the horse. He glanced at him, unable to quite conceal his trepidation. Now that they were actually there, he was not quite sure he wanted to do this right now. While he was not afraid of horses, he knew well that they were powerful beasts that could easily throw him off.

Lithor smiled gently at his expression. "Don't worry; it's not that bad once you're seated. All you have to do is get your foot in the stirrup and swing yourself into the seat. You generally mount the horse from the left, or near, side. I've seen some horses that will allow you to mount them from their right side, but not all are trained to accept that; it's best not to try until you know the horse! Now, just place your left hand about here, keeping a good hold of the reins, step, and mount. Come, Master Bregon, the mare is looking bored and wishes to walk about."

Taking a deep breath, the man did as he was told, placing his hands on the saddle and his foot in the stirrup. After another breath, the man jumped, swung his leg over, and collapsed into the saddle. The horse under him stirred and flicked her ears.

"Not so roughly next time, Master Bregon!" he laughed. "Try and lower yourself onto the horse rather than fall upon the saddle. She will thank you for your gentle handling."

He nodded distractedly, looking at the world around him. He was tall, yes, but the couple of feet the horse gave to his height altered the perspective amazingly. He glanced down at the reins in his hands, wondering how in the world they worked.

Lithor followed his gaze and grinned. "Are you ready to ride, Master Bregon?"


"Great. Let us start; the day is wasting away."


He really did not want to go down to dinner. He was exhausted after the day's work, every muscle in his body felt sore, and he really had no desire to bandy words with Balandor at the moment. His mind could not handle it.

He needed a drink.

Bregon heard a knock at his door and rolled onto his stomach, groaning into the fluffy white pillow that currently gave him no comfort. He really did not want to see Balandor. The knock came again, and he heard a muffled call of his name. Falasgal. Sighing, he picked himself off the bed, ignoring the throbbing in his legs, and grudgingly opened the door.

"Greetings, Master Bregon," said the servant cheerfully. "Dinner is just about ready." He blinked, and his smile fell as he looked upon the man's face. "Are you well?"

"No." He left the doorway and began rummaging through the room's cabinets, annoyance clear on his features as he continued opening every drawer in the room.

"Are you searching for something?"


Falasgal folded his hands together. "I could help you find it if you allow me to know what it is you are searching for, Master Bregon."

He shot the unnaturally good-natured servant a dark look, but quickly turned back to his rummaging. "Something strong to drink."

"Well, Master Bregon, I do not believe there is any sort of drink in your room, but I do know that there will be plenty at supper, where Lord Balandor awaits you." He looked expectantly at him.

Bregon sighed. He was not sure what was stronger: his desire to drink or his desire to keep away from Balandor. Within a moment, the former won out, and he let the servant guide him to the dining room. There, he saw the young lord was already sitting at one end of the table. When he saw Falasgal enter with the other, he slightly smiled.

"Good, you are here. Now we can eat." He nodded to Falasgal, and within a moment platters of food were brought to the table. Bregon eyed the pitcher of wine, turning to the food before the younger man caught his stare. While he did not feel particularly hungry, he ate normally, hoping to look distracted by the food. He quickly drank down his cup of wine once it was poured, and a servant poured him another. As he reached for it, Balandor cleared his throat.

"How was your first day here?" he said casually, making Bregon immediately suspicious.

He shrugged half-heartedly, attempting to relax his nerves. More wine would help, he knew. "Well enough." He drank the glass more slowly this time, well aware of Balandor's green eyes upon his figure.

"How did you find the sword and the horse?"

He shoved a piece of meat in his mouth, wondering how he should answer. What was the other looking for? If he lied about anything, he was rather sure that the lord would hear the facts from Rangil and Lithor, so he supposed the truth was best. He could think of nothing particularly condemning to him about the day in the truth, anyways. "Rangil mostly knocked the sword out of my hand. I managed to stay on the horse, though not much else." He drank the rest of his glass.

Balandor nodded slowly. "It will take time, of course, for you to learn. It will be interesting to see your progress in a month, or even a week from now. But there is something else I would discuss with you."

The servants were gone, so Bregon grabbed the pitcher on the table and poured himself another glass. He would need another dozen of these to last through one of the other man's discussions.

The lord watched the falling red wine silently. As the dark-haired man put down the container and reached for his cup, he said, "Tell me, Bregon, when did you begin drinking like this?"

Bregon stopped mid-motion, his eyes lifting from the cup to the man across the table. "Like what?"


He lowered his hand, his grey eyes blazing as he spoke. "What are you accusing me of?"

"It's not an accusation, Master Bregon, but a fact. My servant found you heavy with drink at the Old Guesthouse before we met. Near every day in my house in the City you drank more than necessary, leaving you despondent and vulnerable. I had hoped you'd leave the habit behind once you agreed with my plans and we left Minas Tirith, but you seem to have brought it with you. Now, I ask again; how long?"

The man grunted noncommittally, but after a moment, answered, "Sometime after my son's death last year."

"I see," he said, staring at him expressionlessly. "And I imagine that, with the return of the King, it has only worsened." Bregon said nothing. The lord remained silent for a moment as he thought about the issue, and then said, "Well, that is something that must also be taken care of before you can ever hope to ascend the throne. We shall have water and juice with our meals for a while, until your body has been cleared and you are ready to practice temperance."

Bregon remained silent. He stood, glanced at his full glass, and then wordlessly left the room, loudly shutting the door behind him.


July 6, early afternoon

While the nightly celebrations over the wedding of the King continued, business during the day commenced once more. The lords gathered in the large meeting hall exchanged pleasantries as they waited for the luncheon served before the session. In the meanwhile, Aragorn hoped that the first joint council meeting since his wedding would be filled with less conflict than the last.

"My Lord King," said someone behind him. Aragorn held back a sigh; it was Galabor. He turned to greet the young Lord of Anórien with a smile. "Many blessings to you and the Lady Queen in your union." He thanked him graciously, wondering how many times the man would congratulate him before he stopped. Perhaps he had a poor memory; it would explain why he always brought up the issue of currency once every other session.

Before Galabor could continue speaking, Lord Bavanor approached, his portly body and confident bearing easily overtaking the other lord's almost frail frame. "My lord," he said with the tilt of his head. "I trust you have looked over my plans concerning the redesign of the buildings destroyed on the first and second levels?"

"I have skimmed them over," said Aragorn, watching from the corner of his eye as Lord Galabor ambled away, seemingly unperturbed by the interruption. "But first the walls must be fully repaired. Master Gimli is seeing them reinforced with a substance called concrete, which he claims will make them stronger against attacks."

"Yes, I well know the strengths of concrete," the head of the Stonemason Guild sniffed. "There is still documentation of the buildings in Númenor made of it, and some of its advantages over stone and lime mortar, though sadly the recipe for creating it was lost with the island."

"Most thankful then should we be for Master Gimli's assistance," said Aragorn. "The new walls will be very strong."

"I suppose so," said Bavanor. "But soon enough construction must start in the damaged areas of the City."

"Of course, but only when the repairs on the walls have progressed," he said. "Despite the Dark Lord's fall, we still have enemies and cannot let the walls remain as such for too long, and there are not yet enough people to fill the empty buildings still standing in the City, never mind new ones."

Before the other man could argue, they were called to be seated. While Bavanor was arguing with him, as usual, at least he was not questioning the eligibility of his beloved to be the Queen of Gondor. No, he thought with an inward smirk, there were certainly no more doubts about her lineage not being high enough for the king.

He sat at the head of the table, with Faramir and Imrahil on either side. To Faramir's other side sat Húrin, and by the Warden of the Keys was Mithor. Next to Imrahil was Angmoth, and by the son of Angbor was Lord Camaen of Lebennin. That was as far as Aragorn could politely converse without shouting, for which he was somewhat thankful; already there seemed to be a heated discussion on the other side of the table between Lord Siranor of Pelargir, Lord Iorgil of Harlond, and Lord Hador of the Merchant's Guild. It sounded as if they were arguing about tariff rates— again. At least, he noted with some relief, Lord Bavanor did not seem to be raising any conflict; he seemed to be laughing about something with Lord Dervorin of Ringlo Vale and not at all being antagonistic.

'Then again,' he thought dryly, 'the only person he seems to actively antagonize here is me.'

Aragorn let that thought die and brought his mind to the conversation taking place around him. Camaen, a rather tall, but slightly built man that bore the common dark hair of Gondorrim, seemed to be in the middle of some sort of story.

"… and that is when my brother, furious at the thought that our sister told this suitor not to even bother to ask for his permission, went to hunt down this man himself, she angrily yelling at him even as he left the house." He suddenly chuckled. "He was readily relieved when he learned that the man was honorable and part of the large House of Dol Amroth."

"Yes," Imrahil agreed with a smile. "I lost track of my grandfather's many siblings and all of their heirs long ago, leaving such following of our family history to my sister, but I have yet to hear of one that has been dishonorable or careless."

"Does your brother rule there as you represent your area of Lebennin here in the City?" asked Angmoth.

Camaen's smile faded. "I am sure my lords remember the sickness that came to Gondor in 3012." Even Aragorn nodded; while the sickness did not reach Eriador, he heard news of the bout of illness that came that winter, for it was worse than any winter colds in many years. "My brother, sadly, fell ill and succumbed, and I inherited his place as heir. As he did, I chose to come to the City to be part of the Council of Gondor, and remained here after our father passed a year later. While the land belongs to me, I am content to leave it currently in the hands of my sister and her husband— they lost their estate, which was on the Anduin, to Corsairs. I am glad that I do not have to travel back and forth, for I enjoy Minas Tirith."

"It is a beautiful city," said Faramir with a smile, "and it shall only grow in beauty now with the fall of the Enemy and the return of the King." Aragorn nodded his head in acknowledgement towards the steward.

"To the King," said Angbor with the slight raise of his glass. Those within earshot lifted their glasses with him.

"And to the new Queen of the Reunited Kingdom," said Húrin. "May your years be long and blessed." Aragorn raised his cup to this toast.

After luncheon, now with their stomachs contented, the council commenced. Much of the same topics were discussed and reported upon, and there seemed to be a slow, but steady progress in the war recovery efforts in both the City and Gondor as a whole.

"There has been word from my uncle, the lord of Pinnath Gelin who rules there in my stead, concerning the seed and food available now," said Lord Hirion, a young man only come to his position after his father Hirluin fell in the War. "Just as it was when our company left the Green Hills early this year, that land has only heard rumors of war, and their crops and seeds are bountiful. He understands the needs of much of Eastern Gondor, and while some of the landowners have grumbled, there have thus far been no outright protests over the temporary tax."

Lord Siranor reported gladly that there was word that traders from the South had begun to finally come to Pelargir once more, and thus far there were no reports of hostile activity from them. "The high tariffs, however," he said a little stiffly, "they are unhappy about, and there have been complaints from them that we are robbing them."

"Those Southrons shouldn't have made war with us, then," Lord Dervorin of the Ringlo Vale said shortly.

Siranor glanced at the other lord coolly. "We do not conduct trade with Black Númenóreans or Southrons that aided the Enemy, and it is now known that not all of the tribes in Harad worked with Mordor, and many did so due to the threat of annihilation. We have also had traders come from beyond Umbar, happy to be able to travel so far north without fear of the Corsairs raiding their ships. They bring goods that have not been seen in Gondor for many a long year, and the tariffs deter them from more business."

"Nonetheless, the merchants of Gondor need time to rebuild their businesses and the economy," argued Lord Hador. "Business has suffered over the last few years in Minas Tirith, coming to a near standstill this last winter and early spring, and it is the same all around Gondor. We need time to reestablish our place in the Gondorian economy, and if my colleague Lord Balandor were here, he would agree with me."

The Lord of Pelargir made to argue, but the king held up a hand. "We've had this conversation before, my lords, and my verdict remains the same. The tariffs shall remain as is until Gondor's people have sufficiently recovered to offer competition to foreign trade. We shall review the matter after the Mettarë recess."

Lord Siranor bowed his head deferentially in the king's direction, his expression carefully schooled. They soon moved onto other subjects, topics old and new discussed and argued, until all topics on the agenda were covered.

Before Aragorn released the council, he made a short announcement. "I have received word from King Éomer of Rohan that he will be here in about two weeks time to escort the late King Théoden to his homeland. I, the Lady Queen, and the Lord Steward shall be joining them, and it has been decided that all of Minas Tirith's northern guests will begin their journey home with the Rohan procession, departing Edoras after the funeral. The King of Rohan has graciously offered an invitation to all here to join the procession, though he understands if duty keeps many from taking the offer. Húrin of the Keys shall rule the City while Lord Faramir, the Lady Arwen, and I are away. While we are gone, there will be no joint council sessions, and I will see to the decisions made in my absence once I return."

"How long do you expect to be away?" asked Lord Eradan of the Woodworking Guild.

"I must see to Isengard, as that is still part of Gondor, so it will likely be a couple of months," said Aragorn. "I expect that most of the procession from Gondor shall remain in Edoras and return to Minas Tirith sooner." Scattered nods met this comment, and when there were no other enquires, he adjourned the council.


July 12, afternoon.

Despite the continued celebrations every evening, during the day Aragorn eventually fell back to the normal routine with one great exception: Arwen was by his side. Her presence, even when he was working, made his life complete.

As he read over a report detailing the repair work on the walls of the first level, his wife suddenly spoke up.

"I will not go beyond Edoras."

Aragorn raised his eyes in surprise. "You will not travel with me to the northern border of Rohan?"

She shook her head. "Nay, dear, I had another thought in mind." She set aside her embroidery and rose from her chair to join Aragorn. He put down his paperwork and allowed his bride to sit on his lap. She leaned against her husband and sighed contentedly before continuing. "I spoke with Lord Imrahil's daughter, Lothíriel, a couple days ago. She told me a little about her mother and the travels she made with Imrahil throughout Dor-en-Ernil when he came to princedom. She personally went out to meet with her people.

"While I realize you shan't be able to make such a trip for a while, there is nothing preventing me from doing so. Despite the readings I have done and the stories I have heard, there is still little I know about Gondor. I would hear the people's concerns and relay them to you— and perhaps even abolish some ridiculous superstitions and rumors while I am at it." She chuckled and shook her head, but her lightheartedness did little to ease Aragorn's worries.

"Travel through Gondor by yourself, and so soon?" He frowned. "I do not understand your reasoning."

She stood and sat across from him so as to look her husband straight in the eye. "We have been married for but a fortnight and already you are back to work. I cannot read and sign laws and contracts for you, meleth, but I can listen to our people, hear their concerns, and save you the time, since you have none to spare. Besides," she added with a smile, "I would hardly be alone. I have already spoken with my father, and he is most interested in speaking with you about a few Elves traveling with me alongside any sort of royal escort. It will ease his worries if you acquiesce to his request."

"It would ease my worries, as well," he said. "I know the warriors of Imladris better than the warriors of Gondor; it has been long since I've been in the South."

"So I thought," she said. "I will also be in the company of Lord Imrahil for some of the time, and once he hears my plans, I imagine he will expand my escort. As it is, my brothers think it is a good idea."

Aragorn was surprised by this. "Elladan and Elrohir agreed to this?"

She laughed at his wonder. "They rode through the very lands I plan to see, and they saw nothing I and a royal escort could not handle. If I rightly recall Elrohir's words: 'A land of peasants with a minor lord here and there, most unfit to weald a sword'. They are a peaceful folk, Estel, many who were unused to war until they were called to it."

"Aye, there are very few warriors," he agreed. "Most fled in terror as we rode to the Anduin, and those that joined us to fight were warriors among the coasts fighting the Corsairs."

"Exactly," Arwen said, smiling. "And I am no stranger to the blade; my brothers saw me well trained."

Aragorn nodded, unable to argue with that. He had only seen her practicing once, when he had come unexpectedly to the valley after many months away. She had been just as beautiful then; slightly flushed and hair askew, but graceful and deadly with Elrohir, who had been practicing with her. He did not doubt that the granddaughter of Galadriel and the daughter of Elrond could defend herself if need be.

Still, he hated to think of her away for so long. "How long do you plan on being gone?"

She shook her head. "I have yet to map out a course. Imrahil, too, will be staying in Edoras, and so I will come back to Minas Tirith when he does, and travel to Dol Amroth with his company. From there I am not sure; it will likely be two or three months."

"The shorter course I ask of you then, my dear lady," said Aragorn. "I cannot say no to your request, especially since you have the support of Elladan and Elrohir, but I do beg that you come back to Minas Tirith as fast as you may."

"That is why I will not journey with you to Isengard," Arwen said with a smile. She joined Aragorn once more and planted a kiss upon his lips. "I, however, shall not distract you any longer. I have seen the amount of work awaiting you."

"I'd rather you distract me," he muttered into her ear, pulling her closer to his body. She laughed in delight and eagerly gave into his slight pressure, shivering as he began to bestow kisses over her face. As his lips traveled down her neck, she reluctantly pulled away.

"Later, meleth nín," she said. "The Lord Chamberlain is expecting me soon, and I would not have him come by and see what is delaying me."

"I do not mind," he whispered, a bright glint in his eyes.

She chuckled. "Neither do I, but I'd rather not have the Council's wrath over your delayed signatures." Arwen stood and let her hand linger upon her husband's a moment longer before leaving the room.


*Meleth nín: 'my love' in Sindarin.

*Falasgal's and Bregon's view of the Ithilien Rangers is based upon Frodo's view of the Rangers when he first comes upon them in Ithilien, and a few passages following his observations.

*The character Rangil's actions are largely inspired by sword master Bob Anderson, who trained many of the actors (including Viggo) in the LOTR films.

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