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Hearts of Men  by Aelaer

Sorry for the missed update last week, guys, you know how life is! I will be at the Comic Con in San Diego until next Monday, as well, so chapter seven may be delayed, too. If you're going to the con, I'll be the tall brunette passing out stuff at TheOneRing's panel on Thursday morning, so come and say hi! :-)

Also, a couple readers have pointed out a couple nasty homophone errors that I happened to miss, and one who knows much more about astronomy than I has given me a short lesson on where a moon would be during certain times. ;) I will correct these errors within the next couple of weeks, hopefully straight after vacation.

Chapter 6: High Summer

July 21, afternoon

Part of Bregon's overall schedule was familiarizing himself with history, a study that seemed to vary in terms of keeping his interest. Some parts of it were fascinating, while other parts he merely skimmed over when he could. At the moment, he was reading silently about the Downfall of Númenor, a read that captivated him more quickly than duller parts of the island's history. To think that the Enemy who managed to bring the destruction of a whole island was now gone! Part of him was unsure if he was truly gone as everyone else said, but even if he was not, at least he would unlikely appear again in his lifetime.

Over the last couple of weeks, the enforced sobriety brought effects he did not expect— effects that only made him want to drink, at least at first. He frequently had headaches throughout the day, and at night he felt sweaty and it often took him a long time to fall asleep. In those first days, he avoided Balandor to the best of his ability, afraid that if he saw too much of him he would end up punching him simply to give the lord a similar headache. Within the last couple of days, however, the symptoms were all but gone, and as he thought about drink less and less, he was able to concentrate more on his daily lessons. It had even come to a point that he could speak pleasantly with the young lord.

Reading Sindarin, too, became simpler when his want of drink became less. He now understood the greater part of all he read, despite the fact it was written in a tongue he could barely read but two months ago. When Balandor's hired tutor from Erui's Crossing visited biweekly, any words he could not read or understand were explained, and he found it easier, day by day, to understand them. He had yet to say anything to Balandor about the forced temperance and his diminishing withdrawal symptoms, but by the looks the sandy-haired man sent him, he had a feeling that he already knew his thoughts.

Despite all this, he still wanted wine again.

Bregon was interrupted by the arrival of the lord, his small frame still imposing even after living with him for a month. It was a fact that bothered him more than he could describe. His face expressionless, as usual, Balandor crossed the room and took the seat across from him.

"The Akallabêth?" he said in greeting, glancing at the book in his hands. "A sad story, though an important one."

"That Ar-Pharazôn was…" he trailed off.

"Arrogant. He let his arrogance overcome him, bringing the downfall of his people." He paused. "A story I hope you remember well when you are crowned."

He said nothing for a moment. "Did you come here for a specific reason?"

"Speak not so deeply, and less emphasis on the vowels," said Balandor; Bregon now only spoke in Elessar's voice, another thing that was slowly becoming easier as the days passed. "And yes, I did." He pulled a letter from his pocket. "I just received word from the City that Elessar, the Queen, the Steward, and all of their guests have departed Minas Tirith with the King of Rohan for the funeral of their last king, who fell in battle on the Pelennor. They are expected to be gone for a few weeks."

"Oh." He paused. "And what will I be doing during this time?"

"What you have been doing these last weeks, and more. You still have a long way to go to be Elessar."

"I am doing my best," he snapped.

Balandor ignored his outburst. "Next week, you shall begin archery after your sword practice with Master Rangil, and you will begin to focus more upon Quenya in your studies. The King spoke in the old tongue at his coronation, and it is no great stretch to believe that he is fluent in the tongue. Fortunately, I am as well, and I will see to your studies in the tongue at least three times a week."

"I look forward to it," he muttered dully, glancing back at the book in his hands. He frowned as he came upon a word that he could not decipher, and wished Balandor would leave so he could do his compulsory studying in peace.

The young lord studied him silently for a moment. "Remember our goal, Master Bregon. Though you may rue it, there is a reason for everything we do here. With patience, your time will come, and it will be worth it."

Bregon said nothing and simply went back to his book, but when the other man left, he lowered the text, his brow contorted as he wondered about the lord's words. The man was certainly preparing him in every way possible, and it seemed even less likely than before that he would simply abandon him to the wolves with some ill-planned plot. And getting back at Elessar would surely be worth all this trouble, would it not?

'In the end,' he mused, 'I have little choice. The days of meager meals and tasteless ale were just as mundane as these, if not more so, and less comfortable. And this tediousness will not last forever. It is not what I thought it would be, but not the worst that it could be. I must simply continue to bear it and veil myself more from Balandor so he cannot use my emotions against me anymore. It will be over soon enough.'

With that last thought, he put down the book and went to the desk, where the stationery lay; the handwriting of a king had to be better than where his skills currently were.


July 23, evening

Halvagor stared silently into the fire, the food on his plate untouched. He purposefully found a fire unoccupied by others for he needed a moment alone to figure out his chaotic thoughts.

It was an offhand comment Tandor made as they broke camp that reminded him of the day, and he was ashamed that it took so long for him to remember the date. He was no man who easily forgot time as the days flew by and he knew long that this date was approaching. Yet when it actually came, he forgot it until it was nearly passed.

What disturbed him just as much, if not a little more, was that it seemed that no one else remembered the day but him. Not one of his kinsmen made mention of it. Not Meluion. Not Aragorn. Not even his brother.

He wondered if they had forgotten it already.

A hand suddenly fell upon his shoulder, shaking Halvagor out of his reverie. Startled, he looked up and found both Halborn and Meluion looking down upon him. Irritated by the fact that he had been caught so off guard, he carefully schooled his expression as he eyed the two older men.

"Do not bother trying to fool me, brother," said Halborn in greeting, swiftly making his way around the fire and sitting down across from him. "You haven't touched your food, and the only time you don't eat is if you are sick or morose."

"And I'm too old to be tricked by such facial expressions," Meluion added, sitting down beside the young Ranger. "Come, tell us what bothers you. You have been grimmer than your usual self for the last couple hours."

Halvagor stared at them and they stared back. He knew their levels of patience were as great as his, if not sometimes greater, and he was in no mood to stare at them for the next hour. And, if he was to be honest with himself, he was curious as to what they would say, though he feared their responses. "Do you know what day it is?"

"July 23rd," said Meluion, his brow furrowing as he answered.

Halborn slightly smiled. "Adar's birthday."

He blinked, clearly surprised. "You remembered?"

"Yes." He studied his younger brother thoughtfully for a moment. "You feared that I had forgotten?"

"I feared that we all had forgotten. I just remembered but a couple hours ago," Halvagor confessed bitterly.

"Worry not about it," Meluion said, shaking his head as he pulled out a pipe. "Halbarad wouldn't have you fret about such a thing. Besides, you have an excuse. You were not there the day he turned fifty; everyone who was at that celebration has absolutely no excuse not to remember his day of birth."

A sudden grin lit up Halborn's face. "That is a day to remember. Father was little pleased with all of the commotion— at first."

Meluion smiled. "He asked for it after how greatly he mocked Aragorn after his fiftieth birthday celebration. I had to give him the same."

"It was much worse!" said Halborn with a laugh, causing his brother to slightly smile.

"The story seems to grow in the telling," said Halvagor softly.

Halborn sobered and gazed upon his younger brother seriously. "Meluion is right, Halvagor. Adar would not have you bemoan the fact that you did not immediately remember his day of birth. Knowing you, you have thought about it long for at least a month, just to have it slip out of your mind at the last minute."

"And if you do not believe me or your brother," said Meluion, "ask Aragorn. With exception to your mother, I would say he knew him best. He will say the same as us."

"Aragorn remembered?" the young man asked as the thought entered his mind, immediately wishing he could retract the comment. If they both remembered, Aragorn certainly would.

The other two, however, did not scold him for what he thought was a foolish question. "Yes," Meluion answered softly. "He woke early and left his tent, asking us to leave him for a moment. The Captain, well, you know how Captain Galdir can be, but I managed to hold him back for a while. Aragorn returned some minutes later, his expression carefully schooled to hide all sign of emotion. You know the look; it fools others well enough, but I've known him too long to fall for such acts. Still, at my look, he said nothing, but I knew, and he knew that I knew." The older man sighed softly. "We all miss Halbarad. It is unfair that he, and so many others, were never able to see the fruit of their labors."

"Our father knew," said Halborn. "He knew he was going to perish in battle, but he went nonetheless. He also knew— believed before anything else— that Aragorn would be crowned king. He may not have seen the days of the King, but he knew they were to come. That thought holds little comfort for the living, but we must take what comfort we can when there is none else to be had."

Halvagor nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you, Halborn, Meluion." He did not need to say any more; they understood. Glancing at his plate of now cold food, the young man sighed and put it aside before standing up. "Perhaps there is something left over that is warm."

"Go, eat," said Meluion. "Halbarad would even less like it to see you missing meals on his account." The young man smiled softly at the comment before turning and leaving the light of the campfire.


The moment the queen exited from her tent, Tandor and Dolmagor began to discreetly trail her, for Galdir assigned both of them to keep watch over her that night. He did not care how many people were in the camp or how many warriors surrounded her; as Elessar's wife, she was under the charge of the Royal Guard, and there were still dangers out in the Wild, dangers that could possibly sneak into a camp as great as theirs.

"I wonder where she is going," Tandor muttered to his companion. His older companion only shrugged slightly, his eyes cautiously darting over the numerous tents and scattered bodies; everyone but the guards on watch were deep asleep. Arwen did not seem to notice them as she silently walked through the campground, her feet bare on the summer green grass beneath her. There was little light in the camp and the moon was only a crescent, but it seemed as if she glowed in the starlight. To the young guard, it looked like she was a being of another world, even more so than all the other Elves— with perhaps the exception of the Lady of Lórien.

She wandered to the edge of the campsite, close to where all the Elves were camped. Suddenly she stopped, and before the guards could react, called softly, "Good evening, gentlemen. Please feel free to approach."

Glancing at each other, the two men silently approached her. The queen turned around as they came, a slight smile gracing her features and her eyes bright with midnight light. "I understand that your captain had you follow me out here, but you need not remain in the shadows. I enjoy company."

"Yes, my lady," said Dolmagor with a swift bow. Tandor followed his action, but found himself unable to speak; the queen still moved him to dumbness.

"You must be wondering what I am doing out here at such a time," she said, her eyes still twinkling.

"Well— well, admittedly, my lady," Tandor stammered.

She laughed lightly, the sound sending the young man's head reeling; it was the sound of silver bells and bright song, a sound that he could not properly describe if he was ever asked about it. "Elves need less sleep than Men, and I slept long the night before; I will only sleep a little tonight, if I sleep at all. But worry not; I will not keep you long here."

"It is no bother, my lady," said Dolmagor, but she shook her head.

"I understood long ago that Men need many hours of rest each night, and I would not deprive you of it. As much as I love the night and the beauty it offers, I come here for a purpose. I am meeting with an old friend." She glanced behind them and smiled. "Suilad, Elthalion, mellon nín."

The two guards looked behind them and saw a male Elf but a few feet away from them. Dolmagor held his surprise in check; how did he come so near without making a sound? The First-born held strange powers, powers he would never become used to.

"Mae govannen, hiril nín," said Elthalion with a slight bow. "Greetings, masters," he said politely to the two guardsmen.

"My lord," they both muttered.

The Elf came to Arwen and embraced her, and she smiled at him before turning to the two men. "I will not require your services tonight; you may take your rest."

"I will be sure to see her safely escorted back," said Elthalion.

Dolmagor hesitated. "My lady, perhaps it would be best if we waited nearby…"

She nodded in understanding. "You worry, but you need not to," said she. "Elthalion has been a dear friend of mine for many generations of Men. If you doubt him or me, you may speak to my husband about our meeting."

He did not flinch, but his face did visibly pale in the dim lighting. "My lady, I did not mean—"

"I understand, truly," she interrupted with a reassuring smile. "You are simply doing your duty, but your services are not needed for now. Good night, gentlemen."

Realizing he would not win this argument— and he would not argue against the queen— he bowed in response, sensing his younger companion doing the same beside him. Satisfied, the two Elves turned away, leaving the two guards alone.

"I— what just happened?" Tandor asked. He blinked and turned to his companion. "Was that supposed to happen?"

He stared for a moment at the night, a slight frown darkening his features, before finally saying, "When you've been around the nobility long enough, Tandor, you'll start seeing that they do strange things from time to time, and it doesn't seem to hold any different with these Elves."

"Oh. Well, I'm glad that you have some knowledge on these matters." Tandor paused. "Since you are older and more experienced than I, you can report to the captain tomorrow about all this." With that, he quickly turned around and started heading back. Dolmagor watched him, his scar stretching as his face elongated into disbelief, before acquiescing with a soft snort and following his lead.


"Well, my lady, it cannot be denied that you are very well-protected."

Arwen laughed softly as they retreated beyond the campsite and from the ears of any curious eavesdroppers. "The Captain of the Guard is rather protective of my husband and me, and most of the Guard is of the same mindset. I fear that Estel is already starting to weary of them."

"Estel would," said Elthalion with a smile. He eyed her for a brief moment. "You glow more brightly than ever before, Undómiel. Even a fool could see that you are happy."

"So I have been told," she answered, her eyes sparkling. "I did not understand before the light in your eyes when you spoke of your wife, but now I do, more than ever."

"She would be glad to see you thus, dear heart."

The Elf-maiden smiled once more before sobering, her youthful gaze growing serious. "Will you be sailing with my father when he leaves Middle-earth? You must miss her."

"I do," Elthalion admitted, looking up into the starlit sky longingly, "but— but I cannot leave just yet." He turned back to Arwen with a slight smile. "Long have I been friends with your family, and for many years you have been as a sister to me. Elladan and Elrohir will be busy maintaining Imladris for some years yet, and so in their stead I shall remain with you, at least until they can see you more often, and maybe longer."

"Stay here in the South?" Her eyebrows rose in surprise. "When?"

"Why, now, of course," he laughed. "Your brothers told me of your interesting scheme to travel Gondor, and while your father has already arranged some of Imladris' finest to stay with you, they suggested that I join the party to keep a 'brotherly eye' on you, or so I believe was mentioned."

Arwen rolled her eyes. "You certainly do not need to listen to their 'suggestions' if you do not wish to."

"I would not have agreed to it had I not wished to," he said softly. "And it is not only for your journey that I will be with you. With your and Estel's blessing, I would live in Minas Tirith for a while yet."

Her eyes widened in surprise. "You want to live in Minas Tirith? But what about your wife?"

"My wife is a strong lady," Elthalion said with a smile, "and what are a few decades to the Eldar?" His smile faded. "Besides, Arwen, the world of Men is a strange and different world and I hope I can help make your adjustment to it a little smoother. As it is," he smiled again, "I will certainly not be the only one from Imladris who will be staying in Minas Tirith for longer than a short visit. I believe my sister will move to the City for a while."

"Lalaith? Move to Gondor?"

"Indeed, yes! She has some affairs to settle still in Imladris—"

"She's still chasing Elrohir."


Arwen sighed. "I do wonder if my brother is blind at times. She has been attempting to grab his attention for several years now. I am surprised Elladan has not yet lost his patience and pointed out what was in front of him."

"I am afraid he still only looks upon her as a sister," said Elthalion. "Lalaith is setting herself up for disappointment." He sighed. "But that is another topic. As it is, she enjoyed the City and what she saw of the Second-born and expressed interest in coming back, after Minas Tirith is better recovered."

"And, perhaps, a place of refuge if my brother remains blind to her interest," she murmured. He only nodded.

"In the meanwhile, I shall remain with you after your brief escapade about the country— and do not even bother to try and convince me otherwise, for my mind is quite made up," he added before she could speak.

Arwen only shook her head. "Let me not deter you, then, for you seem quite set with your road!" Her amusement faded into a gentle smile. "Thank you, my friend. I must admit that I am most grateful for your company, and will be in the coming months."

He only nodded, and then glanced at the sky. "The hour grows late. Come, my lady, I will escort you back to your tent."

She smiled and took his arm, a comfortable silence lying between them until they departed ways at her camp. Arwen embraced him one last time before retreating into her tent for the night, her heart all the lighter knowing that she would not be fully sundered from her kin in Gondor.


July 24, late morning

"Quicker on your feet!"

Rangil lunged and swiftly struck Bregon's sword. The dark-haired man clumsily parried and scurried backwards, breathing heavily.

"I am as quick as I am able!" he retorted. The old man's speed and agility simply astounded him.

"And yet not fast enough to avoid a deadly blow," he retorted. "A clumsy orc could beat you."

Exhaling heavily, he charged, lifting his blunt blade high above him. Rangil easily side-stepped him and pushed into him, causing the taller man to lose his balance and fall into the dirt, his sword falling away from him. His breath completely lost, he let himself lay for a moment as he breathed deeply and summoned back his willpower.

His teacher lowered his own blunt sword. "You are tall, and easier to push off-balance. Keep that in mind as you fight. Always be wary about your footing."

Bregon managed to pull himself into a sitting position. "You have said that many times before."

"And yet you do not listen."

"Of course I listen," he snapped back. "Not everyone is born a warrior, and I am not one."

Rangil watched him, his body still save for the slight breeze that stirred his snow-white hair. "No, you are not," he said quietly, the sudden change in his demeanor utterly confusing Bregon. Gesturing for the man to follow him, the younger man pulled himself off the dirt and followed the sword master to a shady oak just outside of the pen to rest under. The old man lowered himself to the ground, leaning against the cool trunk of the tree. "It has been a long time since this country has trained men for sport rather than necessity," he said. "I forget you are not training to be a soldier against the Enemy's army, for the Enemy has been destroyed. You are not some green recruit in Thorongil's company, looking to battle orcs before the season has passed."

The former cobbler frowned. Thorongil. While he had no grudge against this old war hero— he admired him as much as the history books in Balandor's library did, though he'd never say that to Rangil— whenever the sword master mentioned the man, it usually came along with some lengthy lesson he did not need to hear. "What would you have me learn about Thorongil's methods now?"

The other startled slightly as he was brought out of his memories. "Oh, nothing. I'm just remembering old times. Strange how so much has changed within just a few short months."

'You have no idea,' he thought. "Then why bring up Thorongil now? I understand he was your mentor, Master Rangil, but surely there is no need to bring him up every day we practice."

The old man chuckled lightly. "My apologies, Master Bregon." The other man nearly missed his next words as he absorbed the fact that Rangil apologized to him. "I cannot help it. I suppose I should have explained this before, but I thought the feeling would go away; it did not. You see, when I first saw you walking here with Falasgal the day we met, I would have sworn you were a ghost. You bear an uncanny resemblance to Captain Thorongil.

"Of course, I knew you could not be him, for if the Captain is still alive, he's around my age now. All lingering doubts were soon dispelled by your swordsmanship." He chuckled, and Bregon could not help but slightly smile, even if it was a sardonic one. "Your personalities greatly vary, too. He was more patient and less swift to anger— two skills you should learn soon, should you ever find yourself in a fight."

Bregon's grey eyes simmered in quiet contempt, and he wondered if Rangil was talking with Balandor about all his faults, which seemed numerous and horrible when either of them criticized him.

The other ignored him and continued. "Still, as the days went on, I could not— still cannot— help but seeing Thorongil rather than you from time to time, and my memories come alive with each glimpse. I suppose I simply miss my old friend, for friend I counted him."

As Rangil's voice softened, Bregon's annoyance faded into a strange sort of understanding. "Well," he said after a pause, "I am not him, nor will I likely ever be as good as him, but I'm willing to learn with the methods you learned from him." That was the only reason he was at this estate, after all: to learn. And while the sword master often angered him, at least mastery over a blade was a useful skill.

"Good," said the old man. His moment of reminiscence done, his voice was back to the short, commanding tone that Bregon was used to. "Come on, we've rested long enough. I want to see what you remember about parrying."

He stood and began following the sword master back to the ring, thinking over what he had learned. Soon he concluded that being compared to a dead, respected war captain was no bad thing. It was certainly leagues better than being the mirror image of some royal usurper from the Wilds.


August 14, late morning

Aragorn watched silently as his wife repeatedly lifted the comb through her hair; the reflection on the mirror in front of her showed her eyes unseeing, her sad gaze somewhere beyond the room they shared. Exhaling softly, he silently approached her, laying a gentle hand of support on her shoulder. She sighed and brought up her hand to meet his.

"Did you sleep at all last night?" he asked softly.

"Very little," she admitted, "and it was restless."

The king softly squeezed her hand in understanding, and Arwen leaned against him, a slight quiver running down her body. "I shall miss him so much."

"As shall I. Your father has always been like a father to me."

"We spoke long last night. It will be the last time I ever talk to him." He felt her quiver again and he closed his eyes; his own last moments with Elrond would be in but a few short days.

"Does he—" He paused, unwilling to finish the sentence. He could not ask Arwen such a question.

She seemed to read his mind, however, and answered. "He does not begrudge our love, Estel. He never did."

Aragorn shortly nodded. "I know. It was a foolish thought." She said nothing, but she continued to hold onto his hand, her grey eyes still far away from their room in Meduseld. Clearing his throat, he pulled himself away from the remorseful topic in some attempt to help his wife, though he feared it would do little. "Returning to the City with you will be Faramir and Imrahil. I have told Prince Imrahil of your intentions, and he has agreed to travel with you until Dol Amroth, at the least. He will be leaving his son Amrothos in Minas Tirith as a representative of his city in the Council.

"Also journeying with you when you travel Gondor will be Lieutenant Lachamdir as well as several handpicked Guards of the Citadel who are eager for a promotion to the Royal Guard."

Arwen smiled slightly. "The lieutenant is a kind man. I shall enjoy traveling with him— and he seems less intimidated by my people than most Men, which will make my companions more at ease."

"Then some Elves will stay and travel with you?"

"Yes. Three will stay with me as I travel Gondor, for my father's peace of mind, including Elthalion. Indeed, he has told me that he will stay in the South even longer than the others to see that I am well-situated before traveling to the West to join his wife." A smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. "I told all my friends back in Rivendell that they were under no obligation to stay with me in Gondor, but he seemed to simply ignore me."

"Yes, he was always stubborn," Aragorn agreed with a smile. "And so our brothers still wish to travel North and not stay with you awhile?"

"They want to be with me, but they know that Adar needs them, and so they will travel with him and support him in the coming days. Further on, they will help make the transition of the rule of Rivendell a smooth one, for Adar has already said he will not stay in Middle-earth much longer and will not see us again." Any happiness lingering on her face faded away, and the peredhel turned away, her dark hair shielding her face.

Aragorn went to her side and knelt down beside her, taking her hands gently in his. "I am sorry."

She shook her head quickly. "Do not be. I have made my choice, and I am happy with it. I cannot imagine my life without you by my side."

"Nor I, you," said the man. "Nonetheless, I wish it were not so painful."

"As do I, but we cannot change what is." Sighing deeply, she stood, and Aragorn stood with her. "Come, my love, you must prepare to depart. The hour of farewell is soon to come."

He suddenly took her in his arms. "I shall miss you in these coming months."

"And I will miss you," said Arwen. "But compared to all these long years of waiting, what are but a couple months, where you will be so busy repairing the country that you would have seen little of me, anyways?"

"The little is worth a lot," he murmured into her ear. She smiled and brought her lips to his in a quick, but passionate kiss.

"I will make the wait worth your while," she whispered. Slowly she released her own hold on him and parted from his embrace, saying, "Now, go. Your men surely await you, and I must finish readying myself."

"I will count down the days until we are again together in Minas Tirith," said Aragorn. She smiled and nodded, and he gave her one last kiss before leaving their bedchambers to prepare for his journey.


August 22, afternoon

He knew this day would come, but now that it was here, he was reluctant to do what he needed to do.

The farewells began in the afternoon. After wishing the best to friends from Rivendell and Lórien, he bade farewell to his kinsmen.

"I promise to visit the North and stay for a long time, once things are more settled in Gondor," he said to Halborn in parting.

The new Steward of Arnor grinned. "I promise you a rebuilt Annúminas for your arrival, and it will be a city that will rival Minas Tirith in size and glory!" The sentiment received ready approval from the rest of the Dúnedain.

Aragorn smiled. "I would expect no less." He embraced the son of his cousin. "Give your mother my regards, and my apologies."

"She will happily take the former and will hear nothing of the latter," the younger man said quietly. "What happened to my father was not your fault, my lord."

He said nothing, but nodded appreciatively. Embracing him one last time, he left the Dúnedain to see to his friends of the Company. The Fellowship stood together as one, exchanging hugs and promises to visit. The Ring-bearer only smiled but made no promises, something that Aragorn noted; he feared what that could mean. Soon enough— and too soon for Aragorn— the group split to bid goodbye to others. Only Gandalf remained with him.

"Well, my dear friend," said the wizard after a moment, "this is the end of the road for our journeys. I doubt I will visit Gondor again in my last days here."

"Will you not reconsider?" he asked. "There is still strife between Men and it will take many years until Gondor has fully recovered; I would welcome your counsel."

"There will always be strife between Men," said Gandalf. "But do not worry!" he added at the king's dismayed look. "While there will always be strife, there will also always be kindness and hope. And you, Aragorn, have kindled hope for the people of your kingdom; they look to you for prosperity and peace."

"It is a heavy burden," he admitted, "but one I am glad to take. It will be good to see both Gondor and Arnor rise again."

Gandalf smiled. "I have no doubt that they will see glory again." He took Aragorn's hand and grasped it firmly between his gnarled, strong fingers. "Farewell, my lord Elessar Telcontar. May your reign be long and prosperous."

The king smiled and embraced him. "Thank you for your friendship and for all that you have done for me."

Smiling, the wizard winked and replied, "All in a day's work, my friend. All in a day's work." They parted, and Gandalf, still smiling, caught the eyes of someone behind his friend. "Now, there is someone else who wishes to speak with you, and so I will leave you." Aragorn turned and found himself face-to-face with Elrond.

The peredhel bowed his head slightly in greeting. "Do you have time for a short walk?"

He nodded. "Of course."

They walked away from the procession, along a secluded path that the new trees of Isengard created. Despite the several thoughts and emotions racing through him, Aragorn could think of no words to say. This was the last time he would ever speak to one of the most influential people in his life and yet he was struck dumb.

A squirrel suddenly darted across their path, startling Aragorn out of his reverie. Elrond stopped and suddenly smiled. "Do you remember when you asked your mother and me if you could have a pet squirrel and keep it inside the house?"

He turned to the Elf-lord in disbelief. "You jest."

"You were four or five at the time, and you were fascinated by this large squirrel that took home in the tree beside your balcony. We found that you were leaving food for the animal and calling it 'Carch'."

"I named a squirrel Fang?"

Elrond laughed at his look. "I speak the truth! You may ask Elladan or Elrohir, if you wish; it is one of the fonder memories I have of your childhood. All children are delightful, but children of the Edain were always the most unpredictable and creative."

Aragorn smiled. "I cannot wait to see my own." He fell silent as he realized the full meaning of his words to the person before him. "I beg your pardon, I—"

"Estel." The man stopped speaking; it had been a long time since Elrond last had called him that. "I have since long come to terms with my daughter's choice, and have long since accepted it. Indeed, it would give me no greater joy than to see your children."

"And I would have it so they could see my foster-father— my adar," he said softly. "I would ask you to stay in Middle-earth longer, but I understand it cannot be." He was one of few who knew that Elrond bore one of the three Elven rings, and he knew the consequences the Ring-bearers suffered with Sauron's fall.

"Both Galadriel and I do, as well," said Elrond, "but we slowly wear away as the seasons pass, Galadriel faster than I. We will stay for a couple years yet to settle our affairs, but we will not travel to the South again. Our final journey lies West." His sober expression faded away to a knowing half-smile. "Celeborn, however, believes he will stay in Middle-earth for a while longer with Elladan and Elrohir, though he does not want Arwen to know, for he is still not certain."

"I— It would be wonderful for him to remain here a while longer." Aragorn could not quite conceal his hesitation. It was no secret— to the amusement of the rest of the family— that Celeborn had never quite warmed up to Isildur's heir, and that the man did his best to stay away from him without outright avoiding him.

Elrond's slight smile only grew as he sent him a knowing glance. "If he does remain, Arwen will very much love the surprise. I am sure she will invite him to Gondor as often as feasible."

"Yes, yes, of course." She, unlike he, was very close to her grandfather.

He only smiled further, and Aragorn could not help but chuckle. "It is clear to see where your children developed their lighthearted mannerisms."

"Ah, it comes from their mother as well." Elrond's eyes unfocused as he thought about her. "I will be glad to see her again."

Aragorn said nothing as the other thought about his wife, and the man's thoughts turned to his own. He missed Arwen, and while the short months were nothing compared to the years he went without seeing her, after the wedding he felt more strongly connected to her than ever before, though he could not say how it was possible.

Elrond's gaze was on him once more, and Aragorn turned his thoughts back to the one who fostered him as a babe, who taught him much of what he knew, who molded his character throughout his youth, and who permitted the marriage with his daughter. As all of this went through his mind, he was rendered all but speechless, and he could only manage a few words. "Thank you. For everything."

He was engulfed in an embrace, an embrace Aragorn readily returned. They stood there for a moment, the mute trees the only witnesses to this exchange, before separating. Elrond smiled briefly before glancing up at the sky. "The afternoon wanes, and the hour of parting approaches. Come, we must return to camp ere we are missed." Aragorn only nodded in response, and two turned around and slowly made their way back to the encampment.


*There seems to be some slight continuity confusion, at least on my part, from what's in 'Many Partings' and what's in Appendix B. Appendix B lists them leaving Edoras Aug 14, four days after Théoden's funeral. The chapter seems to say that they have Théoden's funeral, then his funeral feast straight after, and right after the feast, leave Edoras, with no hint of really any time passing. I followed Appendix B, with the feast happening on Aug 10.

But, as I said, it could just be me. :-P

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