Minas Tirith glittered in the distance, bright and flawless as the model the Elves had created for them twenty years ago. "This is not a good idea." Barahir said quietly into his brother's ear as their horses jogged side by side at the head of a column of mounted Rohirrim.
"You should said so before." Aragorn murmured back.
"I did say so before!"
"So you did." his foster brother smiled mischievously. "Come, Amin, admit it you're as curious as I."
"True." Barahir conceeded. "But that doesn't make this escapade any less unwise."
Aragorn turned in the saddle to give his brother a chiding look. "Obeying the orders of our sworn liege lord is not an 'escapade'."
Barahir's return look made it very clear he wasn't buying that for a minute. "This was your idea, not Thengel's, don't deny it."
Aragorn shrugged, looked ahead. "I'm supposed to reunite the two Kingdoms." he reminded his brother. "I want to see what I'm up against."
Barahir sighed. "They'll ask questions."
"Which we need not answer." Aragorn said calmly.
They were met at the gate of the Encircling Wall by an officer of the Citadel who stared at the brothers and repeated their names with obvious disbelief: "Elfwine and Elfstan of the Mark?" His incredulity was excusable. The two captains were both taller and leaner than their men, with the dark hair and elegant bones of the Dunedain.
Aragorn merely inclined his head in assent leaving the officer with no choice but to swallow his curiosity and escort the troop of horsemen across the belt of walled farmland surrounding the city to the lodging prepared for them. This proved to be a long hall with adjacent stables, rendolant with the scent with newly cut wood and standing just outside the city gates .
"The Lord Ecthelion knows the Riders prefer not to be separated from their steeds, and we have not the stabling for so many inside the city." the officer apologized.
"This will do very well." Aragorn assured him.
"The Steward command you to wait on him in the Hall of the Kings as soon as your men are settled." the other continued.
"We will do so." Aragorn promised.
It was some two hours before he and Barahir entered the gates of Minas Tirith, on foot, and began the long climb up to the citadel. They were very familiar with the fashion of the city from the Elven toy their guardian, Elrond of Rivendell, had had made for them as children. But now, as they climbed, they saw differences between the model and the reality. No trees lined the wide avenues and many of the side streets and alleys were clogged with later, jury-built houses of wood and brick between the spacious white stone buildings. Yet even of these last many were ill-kept and some crumbling from neglect.
The streets were well peopled, the varying coloring and builds of the citizens indicating the blood of Westerness was here mingled with that of other Men. The contrast between the brothers' classic Dunedain features and their Rohirric trappings garnered them many a startled and curious look as they passed through the six lower circles. Mounting the tunnel stair to the seventh they found themselves in a paved courtyard.
Directly in front of them stood the white, withered husk of the dead Tree overhanging a fountain pool and ringed by four black cloaked guards with antique winged helmets and the device of the white tree and seven stars emblazoned on their steel cuirasses. This was the livery of the Kings of Old which their two descendants had, up until this moment, seen only in ancient paintings and statues. And very strange it was to them now to see it worn by living men under the sun. In fact the sight stopped them in their tracks and they turned to exchange looks in which wonder and awe were mingled. The Fountain Guards ignored their presence completely but the Citadel Guards flanking the stair gave them strange looks, as had the people in the streets below.
As they passed beneath the Tree Aragorn reached up to touch a withered leaf, and the brothers exchanged another wordless look. The White Tree of Gondor, seedling of Nimloth the King's Tree of Numenor, planted by Isildur in memory of his brother Anarion nearly three thousand years before. But Isildur's tree was dead, and his heirs must walk his kingdom disguised and unknown.
The tall doors of the Hall of the Kings stood open with the murmur of Men's voices echoing softly within. Entering the brothers were struck by a sudden coolness, almost a chill, striking inward from the soaring white marble walls. Tree thick columns of black marble upheld the distant ceiling and between them stood monumental crowned statues of the ancient Kings. Their features were conventionalized, more images of kingship than portraits of individual Men, yet Barahir could trace likenesses to many of his kin on those stone faces. And there were two that were the image of Aragorn, and one that could almost have been himself.
He gave his brother a sizzling look and received a cool one in return, then casting his eyes upward, consigned their fate to the protection of the One.
The brothers moved silent and unnoticed down the long Hall towards the dais. A massive, white marble throne stood at the top of a steep flight of steps. A giant gilded crown was suspended above it and an image of the white tree decorated the wall behind. The overall effect was heavy, overpowering. Barahir found himself wistfully remembered the sparkling delicacy of the Tree of Annuminas, wrought by Noldorin smiths of mithril and pearl, one graceful bough shading the simple silver chair of Elendil - empty and unused these thousand years.
A plain black chair had been set on the broad lowest step of the dais. The Man sitting in it held a white staff and looking at him Barahir was a little reassured, for both he and the youth standing behind him also bore a marked likeness to the royal statues looking stonily down upon the small knot of Men conferring quietly before the Steward's chair.
"Sirs?" Startled Barahir whipped around to see a chamberlain, marked by the black rod of his office, giving them the by now familiar stare. "May I have your names and business?"
"Elfwine and Elfstan," Aragorn answered quietly, "Captains of the Mark, commanding the two Eoreds sent by King Thengel."
Baffled, but conscious of his duty, the Chamberlain waved them forward as he announced their names and titles with a distinct intonation of disbelief.
The brothers bowed before the Steward of Gondor and straightened to meet a lucent, interested gaze. "Elfwine and Elfstan," Ecthelion mused, "those are Rohirric names. But surely you are not Rohirrim?"
"We have taken service with King Thengel," Aragorn answered calmly, "but we were not born in the Mark."
"In Gondor then?" "No, my lord, we are not Men of Gondor.
" Not exactly anyway, Barahir amended silently. The Steward turned his head to him, almost as if he'd heard the thought. Uh-oh. 'Have a care, Brother, here is one who can hear the unspoken!'
Ecthelion's mouth quirked in a faint smile. After a moment so did Aragorn's and Barahir found he was smiling too. The Stewards might be the enemies of Isildur's Heirs, or at the least their rivals, yet he didn't feel at all threatened by Ecthelion's perception. This Man would do them no harm, now or ever, of that Barahir was suddenly quite certain.
"Where is your home then?" the Steward asked.
"My lord," Aragorn said firmly yet courteously, "that is a question we will not answer. "Nor may we tell you our true names and parentage."
"Indeed." Ecthelion was clearly intrigued. "Will you say why?"
"Because, my lord," Aragorn answered, "we cannot tell the truth and do not wish to lie."
The young man behind the Steward's chair glared at him but Ecthelion seemed delighted by the response. "Well said! As King Thengel sees fit to accept your service under such conditions I need not scruple to do likewise. Be welcome to Minas Tirith, Elfwine and Elfstan, Captains of the Mark."