The King's Shilling
Once, on a hot, still afternoon in the middle of summer, when the world was younger than it is now, a young man and an old man walked together in the fields below Edoras. Anyone passing them by might have been forgiven for mistaking them for kinsmen, for while the younger was dark of hair when the other was white, there was much about them that was similar – in their bearing, perhaps, or in their eyes.
At length, these two companions came to the banks of a little stream. There they halted, and while the younger man busied himself collecting a handful of pebbles, the older stood and watched the water and leaned upon his staff.
His choices made, the young man weighed a pebble in his hand, and then cast it into the stream. It skimmed twice, thrice – and then sank, the ripples spreading outwards and then disappearing. The river resumed its course undisturbed.
'Once,' the young man said, after a moment, 'There was a young boy who liked to spend his hours in the library. And one day – a winter's day, in his eighth year, I do believe – he took a wrong turn and became lost.' He smiled, and cast another stone into the water. The old man's eyes followed it as it bounced and sank.
The young man began to speak again.
'And he wandered all the vaults and the rooms of the library for what seemed to be hours. It grew darker, and still he could not gain his bearings. Was he lost for good, he wondered? If ever he were found, how would he explain that he had become lost? And worse – how would he explain that he had become afraid? Then, just when he had begun to lose all hope, he turned a corner, and saw a light shining, and came upon an old man, bent over his books. And that old man gave that boy a number of gifts that day – the way out, for one; and also a ruby, to remember their meeting and in lieu of a tale of great enchantment, to be told when they met again. But the greatest gift that given him that day, the boy did not for many years see for what it was. For on that day, that old man gave that little boy a choice.'
The young man looked down at the pebbles in his hand, picked out another, and span it across the water.
'The years passed, and that boy grew older, and he received many other gifts. From his father, once, he was given a chess set. And from his father, too, that boy learned more about the rules that govern kings, and knights – and pawns.' He looked sideways at the old man, who continued to gaze down at the water, a smile playing at the corners of his lips.
'And, as is the way of things, that boy grew to be a man. A lover of lore, they called him in the City (and not always meaning well). But for all his learning, still that man had many questions, and not the least of these concerned the old man, his guide. For often, safe in the now-familiar library, he would catch a sight of records long forgotten, and in them he would catch a glimpse of a man in grey who seemed to wander through all the annals of the city.'
He weighed another stone, and sent it to its fate.
'What, he would often wonder, was the truth of this grey pilgrim? One whose youth, in the West, he had said was forgotten? One to whose aid the Eagles come? One who can return, seemingly, from the dead? The mover of all that has been accomplished, my king calls him. Whence might he have come? Who might have sent him? Which King does he serve?'
All about them, the world seemed to hold its breath.
And then, suddenly, a wisp of wind rose up, and brushed through dark hair and white hair. The young man reached into a pocket, drew out a red stone, and offered it to his companion.
'Take this with you on your journey, lord,' he said. 'For this is our final parting, is it not?'
The old man nodded.
'And should you ever, in that bliss, happen to look upon it – remember us, the men of Minas Tirith, who chose, in the end, to be your willing pawns.'
The old man took the jewel and then, placing his hands upon the other's shoulders, leaned towards him and kissed him once, upon the brow.
'Use well your days,' he said softly, 'Steward of Gondor, Prince of Ithilien… son of Denethor.' And from those lips, those names – each one of them – became a benediction.
The young man put the last of his pebbles in his pocket.
'You never did tell me the tale of the dwarves and the dragon and the burglar,' he said mildly.
'Did I not? That was most remiss of me!'
'We have a long walk back.'
'Indeed we do!' The old man laughed merrily and turned away from the stream, and the young man fell in step beside him.
'Very well, my lord steward, you shall receive what has long been your due – the tale of a chance-meeting, one evening in spring not far from Bree. I was very troubled at that time…'
A/N: Gandalf's final lines are taken from The Quest of Erebor in Unfinished Tales.