This version Beta'd by Lindorien, Lyllyn, and the incomparable Theresa Green. With the earnest hope of not offending those with grammar and spelling bumps. Plot and characterisation bumps are a matter of opinion, let me know yours.

AU Fourth Age fusion of book and movie-verse. Set ninety eight years into Aragorn's reign. A:L:G OC Friendship fic. Not slash. PG for violence and some adult dilemmas in later chapters. Angst/Adventure

1. Chapter 1/9

Unbinding the box

Dawn broke red over the kingdom of Gondor, but after ninety-eight years of enforced peace and muscular justice, the day arrived now with no more portent than a certain promise of spring showers.

On the white walls of Minas Tirith, an energetic breeze snapped the banner of the White Tree and the courtesy flag displaying the Green Leaf of Ithilien. Birds flew up startled as the mithril-bound city gates swung open.

A large company of horse and men to rode out bound for the exercise grounds on the battle plain in front of the city between the rivers Erui and Anduin. Behind them horns announced the official start of the day and the long queue of tradesmen and workers waiting to enter edged respectfully to the left, allowing the soldiers passage, and then pressed forward slowly into the ringed city proper.

Unremarked by all but the city guards, two more mounted men exited the gates hard on the heels of the troop. The king's guard waited in the shadow of the gate while the two Lords paused to assess the day.

Legolas Greenleaf, prince of Ithilien, heir of Eryn Lasgalen and long friend of Elessar Telcontar sat firm on the back of his delicately-boned horse and ostentatiously filled his lungs with the brisk spring air, all the while rolling his eyes towards the king, sitting solid and unmoved on his own undistinguished hack.

Aragorn glanced at his antics and suppressed the smile that wanted to soften his expression. He sighed. "My city is not stuffy, Legolas. You and my wife have so filled her streets and parks with greenery that the very beasts of the field abandon the countryside to dwell there."

The Elf snorted out the last of his exaggerated breath in a merry laugh and urged his mount forward to walk alongside his liege.

The wind blew strands of Legolas' pale hair against Aragorn's cheek and the king brushed his hand up in a gesture practised by the habit of wearing his own hair long. He had yet to acquire comfort with the shorter hairstyle, fashion, and his wife, dictated for the lords of Gondor.

Mischief crossed the prince's expression as he sized up Aragorn's assumed dignity and the quality of his horse.

" To the river?"

Aragorn thought fleetingly of the morning round of political meetings he had planned to attend, of his less than youthful body, and then bracingly of Eldarion who could manage the meetings. With a feral grin, he urged his favourite horse into a gallop to catch the flying tail of the fleeing grey. Did not the blood of Numenor run in his veins?

The two riders and the four guards reached the cavalry column and separated to race down either side. Cheers and halloos from the ranks followed them as they outdistanced the troop and galloped over the exercise grounds to the river.

Legolas reached the water first and wheeled his horse around whooping with laughter as he watched Aragorn thunder up.

Finally, his friend wore a matching grin, and tilted his head ungrudgingly to the victorious Elf. Legolas splashed his horse merrily through the shallows and paralleled Aragorn as the man made his more sedate way towards the now manoeuvring soldiers. Aragorn conscious of his tack, if no longer his dignity, paced the Elf further up the bank.

"Gimli would have hated you doing that." Aragorn finally brought up the absence that had been nagging at him since last night.

Legolas laughed abruptly, and then frowned a little, diverting his gaze over the river to the dappled shadows running across the patchwork of cultivated fields and vineyards that decorated the hills of South Ithilien.

"I miss him also," the Elf glanced at Aragorn, and then away again. "He last visited me at the beginning of winter. You have seen him since?"

The frown returned to Aragorn's face. He halted his horse and studied the Elf lord in front of him.

"I have not, Legolas. Since he finished my gates and became more involved in governing Aglarond, it is common that I may not see him for a sun round, or more. But have you had no word? Surely you have not fallen out after all this time?"

"I think we fell foul of our races' differences, Estel."

Legolas urged his horse out of the river and up the bank to join Aragorn. There he dismounted and pulled a hank of dry grass from the edge of the parade ground to wipe over his animal's wet sides. Aragorn also dismounted and loosened his horse's girth, before handing the animal off to the nearest bodyguard. The mutual activity provided a shield to encourage Legolas' rare openness. The King signalled the four soldiers to move off a few paces and give them privacy.

"Aragorn, when you were raised in Elrond's house," Legolas risked a glance, Aragorn nodded encouragingly,"did you become familiar with the custom of feast-day friends?"

Aragorn replied without inflection. "It is a custom observed in Rivendell amongst the un-bonded elves. Yes, I know of it."

Legolas kept his focus on some mud spatters, rubbing at them energetically. He switched to speaking Sindarin.

"Have you ever met the warrior, Minuial?"

Both Aragorn's eyebrows went up at this but he replied easily enough in his cradle tongue.

"Thrandruil's march-warden? Elbereth, Legolas, she is just about the most frightening Elf woman I have ever met, and that includes my grandmother-in- law, Galadriel. She has to be the one who wrote the book on how to be a superior haughty Elf and, I swear, gave Haldir, blessed be his memory, lessons."

Legolas rested his forehead on the side of his horse. Aragorn refrained very carefully from sounding the astounded whistle that was burning for expression, instead he made no further comment, waiting for his friend to continue.

Slightly muffled by horsehide Legolas muttered, " Minuial and I, we've been feast-day friends, on and off you understand, for about two yen, Estel."

"Ah," said Aragorn, dumbfounded.

Two yen equalled maybe two hundred and eighty eight years as measured by mortals like him. There was that time issue again, pointing up the differences between their races.

Legolas risked a glance at the suddenly silent man, took in his frozen expression and graced him with a rueful smile.

He chuckled suddenly and continued, " And yes, you remember her well enough, she has." he paused in a bewildered way searching for the right words.

"Prejudices?" supplied Aragorn gently.

The two men let their eyes speak for a moment before Legolas turned back to his currying. The silence lengthened.

Legolas finally allowed his horse to wander towards the others, then sat down on the grassy riverbank and followed the progress of a cargo barge as it made its measured way down the Anduin.

Aragorn dropped down beside him.

Legolas continued to avoid eye contact as he continued. "The festival of star-finding fell in sun waning last year, do you remember?"

Aragorn nodded and then smiled reminiscently.

Finding and naming stars was the traditional six-day task. When it fell in winter, ritual allowed the participants many furs and ample fortifying drafts of wine. He and Arwen had had a memorable star-finding last year.

He looked sidelong at his friend. "Minuial?"

Legolas nodded glumly, and once again fell silent, forcing Aragorn to fish.

"And Gimli?"

Legolas slumped as if the weight of Middle-earth had fallen on his shoulders.

"He turned up on one of his visits the after the last night of the ritual, and came bursting into my rooms in his usual way, full of some new vein of gems and hardly expecting me to still be abed in the full day."

The Elf sighed mightily again and finally looked earnestly at Aragorn. "He was so embarrassed, Estel, I swear I thought he would melt from blushing so hard. And then Minuial was reaching for her weapons and Gimli was backing out and."

He dropped his head in his hands.

Aragorn finally ventured a comradely hand on Legolas' shoulder and strenuously tried to suppress the venal feeling that he would have given a kingdom's ransom to be a fly on that wall.

He looked at his friend and relented a little, " And when you tried to explain to Gimli?"

"At first he was full of teasing and congratulations, thinking that I must soon to be wed, and when I finally managed to explain he became cold, as if I was acting dishonourably against Minuial. You know how he esteems women, putting them all on some high pedestal."

Aragorn did know Legolas' hot-blooded friend, well enough to know that when he had got over his shock and embarrassment he would have eventually been able to rationalise the incident as yet another race difference.

So, the question remained as to why Legolas had not heard from him.

Again, Legolas was not finished, "And then Minuial would have her say in our disagreement."

He shook his head, even now disbelieving how appalling that day had been.

"Aragorn, she accused him of being jealous, taunted him about wishing for that intimacy that she had of me. Can you believe it?"

Legolas seemed to shrink again in remembered horror.

Aragorn, fascinated, could not help exclaiming. "What did he do?"

"He just glared at me, then at her, turned on his heel and left. And I, great fool that I am, stayed to quarrel with her, rather than go after him. And I have had not a word, nor news of him for the whole cold winter since, nor even now in stirring."

Legolas finally fell silent again, and Aragorn let him be for a moment.

He found himself nearly equally dismayed, but hardly surprised that barrack room surmise had finally managed to reach the ears of the pair that most of Middle-earth had been gossiping about for nearly a century.

"And will you go to him now, and make amends?"

Legolas examined his hands then glanced sideways at his king. " If you would accompany me, my lord."

Aragorn gave an involuntary bark of laughter.

Legolas' affronted glare would have stripped paint but it merely glanced off his friend, who grasped his hand and pulled him to his feet in one vigorous move.

"And shall I drop all my burdens of rule, forget the twin kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, cast off my responsibilities to my subjects and Arwen and travel into the mountains on a hopeful quest for the benefit of my good friends?"

Legolas looked at the river, drawing elven reserve back over his face and body like a cloak. Aragorn shook his head.

"If I can arrange it, my friend. I'll see what I can do."

Aragorn turned to collect his mount from the guard. Legolas sprang lightly to the back of his own, and waited patiently for his friend, raising a mocking eyebrow at this slowness.

The two moved off to meet with the captain of Aragorn's cavalry, to complete an at least cursory inspection, since that was the official reason for Aragorn's escaping of his kingly duties this morning.

Throndar, veteran of many campaigns, with both his king and his king's ally, limped energetically to where the two waited for him, leaving the wheeling companies in the able hands of his iron-lunged sergeant major.

"Sire?" Throndar bowed stiffly with his hand on his heart, and suddenly the poignant brevity of most men's lives caught Aragorn. Seeing this fifty five year old suddenly as he had been on another spring day thirty years before, new to the command of his eored and eager for the commencement of the campaign that eventually led to the subduing of the Haradrim.

He returned the salute. "How goes the training, Captain?"

Throndar's craggy, battle scarred, features pulled themselves into an even more fearful scowl.

"The usual crop of milk-sops and mummy's boys, Sire. Wet themselves the first time they have to face a real enemy, no doubt. Don't know if I'll ever make them warriors."

Aragon suppressed an unmannerly guffaw. Force commanders had voiced the same complaint in his hearing since the days of Helm's Deep more than three quarters of a century before.

In the background the maligned riders executed mock charges and retreats to signals given by military trumpets, the cohorts exhibited the sort of tight discipline that he would have given up whole territories for in earlier decades.

Aragorn clapped the stocky man on his mailed shoulder. "The more things change, the more they stay the same, aye, Throndar. Carry on man."

He watched as his Captain stumped asymmetrically back to his reviewing post and turned to Legolas to share his amusement. Legolas however was peering into the middle distance, caught by movement half a league away on the great west road crossing the Pelannor Field leading to Minas Tirith's gates.

"A company of men and dwarves, flying the horse standard of Rohan."

Aragorn shaded his eyes and looked to where Legolas could see clearly with his elf-stretched vision. It was useless of course; all he could make out was the expanding jumble of homes and businesses that was filling the area between the walls and the Rammas as his city outgrew its corset of protective walls. He gave up the effort and interrogated his friend instead.

"And the banner of Aglarond?" he hoped that all might be resolved if Gimli had taken this chance to make first contact.


The light appeared to dim around the Elf, merely the result of a passing cloud, but eloquent anyway.

Aragorn tried to sound enthusiastic. "Shall we go find out what we can do for our good allies of the Mark anyway? Perhaps they carry news."

Suiting action to word, they made their way back to the junction of the west and eastern roads and joined the throng making its way into and out of the city now the day had found its feet.

"This congestion has become a problem?" Legolas commented.

They had negotiated about half the distance to the gates, weaving their way between stalled wagons, carts, and traders on foot towing pack animals.

Aragorn shrugged a little helplessly as they inched their way past an incoming and outgoing set of wains that were blocking almost the whole width of the highway.

"Eldarion has been trying to get me to take his plans for a out-of-wall market seriously for years." Aragon paused, trying to get his mind around some of the myriad changes prosperity was bringing to his erstwhile besieged city, finally he shook his head. "It's not usually this bad, I think."

"A second gate would help, would it not?" Legolas asked.

Aragorn knew he had a battle hardened resistance to any scheme that might weaken Minas Tirith's defences, but Eldarion, to an extent the child of peace, championed schemes designed to enhance the city's commercial rather than military future, so Aragorn eyed his friend

"Has my son, the town planner, had your ear again?"

Legolas raised an innocent eyebrow at him, causing Aragorn to snort cynically.

The riders reached a relatively clear space of road and trotted forward, Aragorn standing briefly in his stirrups to try to see over the heads of a knot of people in front.

The spring breeze freshened and blew a ragged pile of straw, dung and the tattered remains of a flattened basket noisily under the feet of Aragorn's horse and the animal shied. The horse's sudden movement frightened a young woman carrying a squawking cage of hens, and she in turn nearly pitched an elderly man off the road into the ditch. Quickly getting control of his animal the King exchanged dismayed glances with Legolas and they both dismounted. Aragorn paused to sooth the ruffled dignity and sudden awe of the two pedestrians, and then they pressed on on foot until they finally reached the back of the crowd blocking the road in front of the arch of the gate.

They dismounted, and Aragorn again handed off his horse to the nearest guard, Legolas spoke in his horse's ear and she followed meekly. The remaining two guards moved up to flank the King and the Elf, Aragorn ignored them, as he had learned to do over the years.

Aragorn waved Legolas forward and the two men wormed their way towards the front of the crowd. As they came nearer, the sounds resolved themselves into a donkey in full voice, muffled shouts and an unidentified clacking. The way magically opened for the Elf. Awe, even in Gondor, made people shift into spaces that really didn't exist, and some women, that Legolas moved with a touch and his gentle smile, would remember his face for the rest of their lives. No one noticed the King treading close to his heels, until the ungentle elbows of the King's guard made way behind him.

Finally, they found the source of the blockage. A donkey, harnessed to a compact but serviceable wagon loaded with waving green saplings and herbs in now teetering pots. Firmly wedged in the deep rain gutter the wagon's far wheel slewed the vehicle round sideways, one of the shafts entangled with the great chain that opened the gate. The net result was that the wagon was half wedged in the archway and half hanging over the ten-foot drop formed by the ramp leading into the city.

Aragorn nudged the man standing beside him and asked, "What happened?"

The man did not turn his head, so did not realise the identity of his questioner.

"The donkey took fright at the great party from Rohan that marched in just before and started backing," the man confided without taking his eyes off the entertaining spectacle in front of him. "Now the guard want to push the wagon off the road to clear the way but the little fellow there, he's having none of it." The man chuckled a bit and then cheered as another resounding clack hit the air.

Aragorn also turned his attention to the front and was in time to see a short figure holding off a determined ring of gate guards with a staff that, despite being half as tall again as his diminutive self, he was wielding with a skill and grace that looked both deadly and elven. He was a hobbit, red in the face with anger.

"No. You shall not be tipping nor breaking nor nothing else. Leave me alone, Bess and I, we'll sort it."

The donkey chose that moment to plunge and kick at one of the soldiers who was trying to go to her head, another guard made a determined swipe at the staff only to be met by a swift and accurate attack to the shins followed by a knock on the head that made his helmet ring.

The crowd roared with laughter, and Aragorn could see that the guard captain, a man grim in his loyalty and not known for his sense of humour at the best of times, was about to lose his slender grasp on his patience and order some rather more lethal solution to the blocked gate dilemma.

"Hold!" Aragorn cried in his command voice, honed on a century and a half of battlefields. He strode out of the crowd, suddenly the focus of all eyes.

The guard captain spun round, obviously ready to have a piece of whoever thought he could do his job, then gasped and paled as he saw who was bearing down on him.

"Sire!" He bowed deeply, and suddenly, like the rustle of leaves in a forest, the whisper went round the crowd. "The King." There was a flurry of hands on hearts and bowed heads, followed by a melting away of the idle gawkers.

Legolas meanwhile had moved near the donkey's head and started murmuring to her, distracting her from her panic, and that left a red faced, blond running to grey haired hobbit, bristling in the sudden quiet, clutching his staff with his two hands, ready to take on the world.

Aragorn dismissed the gate guard with a movement of his eyes, and then turned his attention to the small person in front of him. He bowed, "Elessar Telcontar, King of Gondor and Arnor. You are welcome Perian, even though it would appear otherwise."

The hobbit's eyes widened at this introduction and by the end he was hanging off his staff with his head bowed in mortification.

"'M, sorry." He said in a small voice. "Me Da always said my temper would get me into trouble, and now it has. So shamed he would be." Bright damp anguished blue eyes looked up at Aragorn. "'M Tolman Gardener, come to visit me birthplace and the great library, and now all I've done is make trouble." A single tear ran down the weather-beaten cheek as the hobbit bowed miserably to his king.

Aragorn ran a quelling hand over his own face to make sure his expression was suitably grave, because truthfully the pathetic little figure in front of him did not deserve his laughter. The last time he had seen Tom Gardener he had been a babe in arms, a welcome surprise arriving during Sam and Rose's visit to his city seventy-seven years before.

"Welcome Tolman, twice, thrice welcome, from my heart." He moved closer and placed a friendly hand on the hobbit's shoulder. " Come let us see if we cannot disentangle your good beast and then find a place for you at my table. It must be time for second breakfast at least and I am sure hobbits have not changed so radically since last they visited that you are not hungry."

Tom grinned a little at this gentle teasing, then turned briskly back to his wagon. Legolas had not only calmed the donkey but also appeared to have talked the enormous link of chain into relinquishing its hold on the wagon's shaft. Aragorn gathered up a couple of the gate guards, those not nursing broken heads or shins, and the remaining two body guards and, between them, they manhandled the wagon back on the road. With the Elf handling the reins and directing the besotted donkey it was not long before the wagon finally cleared the arch and entered the first ring of the city.

Once safely clear of the gate tunnel Tom swung nimbly up onto the seat beside Legolas, turned and bowed most respectfully and introduced himself again, but this time in flawless Sindarin.

Elf and King could not resist a shared eyebrow, even as the Elf returned the favour.


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Rose Sared