Though given leave to depart as freely as he'd come Esarhael of Harad showed no inclination to do anything of the kind but stayed firmly planted in his guest house, appearing unperturbed and courteous in hall for meals and watching the muster of Gondor from the walls.

"He means to take back as much intelligence as he can to his King." Boromir warned.

"He is welcome." Aragorn replied placidly and with more than his usual impenetrability.

The levies from Ithilien were the first to arrive, led by Faramir their Prince. Foot soldiers and knights alike liveried in white with the new moon emblazoned in silver and blue upon their snowy banners. They raised their tents in the Pelennor field where they were soon joined by an equally large contingent from Anorien.

Boromir stood beside Esarhael in the gallery above the Great Gate, as below them King Elessar, his Steward and his Queen welcomed the leader who rode beneath the golden sun.

"Surely that is a lady." Esarhael frowned, peering keenly at the slight, armor encased figure reining in to bow before the King. Gauntleted hands reached up to remove helmet, and with it all doubt as to its wearer's sex. Thick black braids wreathed her head and the small, triangular face, turned upward to Aragorn's gaze was easily recognizable to those watching above.

"Is that not your sister, Idril?" the Southron lord asked curiously.

"It is." Eowyn answered across the speechless Boromir. "She is Princess of Anorien and Wardress of the Northern Fortresses. I thought your folk better informed, Lord Esarhael."

"We had heard something of the kind," he admitted, "but were disinclined to believe it. It seemed too important and perilous a post to be held by a woman."

Eowyn smiled demurely and Esarhael returned it ruefully. "No doubt we should have known better. We have heard of the deeds of the Lady of Ithilien! You Northern women are of a doughtier kind than our own."

"Some of us." said Eowyn.

"Idril is no shieldmaiden!" Boromir blurted, finding his voice at last.

"No but she has proved herself a fine marshal and strategist." Eowyn answered. "And she has skilled captains to lead her troops in battle. Never fear, Brother, she has better sense then to risk herself upon the field."

"I am glad to hear that." he managed.

"It is no secret, Boromir." Idril said calmly as her women relieved her of cuirass and pauldrons. "Indeed it is a well known fact. I saw no need to inform you specifically."

He shifted irritably on his camp stool. The sun shone through the white canvas ceiling of Idril's pavilion and its hundreds of tiny golden suns scattered small, bright reflections over the tapestry hangings and rich rugs. Scarlet and white silks rustled as Idril seated herself in the chair opposite.

"I am surprised you don't sit on the Council as well." he grumbled.

"I do." she replied and shrugged. "Knowing what the decision must be I chose to delegate my Steward to attend in my place while I got on with the muster."

He shook his head in wonder. "Three ladies on the Council of the Realm. There must have been an almighty fuss over that!"

"There was. But Elessar has rather different ideas on such matters and paid it no mind."

"Well I cannot argue with his choices." Boromir conceded, good humor returning. He smiled at her. "Forgive a big brother's astonishment at finding his little sister has become a woman, and an able one at that!"

Idril did not smile in return. "I am not your sister, Boromir."

He blinked, suddenly uncomfortable again. "Well, no. Not in blood -"

"I do not feel towards you as a sister and never have." she continued, her fixed golden gaze becoming unnerving. "Faramir is indeed the brother of my heart. But my feelings for you are of a very different kind."

Boromir felt his face heating. "Faramir said...that is I never saw -"

"Of course you didn't." she sighed. "You are wise about Men my quondam brother but all too ignorant of Women. I blame myself, I never tried to make you see. It is a mistake I do not mean to repeat. And so I say plainly to you, Boromir son of Denethor, I love and desire you and have since before I was a Woman."

He sat speechless, red faced, churning with unfamiliar feelings. She took pity on his confusion. "You need not answer me now, Boromir. Think on it, get used to the idea and when you are ready we will talk again."

It was a dismissal. Boromir was not sure whether it was relief, disappointment or dismay or all three in his heart as he bowed himself out of her presence. He trudged up the seven circles and into his brother's study where he found Aragorn smoking meditatively in the window embrasure and Faramir behind his desk taking notes. Both looked at him in mild surprise, which increased as they took in his expression.

"I have been talking to Idril." was all he had to say.

A grin spread over Faramir's face. "I told you so did I not, Brother mine?"

"You did." Boromir sat down heavily in the nearest chair. "What am I going to do?" he asked plaintively.

"Marry her." Faramir answered promptly.

Boromir flinched.

"You could do much worse, my friend." Aragorn observed mildly, eyes sharp upon him. "Idril is a wise and able woman." suddenly the eyes held a twinkle. "And she could use a good captain."

"She does go through them quickly." Faramir agreed dryly.

"I can't marry anyone!" Boromir burst out desperately. "I don't know who I am anymore, or where I am going!"

"Perhaps Idril can help you find out." Aragorn said gently. "Give yourself time, Boromir. You may find the idea more appealing then you do now."

"It's not that - she's lovely and desirable any man can see as much." he said, still a little frantic. "But she's my little sister!"

"No she's not." Faramir said.

"So she reminded me." Boromir agreed miserably. "But that's how I have always thought of her."

"Give yourself time." Aragorn repeated, the twinkle reappearing. "But I warn you my friend, Idril is a true daughter of the Kings. If she wants you, she will have you. Best you get used to the idea."

The muster of Gondor continued. The Rohirrim arrived on the seventh day, and the levies of the Northern Kingdoms with them led by the only one of their Kings Boromir had not met. Turambar of Rhudaur looked enough like Aragorn to be his son and Boromir noted both how the youthful king was cheered from the walls and that his welcome from the Princess Aredhel held more than cousinly warmth.

"I think I see a solution to the problem of the succession." was his conclusion.

Faramir nodded agreement. "So many of us think. Turambar is not the next in blood but he is the best known of the three Northern Kings in Gondor. If he and Aredhel should wed the Council would accept her as heir."

"Which she already is in Northern eyes." said Boromir, and smiled wryly. "The Princess certainly seems inclined that way, what of Turambar?"

Faramir shrugged. "Who knows. He is as hard to read as Elessar himself."

"Or you, my brother." Boromir grinned.

"Or you." Faramir returned seriously. "You are not as transparent as you used to be, Boromir."

"Not even to myself." he said grin vanishing.

He couldn't get away from talk of marriage. Two of Eowyn's handmaidens had decided to wed their betrothed before the army marched. Normally Boromir would have approved wholeheartedly but now the bustle of preparations rubbed his nerves raw. One day Faramir followed him as he fled the busy, chattering women to pace the house's tiny courtyard.

"There's no need for such distress, Brother." Faramir said soothingly standing still in the doorway as Boromir prowled the paved walks like a trapped lion. "If you don't want Idril just tell her so. She will survive."

His brother's only answer was an agonized glance. Faramir relaxed. "Ah, I thought so. You do want her don't you?"

Boromir came to a full stop, closing his eyes. "It's not a matter of what I want! It has been foreseen that I will die in battle. How can I marry knowing that?"

Faramir snorted contemptuously. "So any of us may die, including Idril herself for all she leads from the rear. That is no reason, my Brother."

Boromir sighed heavily and say down on a bench facing the doorway. "I was not sent back to live an ordinary life, Faramir. How can I involve any woman in so strange a destiny as mine has become?"

"And what destiny is that?" his brother asked softly.

Boromir swallowed hard. He hadn't wanted to discuss this with anybody - even Faramir - for fear he wouldn't be believed. But far worse if he was. "I am an Emissary, Faramir, sent as Mithrandir and his brother wizards were to fight the Shadow."

"But you are a Man." said Faramir, almost as if he wasn't quite sure.

Boromir closed his eyes again. "That's why. This is the Age of Men, our enemies will be Men. Only a Man with the power of Men to shape his own destiny can succeed against such foes."

Slowly Faramir nodded. "Yes, I have sensed that. The old Powers are fading. They are not gone, not yet, but their time is past."

"Exactly." Boromir agreed, relaxing a little now the worse was over.

"Which explains you own power." his brother mused.

Boromir sighed. "I suppose so. I dimly remember being taught by Elrond, the Lady of Lorien and even Mithrandir," in frustration, "but I can't quite recall what they taught nor why I agreed to learn."

"No doubt you had good reasons. Perhaps you should trust yourself, Brother."

"I just hope I can." he answered grimly.

"Getting back to Idril." Faramir continued calmly. "I don't quite see why being an Emissary precludes marriage."

"Mithrandir and his fellows didn't."

"Mithrandir and his fellows were not Men." Faramir countered calmly. "Tell Idril, I don't think she'll be dismayed."

"I know she won't be." Boromir shook his head. "No, Brother. I must know more about myself and my mission before I consider binding her to me. Every day brings new memories. Soon, I hope I will remember all and know what I must do."

"Very well, Brother," Faramir grinned suddenly, "but remember yours is not the only will involved. Don't underestimate Idril, I beg you!"

Boromir grimaced. "Believe me I don't. But she has kept her distance as she said. The next move is mine."

"Clever Idril." said Faramir.

Boromir's was not the only troubled spirit in the Citadel. Esarhael watched the power of the Reunited Kingdom muster with sinking heart. Near Harad had no sure allies now that the Dark Lord who'd bound them into a fearful union was fallen. Indeed the Tribes of the Khand finding the western lands bulwarked against them, had turned their raids southward, pillaging the borders of the Harad states. Oh they did not need this war! But they had it, and they would lose it and what would become of his country and his King then?

Sunk in such gloomy meditations Esarhael stood in the embrasure at the tip of Minas Anor's stone pier, gazing down at the cooking fires twinkling like earthbound stars in the Pelannor as day faded to dusk. So distracted was he that he failed to notice the Western King's presence until the tickle of a pleasant, unfamiliar scent made him look aside. Elessar leaned against the parapet beside him, relaxed and companionable as an old friend, casually waving aside Esarhael's bow.

"Boromir tells me you are a good Man." he said unexpectedly.

Esarhael blinked, then smiled ruefully. "I see you share his directness. A trait of the West?"

"Perhaps." grey eyes shading to blue, not unlike Esarhael's own save for a glimmer of a strange inner light, studied him gravely. "This war was forced upon me."

"I am very aware of that." the Southron answered between clenched teeth. Herumor had made him partner in an act of treachery, a wrong he would neither forget nor forgive but had no hope of revenging.

"I have retaken only those lands that are by right Gondor's." said the King. "I desire not one rod more. A free Harad bound only by friendship is my wish, not an empire."

"Your ancestors thought differently." Esarhael retorted.

Elessar nodded. "So they did. But I am not my fathers. I chose to learn from their mistakes, not repeat them."

"You call empire a mistake?" the Southron asked startled as well as interested. Surely all Kings desired to extend their power?

"Most certainly." Elessar settled himself on the bench beneath the parapet, looking up at him. "I come of the Kings of the North you know. Our aims and our methods were rather different from those of our Southern kin." he smiled faintly. "We accepted the allegiance of the Men of Middle Earth only when it was freely offered, and made for them kingdoms where they might live by their own laws rather than ours."

Esarhael tried not to look skeptical and failed.

"You doubt me," Elessar sighed, "and I cannot blame you. Men judge by what they know and you do not know the Northlands, nor me."

"I have heard -" Esarhael began, stopped.

"Tales of necromancy and sorcery. I know." Elessar's brow crinkled as he asked. "Do you believe them?"

"I saw your army of specters on the Pelannor Field." Esarhael said stiffly. "And I have seen Boromir."

Elessar blinked. "Boromir?" then he smiled ruefully. "It was not I who brought him back."

"So he said."

"You do not believe him?"

For the first time since the conversation had begun Esarhael's confidence wavered. "It is hard to." he admitted.

"Boromir is not a liar."

"I know that well."

Elessar leaned back against the parapet, folding his arms comfortably and radiating serenity as Esarhael floundered in his uncertainty. "You are not like Herumor!" he blurted at last.

"Thank you for that." the King said dryly.

"Your Western directness is catching." Esarhael agreed ruefully, regaining his composure.

Elessar laughed, then sobered. "The powers I wield are lawful," he said quietly, "part of my nature that I could not change if I would."

"Because you are not a Man."

The King stood but his face was sad rather than angry. "No, Esarhael, I am a Man but not just Man. It is not a comfortable thing to be and one of the least comfortable things about it is the effect it has on other Men." he walked past the Southron to descend the steps of the embrasure, turning at their foot to look up at him, his eyes gleaming silver though there was no moon to reflect in them.

"You are a Man of Westerness, Esarhael." he said softly. "Descended from the Fathers of Men who fought the Great Shadow at the side of the Elves. Your ancestors and mine defeated and drove back Sauron from these lands, if only for time. The yoke of the Shadow will be your kingdom's doom unless you fight it instead of me. One Man must start it, must stand against the Darkness and inspire others to do likewise. Be that Man Esarhael. You the strength. Use it!"

Then he turned on his heel and was gone. Leaving Esarhael alone in the growing darkness to struggle with his doubts and his fears.