If the new King's new esquire hadn't known from his own experience it was customary for Women to arm Men for war Pippin might have shut the door on Lady Arwen, and her companions when they showed up to help Strider dress, instead he let them in.

All three Women were looking grand and rather solemn in dark gowns glittering with gold and silver. Aragorn, in his shirt and breeches, greeted them without surprise or embarrassment. Of course Lady Arwen was his wife now, and the other two, Lady Idril and Lady Laebeth, were some kind of relations. Besides Men aren't Hobbits they have their own ways - and very odd some of them are too!

It was just as well the ladies had come for they knew how all the bits and pieces went on, which was more than Pippin did. He made himself useful by handing the pieces to them - at least he remembered from his own arming the order in which the things were supposed to go on.

For some reason Strider wasn't going to wear the kind of plate armor that seemed usual in Gondor instead the ladies put a shirt and a sort of long skirt of black mail upon him, then fastened some scaly bits of silver-steel plate inlaid with gold and engraved with feathers and trees in the usual Gondorian fashion to his shoulders and upper arms.

A sleeveless red velvet robe went over the armor, and a black leather surcoat embroidered on the chest with the tree and stars went over that. Then Lady Arwen buckled a pair of tooled black leather vambraces decorated with the feather and star crest of the Kings in silver steel onto Aragorn's arms, while the other two fastened similar plates to his boots.

After that Arwen took the swordbelt, with Narsil and the Elven knife hanging from it, out of Pippin's hands and buckled it around Strider's waist. And last of all Idril and Laebeth draped a black cloak lined with dark red over his shoulders, fastening it with the Eagle brooch and a silver pin engraved with the Tree.

Then Lady Arwen made him sit down and combed his hair herself, plaiting two little braids with silver and fastening them at the back of his head to keep the hair from his eyes, which struck Pippin as quite a good idea considering how Aragorn's hair usually behaved.

He picked up the glittering helmet with its adamant star above the noseguard and wide spread seagull wings of real feathers but Strider shook his head, smiling. "Leave that, Pippin, I will not wear it. And leave the shield as well. It will be no use to me and awkward for you to carry."

"To put it mildly." Pippin agreed with some relief. The shield was near as tall as he was, and unwieldy with it.

Aragorn rose but before he could go Lady Arwen held up a finger. "Wait, there is one thing more." Turning aside she dug for a moment in a saddle-bag and when she turned back she had a sort of silver ribbon spread across her hands with a big glittering white jewel in its center.

Strider's eyes went wide. "The Elendilmir!"

"Gilya gave it to me to bring to you along with Narsil." she answered, maybe a little defensively.

His brow crinkled in that way he had. "And what else do you have in that saddlebag of yours, the Scepter of Annuminas? Elendil's chair itself?"

"Of course not," she answered, "don't be silly, Estel. Now bend down and let me put this on you."

As he straightened up the jewel caught the light from the window and blazed like a star upon his brow. Pippin felt his breath catch and for a moment Strider didn't look like himself at all but intimidatingly grand and remote, like one of the towering king statues in the Hall.

Lady Arwen smiled like the sun coming out and said something in Elvish: "Onan-i-Estel Edain."

Aragorn's face changed. "U-chebin estel anim." he answered, almost harshly. Then he took his wife's hands in his and said: "Arwen -" in a tone that told Pippin this would be a very good time to make himself scarce. He put down the helmet and headed for the door, the other two ladies right at his heels.

Outside the door Idril got down on her knees and kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Peregrin."

"For what?" he asked in surprise.

"For not letting me part from my father in anger."

He broke into a relieved smile. "Then you're not angry with Lord Denethor any more?"

She smiled back, a bit ruefully. "A little. But his life was more than its ending. I will try to remember the good years not the bad. And thanks to you I need not reproach myself over our parting as poor Faramir must. I am grateful."

"You're welcome." said Pippin.

As he followed the two Women through the Great Hall Pippin saw that Denethor's black throne at the foot of the dais had been taken away somewhere. Then they passed through the open doors into the Court of the Fountain to find it full of armed Men. Not the whole army of course, just the Captains and their personal guards.

Lord Hurin stood on the steps talking to King Eomer and Prince Imrahil with Merry behind them, listening intently. Lady Idril's four women were grouped nearby, one holding a tall pitcher and the other a large goblet. Idril joined them but Lady Laebeth, who was Hurin's wife, went down the steps to talk to the young Man holding Aragorn's banner.

Pippin himself headed straight for his companions. Gandalf, Gimli and Legolas were standing with Strider's Northern Rangers, who looked very plain and plebian in their dark grey cloaks and unadorned leather and mail next to the splendid silver-steel armor and gold broidered black cloaks of the new King's Guard. Not to mention the elegant blue and silver of the Knights of Dol Amroth and the colorful leather and gilt armor of the Rohirrim. Not that they cared a jot, as far as Pippin could see, any more than Strider himself had minded wearing his shabby old leathers at the Court of Edoras.

Beregond was standing with them as well, along with Mistress Hiril. Baradis and Berethil were there too but they weren't paying any attention to their brother, instead they were talking earnestly to Lady Arwen's twin brothers.

"They seem to have a lot to say to each other." Pippin observed, interested.

"Yes." said Mistress Hiril in a tone he recognized. He'd heard it from his mother when she'd seen his sisters chatting up somebody she didn't approve of.

"I'm sure it's just business. The healing art and all that." he said hastily.

"I hope so." Hiril said grimly. "We shall see when you return."

Pippin let out a gusty sigh of relief. "At last somebody who thinks we'll be coming back! I must say all the gloom and doom these last days has had my heart right down in my toes."

Beregond smiled down at him. "I doubt that, Peregrin, yours is not a heart easily cowed. For myself I have no fears at all, not with an experienced campaigner like you to look after me."

The Hobbit blushed. "That was just Strider - I mean the King's - little joke. Anyway," he continued to Hiril, "you were right about the siege so I believe you about this too."

"Thank you, Peregrin." she answered. "See if you can convince my husband. After all these years he still hasn't learned I am always right."

"Well I'd think he'd have noticed that -" Pippin was beginning when Aragorn and Arwen appeared under the arch of the doors and the Men raised a cheer.

Strider and the other Captains descended the steps to stand with their squires and chief officers beneath their banners. Pippin joined Aragorn, his cousin Halladan who headed the Rangers, and Siriondil the Gondorian captain of the new King's Guard beneath the Tree and Stars.

The maid holding the pitcher poured wine into the great cup held by her companion, who handed it to Idril who passed it in turn to the new Queen. She carried it to each Captain, Eomer first, then Imrahil and finally Aragorn, and they drank from it one by one as did those standing by them including, last of all, Pippin himself.

Lady Arwen took the cup back from him and addressed them all, not in Elvish but in plain common speech: "We part but for a time. Fare you well until we meet again." which sounded like she thought they'd be coming back too.

Pippin certainly hoped she and Hiril were right.

After bowing to the Queen they all trooped down the steps of the tunnel to the sixth circle and mounted their horses in the stable yard there.

"Here Pippin my lad, you ride with me." Gandalf said smiling. "Shadowfax and I would be lonely without our familiar third."

Pippin saw Eomer had Merry mounted behind him as the party arranged themselves in marching order with Strider and the other Captains at the front, along with the remaining members of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Pippin cleared a dry throat and said as brightly as he could: "Where are we going?"

Eomer and Imrahil stared at him in astonishment but his companions got the joke. Aragorn smiled wryly, and Legolas kindly, and Gimli gave a little snort of laughter. Gandalf rolled his eyes histrionically, but Merry heaved a long suffering sigh and said with exaggerated patience: "Mordor, Pip, just like before."

"Oh, right." said Pippin, well pleased to have wiped that grim look off Strider's face, even for an instant, and trying to ignore the way his palms were sweating under his gloves and the gone feeling in his belly. "I remember now."

And so he rode out of Minas Tirith with a joke on his lips. A very different Hobbit from the one who had ridden in a bare week ago.

TO BE CONTINUED ....In the sequel 'The Black Gates'. Coming eventually ;)