The Chronicles of Ithilien

By Berzerker_prime

Chapter Four: The Council of the King

Far to the west of the gleaming white Tower of Ecthelion, far west of the lands of Gondor and Rohan, beyond the Misty Mountains and the valley of Imladris, father west, even, than the ruins of Amon Súl, lay the tiny, unkempt village of Bree. Its streets were made of foot-sucking mud and there was no building taller than three stories. Wood held up most of the town's walls, although there was the rare construct of dull, grey stone.

Day had long since fled the land and now the village stood in the dark, flickering light from candles and lamps shining through the many windows. The brightest of these lights came from the windows of a small inn on a corner known as the Prancing Pony. In the parlor within milled about a curious mix of Men and Hobbits, sharing food and ale and conversation.

The Prancing Pony's old proprietor, Barliman Butterbur, had long since retired. But three years prior he had sold the inn to an enterprising young Hobbit, named Alton Goodbarrel, from a family of ale brewers. The Hobbit had grown up in Bree and the Pony had always been one of his favorite places. In his tweens, he had spent considerable time doing odd jobs for old Butterbur and when the old man had begun to speak of retiring, Alton saved every piece of the stipend he received from his family to buy the inn. It had taken nearly five years, but he had managed to scrape together enough money to save it and on his thirty-third birthday he had bought it and proclaimed it his gift to the village at large, vowing that nothing about it would change.

This spring night, as he did nearly every night, Alton stood behind the bar upon a stool, chatting with patrons and filling glasses. Not a single person entered or left the parlor that he did not notice from his vantage point and each was greeted or bid a good night with a smile.

Observing people was a skill he had learned in the last three years. He had had to learn it quickly as an inn was a place where all sorts of people were always coming and going. For now, Alton had picked out a group of three men sitting around a table in a dark corner, speaking low to each other and avoiding all others. All three sat with their backs to the wall and watched the room carefully. This was curious behavior for anyone sitting in the Pony's parlor, so Alton watched them more closely as the night wore on. Soon, he noted that they seemed to pay extra attention to Hobbits who would enter or leave. But they never seemed to see who they were looking for.

Eventually, the inn's patrons all began to filter out of the parlor and take their leave or take to their own rooms for the night, one by one. The three men followed in kind, leaving almost last.

"Good evenin' to you, good sirs," said Alton as they sauntered past, "if you care to leave a message for whoever you're waitin' for, I'd be glad to take it."

"No, no message," said the last of the three, "but if the sons of the Master and the Thain arrive, please inform us."

"What, Master Merry and Master Pippin?" said Alton in surprise. "They haven't been around in Bree for near two years, now. And I haven't heard tell of their comin' at all."

"Just tell us if they come," said the man. And with nothing further, they departed and went to their rooms upstairs.

Alton shook his head in puzzlement and went back to his tasks. When the last of the patrons had left the parlor for the night, he doused all the lamps and made his tired way to his own room. With a yawn, he entered and closed the door, but nearly yelped when two sets of eyes greeted his as it swung shut. They belonged to no less than Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, looking careworn and wearied of the road. Around their shoulders, each wore a green cloak clasped at the throat by a pin fashioned in the shape of a green leaf with silver veins. Alton had seen them wearing these matching cloaks before and it always seemed a curious thing to him that his eyes wanted to slide off the fabric and look to other things. They both had large packs for travel and dangling from their belts were short swords, which Alton had never seen them carrying before. Merry had a gold-clad horn, also.

"What in Middle-earth!" Alton exclaimed as he took all of this in.

Merry and Pippin immediately hushed him, quite urgently putting their hands over his mouth.

"Sorry for the scare, lad," said Merry, "but we've had to sneak in, I'm afraid."

Alton nodded his understanding and Merry and Pippin backed off.

"You gave me a start, is all," Alton said, keeping his voice low, "there are three strange men looking for you. They have rooms upstairs."

"Well, that's why we had to sneak in," said Pippin, "those men aren't too keen on us gettin' where we need to go. They've been on our trail since Buckland!"

"Rangers!" Alton said. "Only Rangers could track two Hobbits all the way here! Heavens! What trouble brews in Bree?"

"None we don't bring ourselves, I'm afraid," said Merry padding across the room to peer out the window.

"There's trouble in the Shire," Pippin explained, "and we simply must reach Gondor with word of it."

"We need your help, Alton, if you can give it," said Merry.

"Of course I'll give you what help I can, if it means aiding the Hobbits of the Shire," said Alton, "the Pony is always open to you. But surely you don't want to be hidin' in the same place where the people following you are sleepin'!"

"We don't want you to hide us," said Pippin with a shake of his head.

"We need your help to get out of Bree," Merry explained, "those Rangers won't leave until they think we're gone, anyway. If we try to hide here, they'll find us, soon."

"Help you avoid the Rangers? But they're the King's Men!"

"No," said Pippin, "not these men. The King doesn't know what they're up to."

"Which is why we need to get to Gondor," Merry added, "people could die if we don't make it."

"Oh, heavens!" said Alton. "This is a big lot for a simple inn-keeper and ale-brewer! But, if my help is needed, you'll have it and no mistake! I think I have an idea."

The early light of the next day found Alton packing a wagon with straw. A stack of small barrels was nearby and Alton's sturdy carthorse, Tim, was tethered to a post, calmly grazing on some of the straw. The Hobbit hummed as he worked and it soon caught the ear of the Rangers whose rooms were just above. One of them leaned out the window and called down to him.

"Ah! Good morning to you, kind sir!" Alton greeted back. "Still no word of Master Merry or Master Pippin, I'm afraid. I've passed it on to Bob and Nob that you're lookin' for 'em, though."

"Bob and Nob? But where shall you be?"

Alton rapped his knuckles against the top of one of the wooden barrels. "I've gotta be takin' these back to Milo Sandheaver in Archet. Best brew in the Bree-land, next to my own of course, but he's particular about gettin' his barrels back."

"I see," said the Ranger, "well, then I'd best be leaving you to it then." With that, the Ranger ducked back inside. But, a moment, later, he called down to Alton again. "Master Goodbarrel, that is a tall cart for a Hobbit. How, pray-tell, were you going to get those barrels loaded?"

"Well, I usually have help," said Alton, "but I couldn't find anyone this early and I have to be gettin' on the road. I'll manage it."

"Wait a moment there and I'll help you," said the Ranger.

"Oh, I can't have a guest-"

"No, no, I insist on it!"

Before Alton could say anything further, the Ranger darted back into the window and disappeared again. Alton cast a worried look at his pile of straw, then piled a bit more on top.

"Oh, Alton, what have you gotten tangled up in?" he muttered to himself, "this'll never fool 'em. Not Rangers, that's for certain."

The Ranger then came out of the door and strode Alton's direction. "It looks to me as though you have more than enough straw in the cart."

"Oh, yes, I was just about to start the loading."

"Please, allow me," said the Ranger, stooping to pick up two of the barrels, one in each arm. He carried them to the wagon and stepped up with them. He kicked his feet through the straw as he went to the back end and deposited them near the seat. He looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head with a smile and went back for two more barrels.

Alton watched, holding his breath every time the Ranger climbed into the cart. He stood there, rooted to his spot, waiting for the trouble to come.

But it never did and it was with a shock when Alton realized that the Ranger had loaded the last two barrels and climbed back out of the wagon.

"There you are," said the Ranger, "fourteen barrels all loaded and ready to go." There was a change in the Ranger's voice, now. It was somehow freer; looser, Alton thought.

"Oh, and much faster than ever I could have done on my own!" said Alton. "Thank you kindly! All that's left is to hitch up old Tim." He went over to the horse and led him to the front of the cart. "It's a day to Archet and a day back," he continued chatting as he worked, "and I've got a day's worth of business there besides. So, I suspect you'll have gone by the time I'm back. So, I'll bid you safe journey, wherever your travelin' takes you. Do return soon. The King's men are always welcome at the Prancing Pony."

"We shall, of course, return," said the Ranger, "and a safe journey to you as well, Master Goodbarrel."

With a wave, the Ranger went back inside the inn as Alton climbed up into the seat of the wagon. He took up the horse's reins and urged him onward. A few minutes later and the cart passed through the hedge of the east-gate and was on the road to Archet in the east. Once the village was well out of sight, he brought the horse and wagon to a halt and climbed into the back. He pushed aside some of the barrels and knocked on the wagon's floor.

"It should be clear now," he said.

A part of the floor suddenly swung upward and open and Merry and Pippin popped out of the small box that was hidden below.

"That was close," Alton said to them, "I thought for certain that Ranger would hear the hollow spot!"

"Except that it wasn't so hollow!" Pippin exclaimed, poking Merry in the gut. "One of us has put on a few stones, lately!"

"Certainly not me, Pip!" said Merry. "You should look to your own waistline first! At least it worked, though."

"Yes! Who'd ever have thought we'd be thankful for old Bill Ferny's wily tricks," said Pippin, "I wonder what he carried around in that box before he got all in a hurry to sell the wagon to your father, Alton."

The innkeeper laughed. "I'd think we wouldn't want to know! Now, which way do we make for, lads? Do we go to the Elves in Rivendell?"

Merry and Pippin sobered at once and looked at each other puzzled.

"What do you mean 'we'?" Pippin asked.

"I'm going with you, of course," said Alton, "if those Rangers haven't figured out our little trick yet, they surely will by the time I come back in three days. They won't have your tracks to follow, since you're not leavin' any. And no one else is plannin' to leave Bree for at least a week, near as I can figure."

"That's true," said Merry, "and if you go back to Bree, there's no telling what those men will do."

"Besides that," Alton added, "there's no way I'm just going to leave all this as it stands now. I'm involved, after all. And I've always wanted to see what was away in the south."

"Aha!" Pippin exclaimed. "The truth is out! Hear that, Merry? Alton's got a bit of the Tookish nature in him!"

"And it is safer if he comes along," Merry agreed, "all right, then, Alton. I hope you're ready to meet the heroes of the War of the Ring."

The summer sun rose early and set late. In Ithilien, in the year following the first Battle of Minas Morgul, this meant that the Orcs were not abroad as much. But still, the Rangers posted to Henneth Annún had much to contend with and the days following midsummer meant that the dangerous nights were growing longer.

Mablung dearly loved Henneth Annún. Not only was it a valued refuge, but it held a great deal of beauty as well. The way the setting sun would shine through the waterfall at evening often times simply took his breath away. He would find himself stealing glances at it as often as he could. The refuge was also a place of community for the Rangers, where they could relax and be comrades rather than soldiers for but a few hours. He had spent a great deal of time there, in dark days and bright, and to Mablung it was a second home.

It was near to nightfall now as Mablung climbed the stair and came out atop the ridge of rock that overlooked the falls. But the day was grey and clouds covered the sky; there would be no golden sunset this night. The air was strangely still and silent and Mablung could feel an odd dread in the air and welling up within him. He turned to look at even the slightest of noises in the wood and more than once he put his hand to his long bow. It was little more than instinct, but somehow he was certain that something was going to happen soon.

Mablung sat and watched the light wane, growing more and more agitated as the time drew on. Finally, the fragile calm was shattered somewhere behind him by the short, sharp snap of a twig. He whirled around and stood, drawing his sword, ready for a fight. But he found there only Bergil, equally as surprised by the commander's reaction. Mablung allowed himself a moment of wonder at the youth's stealth and was pleased that his instruction had so well taken root.

Bergil had been among the second group of the younger Rangers to be posted to Henneth Annún. Fifteen of them were under Mablung's command for the time being, all of them looking to win their spurs in defense of Gondor. Of course, some of them had had more of a chance to prove themselves than others. Tradition among the Rangers divided new recruits into two groups; those who seemed to attract battle, called the black clouds, and those who seemed charmed to avoid it, called the white clouds. The son of Beregond had proven to be a very white cloud indeed. Always he would miss battle by only a watch-shift or would be on patrol when but a handful of Orcs were about. Other Rangers, the older ones, began to rejoice in seeing him among their numbers for they believed that it would mean no trouble would befall them.

The young Ranger, however, was beginning to chafe at this. Already he was but two weeks from the end of his posting and he was soon to return to Minas Estel for leave, yet he did not feel as if he had done his part.

From Mablung's perspective, it was good that Bergil had attracted so little of the fighting they had been doing. He did not relish the thought of bringing the youth home to his father wounded or worse. But Bergil had begun to volunteer for more and more patrols and it was getting harder for Mablung to deny him his chance.

But, for now, the youth seemed a little flustered as he looked in dismay and alarm at the tip of Mablung's sword. The commander breathed a sigh of relief and lowered it, slowly.

"Commander, have I done something..." Bergil said, and then trailed off in uncertainty.

"No, only proven your training to your overly excitable teacher," Mablung replied, "what is it?"

"The afternoon patrol has returned, sir," said Bergil, "and the men are wondering who will be assigned to the one for the night."

"Are they then? And should I take a guess as to who is most interested in joining the patrol?"


"Of course you are," Mablung said with a laugh and a shake of his head, "all right, Bergil, you may accompany the night patrol. Tell Lieutenant Cristfaron to assemble a company of fifty. I shall lead the patrol this night."

"Aye, commander," said Bergil. He almost began his descent back into the refuge, but halted and turned back to Mablung in confusion. "Fifty sir?"

"Fifty," Mablung confirmed.

"Why so many?"

Mablung paused for a moment, casting his gaze westward at the grey skies where, for all the world, he felt there should be a sun setting over the green trees. He let the question hang in the air for a long moment, considering his answer.

"Instinct," he said at last, and left it at that.

The light grew dim in due time and day faded into night. The clouds chose never to part and show the stars or the Moon above them, turning the night even darker and more distressing. Stranger still was the almost total lack of wind. The air was stifling and the white banners of the Steward, high atop the towers of Minas Estel, hung in their places without so much as a ripple.

As the night drew on, the lamps in the windows of the city of hope went out one by one. But there was one stubborn light in the west tower of the House of the Prince that remained lit hours after all the others.

Faramir was standing at his desk in his study, bent over a large map of northern Ithilien. It was bounded on its southward side by Emyn Arnen and on its east by the walls of Ephel Dúath with Minas Morgul nestled in a corner. In the north, it stretched as far as the Nindalf marshes and the very edges of the low hills known as the Noman-lands. Though it was not on the map, Faramir knew the place where Henneth Annún was hidden and ten miles north and west of that laid the Elven city of Galenost.

A series of small red beads had been placed on this map, each one representing the position reported by the stack of missives at the corner of the desk; the position of an Orkish camp or attack or sighting. There were many in the north, arcing westward and stopping halfway to the Andúin. More, and the more worrisome, hugged the small space between the Harad Road and the Ephel Dúath, stopping at the Crossroads. Faramir had come to know this garrisoned road as the Orkish supply line out of the Morannon. Every day that passed saw a strengthening of their positions.

Strangely enough, it was a strategy Faramir himself might have used if he had found himself in the Orc-king's position. Urlak had gained a foothold west of Mordor in Minas Morgul and had worked to strengthen it. From there, it would be possible to strike at the rest of Ithilien in due time. It was a patient strategy, one that should not have belonged to an Orkish campaign and that, more than anything, worried Faramir greatly. More and more he felt as though he was facing an unknown enemy, beyond the Orc-king Urlak. And yet, he could not conceive of who that might be.

"Faramir," Éowyn's voice floated to him from the doorway, "it is late. Come to bed."

The Steward sighed heavily, still leaning over the map. He did not turn to her as he heard her footsteps approach. "Sleep has become somewhat elusive these days," he said.

Her hand reached his shoulder and Faramir found himself reaching back for it. "You are tense," she said, "leave your maps behind for a time. They will still be there in the morning, when you are fresh."

"Yes, yes they will be," Faramir admitted, not without a certain amount of chagrin, "the Orcs will not move from these spots unless we are able to force them to."

"But you predicted this was how they were going to act a year ago, did you not?" Éowyn asked. "So far, they have done nothing unexpected. Yet all of this is troubling you."

Faramir shook his head and leaned away from her, sweeping the beads from the map into a box and rolling the map tightly in his hand. "No, it's nothing," he said, "I would simply like to see them leave Ithilien. But things are well in hand for the time being."

Finally, he turned to look at her, a smile placed carefully on his face. But she had backed away from him, a frightened look on her features. Faramir's smile vanished and they stared at each other for some silent moments.

"Faramir, what aren't you telling me?" Éowyn finally asked.

"It is nothing for you to worry about," said Faramir, "the Orcs will be dealt with."

"Why will you not speak to me?"

"I speak to you now, Éowyn," Faramir said, and he found that his tone had turned defensive.

"Not as you should," she replied with hostility, "not as you once did. There is a gulf between us and it widens day by day."

"You know no less about the Orcs' advance than I do. I have kept no secrets from you. I could never put you or the children in danger, Éowyn, you know that."

"Danger is not what concerns me, Faramir."

"Then what is it that has you so cross? Of late you have been perplexing at best. Nothing I say to you calms you and yet you push some elusive argument that I cannot see."

"That is precisely why I am so wrath with you."

"You are speaking in riddles!"

"That is an ironic statement, coming from you," Éowyn said, her voice low with anger. She turned away from him and made her way to the door. "Spend the rest of the night with your maps, if you wish. I care not."

"Éowyn," Faramir called after her, in exasperation. But she was gone before he could say anything further. The map of northern Ithilien was still in his hand and he tossed it down on his desk in frustration. Feeling the beginnings of a headache forming in his temples, he sat down in his chair, a hand to his chin in distressed thought. His eyes found the flickering flame of his lamp and he sat there, watching it, until it finally went out and all the company he had after was the silent, cold air outside his window.

That same cold, stagnant air surrounded the Rangers of Ithilien as they marched on their patrol, moving northward of Henneth Annún. The footfalls of fifty soldiers made for little stealth, but Mablung was still convinced they would be needed. Yet he still could not say why he thought thus. They had been marching on their course for several hours, now, and nothing had happened as yet. Mablung sent scouts ahead of them and in several directions around them as they went and each of them would report back the same thing; no new movement, no sign of an enemy attack.

Still, the Rangers moved northward and the woods of Ithilien soon gave way to the scattered scrub at the edge of the Noman-lands. The trees grew smaller and grass took the place of the underbrush. They had reached the edge of the woods and rolling hills of grass stretched out before them. This was the northern-most reach of their patrol and Mablung called the company to a halt, ordering a few moments' rest while they awaited the return of their last scouts.

Mablung leaned his back against a tree at the very edge of the woods, the largest near the company, and looked out across the grasses. It was silent and still and he could hear nothing drift to his ears across their great expanse. He felt strangely exposed and only the wide tree trunk at his back gave him any comfort. He could not rid himself of the feeling that eyes were upon him.

And then, the silence was broken by a shouting voice from the hills before him. A lone figure came toward them, running; one of his scouts, the one he had sent north east.

"Yrch! Yrch!" he shouted in the Elvish tongue, the language the Rangers used when they did not want their enemies to know their news. "Tól dagor! Tól dagor anyrch!"

"Ready your bows!" Mablung shouted to his men. "Form a line on the grass, quickly!"

Some of the Rangers, the older ones who had lived through such patrols during the War of the Ring, were already in motion before Mablung even had a chance to speak. The younger ones, Bergil among them, fell into the line alongside them, forming two lines of twenty-five. Every Ranger knocked a green-fletched arrow and watched the hill the scout had come from. The scout made it back behind the line, gasping for breath, just as their enemy crested the hill.

"How many?" Mablung asked the scout.

"A great many," the scout answered, "I had not the time to count."

"Stand ready to fight."


Mablung stood behind the center of the Ranger's small formation, which had formed closer to the trees than the commander had intended. He had hoped for more space to fight before they would be forced to retreat into the trees.

The Orcs, their dark forms solid against the foggy clouds of the sky, began their march towards the Rangers. Numbers upon numbers passed over the hill and Mablung realized with dismay that they had the high ground. If they had archers, they would fire soon.

As if in answer to his thought, he heard the whistle of an arrow approach from the sky. One of the Rangers in the front line stepped back a foot, surprised by a noise near his feet. It was soon followed by more arrows on the air and two of the Rangers on the right end cried out and stumbled back.

"They're going to pick us off," one of the younger Rangers shouted, "we should be retreating!"

"Not until the commander gives the order," Mablung heard Bergil's voice answer him, "hold your ground or I'll shoot you myself!"

"Enough noise!" Mablung yelled at them. "All archers stand ready!"

More arrows whistled through the air and three more of the Rangers went down. Still the Orcs marched on them and still Mablung waited, his eyes fixed on the advancing line.

"Release!" he finally shouted and the Rangers gleefully obeyed. This time, it was their own arrows that hummed as they flew. A moment later, he heard several Orkish howls of pain rise from the opposing line. Some went down, but more took their places. "Leithio ad! Penio megil lín! An in yrch!"

The Rangers let loose their second volley, and then set their bows aside in favor of drawing their swords. At a signal from Mablung, they charged forward toward the advancing Orcs. The Orcs obliged the move, answering it in kind. The two lines met in a clash of metal and a mass of voices fair and foul alike.

Mablung found himself on an upward climb in short order. Very quickly, there were more Orcs than Men near him. He charged ahead, his sword point trailing behind him. The first Orc he came to fell to a vicious rising cut. The next Orc came at him from his right and Mablung turned, pushing his sword point at the Orc's chest. The blade glanced off the Orc's armor with a mocking ring and the beast counter-attacked with a strike from above. Half in panicked reflex, Mablung managed to get his sword in place to block it above his head and immediately moved to control steel, swinging around and toward the ground to his left. The Orc pulled back and recovered quickly, preparing for another strike, but Mablung moved first, striking the blade aside with a rising cut and swinging around into a horizontal cut which finally ended the Orc.

The line of Rangers did not advance any farther than the place where the lines first met. Any time Mablung gained ground, he found himself giving it back only a moment later. Soon he was retreating all the time, the trees of the woods growing nearer with every Orc he managed to defeat. Quick glances at his compatriots informed him that they were doing the same. And still, for every Orc killed in the battle, three more seemed to take its place. Suddenly, Mablung found other Rangers at his back, huddled closely.

"Commander, we're surrounded!" one of them said, terror in his voice.

"Hold firm!" Mablung shouted, putting the blade of his sword in his gauntlet-covered left hand. He took a defensive stance with his left foot forward and his sword held horizontally before him. The first Orc to come at him struck from above and Mablung blocked with his sword held high, stepping in. Quickly, the commander snaked the tip of his sword down, under the Orc's right arm. He grabbed it again behind the Orc's back, pushing up on his tip and down on his hilt. The Orc pitched over forward as Mablung stepped aside and then there was a horrible crack as its arm came free of its shoulder. Wailing, the Orc fell to the ground, sliding off of Mablung's sword. The Ranger stabbed it through the back of the neck a moment later.

The small victory cost him, though, as Mablung suddenly found himself flying to the side. He felt as though he had been struck by a boulder and nearly lost his grip on his sword. The Orc that had bull-rushed him wasted no time and struck from Mablung's left. His knees were shaking as he did it, but he managed to get his sword around in time, catching the Orkish blade with an awkward twist of his cross piece. He pushed it up and around, over both their heads, and pushed with his knees until they were mere inches apart. Staring the foul beast in the eye for but a moment, Mablung reached in his belt for his dagger and drew it with his left hand, moving to strike at the vulnerable spot in the Orc's armor beneath the arm. But the Orc grabbed his wrist. They stood there, blades locked together and off-weapon arms grappling for their very lives. The Orc began to bear down on Mablung and the Ranger began to lose his leverage. He was at the very edge of his strength when an arrow appeared in the Orc's forehead. Not the green fletching of one of his men, but the light golden brown of the Galenost Elves. Mablung shook himself free of his dead opponent and looked around him as a man who had faced his executioner and been inexplicably pardoned.

One by one, the Orcs began to fall under a hail of arrows from the west. There, upon a second ridge, just outside the tree line, Mablung could see a formation of Elven archers, firing their keen arrows into the fray. From out of their midst a force of pike-wielding footmen charged, their weapons braced for the attack. At their head was an Elven woman holding a spear with two blades along its haft.

"Hadoriel spear-thrower!" one of the Rangers shouted. "The Galenrim send aid!"

"Regroup!" Mablung shouted, quickly shaking off his bewilderment. "Fight through, Rangers of Ithilien! To the Elves!"

A cheer went up from the Rangers, followed by several different battle cries. Quickly, the Orcs found themselves pressed between the Men and the Elves with a rain of arrows falling upon them constantly. Soon, their numbers were split north and south and in blind confusion the Orcs began to move eastward to regroup, allowing the two kindred of Ilúvatar to meet.

"Commander Mablung!" Hadoriel's voice reached the Ranger's ears. She appeared out of her forces a moment later. "Valithar and his archers are upon the western ridge. We cannot lose their cover!"

"I understand," said Mablung, "Rangers! Maetho in yrch anrún!"

"Edhil in ech, aphado!" Hadoriel shouted in kind.

Cheers in Westron and Elvish went up from the combined forces of Ithilien and their weapons were brandished toward the east where the Orcs were regrouping. As a single unit, they charged ahead, shrieking war cries. A horn sounded from the mass of Orcs and as one they turned and fled under the onslaught. At that, the Ithilien charge lost its taste for blood and Mablung and Hadoriel called them to a halt.

"My thanks to you, captain," Mablung said to the Elf, "if you and your pike-men had not come, all of us would have been lost."

"Nay, t'is I should be thanking you," answered Hadoriel, "we have been tracking that band of Orcs for two days. We may not have wiped them out, but at least they have shown us where they are. We can now put our guard on the proper leaguer."

"Commander!" Mablung heard Bergil's voice drift to him from out of the post-battle confusion. The youth pushed his way through a moment later. He was covered in grime and blood oozed from a cut in the middle of a forming bruise on his cheek. "Six of our men are dead. Thirteen more are wounded badly. They will die if they do not receive aid quickly."

"How far is Henneth Annún?" Hadoriel asked.

"Six leagues from here," Mablung answered.

"Galenost is but a league away. Your wounded will be well cared-for in the green city."

Mablung nodded his assent. "It is a kind offer. I thank you."

The dawn hours in the Citadel of Minas Tirith were typically the quietest. Even those who habitually remained awake well into the night were asleep and those who rose early were usually just rolling over to steal an extra few minutes of dozing. As such, the Citadel was quiet as a far-removed field. Not even the Citadel Guard moved about or spoke to each other much, for fear of breaking the silence.

This was the watch shift that one particular member of the Guard hated most. It was boring and he was always frightfully hungry by the time it ended. At only sixteen years, he was by far the youngest of the current Citadel Guard. In fact, most suspected he was the youngest Citadel Guard ever commissioned. He had come to the position by way of his father who had held it before him, but who had suddenly fallen over in the middle of a watch shift and died for no reason that any of them could fathom. His mother and elder brothers, in an attempt to cure him of a serious case of sloth, had gone to the watch commanders and asked that the lad be allowed to take his father's place. The third son of the family, he had been saddled with the ungracious and clumsy-sounding name of Nindcabor. The rest of the guard felt foolish trying to frame it and so had taken to simply calling him "Junior."

And so it was that Nindcabor found himself wearing the Tree and Stars and standing to one side of the tunnel that led into the Citadel, on the dawn shift. He had been standing there for hours already and more than once his stomach had protested the lack of food in the meantime. The time had crawled by as if it had been days and finally, he did not care who heard the long yawn that he finally let loose.

"By the Valar, will this watch ever end?" he asked no one in particular.

The Guard standing opposite him, on the other side of the tunnel, let out a chuckle. "Don't worry, Junior," he said, "you'll be able to fill your belly soon enough. The first bell will ring any moment."

"I certainly hope so," he said, "the dawn watch shift is frightfully boring. Nothing ever happens."

As he said this, the bell tower in the sixth circle rang out the first bell. From the buttery beneath the Tower of Ecthelion, a number of sleepy-eyed Guards slowly strolled out to relieve their comrades.

"There, you see?" said Nindcabor's elder compatriot. "No time at all."

"Finally!" Junior said, making his way to the buttery as fast as he could without making a scene. "Time for a little breakfast, and then some sleep."

"Don't you do anything else between your shifts?"

"Oh leave Junior be," said another of the Guard as he and a few others came to join them, "after eating, he doesn't have much energy left for other things. Have you seen him eat? I don't advise letting your hand get too close. You might lose it!"

The rest of the Guard laughed as they all went down into the buttery. Junior was the first to the tables, piling a plate with cold meats and bread and taking an extra apple for good measure. He took the nearest seat and began shoveling it into his mouth. He was only about half way through his meal when his watch commander came in and halted at the door.

"Nindcabor, son of Nauralagos!" he announced.

Startled, and still in the middle of a bite of his meal, Junior stood. "Sir!" he exclaimed around his full mouth.

"Come with me," said the watch commander.

"Yes, sir," said Junior, looking at his half-full plate of food mournfully. He grabbed one last piece of bread and shoved it in his mouth as he hastened across the room and up the stairs, following the watch commander.

The elder Guard said nothing to Junior as they crossed the stone-covered grounds of the Citadel. But after only a few moments, Junior came to realize that the commander was leading him toward the entrance to the House of the King. With sudden trepidation, he swallowed his last bite of bread.

"Commander, have I done something to displease you?" he asked.

"No, you've done nothing," said the commander, "and that is something upon which we will speak later. But for now, you have business within."

"Within... in the King's House?"

"Yes," said the watch commander as they came to the doors. He pulled one of them open and ushered Nindcabor inside. "For reasons that pass my understanding, the King has asked to speak with you."

"The... the King has?"

"Yes. So stop playing the part of an echo and behave yourself."

Of late, Nindcabor had come to have a mighty opinion of himself. After all, here he was only sixteen years old and already a member of the Citadel Guard without having done any work to gain the rank. Now, as he walked into the vast main entry way of the King's House, that image of himself shrank very rapidly. Three large windows on the east face of the building let the first rays of morning light spill into the room. In that light, Junior could see carvings and inlays of stone surrounding him on the walls and decorating the rails of the vast staircase that spiraled down from the second floor and spilled out on the west end of the room. In the center of the floor, a circle of black stone had been set among the white as the backdrop for an inlay of the Tree and Stars. So mesmerized by the room was the young Guard that he hardly noticed the figure descending the stairs before him.

"My lord Elessar," said the watch commander dropping to a knee and pulling Junior down with him, "as you requested, Nindcabor, son of Nauralagos, of the Citadel Guard."

"Ah yes," said the king with satisfaction, "please rise, both of you. Thank you, commander. That will be all. Please see that no one enters until we are finished."

"Yes, my liege," said the commander. He then went out of the King's House the way he and Nindcabor had come, closing the door on his way. Nindcabor watched him go and for a brief moment, he considered fleeing after him.

"Well, then" said Elessar after a few short moments of silence, "you are the youngest of the Citadel Guard; the one they call Junior. Yes?"

"Y... yes, my lord," Nindcabor stammered out, "my lord, I hope I have not offended-"

"Calm yourself, lad. You are not here for a scolding."

Junior blinked, stupidly, and searched his mind for a suitable reply for a long moment. "I'm not?" was the only thing he could come up with.

"No," said Elessar, kindly, "on the contrary. I have two things that I need to have done and I must have them done quickly and without questions. Can you do this?"

"If my king commands it, I will, of course, do what I can."

"Can you do it without being questioned?"

"Well, my lord, I find that the other Citadel Guards take little note of me. And I can blend into the men of the rest of the city well enough. Is that what my king means?"

Elessar smiled. "You understand, then. This would seem to trouble you, however."

Junior shifted, uncomfortably. "I'm afraid, my lord, that they believe me to be something of a fool."

"Ah, but that means that you may hide in plain sight," said Elessar, "it is a skill many men I know would pay dearly to have. You should use it while you are gifted with it. And in this case, it is precisely that ability that I need."

"Then, I shall do as my king commands," said Junior, suddenly feeling rather more pleased with himself.

Elessar pulled a tightly rolled and sealed scroll and a small piece of paper from a pocket and handed them both to Nindcabor. "Then your tasks are these. First, that scroll must find its way into the hands of Prince Faramir in Ithilien. But no one can know that I have sent it, so I cannot send it with any of the royal messengers. Second, I need the items on that list collected."

"My elder brother owns a trade convoy that makes weekly trips to Minas Estel," said Junior, "I'm certain I can have the message sent with him this very day, my lord." Then, he took a moment to quickly read over the list. "Boys' clothing, my lord? But, these would be too large for his lordship, the Prince Eldarion. And, forgive me, but what is Longbottom Leaf?"

"There is an herbalist in the Third Circle," said Elessar, "you may inquire there. Mention that you have heard that the best is grown by one named Paladin. The herbalist will give you what you seek. As for the rest, perhaps I will be able to tell you later. For now, I simply need them collected."

"And... the three ponies, lord?"

"Oh, yes. Bring them to the stables in the sixth circle and tell the stable master that their housing will be provided for. But do not mention by whom." He handed the youth several gold coins. "Give him these as his first payment."

"Aye, my lord."

"Good, then. And remember; you must tell no one what you are doing. Attract no attention. Do not even mention that you are on an errand for me. Is that clear?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Then go."

Nindcabor tucked the scroll and the list into a pocket inside his tabard and gave a short bow. His head spun with confusion and possibilities as he walked from the hall. As soon as he walked outside and the door closed behind him, he leaned up against it and sighed in relief. Then, remembering the two guards to either side, he quickly collected himself and walked away to his task.

"Poor lad," said one of the guards after he was out of earshot, "a scolding, no doubt. He looked more than a little flustered."

"Pay it no mind," said the other, "perhaps now he will take his duties more seriously, with the King himself looking over his shoulder."

North of Cair Andros and west of Henneth Annún laid the Elven settlement of Galenost, the green city. The Rangers of Ithilien, along with their companions from the ranks of Hadoriel's pike men and Valithar's bowmen, approached the burgeoning city at dawn but a few hours after their battle. The sun cast its first rays on the trees, turning the green leaves golden and lighting every drop of dew that had settled upon them. Scarce little stone had been used in the construction of the city. Instead, the Elves had made use of what was already growing. For the past eight years, they had coaxed the growth of tree branches and other sturdy plants around them into the formation of a long city wall. Rather than towering pillars of stone as sentry towers, stations had been built into the taller trees along the wall. Within the walls, there were more trees, stretching for at least a mile. And in the center of this green milieu was a tree that soared above all the others.

Voices called out to them as they approached, speaking in Sindarin. Both Hadoriel and Valithar called out a response and as the group of soldiers approached, the gate was opened for them and they entered.

For his part, Mablung was breathless at the sight. He had not yet been to the Elven city and had more than once imagined what it looked like. But the craft of the Elves had turned out to be so much more than his imagination had conjured that he felt as though he had walked into a dream.

"Amazing," he mused aloud to his two Elven companions, "not since I was a youth, imagining the ancient realm of Gondolin in my mind's eye, have I even conceived of such a sight."

"Gondolin looked nothing like this place," Valithar said, immediately and with a hint of remorse. And with no further words, he moved away to tend to his own company.

"I seem to have said something wrong," said Mablung to Hadoriel.

"Valithar was born in Gondolin," she replied, "he was but a fledgling at the time of its fall, but he still remembers it clearly. He was the only one of his family to survive it. He is alone on this side of the Sundering Seas."

"I had no idea he was so... so..."


Mablung shifted, and then nodded with a hint of embarrassment showing on his face. Hadoriel laughed.

"We Elves do not think of age in the same way that you Men do, Commander," she said, "age brings wisdom and nothing else for us and so it has little other meaning. In many ways, I envy you."

"How so?" Mablung asked.

"For you, age brings death. Elves do not die. We are tied to the circles of the world until the day that Ilúvatar Himself decides to end them. And on that day, we will end as well. But you will see worlds that I can never hope to dream of. You will continue in realms that even the One has not seen or conceived of. And so, I ask you, which of us is truly the immortal?" She placed a hand on his shoulder. "But there is no need to hurry things along. You have wounded. I will go and tell the healers that they are needed." She turned to hurry on her way, but Mablung called after her.

"Captain Hadoriel! You speak with an abnormal amount of wisdom. Just how old are you?"

"Not as old as Valithar," she replied cryptically and with a smile, and then hurried on her way.

With the assistance of the Elves, the Rangers made a make-shift camp in a clearing under the trees within the walls. Mablung wandered about it, checking on each and every one of his men and conversing with one of the healers about the thirteen who had been wounded. The Elf knew a great deal of lore about herbs and healing techniques and it was a wonder to Mablung to watch him work.

After a while, Mablung came to the last of his wounded charges, one of the younger Rangers. He slept fitfully and cried out whenever he moved his arm which was covered in a rapidly coloring bandage. Next to him, keeping watch, sat Bergil. He looked haggard with the ordeal of the night, but was making an effort to keep his eyes open and Mablung could see in them a spark of fear. But he sat in silence, unmoving.

"Bergil?" Mablung asked as he neared. When the youth did not respond, Mablung said his name again.

"Commander!" Bergil said finally, startled. He began to rise, but Mablung waved him off and sat down next to him.

"You should have that looked at," said the commander, indicating the cut on Bergil's cheek.

As if he had not known it was there, Bergil reached up and felt of the bruise with a shaking hand. He shook his head in confusion and looked up at Mablung. The spark of fear that had been in his eyes suddenly burst into a fire.

"Bergil?" Mablung asked with concern.

"Commander, what happened?" the youth finally asked, barely above a whisper. "There was a battle, but... I do not remember it! Was I in it? How did we happen onto the road to the Elven city? Why can I not stop shaking as a leaf?"

"Calm yourself, lad," Mablung said, grabbing Bergil by the shoulders and turning him away from the sight of his wounded comrade. "I have seen this before."

"What is wrong with me?"

"There is nothing wrong with you. You were in a battle but a few hours ago. You are not ready to remember it yet. When you are, you will. It happens to many when they fight in war for the first time. It is nothing to be ashamed of."

"Will this happen to me all the time?"

Mablung shook his head. "No," he said, "but give yourself time."

"Did... did I stand and fight?"

"Against a great force," Mablung confirmed. He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small package of herbs. He took one leaf from it and handed it to Bergil. "Here, chewing on this will calm your nerves and help you sleep. Go to the healer and see to your face. Then get some rest."

"Aye." Slowly and unsteadily, Bergil climbed to his feet. He wandered off in the direction of one of the Elves who was moving about the camp and Mablung watched him go, thinking that the lad looked no more aware than the unconscious Ranger lying nearby.

Mablung then set to wandering the camp himself, finishing his rounds to make certain that everything was in order. Once that was done, he went beyond the camp and into the Elven city. These woods were very different from the ones he knew. Choking vines did not block paths or tangle branches. Thick grass grew at his feet rather than strangling weeds. And every noise was a comfort rather than something to fear. The golden rays of the sun dappled the ground about him, bathing the woods in a warm light. Finally, Mablung found that weariness was claiming him. For but a moment, he thought, he sat down with his back against a sun-soaked tree trunk. His eyes drifted shut and he slept a sleep deeper than he had known since he had slept upon his mother's chest.

The unblazoned banner of the Steward rippled in the wind as it slowly made its way across the Pelennor field at the head of a column of silver and white. Though the clouds of the previous day remained, there was no longer the sense of stillness in the air. Things were now in motion and Faramir could feel the change as he rode. Even the city of Minas Tirith seemed to be in motion as the White Company slowly approached it.

Riding beneath the banner, at the head of the column, Faramir cast a glance back at the wagon which held Éowyn and their three children. Elboron, as the eldest, was trying to set a good example for his siblings, trying to be patient until they reached their destination. But Faramir could tell that his son was excited by the prospect of his second visit to the White City. Eldamir, by contrast, was oddly quiet and kept looking backward toward the woods of Ithilien. This would be his first visit to the Gondorian capitol and it was plain that he was not sure what to make of the monolithic towers of stone. Fréodgyth, meanwhile, was asleep in her mother's lap, completely oblivious to the restlessness of her brothers. Éowyn, for her part, kept casting longing glances at the horses. Her eyes met Faramir's for but a moment, and then looked to the distant horizon and Faramir was once again reminded of the rift between them. In thought, he looked to the white rod he carried in his hand for it felt heavier than it had before. Resolutely, he turned his mind to other things.

"Beregond, what do you make of the King's summons?" he asked the captain, riding beside him.

Beregond was silent for a moment, contemplating the looming White City. When Faramir cleared his throat, the captain suddenly looked up, startled. "Hmm? Oh, the summons," he said, "I find it rather curious he sent it by way of the trade caravan, my lord. Why not simply send it with one of his messengers? Are you certain it came from him?"

"I would know Elessar's hand if it were scratched out with a burnt coal upon a stone," Faramir replied.

"Yes, it is rather unique," Beregond agreed with a slight twinkle in his eye, "I must confess I have trouble reading it at times."

"As do I," Faramir said with a chuckle, "but the question remains; why send the summons with the caravan?"

"There are two reasons I can think of, my lord," said Beregond, "either there were none of his messengers available at the time or he decided he could not trust them."

"There is a third, Beregond, and it worries me the most. It could be that both are true. It would mean that he is summoning a great many people and that he did not wish the others to know that I would be summoned as well."

"To secretly summon the Steward of the Realm? What reason could the King have for doing that?"

"I know not," Faramir admitted, "and that is what worries me the most about all of this. Something is amiss in Gondor."

"I would not know about any of that, my lord," said Beregond, "I am but a soldier. I have always looked to men such as you in matters politic."

"Is that why you have seemed so distracted on this journey?"

"Is it so obvious?" Beregond asked with a sigh. "Yes, I suppose it is at that. To be honest, my last trip to Minas Tirith did not go well in many respects."

"Ah, I remember," said Faramir, "you had words with the Lord of Ethring, did you not?"

"That would be putting it mildly, my lord. It seems his cousin was a Citadel Guard during... during the siege."

"Ah," Faramir said with grim understanding, "Fen Hollen."

"Fen Hollen," Beregond confirmed, "needless to say, Lord Maelrúth views me as no hero."

"Maelrúth has an inflated sense of self-importance and little support among the lords. He tends to be more concerned with appearances than actualities. Do not trouble yourself overmuch with him."

"It is not he that worries me, my lord, but what he gives voice to. To many, I am not a welcome sight in Minas Tirith or indeed in Gondor at all. There are a number of people who view me as a traitor, despite the king's judgment of me."

"Yet it is the king's judgment that you received," said Faramir, "and that protects you from theirs. Maelrúth does not have the support to overturn the word of Elessar. You are the honorable man the king judged you to be, Beregond. Do not second guess yourself based on the word of one angry man."

Beregond nodded. "I will, of course, do my best to abide by what you say, my lord. But, I must admit that it disquiets me."

"Take heart, my friend," said Faramir, "there are those who will stand with you, always."

As Faramir said this, the White Company came to the Gates of Elessar which marked the entrance to black Othram, the impenetrable outer wall of Minas Tirith. Beregond spurred his horse ahead, followed closely by the standard-bearer.

"Guard of the White City!" he shouted up to the gate guard. "The Steward of the Realm has come! In his name and that of the King, open the gate to him and his company!"

At once, the massive gears on the other side of the gate could be heard to grind together and the gate opened slowly, laboriously. Beregond returned his horse to his place at Faramir's right and waited with him.

"Protocol," he muttered, sourly. Faramir gave a hum of agreement in kind.

When the gates had parted, the White Company moved into the city and into the square at the center of Ráth Celerdain, beneath the great stone prow of the mountain. The captain of the gate guard stood in the center of the square with that part of his men who were not operating the gate lined up to either side.

"Ai, Arandur!" the captain of the gate guard shouted over the din of the gathered crowd. "In the name of King Elessar, Minas Tirith welcomes Hurín's heir!" Here, he gave a deep bow and his men all did the same. There was a cheer from the gathered crowd and Faramir waved a thank you to them before answering the greeting.

"The Steward of the Realm accepts your welcome with great joy," he said, loud enough for all to hear.

There was still another cheer from the crowd and the White Company slowly began the long and winding ride up the main road to the Citadel. The crowd had dwindled by the time they reached the last tunnel and the rest dropped away at the sixth circle. Even the White Company halted before the entrance to the Citadel and only Faramir and his family, Beregond, Léowine, and three others went in. With brief ritual, the White Company standard bearer ascended the steps of the Tower of Ecthelion and stood before one of the two standard bearers of the King that flanked the doors. The two bowed to each other, and then the King's standard bearer stepped to the side to be replaced by that of the White Company. There were two standards flanking the door to the Tower, now; the King's on the right and the Steward's on the left. The one who had been relieved then descended the stairs and stood aside.

Finally, all of the ritual was finished and Faramir gave a sigh of relief that the king was not at that moment embroiled in court. His welcome by the king would be far less formal. The last few riders of the White Company all dismounted their horses.

"Léowine, will you see to the Company's housing in the sixth circle?" said Faramir.

"Of course, my lord," answered the commander and with a quick bow he departed.

"The rest of you are dismissed," Beregond said to the others and they, too, departed. "By the Valar, I will never grow accustomed to all of that!"

"Imagine how I feel!" said Faramir with a laugh. He clapped a hand on Beregond's shoulder and they both turned to go into the Tower, the White Rod clicking on the stonework as they went.

Waiting for them in the throne chamber was the king himself. One lone Guard of the Citadel stood within the doors at formal watch. He was awkwardly tall and gangly and Faramir thought as he passed that he seemed rather young to wear the Tree and Stars. He put it out of mind, though, and as Faramir and Beregond crossed the room, Elessar came down the stairs of the throne to greet them. Faramir bowed and Beregond dropped to one knee.

"Mae gevennin, my friends," said Elessar, "you are most welcome in my halls."

"You sent for me, my lord, and I come," said Faramir, clasping the arm Elessar offered him in friendship.

"And for that I am grateful. To you as well, Captain Beregond and for Valars' sakes, please, on your feet."

"Aye, my king," said Beregond with a note of thanks in his voice as he rose.

"It is good that you are here as well, Captain, for Faramir will no doubt have need of you. I'm certain you both have questions," said Elessar, "and we must waste no time in answering them for you. Others will be arriving in Minas Tirith, some of them within the day, and we will have further preparations to make." He looked over Faramir's shoulder to the Citadel Guard. "Nindcabor."

"Your Majesty!" the young guard said, standing to attention.

"Please see that the hall is sealed, will you?"

"At once, my lord!" Quickly, the youth scurried about the hall, checking every small space he knew of. Once he was satisfied that none but the king, Faramir, and Beregond were in the room, he went to the doors, stepped outside, and closed them.

"This is serious, then," said Beregond, "can that young one be trusted to keep the doors?"

"I believe he can," said Elessar as he strolled across the room to the door. He leaned up against it casually. "Thus far, he has managed to keep his mouth shut, despite the fact that he knows rather more than I wished. As a matter of fact, he's no doubt listening right now." He made a fist and with it, pounded upon the door once.

"Ow!" came an exclamation from the other side.

"Nindcabor is curious, but I judge him to be no spy."

"Spy?" Faramir asked, watching the king saunter away from the door once again and make for a carafe of wine sitting on a table. "What worry have you of spies, my lord? Surely you do not worry that the Orcs send spies against us. And a man of Harad would not blend in well enough here to be a spy. What enemy could send one of their own here to listen and watch?"

"No enemy, I fear," said Elessar around a swallow of wine, "I've received word of troubles in the northern kingdom."

"There is a messenger from Arnor? Here?" Beregond asked.

"More than one," said the king. Then, in a louder voice, he called to the open air, saying; "you may come out of hiding any time you wish."

Faramir heard it first, a pattering of feet from somewhere behind the king's throne. Beregond was still looking about the room, confused as Faramir turned his head to the sound and looked. There, he saw three small figures creeping out of the shadows, two of them pushing aside their green cloaks as they came and the third careful to stay behind them, somewhat shy and seeming awestruck.

"By my toes, it is Faramir!" said the one who crossed the room fastest. As he stepped into the light, Faramir was overjoyed to find that it was his friend, Peregrin, who men in Minas Tirith had once called Ernil i Pheriannath, Prince of Halflings. Behind him came his cousin Meriadoc, who had helped Éowyn slay the Witch-king. "And Beregond, too! Oh, how wonderful to see you again!"

"Periain!" Faramir exclaimed, even as Beregond's gaze turned toward the Halflings. The Steward knelt to receive them in friendship, setting aside the White Rod as if it were a mere bauble. "You've returned to Gondor! And with no word of your coming! This is indeed a great surprise!"

"We've been here for almost three days, in fact," said Merry, "Strider's kept us shut up all secret like. But not without reason."

"Reason, Master Meriadoc?" Beregond asked in confusion. "It is good to see you both again, it is true. But what reason might you have for stealing into the White City in secret? Surely, you have no enemies here. And who is your friend?"

The third Hobbit, the one who had remained closer to the shadows as Merry and Pippin both greeted their friends, suddenly straightened in discomfort. He seemed to sum up his courage before taking a few steps toward the group.

"Alton Goodbarrel of Bree, my lords," he said with a clumsy bow, "at your service."

"Alton's been with us for most of our trip," said Merry, "he helped us get out of Bree before we were found."

"Found?" Faramir said in concern.

"Perhaps it is time to tell Lord Faramir and his captain all that has happened in the North," Elessar said gravely, "we will have some time for pleasantries later, but for now we have business to attend to."

"Yes," Faramir agreed, standing once again and taking up the White Rod, "your message, my lord, did reek of urgency."

Elessar sighed heavily and for the first time since all of them had assembled allowed the weight that was upon his mind to show. He shook his head and, clasping his hands behind his back, wandered to the center of the room and looked up at the throne.

"There is trouble with my northern kin," he said, "with no Enemy to guard against in the north, my people are creating new lives for themselves; the lives of farmers and merchants. It has been eight years since the fall of Sauron and men in the north who had been warriors are starting families, having children."

"This troubles you, Majesty?" Beregond asked. "I had thought the northern kingdom was all too sparsely populated."

"Yes," said Elessar, "the land is very wild indeed. And therein lies the problem."

"Arable land," said Faramir with realization, "after a thousand years, Arnor suddenly has a new, booming population and a need to feed it, but not hands enough to clear land for farming fast enough."

"The Shire's the biggest tract of farmland in the north," said Merry, "we Hobbits have been farming it for generations. We know how to make things grow in it. And, oh Strider! You should see it, now that old Sam's been spreading about his gift from the Lady Galadriel! That's some magical dirt, if ever I saw any!"

"The men 'round there have started wanting in, though," Pippin put in, "they've out and out started jumping the Bounds up near Greenfields in the North Farthing. The Bounders are starting to have quite the time of it. None of us like the thought of any of the big folk going hungry, but, that's our land! We need it just as much."

"We've had it in hand up to now," Merry continued, "but there's camps building just outside the Bounds of the North Farthing."

"Near Evendim and the ruin of Annúminas?" Faramir asked.

"Right," said Merry, "or so the old maps say. But, we've been keeping an eye on these camps, real close. They're gathering weapons. We think they're getting ready to come in by force!"

"The Bounders do as good a job as they can," said Pippin, "but those are battle-trained Rangers! We Hobbits can't fight against a whole army like that!"

"And I'm just worried about Bree!"

It was Alton who had spoken up for the first time since his greeting. At first, everyone else was startled by the input, having all but forgotten that the Bree-lander was there. He had hung back toward the wall and watched as the conversation progressed, not daring to say anything and more than a little awestruck by the sight of the Lords of Gondor taking counsel. When all turned to him, he shrank back somewhat, as if he was embarrassed at speaking out of turn.

"Well, c'mon, Alton lad," Merry said to him after a moment of uncomfortable silence in the hall, "you're a part of this, too."

"But... this is a council for great lords and kings!" said Alton. "I'm just an innkeeper."

"If my lords will permit me to say," Beregond began, strolling over to the young halfling, "there are things that great lords and kings can easily overlook. In my experience, innkeepers and bartenders know a great deal more about the people than even the kindest of rulers. There are things that one will say to a friend that one would never say to a lord." He placed his hands on the Hobbit's shoulders and ushered him into the group. "Come, Master Alton, tell us of Bree."

The Bree-lander swallowed heavily as he looked from face to face and mastered his nerves. "Well, it's just... you know how Hobbits and big folk have always gotten on in Bree," he said, "it's an understanding, you might say. Nowhere in Middle-earth has an arrangement quite like we do in Bree. But lately it seems that men and Hobbits haven't been getting on as well. They're starting to do less and less together, as neighbors, if you understand me. And I'm worried what will happen in the Bree-land if fighting breaks out in the Shire. I don't want to see neighbors fighting each other, too!"

"Bree would never survive an outbreak of fighting between men and Hobbits," Elessar mused.

"That's just what I mean!" Alton exclaimed.

"My Lord, I feel I must play the part of Melkor's advocate in this for but a moment," said Faramir, "the truth of the matter is that the Arnorians need food and farmland. Their hunger is growing and something must be done. I can understand their desperation and I can understand that it may drive them to unpleasant deeds."

"But we can't just let them have the Shire!" Merry protested hotly, a certain amount of ire directed at the Steward.

"Peace, Merry," said Elessar, "Faramir is only speaking for those who have no voice in this room right now. The Arnorians are just as much my responsibility as the Gondorians."

"Oh, this is quite a pickle," Pippin lamented.

"And I fear it is only going to get worse," said Elessar, "I have received word that, though none of the Lords of the North will be in attendance at the upcoming council, they have appointed a representative in Lord Maelrúth of Ethring."

Beregond sighed heavily and his proud shoulders dropped as if a new weight had been placed upon them. "He will be ruthless, I am certain. His mother must have had the foresight of an Elven woman to have named him so well. Jealous anger, indeed."

Elessar had taken to regarding his throne in silence once again. He paced to and fro slowly as the others watched, half expecting him to say something that would sweep away the entire problem. Finally, he sighed and turned back to regard the group.

"It is clear to me that we six alone cannot find the solution to this puzzle," he said at last, "but perhaps more minds will avail us when the council meets. Until then, little ones, I think it best that you remain hidden. None but us six, Nindcabor, and the Queen know that you have reached Minas Tirith with word of the situation and I deem it best that it is a surprise."

"I agree," said Faramir, "Maelrúth, for all his lack of support among the Lords of Gondor, is a shrewd negotiator. The Periain's unexpected appearance may knock him off balance."

"And if that doesn't work," said Pippin, "from the look of old Beregond, I think he'd be willing to knock him off his block."

Beregond, still with a sour look upon his face and his arms crossed over his chest in impatience, colored somewhat but said nothing.

It was Elessar that broke the uncomfortable silence after that with a clear of his throat. "Then it is settled," he said, "the Hobbits' presence will remain a secret for the time being. And now, if you four would not mind, I would have a moment with my Steward in private."

As Beregond gave a respectful bow and began heading toward the chamber door, Merry's gaze darted back and forth quickly between the Steward and the King before he gathered up his two younger companions and began herding them toward the secret passage behind the throne from which they had emerged. "C'mon, lads," he said, "big folk business."

"Oh! Beregond!" Pippin called back over his shoulder. "Perhaps after all this we can go and get a pint or two of Millennium Ale at the Glittering Sword!"

The captain seemed to stumble somewhat and Faramir could have sworn that the back of Beregond's neck turned an even deeper shade of red. The old soldier quickly regained his stride, however and continued onward with a clearing of his throat and an almost imperceptible mutter. Faramir was hard-pressed to suppress his laugh.

"Something I missed?" Aragorn asked of Faramir after the doors clanged shut.

"Quite possibly," said Faramir, "but I must admit, there is a portion of the night in question that I do not entirely remember, myself. But you did not ask me to stay to reminisce on days past."

"Alas, no," Aragorn said with a heavy sigh. He turned once again to the throne and gazed up at it, this time allowing to show all his feeling that it was a giant boulder pressing down upon him. "I have made a grievous error, Faramir. I have lavished all my attention upon Gondor and, indeed, it flourishes. The northern lands I left to my kin to tend and I trusted they would flourish as well. They are all great men and I have known them all my life. Never once did I imagine they would do such a thing as they are planning now. They battled the Shadow without resorting to such measures. After all of that, I never thought that hunger could drive them to this."

"And now you think them not as great as you imagined?"

"Perhaps so. But, ultimately, it is from them that I spring. Perhaps I am not so great a man as I thought. Perhaps the Reunited Kingdom is simply too vast for me to grasp."

"I will not say you have not made a mistake, my lord," Faramir said in reply to this, "but nor will I say that you are not a great man. For even the greatest of men are still men and will still err. I yet believe in my heart that my brother was one of the greatest men gifted to Gondor, yet he made a grievous error, possibly the most horrendous of all. Yet you were there; you saw his action in the end. Will you say that Boromir was not a great man because of his one mistake?"

"No," Aragorn admitted, "no, I would not."

"Then judge not yourself by different standards," said Faramir, "has the throne neglected Arnor? Yes. But we may yet fix the mistake." He crossed his arms over his chest and cast a somewhat sour look at Aragorn. "And, it seems, we must cure you of this uncharacteristic bout of arrogance from which you suffer."

Finally Aragorn's gaze shifted from the throne to look at Faramir with a sour look of his own. "You are walking the bounds of our friendship rather closely, Faramir."

"Forgive me, but you wished for my candor, did you not?"

"I did," Aragorn replied, settling down upon the bottom most two stairs of the throne, "so tell me, o wise Steward of the Realm! From what arrogance do I suffer?"

"A realm as vast as the Reunited Kingdom cannot be expected to rise and fall based upon the actions of one man, even if he is king. You may not have paid enough attention to Arnor, but ultimately that can only be responsible for the fact that you knew nothing of the dire situation there. The lords of the north sent no messengers and are acting alone. The greater mistake would be not to investigate why."

"I had not thought of that," Aragorn admitted, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, "what possible reason could they have for keeping me ignorant?"

Faramir began to pace back and forth, slowly, not looking at any one thing in the room but at some far off place that held his thoughts. "I do not like any of the answers that are coming to me," he answered after a moment.

"They have sent messengers, but none of them have made it through," Aragorn suggested.

"This would mean there is some dangerous obstacle between Gondor and Arnor, probably along the border."

"The lords of the north plan something that they do not wish me to hear about."

"Anything of that nature would be tantamount to treason. I do not even wish to comprehend that."

"I cannot fathom that, either. The men of the north may be desperate, but I do not believe them to be traitors. But, we have seen no growing threat along the borders between north and south. What else could it be?"

"There is but one other possibility that I can imagine," said Faramir, "they believe their messages are reaching you when they are not."

"But how can that be?" Aragorn asked. "Either their messenger reaches Minas Tirith and returns to tell the men of the north so, or he does not."

"Yet, have you seen a messenger from Arnor in recent years?" Faramir shook his head. "No, something is afoot here in Gondor as well. The scope and shape of it is not clear, but someone is working against you in some way, whether he knows it or not. Perhaps more will come to light when the council convenes."

Aragorn nodded and stood, pulling himself up to his full height once again and squaring his shoulders. "Perhaps," said Elessar, "in the meantime, Lord Steward, make some discreet inquiries. You know the shape and character of the Gondorian nobility better than I. Find out if any messengers from the men of Arnor have reached Gondor, not just Minas Tirith. See if there is some place where the paths of north and south cross. The Ranger-Lords of Gondor will track down this rabbit and flush him out, soon enough."

Mablung awoke when he sensed a presence above him. A change in surroundings was always something he was aware of, even in sleep. It had kept him alive on more than one occasion. But, even so, to come out of sleep with a figure standing above him was jarring. His hand went to his sword as he sprang to his feet and it was half unsheathed before he realized that he was facing an Elf.

"Peace, mellon-nín," the Elf said, putting up his hands in a placating gesture, "you are yet in Galenost and safe."

As Mablung came fully to wakefulness, he took stock of the figure before him. He was covered from head to toe in white. Knot work patterns in gold danced and weaved about the hems of his sleeves and about his neck, disappearing beneath the strands of his long hair. The Elf carried himself as if he could see something that Mablung could not, though his eyes seemed to remain fixed on the Ranger.

"May I assume that you are Commander Mablung?" the Elf asked.

"Yes," Mablung replied with a small nod.

"I am Amarthir," said the Elf, "Loremaster of Galenost. Master Legolas has requested your presence in the Great Tree and he sent me to retrieve you."

"Yes, of course," said Mablung, gathering up his pack, "please, lead the way."

Wordlessly, Amarthir turned and began walking. Mablung followed a step behind, once again gazing about him at the wonder that was the green city. Several hours had passed for the sun was now high overhead and the morning dew had lifted. They passed through what seemed to be a mile of dappled sunlight, weaving in and out of stands of trees as they went. At last, they came upon the trunk of an enormous tree about which spiraled wooden stairs delicate to look upon. The roots of the tree, gnarled and knotted, were nearly as large as Mablung himself and plunged in and out of the earth in heaving tendrils.

Amarthir led the way up the winding stairs. Soon, the spiral was broken by great branches and the Elf took Mablung on a path that led them from one wooden balcony to the next. When Mablung was able, he looked out over the edge of one of the flets and saw the tops of the surrounding trees below, their branches swaying in passing breezes and waving up at him.

At last, when there was no higher flet to climb to, Amarthir brought Mablung to Legolas. The Lord of Galenost stood in thought near the rail of his flet, looking westward to the thin, winding line that was the river Andúin afar. He turned when he heard footsteps and Mablung dropped into a small bow.

"Ah, Commander Mablung!" Legolas exclaimed as Amarthir excused himself. "How fare your men?"

"They are safe, fed, and their wounds are being cared for," Mablung replied, "it is more than I could have asked for from your people. I thank you."

"I only wish I could offer more. It is the efforts of the Rangers and the White Company that keep Galenost's walls from being attacked. Though, Hadoriel tells me that the Orcs are gaining ground."

"Yes," Mablung affirmed, "not since the war have I seen them as far west as they were this morning. It troubles me."

"It troubles me as well," said Legolas. He turned from Mablung and retrieved a small scroll from his desk. "And it troubles Aragorn as well, it would seem."

"A message from King Elessar?"

Legolas nodded. "An invitation. He is holding a council in Minas Tirith three days from now. He has invited all the lords of the west, Éomer, King Bard in Dale, my father in Greenwood, and all the lords of Gondor. The purpose for the council is not clearly stated, but he implies a need for communication between us all." His tone darkened somewhat and he paused before continuing. "But, knowing him as I do, I believe he may have some other reason for calling this council. Have you any idea what it may be?"

"I have none," said Mablung, "but if the Lords of Gondor are meeting, I must return to Minas Estel at once. Prince Faramir must be made aware of the attack last night."

"Faramir is already in Minas Tirith," said Legolas, "the White Company marched yesterday."

Mablung looked at Legolas with surprise clear writ on his face. Legolas easily read the question that the Ranger very much wanted to ask, but did not wish to presume to.

"Some of Hadoriel and Valithar's people are quite well-traveled," said the Elf, mercifully satisfying Mablung's curiosity, "they brought me word of the White Company's travel just an hour ago."

Mablung nodded his understanding. "I still must get word to the Prince."

"I assumed as much," said Legolas, "as it happens, I am leaving for Minas Tirith in just a few hours. If you don't mind traveling with my company, you are quite welcome to join us. Your men may remain in Galenost, if they so choose."

"To travel with Elves!" Mablung exclaimed with a laugh. "Mind it? Master Legolas, not since I was a boy did I dare to dream such a thing! I would travel with you, by your leave. But, I would ask just one other thing."

"You have but to name it, Commander."

"There is one of my company who I feel must be taken away from all this. Last night was his first taste of battle and he did not react well to it."

"You speak of the son of Beregond?"

"I do."

"Yes, I saw him this morning, myself. He did not seem well. If you are certain he is well enough to travel, he may accompany us also."

Beregond sorely wanted to return to Ithilien. The white city had been his home at one time, but now he found it all too cramped and stifling. It was especially so now that all the lords of Gondor were milling about in the Citadel and the fifth and sixth circles.

One of these was Maelrúth, the Lord of Ethring, who Beregond had met just a year ago and who seemed determined to do everything in his power to make Beregond's time in Minas Tirith as miserable as possible. Every time Beregond would appear at court in his duty as Captain of the White Company, the Lord would raise objection and demand Beregond be removed from the Citadel.

Faramir and Elessar, of course, would have none of that and together decreed that Beregond would remain at the Steward's right hand. Even so, the other lords were already tiring of the ritual and there were whispers that Maelrúth be appeased on this point if only to silence him.

For all intents and purposes, Beregond was alone in the White City. It was not that the men of the company did not include him, for he was their captain and how could they do else? But Beregond observed that it was not the same between him and the men of the company as it was between one of the company and another. His rank set him apart from them and it demanded that they treat him differently. At the same time, though Faramir was a dear friend to him, it was not the same as any other friendship he had had. Faramir's rank also held him apart; though it was clear he wished it was different. And so, Beregond was caught in the middle, between those higher and lower than him and seemingly peerless.

All in all, Beregond's desire to run someone though with his sword was growing by the hour. So it was a rare and wonderful thing when he was able to retreat to the solitude of his old house in the sixth circle. But, the rounded rooms of the old house were strangely empty and silent and Beregond soon learned that he found no solace in that. Once, they had been filled with the sounds of his two most cherished people. Now, his wife, Rindrian, was long dead and Bergil was off in Ithilien on his first patrol. The house he had once loved was now little more than stone to him; he had no desire to remain there any longer than he needed. None the less, this was where he was when Léowine found him on the second day of their stay in Minas Tirith.

"Lord Faramir has requested your presence at the gate, Captain," the Ithilrochon stated, "two companies approach the city."

"Well, they are certainly arriving in droves, now, aren't they," Beregond mused, sliding on the white overcoat of his livery and buckling on his sword, "which companies?"

"Éomer-king approaches from the north," said Léowine, "Master Gimli and the Dwarves of Aglarond ride with him. From across the Pelennor comes Master Legolas and his Elves. And I have received word that Mablung and Bergil accompany them. They will likely be at the gate by the time we arrive at the first circle."

"Have you any idea why Mablung and Bergil have come?" Beregond asked, his head snapping up in surprise.

"No, but they seemed to my eyes to be very troubled and weary."

With worry and more haste than he strictly needed, Beregond went with Léowine to the first circle. There was near chaos at the gate as Legolas' company milled about under the direction of the gate guard. Evidently, they had not been told where they would be staying as yet. Beregond fought off the temptation to wade into this milieu and turn faces toward his own until he found his son. Instead, he opted for a slightly saner method of searching. As tall as he was, he still needed to climb up on the ledge of a fountain near the edge of the square to see over the milling crowd. Finally, among the greens and whites of the Elves and the black and silver of the guard, he spotted two figures in brown. Steeling himself, Beregond hopped down from the fountain edge and pushed his way into the crowd toward them.

Mablung was hanging protectively close to Bergil as Beregond approached. But when he saw his father, he abandoned the commander's side and made his way toward Beregond. Mablung followed closely, apparently unwilling to leave the younger ranger's side.

"Father!" Bergil exclaimed when they reached each other and threw himself into Beregond's embrace.

"Oh, my dear one!" said Beregond. "It is indeed good to have you here, safe, again." He put both his hands on Bergil's shoulders and pushed him away so that he could look at him. He noticed a large purpling bruise on one cheek surrounding a large cut and gently ran his fingertips over it in inspection. "What is this? What befell you that you travel with the Elves?"

"We have much to discuss, Captain," Mablung put in from over Bergil's shoulder, "things in northern Ithilien may be getting out of hand. I fear for Henneth Annûn."

Thus it was that still another round of discussions passed in the King's Hall in the citadel. It was fast becoming a ritual, the Lord of Ethring's discontent. Once more, the great and the good of Gondor and her neighbors gathered to discuss the threat from the east. Once more, Lord Maelrúth protested Beregond's presence. Once more, the rest of the Lords all gave a sigh of impatience. And once more, Elessar and Faramir forcibly tabled the topic.

But the afternoon's ordeals were soon to give way to pleasantries. With all of the Kings of the West now in attendance, and with the city of Minas Tirith now teeming with Men and Elves and Dwarves from many walks of life, it was time for the welcoming feast. The hall of Merethrond had been thrown open, its lanterns lit and its fires stoked. A gathering of bards and musicians from all over the west gathered to play music and, couple by couple, the nobility were announced into the hall for the grand ball that was to take place. Each came in their finest, arrayed in the colors and cloths of their homelands.

Standing near the thrones of Gondor, greeting each as they came, were King Elessar and Queen Undómiel. The crown of Gondor was set upon the king's brow and he was clothed in black embroidered in silver, flowering branches and wore a mantle with seven stars playing around the neck. The queen chose silver to wear, a flowing gown that evoked water by moonlight, upon which her raven hair tumbled.

Faramir was there, of course, escorting his lady wife Éowyn. Both were arrayed in white, silver circlets wrought as vines holding back their hair. Éowyn wore the starry mantle that had been Faramir's gift to her in the dark days of the war.

Clad in the blue and white of his principality came Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. With him came his three sons, each tall and fair as their cousin the Steward.

Éomer, King of Rohan, entered the hall with his Queen Lothíriel in hand. Green and brown and gold was their garb and upon their heads they wore the golden crowns of Rohan. White horses cantered around the hems of Lothiriel's dress and a great white stallion lent its visage to the front of Éomer-king's surcoat.

Master Legolas attended for the Elves, bringing word from his father, King Thranduil of Greenwood the Great, and the Lord Celeborn in Lothlórien. He was flanked by the Captains Valithar and Hadoriel and together all three wore the green of their forest home.

Two groups came for the Dwarves. The first was Master Gimli of the glittering caves who came with his captain Ghan the Ironaxe and one other at his side. Browns and golds they wore with threads of mithril showing around their sleeves. The other Dwarves came from the Lonely Mountain far in the north. Led by Norin, son of Nori, they brought tidings from the King Under the Mountain and wore his colors, red and silver.

Farthest of all in the Hall of Merethrond came King Bard II of Dale, a thin mithril crown on his head and blue his garb, golden arrows embroidered about the edges of his surcoat.

It was an echoing cacophony of music and chatter in the hall which made it rather hard to hold a conversation at the feast table, so much of the feast was taken up by performances by bards and minstrels and jesters from all over the west. Never since in lands east of the Sundering Sea was there such a gathering of the free peoples of Middle-earth. All in attendance were made keenly aware of the slow departure of the Elves when, in a haunting tenor, an Elven bard from Legolas' company called Siphael sang in slow Sindarin the Lay of Leithian which mourned the loss of Lúthien Tinúviel of old. And ever the more haunting became his voice when he met the eyes of Queen Undómiel.

Soon, though, the musicians in the hall turned to lighter music and began a set of structured music for dancing which seemed to call out instructions for the dancers as it was played. Pipes and winds began to play and all assembled into sets of eight for the first dance, facing the front of the hall.

Faramir found himself dancing with his wife as one of the two middle couples of the group. Éomer and Lothíriel were at the head of the set at his left. To his right was Beregond who had somehow been talked into escorting Hadoriel for the first dance set. And finally, at the back of the formation was Gimli and the Dwarf who had come with him and Ghan; a Dwarf who, Faramir suddenly realized, was a woman. Gimli introduced her as Dwelen.

"I am curious, Captain Hadoriel," Éowyn began a conversation as the opening reverence sounded. "How is it that you find yourself in a gown this night?"

"Are you shocked by the rarity, my lady?" the elf asked as the dancers all faced the head of the hall.

"I certainly am," Beregond commented as the whole group took a step and held, then another.

"Ahh, what's so strange about an Elven maid in a dress?" Gimli asked as the steps continued, three more, then another hold. "Ye see that all the time."

"Not this one, Master Gimli," said Faramir as the steps of the dance were repeated. "She is more apt to armor and weaponry than jewels and finery."

"And yet she dances so well," said Éomer as the steps began to repeat again, going toward the back of the hall.

"Unlike you, my lord husband, who just learned these steps a handful of days ago," Lothíriel chimed in.

"But the question has not yet been answered," said Éowyn as the last of the backward steps finished. As she said this, and as the couples all faced each other, she gave a rather pointed glance to her own husband. "Why do you find yourself in a gown, Captain?"

"In truth, I lost a bet," answered Hadoriel, taking a step to the left, then one to the right as the rest of the ladies in the set did as well. They continued and turned over their left shoulders. "To my cousin, the Loremaster Amarthir. Suffice it to say that you should all be thankful that he won, or it would be he you would be seeing in the gown."

"I see that Mistress Dwelen is not wearing a gown this night," commented Beregond as the lords all stepped left, then right.

"Dwarven women have no need for gowns," said Dwelen as the lords all turned over their left shoulders.

"Aye, they're vexing that way," said Gimli as the couples joined hands.

"All women are vexing in some way," said Faramir as the couples, with hands joined, turned and switched places with their partners. The faintest glimmer of a sour face rippled across Éowyn's features at this.

"Sister, are you vexing the good Prince of Ithilien?" Éomer asked, half in jest, as the whole group slid four times down the hall to the lords' left. "Or is he vexing you, perhaps?"

"By the Valar, no!" Éowyn replied as the two lines switched places again. "He troubles me with nothing at all! The perfect gentleman!" Again, she gave Faramir a meaningful look. It did little more than puzzle him.

"Not that I am not grateful for the family reunion King Elessar is affording us," said Lothíriel as the group slid up the hall, again to the lords' left, four times. "But I get the impression we have been called here for more than the incursion of Orcs into Ithilien."

"Quite so," said Beregond as the two lines faced each other and took two steps back from each other. As this happened, the captain caught Faramir's gaze and words seemed to pass between them in an instant.

"There are a number of things to be discussed," Faramir elaborated as the two lines stepped back toward each other again.

"Such as?" Éomer asked as the dance began again.

"Well, for one thing, communication," said Faramir, "beacon fires and tokens of arrows are all well and fine for kingdoms adjacent to each other, but there are lands in Middle-earth that are quite remote. And, as we learned in the War of the Ring, information is key in deciding what actions to take against a foe."

"Ignorance is as sure a killer as an arrow, as my cousin would say," said Hadoriel.

"I see," said Lothíriel, "the Reunited Kingdom alone is certainly vast. Too vast to rely on the methods of communication to which we are accustomed."

"What of the Palantíri?" Gimli put in. This garnered him a number of arched eyebrows before several sets of eyes turned to gauge Faramir's reaction. The Steward was about to speak when Hadoriel spoke first.

"If the lost ones might be found. But to my knowledge, it is only known where three of the seven are resting. Two of them are in this very city and the third was taken with the Ring-bearers across the Sundering Seas to Aman where it always looked."

"You are well-versed in the lore of the seeing stones," Éomer said with surprise.

"Valithar told me once that he had seen the building of Amon Sûl and that Elendil the Tall had placed one there. That was when we were sent to try and find the stone after the tower's fall."

"I take it you were unsuccessful," said Dwelen.

"Alas, we searched high and low, but no, our company did not find the Palantír of Amon Sûl. It turned out that it had been taken to the sea for safe-keeping. But the ship that carried it sank. Our search was for naught. And to make matters worse, we were attacked by a company out of Angmar. I took a rather nasty blow to my sword-arm in that fight."

Éowyn glanced at Hadoriel's exposed right arm as they danced past one another. "You show no sign of it."

"Nay, my lady, of course not," replied Hadoriel with a laugh, "that scar faded after a hundred years or so. I have not had that scar for centuries."

"I keep forgetting just how old you Elves can be," said Beregond, "just how old, exactly, are you, Captain Hadoriel?"

"Why Captain Beregond," said Éowyn in jest, "how ungentlemanly of you to ask a lady her age!"

"And one who bears sharpened arms, no less!" put in Éomer. "Long ago I learned that lesson in dealing with my own sister. Either you have missed that lesson or you are a braver man than I!"

"Now, my lord Éomer," said Gimli, "leave us not be mocking our good Captain of Ithilien. One takes ignorance, the other folly. But the two are not mutually exclusive."

"By the Valar, Master Gimli!" said Éowyn, "have you just managed to mock every woman here?"

"It certainly seems that way to me," Lothíriel stated in mock indignation, "perhaps our husbands should do something about it."

A great deal of the rest of the dance set was taken up by such inane conversation, for which Beregond was thankful. Every once in a while, the talk would stray far too close to the secret matter that was to be revealed when the Council of the King, as many were now coming to call it, would be convened the following day. Every time it did, the captain caught his prince's eye for some signal of what he should say. Most of the time, however, he was so uncertain that he said nothing at all and all the while he wondered why he had been entrusted with information so secret. He was, after all, little more than a soldier and not well suited to the clandestine dealings of the lords of Gondor.

As soon as he was able without insult, Beregond took his leave from the hall and wandered out into the courtyard of the Citadel, a goblet of wine in one hand. He sauntered out along the great stone prow of the city, looking down upon the lower levels as he had in years past as a Guard of the Citadel. Almost as if in habit, he scanned the scene, turning his head toward the interior of the Citadel, checking each of its corners in turn. A moment later and his gaze fell upon that place where he had broken his oath to save he who was now his lord, tucked away in a corner at the back of the sixth circle below. His heart broke at the sight of it, guarded even now by a face he did not recognize. He knew that he would never again know the names of the men who guarded that door; but always would the names of those he had killed before it be etched into his memory. He nearly lifted his glass in toast to them, but decided against it; he was not fit to do so. He simply took a drink instead.

"My sword betrayed his father," he mused, "and my tongue is liable to betray him."

"You give yourself far too little credit," came a voice behind him. Beregond turned to it and there saw Queen Arwen drifting his way across the stone, seeming more to flow than to walk.

"Your Majesty," Beregond said, dropping into a bow. She waved him out of it a moment later.

"You have said little this night," said the Queen, "some have remarked that you are overly terse and too common for the dance hall."

"Your Majesty, if I have insulted you in any way-"

"Nay, Captain, nay," she said with a laugh, "I have come to know that such behavior is not your norm. And those who know you know it as well. But they would not dare to relieve you of your dark thoughts, thinking that perhaps you feel it is your duty to bear them."

"But is it not, Your Majesty? I alone shed blood at the door to the Silent Street."

"Yet it was on behalf of another. Is it wrong to choose life over death?"

"I slew four to save one."

"Nay, by my accounting, it is five that you saved that night."

Beregond looked at her in confusion. "Five, Your Majesty?" he asked. "But there was none in danger save Lord Faramir."

"And if you had not rescued him from that danger, what would have happened then?" she asked. "How would the Lady Éowyn have mended her broken heart? Surely, the shadow would have remained upon her if not for the presence of the one you saved. And since, they have together brought three children into the world who would not exist without their parents to give them life. And so, you saved five and the balance is one more amongst the living."

"Forgive me, Your Majesty," said Beregond with a shake of his head, "but that argument seems academic at best. I did not know at the time that any of these things would come to pass. I am no great sage or even adept at the art of speech. I am a common soldier. I do not belong in the midst of such great men as are inside the hall this night."

"But you are loyal and your heart is true," said the Queen, "and such virtues as these are more precious than the greatest of minds. I will not say 'be at ease,' for vigilance over our tongues is still needed until tomorrow's Council. But know that the King and I have not placed our trust in you in haste." Here she gave something of a bitter laugh. "And, I will add, not without a certain amount of understanding. Neither one of the two of us are suited to holding our tongues in this way, either."

"But, Your Majesty!"

"Are you going to contradict me, Captain?"

"No! I mean... it's just that... you are the King and Queen of Gondor!"

"And that makes my truth more important than yours," said the Queen, her eyes dancing in amusement. "Do not contradict me when I am being kind."

In spite of his dark mood, Beregond found that he was smiling, a weak smile though it was. "As you say, Your Majesty," he said, giving her a respectful incline of his head.

"This gathering is perhaps unkind to you," she said a moment later, around a sigh. Clearly, her light words were little comfort. "If you wish to depart for the evening, I will see to it that Faramir and Éowyn are made to understand."

Beregond cast a glance downward over the walls, his eyes resting on the façade of the Houses of Healing. "Then perhaps I shall see to my son. You have my thanks, Your Majesty."

"Go then and find a light with which to fill your heart. You deserve it more than you believe."

Beregond gave another bow and then took his leave. The Queen watched him go and pondered the conversation for a long moment before returning to Merethrond and the merriment within.

The son of Beregond was, meanwhile, embroiled in very different concerns. He had very much wished to attend the gathering in the Citadel, but had been disallowed by his father. Instead, he was to languish in the Houses of Healing, resting, even though he was completely sound of body but for the small wound on his cheek. He had pleaded to be allowed to rest in his father's house in the sixth circle, but Beregond had insisted that Bergil not be left alone.

And so it was that Bergil found himself wandering the garden of the Houses, restless, hearing the sounds of the ball above in the Citadel. He had little to do but think and his active mind raced and his body attempted to follow it as Bergil paced to and fro in a secluded corner of the garden.

His mind went round in circles, attempting to replay the events of the past day. So much had happened; nearly too much to take in. His memories were disjointed, and fragmented. One moment, he recalled a sword descending toward him. Then, the memory of a leaf, dew-covered and glistening silver with the morning sun, descending gently on a breeze. He remembered grotesque hands on his throat, noise all around him and the ground on his back. And then, it was gentle hands bathing his face with cool water that he remembered, quiet calm all around him. One after another, the images came to his mind, and soon he very nearly forgot that he was alone in the garden.

And then, he remembered his sword, swinging wildly through the air in very nearly all directions. It impacted against one hideous figure after another and nowhere was there a face friendly to him.

Finally, his pacing brought the heel of his foot down upon a small twig. It snapped and as it did, he remembered an arrow landing in the neck of one of the creatures. The noise broke his concentration, bringing Bergil back to the here and now. He looked to his foot, almost expecting to see there a dried up old bone. When he saw there only the twig, he forced a calming breath into his lungs and leaned his back against the nearest tree, looking up at the cloud-covered sky above.

A new sound came to his ears, then, softly at first, moving closer though he could not see where it was coming from. It was a voice, singing in a soft alto. Silently, as if to make a sound would be to break the spell, Bergil moved toward it, searching for the source of the voice.

Crouching near a small patch of garden, singing to herself as she picked leaves from several of the herb plants there, was the healer Higéthryth. The herbs that she plucked from the plants she deposited into a small basket next to her before moving on to the next plant. All the while, she sang to herself.

O! sister mare with hooves so fleet

Where do you gallop, whom do you meet?

Is there one your heart desires,

Who moves you through this night so dire?

Or are you running o'er the plain,

The freedom we deserve to gain?

Your echoing cry answers "nay!"

"I run toward a newer day!"

Bergil stood there, listening to the soothing melody and finding that he could not move away. His previous thoughts now forgotten, he watched Higéthryth work until she stood up and turned toward the garden entrance. She caught sight of him, then and paused, seemingly startled to find him there.

"I'm sorry," Bergil apologized to her, "I didn't mean to frighten you."

"You are supposed to be resting," Higethryth scolded.

"I am resting," said Bergil, "I'm simply out for a stroll in the meantime." The healer looked doubtful at his logic and gave him an exasperated look. "Higéthryth, yes? I remember you from the last time I was here."

"Yes," she replied, "and I remember you, son of Beregond. You were less than a model patient then, too. You must be quite the reckless soldier to keep landing in the Houses of Healing every time you are in the White City."

"I am barely scratched this time," Bergil said, somewhat more defensively than he intended.

"And yet you have been commended into our care, here," she said, "so there must be something ailing you."

"My father simply worries over much."

"And the angry looking cut on your cheek is simply a badge of honor, I suppose."

"Of course! I received this hurt battling orcs in Ithilien just the other night. Side by side, I stood with Commander Mablung and the Rangers, a mere handful of men against hundreds of orcs!"

"Yes, I heard all about it," said Higethryth, cutting off Bergil's tall tale before it could truly begin. "One would seem to have gotten you." She moved past him, toward the entrance to the Houses.

"Wait," Bergil called, "don't you want to hear about it from someone who was there?"

"My interest in warfare is healing those hurt by it," she answered, simply, "but I can only do so if those who are hurt admit that they are. Good evening to you." With that and no more, she went within and returned to her appointed tasks, leaving Bergil once again alone with his thoughts.

Faramir couldn't stand it anymore. It was nearly midnight when he finally needed to leave. His teeth seemed glued, they were so set together. His hands itched to clench into fists and he had to fight to keep them loose. Tension etched his brow. He wished for little else than to leap upon the feast table and shout an accusation to the room.

"Which one of you is the traitor to the king!?" he would cry. It would be so terrible that the guilty party would coil in terror and be plain to all.

But no. These things had to be done properly.

Instead, Faramir made his excuses and left the hall of Merethrond. He made his way to the house of the king and went to his quarters, there, hastily closing the door behind him as he entered, hoping to shut out the world.

Éowyn had not seen fit to go with him. Instead, she had remained in the company of her brother and her sister-in-law. Darkly, as he leaned against the edge of a desk in the room lit by only one lamp, Faramir mused on what she was telling them about their relationship.

And then, he stopped. And his heart was grieved for the thought he had just had. He remembered again when they had first met and he wondered at how things had come to this. In frustration, he pounded the top of the desk and began to pace the room.

"Trouble in Gondor's Garden?"

Faramir whirled around at the sound of the voice, reaching for a weapon that was not there. From a shadow emerged the small form of the hobbit Merry, pulling his hood back. Faramir's moment of relief gave way to another of panic as he realized the curtains covering his window were open. In two long steps, he went over to them and drew them closed.

"Master Merry, you would do the best of my rangers proud," he said, a little more sourly than he intended.

"Sorry," Merry said, bashfully, "we've been creeping around here for days. Sort of in the mode, I guess. I didn't mean to intrude. If I knew you were staying here, I would have found somewhere else to skulk in."

Faramir waved him off, making his way over to a nearby carafe and pouring two glasses of wine. "You are always welcome in my house, Merry," he said, handing one of the glasses to the Hobbit and indicating a pair of nearby seats. "Truth be told... I could use some company."

"That I can provide," said Merry, taking the proffered glass and settling in one of the chairs. "I take it things are a little rough?"

Faramir lit in the other chair with a long sigh, stretching his long legs out in front of him. "There are days I fear I'll never be able to make Ithilien safe," he said, "I'm growing weary of the battles, day by day."

"Yes, yes," said Merry with a wave of his hand, "but I mean with Éowyn." When Faramir looked at him with surprise and seemed to shift a little under the scrutiny, the Hobbit gave a knowing smile. "I'm right, then. I thought so. I know the look. Estella and I went through a rough patch a while ago."

"Really now," Faramir asked, casually taking a drink from his glass, "what about?"

"Well, we're trying to have children," Merry answered, "and it's not working. It isn't anything that either of us is doing."

"Or not doing?" Faramir added with a small smirk.

"Or not doing," Merry confirmed, coloring a little, "we just can't figure it out. But it's still been really rough and..." Merry stopped, suddenly. He looked up from his glass and gave a sharp look to Faramir. "Oi, now!" he said. "I forgot that you do that. We're talking about you and Éowyn, not me and Estella."

"You can't blame a man for trying," Faramir said, his eyes dancing as he took a drink from his glass. When that was finished, he rose from his seat and wandered over to the window. He pushed aside the curtain just a little and glanced outside with another sigh. "I don't know," he said with a shake of his head, "she's angry at me about something and for the life of me I know not what it is. Yet to her, it seems as though it should be obvious."

"Making her all the more angry because she thinks you know and you're just being stubborn."

"Likely, yes."

"Are you being stubborn?"

"No!" There was a long pause. Merry looked at him a little skeptically. "At least I don't believe that I am," Faramir allowed. With another shake of his head, he left the window and began to pace the room. "I don't know what is happening between us. I fear that... perhaps... perhaps we were too quick in our courtship. Perhaps we should never have been married."

"You think you've fallen out of love or something?" Merry asked, amazed.

"For lack of a better way of putting it..."

"Don't be stupid."

"What?" Faramir asked, nearly aghast.

"For a man so smart, you've sure missed the point," Merry said, "your heart aches, doesn't it?"


"And this whole thing is making her miserable, too, right?"

"To my sorrow."

"If you had fallen out of love, it wouldn't hurt so much. So get that idea right out of your Dúnadan head. And stop over-thinking. Have you told her how you feel about all this?"

Faramir stopped pacing and dropped back into his chair, resting his elbows on his knees. "I make it a point to tell her that I love her every day."

"Not what I asked," Merry said with a shake of his head, "have you told her about what you feel about this, at all?"

"That is unimportant," said Faramir in kind, "why should I burden her with that when all I want is to find out what will make her happy again?"

Merry settled back into his chair, seeming to study Faramir for a long moment. The Steward tilted his head in puzzlement as he did, sitting up straighter under the scrutiny. "Huh," Merry said, draining the last of the contents of his glass.

"What?" Faramir asked.

"We are still talking about Éowyn, right?" Faramir gave him a confused look, even shaking his head as if to clear it, as though he had misheard. "Because the Lady Éowyn that I remember wouldn't want to be coddled like that. I mean, we're talking about a woman who, even when she didn't want to live any more, chose to ride to battle and go out in a blaze of glory trying to help her loved ones. Do you really think a woman like that would want to be shielded from the worries plaguing the mind of her husband?"

And all at once, the fog lifted from Faramir. Every spoken word that had led to an argument came into clear focus. Every conversation and sour look, every angry tone, every dark thought made the picture clearer. Every single time they had argued, it had happened right after he had tried to shield her from the things that worried him. He had thought that he was going to make her life more joyful by trying to keep away the troubles, but he had only made her miserable by doing so. The weight of it descended upon his shoulders and Faramir dropped his face into his hands.

"Ai, Illúvatar!" he breathed. "I have denied her myself!"

"Yeah, women get tetchy when you do that," Merry said, "at least you can fix it, though."

With that, Faramir nearly shot out of his chair and made for the door. "That is what I shall do!" he said.

Not having expected the sudden, decisive action, Merry leaped up from his seat and dove for the nearest shadow, lest any passerby in the hall happen to see him. His last sight of the Steward was the flutter of his cloak as he grabbed it from the nearby hook and darted out the door. With a smirk, Merry crept over to the open door silently and eased it closed.

"Well, that's one crisis averted," he mused to himself.

At last the day of the Council of the King came. In the main hall of the White Tower had been set a long table with the King's chair at the head. To his right was a chair for the Steward of Gondor. Around the rest of the table Gondor's guests had been seated. Several of the Lords of Gondor had been summoned as well. Among them were Lord Duinhir of Morthond, Lord Cristfaron of Cair Andros, and the ever-aggravating Maelrúth of Ethring.

It was well-known that the Lords of Arnor had chosen the latest of the three to represent them at the Council. Indeed, Maelrúth had made every effort to make certain that everyone knew, since it increased his standing at the table. As everyone in the hall awaited the entrance of their hosts, Maelrúth sat in his place wearing the smug authority of a false king and the look of a cat that had just caught a mouse. The Lords afforded him a wide berth, particularly Prince Imrahil and his three sons, making no secret of their distaste for the man.

One by one, the Lords of the West entered the hall and took the place at the table that had been prepared for each of them. First came the Kings of Rohan and Dale. Éomer-King was accompanied by his wife who acted as his right hand, the sharp glance of her Dúnedain family ever present as she stood next to him. King Bard II had with him a young man acting as his aid, a book and quill in his hands and at the ready.

The next to be announced was Master Legolas of Galenost. With him were Hadoriel and Valithar. He carried with him three letters; one from his father King Thranduil of Mirkwood, one from the twin sons of Elrond in Rivendell, and one from the Lord Celeborn in Lothlórien. Thus it was that Legolas spoke for the Elves at the Council.

The Dwarves entered next; Norin of the Lonely Mountain and his aide, and Gimli of the Glittering Caves with Ghan and Dwelen. Gimli and Norin both took their seats, somewhat awkwardly hopping into them as they had insisted that no special provisions be made for their shorter statures.

Finally, it was time for the hosts to enter the hall. Faramir strode into the hall and took his place at the table, flanked by Éowyn on one side and Beregond on the other. He rapped the white rod on the floor three times, demanding the attention of the assembly.

"My Lords, this Council is called to order," he said, "rise for King Elessar of Gondor, your gracious host."

At last, into the hall came the King Elessar, striding to the head of the table amid a respectful silence. Queen Arwen was with him and stood on his right, behind him.

"My lords, you are all most welcome in my Court," he said, spreading his hands before him in a gesture of welcome, "please take your ease and let us begin with the business at hand."

There was a soft murmur from the group as everyone took their seats. A few of the aids retrieved glasses of water for their masters.

"First of all, I must thank you all for answering my invitations," Elessar began, "though the Dark Lord has been defeated, his legacy remains and we still live in perilous times. My intention for this Council is for it to be the first of its kind. Lord Steward?"

Faramir nodded and rose. "In the days of the war, and indeed long before it, a council of the wise was formed to combat the Dark Lord. It consisted of the bearers of the Three, the wizards, and a number of others well-versed in the movements of the Enemy. Though it was ultimately betrayed, it still prevailed in that it fostered communications between many who would not otherwise have worked together well."

"You seek to create your own version of this council?" King Bard asked. "To what end?"

"As many of you know, Sauron left behind a great number of enemies," Elessar said, "Ithilien has borne the brunt of their attacks. But there is still unrest and movement in Dale, Mirkwood, and the far reaches of Southern Gondor."

"There are still goblins to contend with in the deepest reaches of Moria," Gimli put in, "there are those among the Dwarves who would like to see them ended soundly." To this, Norin gave a firm nod of agreement.

"Threats remain," Elessar continued with a nod, "and, as was proven during the war, the West works best when it stands together."

"Your Majesty, before we continue," Maelrúth spoke up from his place in the center of the length of the table, "I'm afraid I must again protest the presence of Captain Beregond at these proceedings."

A collective groan of impatience went up from the table. For a moment, there had been hope that, perhaps, the Lord of Ethring would not make his protests again. Several people seated at the table slouched down, rolling their eyes. For his part, the Captain once again squirmed under the sudden scrutiny.

"Lord Maelrúth," Faramir began, but stopped when Elessar waved him down.

"Captain Beregond has received my judgment, Maelrúth," Elessar stated, his voice calm but terrible, "unless you are formally protesting my word, your continued attacks against the Captain do not belong in this hall. Are you formally protesting my word?"

There was a long, tense silence. The rest of the table looked between themselves, not daring to meet the eyes of either the King or the Lord. Maelrúth ground his teeth together and, at long last, dropped his gaze away from King Elessar.

"No, Your Majesty," he said at last, though it seemed to take some effort for him to do so.

"Good," said Elessar, "now. Back to the matter at hand."

"This idea of yours, this Council of the West," Éomer put in, "it has a great deal of merit. But I have questions as to how it would work."

"As do I," Norin put in, "are we all to journey to Minas Tirith for this Council to gather? At whose command do we gather?"

Faramir gave a nod to Beregond. The Captain then retrieved a stack of parchments from a side table and began to distribute them. "This will outline the idea," the Steward said, "in short, the intention is that the Council meets once every four years at a location to be chosen at the preceding gathering. Any member realm of the Council may act as host."

"And who leads this Council?" Bard asked, clearly expecting an answer that he did not like.

"No one," Elessar answered. The reply seemed to surprise the King of Dale. Several others gave murmurs as well. "The sovereign of the hosting realm, or his representative, will act as the arbiter of proceedings. But decisions made at Council will be made by a consensus of the group as a whole."

"Any member can bring business to the Council," Faramir put in, "and any member can propose the Council take an action. No member realm will have the authority to override a decision made."

Éomer was looking over his copy of the proposal, a hand to his chin in thought. "It sounds all well and good," he said at length, "however I must ask where the power of this Council would end. Are member realms to be ruled by the Council rather than their own King? What business does the consensus of other realms have making decisions for Rohan, for example, or Dale?"

Bard gave a nod of agreement. He had obviously thought of the same thing. Legolas and Gimli, too, looked uneasy, but they were clearly trying to hide their thoughts out of respect for their friend.

"None," Elessar affirmed, "which is as it should be. What a member realm does within its own borders or in its singular relations with other realms would be no business of the Council. Its purpose is communication and the facilitation of collective actions, nothing more. If member realms wish to consult it as an arbiter in the case of disagreements, they are welcome to. But that is all the power it will have."

"And if a member realm chooses not to participate in a collective action, what then?" This question was from Legolas. As he said it, he seemed to have a very far off gaze.

"They will not be compelled to do so," said Faramir.

There was a long pause as the gathering gave some murmurs. Some of the representatives turned to consult with aides or with each other. After a few moments, the voice of Maelrúth once again rose over the others.

"Your Majesty, I have but one other concern," he said, standing, "as most of you know, authority has been given to me by the Lords of Arnor to speak on their behalf at this gathering." He paused for a moment, giving the idea a chance to sink in. "As such, I feel I must speak to the nature of their far-flung distance and the different concerns they face in the north. It is well known that the time the two Kingdoms-in-Exile have spent apart has caused them to become very different from each other. On their behalf, I must insist that they be treated as a separate realm for the purposes of this Council and be afforded a representative of their choosing."

"On that, Lord Maelrúth, we can most certainly agree," said Elessar, "no one knows better than I the differences between Gondor and Arnor. That was, in fact, my very intention. However, I will be reserving my right to act as sovereign should Arnor choose to host the Council."

Maelrúth gave a show of nodding sagely, then took his seat once more.

"Most of my concerns have been addressed," said Bard, "and my thought now is to accept the invitation to the Council of the West. However, this is both like and unlike a treaty. Given its unusual nature, I must have time to consult with my advisers."

"That is fair," said Elessar, "and I would advise all of you to do the same before accepting. I would have this be open and have all concerns addressed before entering into any sort of agreement."

"Wise counsel," Éomer agreed, "and I will need time to do the same. However, should the Council of the West become a reality, Rohan would gladly host its next gathering, four years hence."

Elessar smiled and nodded his thanks. From her place behind Faramir, Éowyn beamed at her brother in excitement. Better than most in the room, she knew that he already intended to accept.

"If the Council does form, and if there are no objections, Gondor would be happy to accept that invitation," said Elessar, "I thank you, Éomer-King."

Gimli and Norin had been in quiet conversation for some time. Now, Gimli gave his cousin a nod and got to his feet. Though his head was only as tall as the shortest at the table, he still had a commanding presence.

"The gathering of this Council is well and good," he said, "and I for one am of a mind to accept it. But every four years is few and far between for such grand talks. I offer an additional proposal. There is a custom among the Dwarven clans. In recent generations, it has gone un-used. But I think the time has come to see its return and on a grander scale. In ancient days, each Dwarf clan would have an emissary live among the others, representing their interests and carrying messages to and from their own lords. I propose such an arraignment between the realms represented here."

Bard waved it off almost immediately. "This emissary of yours would be little more than a hostage to his hosts. Who would agree to such a thing as that?"

"Custom prevents that," said Norin, "by agreement, the emissaries are afforded special rights within the realm of their hosts. An attack on one is counted an attack against the realm he represents."

"It seems unnecessary to me," said Éomer, "marriages between realms serve this same purpose." He gestured to Éowyn. "Cannot my sister represent the interests of Rohan while she dwells in Gondor with her husband? And cannot my wife represent Gondor in my own court?"

"Due respect to you, King of Rohan," Dwelen spoke up from her place behind Gimli, "but such marriages are not always possible. And, sometimes the marriage can get in the way of representing such interests."

"I... would not disagree with that," Éowyn said, somewhat hesitantly, causing her husband to shift somewhat uncomfortably.

The Steward cleared his throat, itching an imaginary itch on his nose. "I would certainly be interested to hear specifics," he said.

"And I would be willing to provide them," Norin agreed quickly, "I shall have proposals delivered to all within the next few days."

There was a general agreement to this. Around the table, heads nodded and there were noises of interest.

"Very well, then," said Elessar, "in three days hence, we can meet again to discuss that matter further. In the meantime, as a token of Gondor's intentions concerning the Council of the West, I would like to bring a number of matters to the table. The first concerns the recent attacks out of Mordor on Ithilien. Prince Faramir, if you would?"

"Yes, your Majesty," said Faramir, getting to his feet, "as has already been mentioned, Ithilien has been the victim of several attacks from the remaining orcs in Mordor. Between the men of the White Company and the valiant efforts of the Elves of Galenost, we have been able to hold them at bay. However, the attacks have grown more frequent and more dire. As most of you already know, the orcs have retaken Minas Morgul and thus far, we have been unable to convince them that holding it is more trouble than it is worth. It is well-supplied and reinforced by way of a supply line out of Morannon which we cannot sever. It humbles me to say, but, without help, Ithilien will not be able to retake the City of Sorcery and defeat the orcs there."

There were some mumbles and murmurs from the assembly.

"If help is needed, Rohan will send it," said Éomer enthusiastically.

"As will Dol Amroth," Imrahil agreed.

"And Morthond," added Duinhir, "if Ithilien falls, the rest of Gondor and the West will be next on the orcs' agenda."

There were more nods of assent to this, all of them grim but determined. Faramir looked over to Elessar again, his eyes asking a question which the king read well. Slowly, grimly, he nodded to the Steward.

"My lords, there is more," said Faramir, "there is an orc who has claimed kingship over the lands of Mordor and his kind. He is called Urlak. The orcs have rallied to him in a way we have never seen before."

"Orcs rally to no one!" Bard said with surprise. "They fight and follow only at the ends of their masters' whips."

Faramir gave a nod. "Yet the orcs of Mordor have done otherwise."

"He must be a fearsome orc, then," said Imrahil, "for the other orcs to fear him so..."

Elessar shook his head. "No, no, that is not it," he said, "I have seen this Urlak myself; I have fought him myself. He is a formidable fighter, but no more or less than other Uruk-hai like him, I deem."

"On the counsel of my wife," said Faramir, giving a fond and acknowledging nod to Éowyn, "and with the permission of my king," and here he paused, as if fearing to utter the words coming next, "last night, I consulted the Palantír."

There was an audible gasp from the room. All at once, several questions began to be asked; how long had Gondor had a Palantír, where was it kept, how did they know it was safe? The hall erupted into chaos as several left their seats.

"My friends, my friends!" Elessar said, getting to his feet as well and holding his hands up. Slowly the hall quieted. "I know this is a revelation to many of you. Gondor has had access to the Palantíri for many generations. The Stewards have used them for countless years as tools to help defend Gondor and the men of the west. Few men are of a line capable of their use. Faramir is such a man, as am I. As a show of good faith, I have decided that the secret of their use will now end. I will answer all your questions, in time, but for now, it is important that Faramir be allowed to continue."

This seemed to quell the outburst. Slowly, the lords all took their seats again.

"With the Palantír of Orthanc, I gazed into Mordor," said Faramir, "there is a mist surrounding those lands that even the seeing stones cannot pierce. But one thing is clear; it is not by the will of Urlak that Mordor is moving. Something greater than the will of orcs is driving this advance."

"Is it the Enemy?" Éomer asked, concern etching his brow.

Faramir shook his head. "I do not believe so. I have felt the black breath of the Enemy and this is not that. What this force is, I know not. But it is clear that something else is working against us."

"That is a thing strange to hear," said Hadoriel from her place near Legolas' shoulder, "for I have felt of such a similar presence. Several weeks ago, as I was traveling through some of the southern reaches of Ithilien on an errand for Galenost, I came to a glen that seemed to me fairer than the rest of the woods. Flowers of a sort I had never seen before were growing in vine carpets near the banks of a stream; blue with five petals. The water seemed clearer and yet... somehow more perilous. The waters spoke as they flowed past. Listen, it said, listen to me and all will be well and you shall prosper and have victory. The words were fair, but the spirit in them was terrible and treacherous. I sped away from the place quickly, lest the words ensnare me."

"Fair words, yet treacherous of spirit," the Prince of Dol Amroth mused, "did not the Enemy work in just such a fashion in ancient Númenor?"

"It cannot be Sauron," Elessar reaffirmed, "his spirit was tied to the One Ring and that has been destroyed. This is some other force."

"But, what other force could it be, my king?" Maelrúth pressed. "The Dark Lord returned after generations without form after the Ring was cut from his hand. What is to say that he is not returning now?"

"He is not returning because it is impossible," Legolas pushed back, "if I am certain of nothing else, I am at least certain of that."

A silence settled over the table. Clearly, they had reached an impasse.

"Clearly this is a mystery for now," Faramir said amid the silence, "but, it is more important to stop the advance of this force, whatever it may be. It is imperative that we make arrangements to halt their progress and, if we can, to wrest Minas Morgul from their hands once more."

"I agree," Éomer said at once, "it does not matter what this force is if it threatens our lands. If you will have them, I would gladly send riders to help reinforce Ithilien."

"It would be a help," said Faramir, "but more importantly, we need to know all we can about their movements. The Rangers at Henneth Annûn are capable and skilled, but even they cannot be everywhere at once. Nor can the patrols from Galenost."

To this, there seemed to be no answer. All present looked to each other and found no ideas forthcoming. After all, what could others so far-flung as Dale or Dol Amroth do that the Rangers of Ithilien could not do already? None of the others in the room could offer the sort of manpower that was needed; skilled in woodcraft and soldiery alike.

"We will not solve this problem today," said Elessar into the swirling and uncomfortable silence, "for now, Ithilien will be reinforced and we will hold the line against Urlak's forces as we know them now. Éomer, your offer of riders would be gladly accepted."

"Then you shall have them," the King of Rohan affirmed.

"I will send some of the Knights of Dol Amroth as well," said Imrahil, "tracking enemies is not their strong suit, but give them a post to guard and they will defend it."

"That would free the Rangers of the White Company to track and hunt," Faramir said with an agreeing nod.

"Then it is agreed," said Elessar, "and should other realms agree to join the Council of the West, then we will make Minas Morgul our first order of business."

There were nods all around and the issue seemed settled for now. Once again, a look passed between the King and the Steward, each giving the other another grim nod. As a few more moments passed of general discussion concerning Minas Morgul, Faramir turned to Beregond and gave him a signal. The Captain inclined his head in acknowledgment, then went to one of the side entrances of the hall, disappearing around a corner. Elessar again rose to his feet.

"We have but one other piece of business to attend to," he said, "and it once again shows us the need for communication between the realms. Word has reached my court of a matter in Arnor." The king's eyes settled on Maelrúth. Faramir's had already been resting on the lord. He gave no indication that he knew of the matter. Slowly, other eyes turned to Maelrúth.

"Really, Majesty?" Maelrúth said, his voice and face betraying nothing. "I have heard of no such news."

Elessar pitched his own voice to one of surprise. "Truly? I had hoped, as Arnor's representative at this gathering, you might have been able to shed some light."

Maelrúth gave a shrug. "Perhaps, my King, if you were to tell me what you have heard?"

Right about then, Beregond re-entered the room, taking a place by the doorway that he had exited and returned through. The King gave a small smile when he saw him. The Captain gave a nod of readiness. "Better yet," said Elessar, "we have here some messengers from Arnor. They have agreed to tell this council all they have seen and heard. Captain Beregond, please show them in."

Faramir's gaze remained on Maelrúth as the lord's head snapped around to look to the Captain. All other eyes turned searchingly in the direction that the King had indicated. For his part, Beregond moved aside of the entryway, revealing the three small forms of Merry, Pippin, and Alton.

"Periain!?" Maelrúth exclaimed, sitting up in his seat straighter.

"My lords and ladies," said Elessar striding over to the Hobbits, "I introduce to you Master Peregrin Took, formerly Guard of this Citadel and the son of Thain Paladin Took of the Shire, Master Meriadoc Brandybuck, the son of the Master of Buckland and a squire of Rohan, and Alton Goodbarrel of Bree. I welcomed them to my halls some weeks ago and have asked them to represent the Shire, Buckland, and Bree at this council."

As most of the rest of the table began to converse in confused and hurried tones, both Legolas and Gimli shot up from their seats and went over to embrace Merry and Pippin. Éomer and Éowyn were both not far behind and Merry gave the King of Rohan a deep bow. Still, Faramir kept his eyes on Maelrúth. The Lord of Ethring ground his teeth together, trying to marshal himself, and settled back into his seat, seeming to ponder his next words carefully as he eyed the Hobbits.

Eventually, as the hall settled down from the surprise, three chairs were brought forward and placed at the table. The three Hobbits sat in them, their legs dangling uncomfortably from the height.

"My lord, this is rather irregular," Maelrúth said, his voice a practiced even tone, "as the representative for Arnor, I should have been informed of this message our good Periain have brought us."

"As you will see, Lord Maelrúth, their message is of a sensitive and rather controversial nature," said Elessar, "I believed it best to inform all the Lords of Gondor at the same time."

"Yet, clearly, the Prince of Ithilien was informed prior to these proceedings," Maelrúth countered, "else his captain would not have been the one to escort the Halflings to these halls."

Elessar leveled a gaze of steel at the Lord of Ethring. Faramir could have sworn that he saw the lord flinch back, just slightly. "The Prince of Ithilien is also the Steward of Gondor," the king said, "as such, he must be prepared to see to the kingdom in my absence, even at a moment's notice. Does that explanation satisfy you?"

Tightly, Maelrúth nodded.

With that, Elessar bid Merry, Pippin, and Alton to tell their story to the assembled nobles. Pippin took most of the story on to himself and Merry seemed content to let him do so; after all, it was only natural that the son of the King's Representative in the Shire make the bulk of the report. Merry and Alton made additions where appropriate and when asked. The entire time, the Lord of Ethring glowered at them. Uncomfortably, Alton shifted away, just slightly, from the man's gaze.

"This is troubling, indeed," said Prince Imrahil when they were finished at last.

"I agree," said Lord Duinhir, "and all the more troubling because we have not yet heard anything about it."

"And there we strike at the heart of another matter entirely," said Elessar, "something has prevented word of this situation reaching us here in Minas Tirith."

"Perhaps the messengers...?" King Bard offered.

Pippin shook his head. "They all return safely, reporting that the message has been delivered."

"But delivered to where?" Legolas asked. "If they are received, to whom are they being delivered?"

"I looked into precisely that question," said Faramir, "I sent messengers to the various places through which a messenger from Arnor might pass; Dol Amroth, Morthond, Rohan, others. I received one rather odd report that men from the north had, on several occasions, been seen coming off of ships putting to harbor in Ethring and doing business with one of the town officials there."

All eyes once again turned to Maelrúth. Without even seeming to flinch, he offered a conciliatory wave of his hand, wearing a concerned look. "I had assigned someone to receive messengers from Arnor into my port, Majesty, it's true. I had heard that a number of them had been booking passage into Gondor through Ethring and I thought it prudent to have someone see to their needs. Perhaps, I will see to it myself, from now on. Majesty, I assure you that if there has been any negligence concerning this, an appropriate punishment will be handed out."

"I suppose that will have to suffice for now," said Elessar, meeting Maelrúth's gaze evenly, "and for now, it is more important to see to aiding the men of Arnor, in any case."

"If I may, your Majesty," said Imrahil, "harvests in my principality have been plentiful this season. Dol Amroth may be able to ship some stores of food to Arnor as relief."

"Morthond can do the same," said Duinhir, turning to Imrahil, "if his Excellency the Prince would allow us to use his port." To this, Imrahil nodded his agreement.

"When we left, both the Shire and Buckland were working to put together a little something, too," Pippin put in.

"And maybe Bree-land can help, too?" Merry suggested, giving a sidelong glance to Alton.

"Well," said the Bree Hobbit, "I've never really done anything like this a'fore, but... I could ask around and see if any farmers in Bree-land could spare something. Every little bit helps, I suppose."

Elessar nodded. "We will discuss the specifics in greater detail with the involved parties later, then. This should see to the basic needs of our northern kin while land is cleared for farming. There remains then only one matter to deal with; the men setting to invade the Shire." Elessar stood, his face grave and stern. "It is from the Shire that our ultimate salvation during the War of the Ring came. For this, if for no other reasons, it should always and forever be left to decide its own fate. The Hobbits of the Shire have for many generations lived as their own society with their own laws and customs. We have no desire to change that and We would see to it that none of Our people interfere with that. To that end, it is the decision of the Throne that no man may ever again set foot into the Shire while Our house endures and while the Halflings remain true. The Shire shall be given leave to govern itself after its own fashion on the authority of the Mayors of Hobbiton and Michel Delving and the Thain of Tuckbourough. So says Elessar, King of Arnor and Gondor."

There was a great deal of murmuring, particularly from the Lords of Gondor. Several of Maelrúth's supporters all knotted in upon him, speaking in hurried, hushed tones. Elessar seemed content to let them discuss it. For their part, the three Hobbits looked stunned and unable to come up with anything to say.

Finally, at the urging of his supporters, Maelrúth turned back to the King. "Your Majesty, you do, of course, have the right to make such laws as you see fit," he said, "but there are... concerns to be raised."

"Such as?" Elessar asked, sitting in his seat again and steepling his fingers.

"To be blunt, Majesty, there is no precedence for such a law," Maelrúth replied, "no region in the kingdom has ever been completely autonomous and yet still a part of the kingdom. It weakens the position and authority of the Throne to have to ask for their loyalty rather than to demand it. I mean to cast no aspersions on the Periannath, of course. I am sure they are loyal and true. But your authority should still be represented, which would be difficult if Men cannot set foot in the Shire."

"The King's authority is represented in the Shire," said Pippin, growing a little pert, "my family has long held the title of Thain and it is tradition that he represents the Throne. My father is overjoyed that he can do so in more than just name!"

"And I am content with this arrangement," Elessar stated, "for the Hobbits of the Shire should be given equal opportunity to be recognized in my court. This decree is not without careful consideration, my Lords. And thus, it will be as I have said and there will be no further debate. Messengers will be sent north with news of this decree and with news of the relief effort. I will be sending members of my own Grey Company."

With that, the discussion was ended. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Elessar's gaze moved from person to person and no one seemed willing to contest anything further.

With that, the council moved to other matters; the renewal of treaties, the allowances for trade, and other such mundane issues. By the time they were finished, the sun had set and everyone was weary.

It was much later that night when the King invited a select few into his house for a private evening. Faramir and Éowyn were there, as were Éomer and Lothiriel. Gimli, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin came also. And acting as host was Arwen.

"It is Maelrúth, I am certain of it," Faramir said to Aragorn as they conversed, "all paths cross at his door step and he has the most to gain from the situation."

"But what can he possibly gain by prompting the men of Arnor to invade the Shire?" Legolas put to the group. "It gives him no power and he is too far removed to profit from its land directly."

Éomer leaned on one arm of his chair and put a hand to his beard in thought. "There is something that we still do not know," he said, "something manipulative and dark, I deem."

"I agree," said Arwen, lighting in a seat near her husband, "his plan is not yet come to fruition and it will be a dark day when it is realized."

"And he knows we're on to him now," Gimli rumbled, puffing on a pipe, "he'll be more careful from now on, to make sure we see no more before it's too late."

"What could he be after, I wonder," said Éowyn, "he already represents the lords of Arnor in court, which gives him considerable power. What will the Shire gain him?"

"Well, I don't think we'll be able to figure it out from here," said Merry, "Maelrúth isn't likely to give up his secrets and the only others who know are the folks back home."

Aragorn nodded, giving a heavy sigh. "Do what you can to look into it. I hope you'll not take it as a slight, but I left Buckland out of the Shire declaration for a reason. I hope that you'll be able to ferret out some more information and for that, Men must be able to pass into some land that is inhabited by Hobbits."

"I thought that might be the case," said Merry, "Buckland would be a good place for that."

"And Bree, too," Pippin added, "I think we can count on Alton for that."

The conversation lapsed into specifics. Everyone in the room had suggestions and contacts for the Hobbits to look into. Eventually, it became necessary for Merry and Pippin to write down some notes in a small book that Merry had had.

For his part, Faramir remained largely silent. He found himself staring out the window, into the night. The stars shone silver above the courtyard of the Citadel. As he stared, the courtyard seemed to fade until all the world was stars. Two stars shone the brighter, blue-white against the black sky. One by one, the stars around them faded out. A voice whispered on the wind.

Beware the two who are sundered

Their light will overcome all...

Lightning flashed from the sky, as if stabbing directly toward him. Faramir flinched back and blinked and suddenly he was back in the House of the King, hearing a knock on the door rather than the report of thunder. Arwen glided toward the door and opened it. Everyone watched her as she did, but for Aragorn, who was staring at Faramir, his eyes narrowed just slightly in concern. Faramir shifted almost imperceptibly under the scrutiny.

Arwen returned, carrying a small piece of parchment. "It is an urgent message for Faramir," she said. Faramir stood as she handed him the parchment. He unfolded it and read its letters quickly.

"Orcs are moving in Ithilien," Faramir stated, urgency creeping into his voice, "and the Fell Wyrms have been seen with them. An attack near Henneth Annûn is imminent. I'll need to return at once. Legolas?"

"Of course," said the elf, "I will be needed."

"The Houses of Healing in Minas Estel will need to be made ready," said Éowyn, "I should return as well."

"We'll need to go immediately, tonight," said Faramir.

"Of course," Éowyn agreed. Then she stopped, a thought entering into her mind. "The children..."

"They are welcome to remain here, in the Citadel," said Arwen, "Eldarion and the girls will be glad of their company for a time and we will be able to see them home safely when the crisis is over." To this, Éowyn gave a small bow of thanks.

"I will ride with you, brother," said Éomer, rising from his chair. His tone left no room for argument. "I have many riders with me. They will be of help."

"And where the King of Rohan goes, so goes this Squire!" Merry said, hopping to his feet as well.

"Then you'll not be going without me!" Pippin exclaimed, doing likewise.

"This Dwarf won't sit idle while there is work to be done!" Said Gimli. "Shall we renew our contest, Legolas?"

"I should be glad of it!" Legolas replied with a grin.

"A wondrous company!" Aragorn exclaimed. "Men and Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits! Not since the Fellowship has this been seen." He voice turned stern and his face darkened. "Go with our blessings, all of you. And may the thanks of all Gondor follow you until the end of days."

Then, one by one, everyone exited the room to go and make their preparations. Faramir and Éowyn were the last to leave. Aragorn halted Faramir after the others were out of earshot. Éowyn hesitated, but Faramir gave her a nod.

"I will be along in a moment," he said.

Seeing Aragorn's grave face, Éowyn stopped only long enough to give her husband a kiss, then followed the others.

"You were lost a few minutes ago," Aragorn said to Faramir once she had gone, "what did you see?"

For a moment, Faramir replayed the vision in his mind, searching for anything of interest. "Two stars in the east," he said, "flaring bright and overwhelming all. And yet somehow, they are not together. It is as if their light is a war between them that is choking out everything around them." When Aragorn gave Faramir a puzzled look, the Steward gave an apologetic shrug. "Such visions are not always helpful," he said.

Aragorn gave a grave nod and a long sigh. "Be cautious, my friend," he said, "if there is a power in the east worthy of visions, Ithilien will be first in its path."

"Ithilien will not fall while I live," Faramir affirmed.

"That vow does not bring me comfort, for it brings a dear friend to danger," said Aragorn, "you have this vow in return; should things go ill, your children, especially Elboron, shall be fostered in my house, for your sake and for the sake of Gondor."

Faramir nodded his thanks and took his leave of the king. Just outside the door of the house, waiting in the yard of the Citadel, Éowyn and Beregond were waiting for him. The others had already gone ahead. He did not break stride as he came out, making for the tunnel to the sixth circle. They fell into step beside him.

"My lord, I have sent Mablung ahead to Minas Estel to make the rest of the White Company ready to ride," the captain said, "our people here will be prepared within the hour."

"Good," said Faramir, "have them muster in the center court of Rath Celerdain. And send word to Éomer-king and the Masters Legolas and Gimli. I will not do them the discourtesy of making them catch up. We ride together. And Bergil?"

Beregond shook his head, looking utterly lost. "How he caught wind of this, I know not, my lord, but he already insisted to Mablung to be included. Mablung agreed and I am not of a mind to over-rule my commanders, as much as I may wish to."

Faramir gave a grim hum of understanding and paused in thought as they walked. "I would have him arm me ere we ride. Send him to me."

As they emerged from the tunnel and out into the sixth circle, Beregond gave a bow and went about his business.

"What are you thinking about, my love?" Éowyn asked, still keeping pace with him.

Faramir stopped and turned to face her, taking her hand in his. "Besides how relieved I am that you are want to ask me that question, now?"

Éowyn's smile in reply was warm and her eyes danced with amusement. "Besides that, yes," she said, placing her other hand on his face.

"I believe I like this new understanding of ours," said Faramir, as they leaned in a little closer to each other, "all you need do is ask and all I need do is say."

"Yes, remind me to have some of this summer's batch of mead sent to Merry in thanks. He seems to have fixed what we two could not. But, since you have not said, let me guess what is on your mind. You are worried about our captain's son?"

Faramir gave a nod. "I wish to see to it that he is fit to ride with us before he does so," he answered, "Beregond deserves that much from me. But more, I wish to make certain he is not riding only for his own pride or because he feels as though he has failed. By all reports, he comported himself well in battle. Whether he remembers it or not does not change that."

"This is the noble Steward that I married," said Éowyn, "I have missed you."

"And I you."

When Faramir's company rode forth from Minas Tirith, Bergil was indeed with them. No one knew what words were exchanged between the young ranger and his Prince, but Bergil stood taller, somehow, though he had not grown in height.

With the White Company rode the Elves of Galenost, Éomer-king and his Éorlingas, the Dwarves of the Glittering Caves, Prince Imrahil and his Knights of Dol Amroth, many bowmen of Morthond, and the three Hobbits.

They rode through most of the day and mustered at Minas Estel. There, the Lady Éowyn departed her husband's company and went into the city to make ready the Houses of Healing. The Prince himself made camp with his company. Throughout the night, the rest of the White Company mustered, including many of the Ithilirochonath and many of the Rangers. When they rode the next day, their numbers were 200 strong.

North they went from Minas Estel, crossing the Morgalduin and continuing past the Crossroads. More of the White Company's Rangers and Elves of Galenost joined them as they went. By the time they reached the field of Cormallen, their numbers had grown to nearly 300. And it was at Cormallen where they met the enemy and did battle.

Upon the field, there was an army of Orcs and Uruk-Hai, of numbers nearly a match to their own. Commanding them was Urlak himself, the Orc-King. The sky above was grey with low, heavy clouds and several of the Fell Wyrms wheeled back and forth overhead. Sometimes, they would disappear into them only to emerge again somewhere else. Their terrible cries echoed over the field, mingled with the sounding of alarm from their riders' horns.

The archers of Morthond formed ranks upon a western ridge, each pounding a stake into the ground pointed toward the enemy. Behind them, the archers of Galenost joined them and some of the Rangers as well. Before them rallied all those who were on foot, with Faramir leading them. Beregond and Imrahil were with him, as were Gimli, Legolas, Meriadoc, and Peregrin. Alton, using a bow given to him by Valithar, was with the archers. With the footmen also were several of the guard of Minas Tirith, having been sent by the King. Éomer surveyed the scene from horseback and brought his riders up beside the footmen on their right.

"What say you, Faramir?" he asked. "The scene seems set for the hammer and anvil, does it not?"

"It does indeed," Faramir agreed, "I shall trust in you and your riders to be the hammer, since you are the faster. Léowine and the Ithilrechyn shall ride with you."

Éomer gave a nod, then spurred his horse back to re-join his riders. At a shout and a gesture of his spear, Léowine and his riders followed.

"My lord, what do we do about the Fell Wyrms?" Beregond asked from Faramir's right.

Faramir pondered for a moment, then ground his teeth with a determined and grim sigh. "There is little that we can do about them," he answered, "save end this battle quickly by concentrating on the orcs. Prepare to sound the charge."

The Prince drew his sword, his mouth set in a grim line as he stared down the distant line of enemies. Holding his sword aloft, he turned to face his own line. "For Ithilien and the west!" he shouted. "Sí i 'alad heria! Sí galad vín heria!"

The assembled line shouted a war cry in response. Faramir turned his horse and spurred it forward. Beregond sounded a horn to charge and there were answers from others down the line. As one, the Ithilien line charged toward their enemies.

Éomer and the riders reached the orcs first, spears finding targets from one end of the line to the other, hooves thundering as they trampled. In short order, the King of Rohan had led the riders through the ranks of orcs and off to their right, making for the open field and leaving a swath of death in their wake. The soldiers on foot came behind them, striking quickly at the broken line. As the riders moved off, the orcs turned their attention back to the footmen and the fighting grew intense quickly. But the men of the west held firm, never moving from the place they had chosen to defend.

Some of the orcs at the back end of the riders' charge chose to turn and fight the horsemen as they began to harry that part of the line. Éomer cleverly lured them further away and group by group the riders made short work of them. Finally, the orcs left were only the ones following the orders of their leaders at the front, fighting Faramir's line. Now the time was ripe for the hammer to fall.

But the Fell Wyrms fouled this battle plan. Three of the great beasts dove from the sky and plowed through the battle lines of the west, scooping up soldiers in their sharp claws and slashing others. Some of the riders were knocked from their horses by their vast wings. The line of the west began to scatter and all around there were calls to regroup.

Faramir, too, had been unhorsed by the Fell Wyrm attack. Somewhere in the distance, he heard Beregond's call to arms rallying the White Company. He was about to join it when he felt a large, ominous presence behind him and smelled the hot breath of something foul. Turning, he laid eyes upon one of the beasts, stalking him menacingly. Its rider grinned in malice and Faramir recognized the mutilated face of Luglash the Orc.

The wyrm's long neck lunged toward him. Still bringing his sword up, Faramir sprang aside of it. The beast's teeth missed him only narrowly. With a leer, Luglash pulled on the reins and directed the beast around, pursuing Faramir as he tried to evade the wyrm's attacks. Finally, Faramir had had enough of the deadly game. He braced his feet and brought his sword to bear. As the beast attacked again, he stepped aside and cut into the wyrm's forearm. It reared back, leaving Faramir with an opening to lunge in for another attack to its heart. With a loud cry, Luglash forced the beast back to the ground before Faramir could close the distance. The Prince dodged out of the way at the last second, just getting his sword up in time to block Luglash's vicious strike.

Their fight turned to swords, then. From the saddle of the Fell Wyrm, Luglash struck at Faramir several times, all while trying to keep the beast under control. The wyrm thrashed under him, allowing Faramir to close in and grasp on to the orc to try and grapple him down from the beast's back. The move surprised Luglash and he jerked the reins. All at once, the wyrm's mighty legs coiled and sprang and all three were in the air. The wyrm's wings snapped out to either side quickly and then they were climbing into the sky faster than Faramir ever would have dreamed possible.

In short order they were high above the battle. Faramir's grip was like a vice as he held on to Luglash. The orc continued to swing at him with his falchion, trying to knock him loose. The movement caused the reins to pull this way and that and, in kind, the wyrm spun and turned. Faramir slammed into the beast's side and found purchase in the riding tack. The wyrm darted to the other side and the motion propelled him upward over the beast's back, slamming into Luglash. The two grappled atop of the wildly thrashing beast and somewhere in the fray Faramir lost his sword. Luglash, also, lost his falchion.

There was a flash of silver as Luglash drew a dagger. Faramir dodged it as best he could. The wyrm jerked to the side at the same moment. Luglash missed with his dagger, but followed through with a strong push. Faramir went over the side and began to fall.

As the ground hurtled toward him, Faramir cared nothing for what was happening around him and far below in the battle. All he saw and all he cared about was his descent; quick, unrelenting, and inevitable.

Thus, he did not see that which was ultimately his salvation. Great, golden feathered wings appeared beneath him, scooping him up and slowing his fall. Abruptly they caught an air current and then Faramir found that beneath him was no dream, but one of the great eagles of the north. Up the great bird rose, high above the battle below. Instinctively, Faramir grasped on to the ruff of feathers that was beneath his hands. Breathless, he could find no words.

"Hail Faramir, Prince among Men!" the eagle cried. "Landroval am I, sent by the great Windlord, Gwaihir. We are here to fight with the Men of the West!"

Still, grasping on to the Eagle and gaping at their great height, Faramir was having difficulty forming a sentence. As it was, all he could manage was a confused "We?"

As if in answer, several more of the great birds swooped in from above, turning sharply and making for the wheeling Fell Wyrms. Talons rent into flesh and screeches filled the air as they engaged in a great aerial battle, freeing those below to fight the more mundane, ground-based assault.

"Hold tightly!" Landroval cried. And Faramir did, for the Eagle dove toward Luglash's mount, joining in the fray with his fellows. Together they looped and rose, cornered and dove. Faramir could barely keep up with the progress of the fight. At long last, Landroval's talons found purchase in the Fell Wyrm's wing, tearing it. From their great height, it plunged to the ground and in short order both Luglash and his mount were a ruin upon the landscape below.

After a quick circle of the battlefield, Landroval glided to a gently rolling hill overlooking the area. With a flutter of his wings, he landed and crouched low. Faramir slid off the Eagle's back, his legs shaking.

"The Fell Wyrms shall be no more menace to Ithilien or to our skies," said Landroval, "we have watched them for some time and we can say that these are all of the foul creatures that were hatched. There are no more."

"You have the thanks of a grateful Steward of Gondor, great Eagle," said Faramir, "though it be the thanks of a rather breathless one."

Landroval ruffled his feathers as he stood taller. "My lord Gwaihir bids me bear this message. The Great Eagles shall not lie idle when the Council of the West calls. But it must call, for will are too few to come unlooked-for unless our interests once again coincide."

Faramir gave a nod. "We shall welcome such a mighty ally. I shall bear your message to the Council."

"Look to the thrushes and the ravens. They will bear your messages." With no further words, Landroval spread his wings and beat the air downward, jumping into the air with a mighty wind. Faramir was nearly knocked over by the force of it, but managed to keep his feet. He watched the Great Eagle re-join his fellows in the sky and together they soared north from whence they had come.

Faramir looked out across the battlefield. Small skirmishes were just ending at the edges of what had been the battle. Amid the wreck and ruin, the carcasses of the Fell Wyrms laid, black and reeking on the green of Cormallen. Far in the distance, the last of the orcish forces were retreating.

The White Company and the Council of the West had won the day. But the victory had come at a heavy price. All about, the dead lay upon the field; man, orc, horse, and warg. Already the stench of death was on the breeze. Faramir wandered through the wreck, past small, huddled knots of soldiers, searching for his men.

As he passed by one of Fell Wyrm carcasses, a strange sight greeted him. The Elves Hadoriel and Valithar were knotted together with the Dwarf Ghan, the Hobbit Alton, and a rather young looking Man wearing the livery of the guard of the Citadel; the prince thought he remembered the tall youth called Junior. All five were pumping each others' hands and Alton was passing about his pipe. Faramir guessed there was a story to tell, there. But there would be time for that later.

"Faramir! Faramir!" a voice called across the field to him. "Faramir! Oh, where can he be? Faramir!" After several moments of searching, he finally spotted Pippin aimlessly running across the field. At nearly the same moment, the Hobbit spotted him and ran toward him, renewing his speed. "Oh, Faramir! Thank heavens! Something awful has happened!"

"What has happened?" Faramir asked, his voice pitching upward to match Pippin's worry.

"It's Beregond!" Pippin cried. "Oh, come quickly, please!"

Faramir nodded and motioned for Pippin to lead the way. He followed at a run through the reek and the rake on the field. At last, Pippin led him to a sight that chilled his heart.

Laying upon the field, his head in the lap of his son, was Beregond. Merry was nearby, as was Mablung. The ranger was busily tending to a wound in the Captain's side, applying a poultice and a bandage as Beregond twitched at the touch. Half-heartedly, he tried to swat the ranger's hands aside.

"I told you, it's nothing," he said, "leave it be and tend to others worse off than I."

"Father, please," Bergil pleaded.

"By the Valar, Beregond!" Faramir exclaimed, rushing over to the captain and the rest of the groups. Kneeling down next to him, he tore off his helmet and laid a hand on Beregond's chest. "Lie still, let Mablung tend you."

Beregond looked none too happy, but ceased his protestations. He eyed Pippin, skulking behind Faramir. "I might have known that was where you had gone off to. Meddling Perian."

"Well, I had to find someone you'd listen to!" Pippin said, his hands on his hips as if he was scolding a child. "You'd still be walking about, if I hadn't!"

"I told you, it's just a flesh wound," the captain protested again, "he just got a small piece of me when I foolishly got distracted. Ouch!" He gave a glare over at Mablung. "You did that on purpose."

Mablung said nothing for a long moment but Faramir swore he saw just the slightest hint of a smirk. "He should be fine," he at last declared, "the bleeding isn't bad and I've made certain that infection won't set in. I imagine he's in for a few stitches when we reach Minas Estel."

Sitting back on his heels, Faramir gave a sigh of relief. "Thank the Valar," he said quietly.

"I told you, my Prince," said Beregond, his gaze meeting Faramir's as surely as a hand reaching out, "death and darkness will not take me. It is I who will choose when they can have me."

Faramir couldn't help but give the captain a wry smile. "I do not believe that authority is given to you."

"Then watch me take it," Beregond replied.

"Father, the sword," Bergil broke in, putting a blade into Beregond's hand. Faramir looked over to it and saw that it was his own.

"You said you were distracted," Faramir said with realization.

Beregond gave a nod, laced with something that seemed like embarrassment. "I saw your fight with the Fell Wyrm. I couldn't well leave the sword lie on the field when you were carried off. I return it, now."

Faramir gave a nod and a smile, patting Beregond's shoulder as he stood. He did not take the proffered sword. "Captain, a Prince does not accept something given to him on the field by a soldier on his back," he said with the twinkle in his eye, "I expect it to be returned to me with due decorum when we return to court."

Clutching the hilt of the sword to his chest, Beregond gave him a nod of understanding.

"Bergil," said Faramir, turning his gaze then to Beregond's son.

"Yes, my lord?"

"Tend to your captain until he is safely in the hands of the healers back home."

The youth gave a smile and a nod, part acknowledgment, part thanks.

"And I'll tend to Bergil," said Pippin, "he must be exhausted himself. You know he matched blades with a warg rider with no one to help him? Not a boy any longer, not by a stretch!"

"Nay, I've a more pressing matter that I need you to attend to, Knight of Gondor," Faramir said to Pippin, "with the Captain of my company out of commission, I'll need some extra help. I would have you bring me word from the King of Rohan, the Masters of Galenost and the Glittering Caves, the Prince of Dol Amroth, and the men of Morthond. I believe this to be a task worthy of the Prince of the Halflings?"

"Oh! I hadn't thought of that," Pippin admitted, "come to think of it, Merry rode with King Éomer and I haven't seen him since the battle. Suppose I'll start with them. If that's all right, I mean."

Faramir gave a nod and that was all the impetus Pippin needed. "Right then, I'm off!" he exclaimed already in motion. He darted off, dodging battlefield debris as he went and calling his cousin's name.

It was actually the Elves and the Dwarves he found first. Both were clustered in groups near each other on the field, cordial but not really mingling. Between both groups, however, two stood together. Pippin saw Gimli standing next to Legolas. The former was cleaning his axe and the later was unstringing his bow.

"My count was 18, this time," said the Elf.

"Aha!" Gimli exclaimed. "19 was mine! Bested you by one again!"

"Hmm," Legolas said, thoughtfully, "it would appear that we have both fallen off in the count, then."

"Well, it isn't like Helm's Deep or the Pelennor," said Gimli, "there were fewer orcs, this time. Much shorter battle. And besides." And here he sobered somewhat, casting a glance over his shoulder to his own company. "We both have more responsibility, these days."

"I do too!" Pippin exclaimed, pushing his way through the company of Dwarves in order to get to them. "Like finding you lads."

"Well, there's one Halfling to have made it through the battle!" Gimli exclaimed. "Where are Merry and your Bree-lander friend?"

"I haven't found them yet," said Pippin, "but Faramir sent me to find all of you and learn what news you have."

"The battle went well," said Legolas, "our casualties were light, thanks to the Rohrrim and their cavalry."

"Aye, ours as well," said Gimli, "which may be another reason our count was so low."

"Pippin! Thank the stars I found you!" It was Meriadoc who had spoken, rushing up to Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli and nearly tackling his cousin with an embrace. "You mad Took, I lost you in the fight completely!"

"Steady, Merry lad. I'm fine. And glad to see you are, too."

Merry then released Pippin and his smile faded. "The King sent me to find Faramir," he said, "do you know where he is?"

"Sure," said Pippin, his voice falling as he picked up on Merry's urgency, "he's back over there with the White Company. He sent me to find the King, in fact."

"Then let's go and fetch him," said Merry, "there's something he needs to see." Then he looked up at Legolas and Gimli. "In fact, you should see it, too."

"What's happened?" Legolas asked.

"Something no one expected," Merry answered, "and it means trouble. You all need to come and see, quickly!"

It was only a little white later that Merry and Pippin had gathered the various leaders of the army. Merry led them all to the place where Éomer had summoned them. The Hobbit was urgent and seemed distressed, but no matter how much they would ask, he wouldn't say anything until they had come to the King of Rohan.

"Faramir, my brother!" Éomer greeted when they came. He extended a hand to the Prince and grasped it warmly. "Your riders are to be commended. They fought well."

"They had some of the best teachers in Middle-earth among their numbers," Faramir replied, "but Meriadoc seemed quite urgent when he brought me your message. What has happened?"

Éomer gave a grim nod. "I do not know what this means," he said, "I had hoped that one of you might. Come with me."

He led the group over to a small knot of his men, gravely standing guard next to a pile of fabric that had once been a cloak but had been torn and tattered to rags by the insanity of war. Feet were sticking out from underneath it, shod in some sort of black, cloven boot that Faramir did not recognize. They looked hard, but threads seemed to peel off from the plates in layers along the edge. Looking more closely, he saw a texture very like linen on their surface.

"My men found him among the ruin of the enemies upon the field," said Éomer, "our horses likely ran him down among their number."

"You dragged us out here to see some orc?" Gimli said with a long-suffering sigh. This earned him a nudge from Legolas.

"That is no orc," said Faramir.

"Indeed not," said Éomer, motioning to his men.

They pulled back the old, tattered cloak. Beneath it, body showing the tell-tale signs of having been trampled, was a man. But no man of a sort that Faramir had ever seen. He was dressed all in black, armor of a sort that had never been seen in Middle-earth before, made from cloth glued together in thick layers. His boots were cloven at the toe and rose high on to his calves to be bound there by strips of still more fabric. About his head was bound a mask, rising up from his chin. His black hair was tied into a thick, braided knot on the top of his head.

"He looks like one of the Swarthy Men, from the south!" said Pippin.

"But I do not recognize his dress," said Faramir with a frown and a shake of his head, "I do not believe he is from Haradwaith in the south or even from Rhun in the east."

"He was carrying these," Éomer said, taking a pair of hook-shaped blades from one of his men. He handed them to Faramir for inspection.

"What manner of sword is this?" the Prince wondered.

Éomer nodded to one of his men. The Rider stepped forward. "My lord, I saw the man using them. Often he would use them to trip is adversaries, but at times, I saw him bind them together, like a chain, and spin it about."

Faramir handed the blades to Gimli and then they changed hands to Legolas. "I have never heard of such a weapon," said the elf.

"Nor I," Gimli rumbled, "what manner of man is this?"

"I know not," said Éomer.

"Still more," said Faramir, "and the more puzzling, why does he ride with orcs?"

No one there had an answer. Or if they did have one, they did not wish to give it voice.

"This mystery is deepening," Éomer said.

"Just how much deeper can it go?" Gimli wondered.

At the end of the day, there was little more to be learned. The army returned to Minas Estel and made camp there. The wounded were tended to in the Houses of Healing. And one by one, the companies of the Council of the West began to return to their homelands.

Many stories were told of that day; of Bergil the Ranger and his deadly dual with the warg rider; of two Elves, a Dwarf, a Halfling, and a Man who came together to best one of the Fell Wyrms; of the massive and heroic charge of the Ithilrochonath and their commander Léowine; and chief among all tales, that of Prince Faramir, the Eagle-rider of Ithilien.

But tales were not told of the mysterious dead man in black found upon the field. For none knew his story.

Holy cats, that took me forever to get done! Yes, you are looking at those dates right, it was eight years to write this chapter. I have a new-found respect for the writing of the Council of Elrond in the original books. This chapter, by itself, is officially longer than the last whole fic I wrote by about twenty pages or so.

There's a lot in this chapter, which accounts for its length, but even so there was a great deal that ended up on the cutting room floor. Most of it was just pointless self-indulgence (Hadoriel, Valithar, Ghan, Alton, and Junior were going to get blotto and blow up a john at one point, for example), so out it went. But some of it I really want to go back and write (Faramir's conversation with Bergil being the big one). I have some "appendices" in mind that may incorporate some of it, but it's not very integral to the main story.

The next chapter is going to be even harder to write, emotionally. Those of you who have hung in there waiting and who came back after the inexcusably long wait, I thank you heartily for sticking with me. And I apologize in advance for the inevitably long wait that there will be before chapter five.

Get a hanky ready because the next chapter is going to be more than a little sad.

Bado na sídh.