"I know eager you and Sam must be to get home," Merry said earnestly to Frodo as he and Pippin walked the Ringbearers back to their quarters, "but Eomer's asked me to take charge of King Theoden's honor guard while he lies here in the City. Theoden was like a father to me - if only for a little while - I just can't leave until after the funeral."

"And Beregond's asked me to look after his family until they can join him in Ithilien," said Pippin from the other side, "and who knows when that will be. And I can't just walk out on old Strider either, at least not until he's appointed a few more esquires."

"So you see we must stay, for a little while at least." Merry finished.

"I'm not in that much of a hurry to get home." Frodo answered mildly. "Frankly I don't feel up to another long journey just yet."

"And I'd like to see a little more meat on your bones before we go stravaging off into the Wilds again." Sam put in firmly.

"Well this is certainly the place to fatten Cousin Frodo up a bit." Pippin said cheerfully.

Merry gave a sigh of relief. "That's all right then."

"Those two have grown," said Sam, as he pulled the curtains over the windows. "and I don't just mean in inches!" he shook his head wonderingly. "Just a few months ago I'd have thought anybody who left anything important in the hands of either one of them was a bit lacking - but now..."

"Yes." Frodo agreed softly from the bed. "I've noticed it too. My mischievous young cousins have grown up."

Sam gave him a sharp, concerned look. "Well it was bound to happen someday," he said bracingly, "and a good thing too considering they're in line to be Master of Buckland and Thain of the Shire!"

"Innocence must be lost eventually." Frodo agreed quietly. "And they wanted to come."

"Insisted on it as I remember."

Frodo grinned a little. "But not has stubbornly as a certain Gamgee of my acquaintance." he turned on his side to look at his friend. "Sam, what about Rosie? I know how much you must want to see her -"

"Most likely she's forgotten all about me by now." the other interrupted gruffly.

"Of course she hasn't!" Frodo said impatiently. "Rose Cotton set her cap for you when you were both barely out of your teens, Samwise Gamgee, and everybody in Hobbiton knows it - except you!"

"She can do a lot better than the likes of me." Sam muttered, looking intently at his toes and decidedly red about the ears.

"No she can't." said Frodo.

In the days that followed Aragorn sat every morning upon his throne in the Hall of the Kings to hear petitions from his own folk and receive embassies from the other lands of Men. Envoys came from Khand and the realms beyond the sea of Rhun to ransom their kin taken captive at the Black Gates. Aragorn gave the prisoners up to them freely and promised peace with the East if the East would leave Gondor in peace. They departed bewildered by his clemency and thoughtful.

Ambassadors came from both near and far Harad with gifts and flowery messages of peace and friendship on their lips but anger and suspicion in their eyes. And Dunlendings came, wary and sullen, glaring sidelong at the Rohirrim even as they sued for peace. Aragorn spoke them fair but privately agreed with Faramir and Eomer that there would be trouble there - if not just yet. The Beornings and the Woodsmen of Mirkwood came too, and at least their words of congratulations and friendship were sincerely meant.

Arwen sat on the Queen's throne at her husband's side, watching and listening but seldom speaking, learning the ways and minds of Men. "I do not like that we sit so high." she said to Aragorn one night, snuggled in his arms in the great King's bed. "We see nothing but the tops of heads, and they must crane their necks to see us if they will. I was taught a lord should look his people in the eye."

"So was I." Aragorn answered. "But the Gondorim seem to prefer their Kings and Queens set on high and apart from them. Remember how perturbed they became when I tried to walk through the lower circles and speak informally to the people?"

Arwen did. Noble and commons alike had been horrified - and clearly bewildered - not understanding why their King would do such a thing.

"I think we must follow their customs for now," Aragorn continued, "there may be reasons for them we do not yet know. Perhaps after we are better acquainted we may make some changes."

No doubt he was right but still..."If we may not go to them perhaps we can persuade them to come to us." Arwen suggested. "Surely no one can complain if we chose to sit in our own courtyard?"

She could not see his smile but heard it in his voice. "In the Court of the Fountain beneath the Tree, where any Man may approach us if he wills." he chuckled. "A good idea, my Heart."

She thanked him with a kiss.

Aragorn had freed Sauron's slaves and granted them the Land of Nurn where they had long labored and suffered in his service. But they could not be left to their own devices burdened as they were with spirits either broken or embittered by their dreadful captivity. Aragorn sent a great host of healers to their aid led by Elladan and Elrohir who were gifted both in the arts of healing and of rule.

Beregond's sisters, Baradis and Berethil, were chosen as well. Which led Hiril, his wife, to approach Arwen in her garden clearly concerned. "I do not think it is wise for my sisters to go." she said bluntly after Arwen had waved her maidens away that they might speak privately

The Queen looked at her in genuine surprise. "But why not? There is bound to be much Black Breath among the captives, the more hands that can wield the athelas leaf the better."

"My Lady, for many years Baradis and Berethil have chosen to forgo love and marriage to pursue their craft," Hiril explained grimly, "but now I fear they have become enamored of your lord brothers who have paid them unwise attention."

Arwen's face brightened. "Do you really think so? I had some such thoughts myself but have seen to little of them together to be sure."

Hiril stared at her in amazement and some distress. "My Lady I do not understand you, surely you see any such affection can do naught but harm!"

"But why?" Arwen asked bewildered. "I would like to see my brothers settled, Baradis and Berethil seem to me their ideal mates, should their hearts lean that way."

For some reason this left Hiril both breathless and speechless. "The difference in rank!" she managed to sputter at last.

"Oh what nonsense!" Arwen said in annoyance. "I know you and your kin feel honor bound to play the commoner, Hiril, but you are of the blood of the Kings and descendants of our own uncle Elros Half-Elven. If Aragorn is good enough for me, Baradis and Berethil are good enough for my brothers!" Hiril was again stunned speechless. Arwen shot her a slyly mischievous look. "Or is it that you fear my brothers are not good enough for your sisters?" she sighed, mock sadly. "It is true they've led a very rackety, wandering sort of life -"

"Oh no, my Lady!" Hiril interrupted appalled, then broke off to look at Arwen in bewilderment. "You are joking with me."

"Yes I am, kinswoman." she admitted gently. "Hiril, the difficulty you fear is no difficulty at all in my eyes - or my brothers' either - we care nothing for the law of Hyarmendacil. Any roads this is a matter for Baradis and Berethil and Elladan and Elrohir to settle among themselves, they neither need nor would they welcome our interference."

A faint smile touched Hiril's face. "I have already broached the matter with my sisters, and been sent away with a flea in my ear." she admitted.

Arwen laughed. "You are a braver Woman than I, Cousin!"

The day before the Rohirrim were to leave Eowyn came into the Queen's little privy garden to find Arwen on her knees in the good earth planting orange tree saplings. "My Lady have you seen Faramir? I cannot find him anywhere."

The Queen sat back on her heels. "He and Gandalf and my father have gone down to the archives beneath the White Tower."

Eowyn clasped her hands in mock despair. "Alas! We shall never see them more!"

Arwen laughed. "Yes we will. They have Frodo and Sam with them as well, and I promise you there is no Hobbit - however bookish - who will willingly forgo his afternoon tea!"

"Look at this, Mr. Frodo, a map of Mordor." Sam laid the ragged parchment on the table in front of his master. "See, there are the Dead Marshes - looks like Gollum was wrong about him being the only one who knew a way across - and the Black Gate, and the Pass and Tower of Cirith Ungol. Pity we didn't have this with us we wouldn't have needed that nasty Gollum for a guide!"

"The poor creature is dead, Sam." Frodo reproved gently.

"And a good thing too." his gardener replied, mouth set in a grim line.

Frodo sighed and gave it up. Sam would never forgive Smeagol for biting off his master's finger - and would never be made to see it was the best thing that could possibly have happened. "I must copy this for my book." he said instead. "Bilbo will want to see where we've been."

"We have scribes who can do that for you, Frodo." Faramir offered, looking up from his own sheaf of dusty scrolls.

Frodo smiled at him. "Thank you." then laughed. "I'm running out of excuses not to start writing!"

"Bilbo will never let you hear the end of it if you don't have at least a rough draft to show him." Gandalf pointed out from his seat across the table.

"Don't I know it!" Frodo said ruefully, then the humor left his face and he turned abruptly to Elrond, sitting on the floor going patiently through the mouse gnawed parchments heaped around him. "Bilbo will be there won't he? It was the Ring that gave him long life and now that it's gone -"

"He will be there." Elrond answered firmly. "My people would have sent word if he were failing."

Frodo sighed in relief. "Then I must have something to show him - but where to start?"

"With the passage of the Company through Hollin." Elrond advised. "Bilbo has already roughed out an account of your journey from the Shire to Rivendell."

Frodo's heart lightened a little. That was well before things had started getting bad, he wouldn't mind remembering Hollin - nor even Gandalf's fall in Moria since he had returned. Boromir's fall was another matter, but it would be a long time before he got to that - and to what came after.

The scholars emerged, dusty and musty and loaded down with scrolls, as the ninth hour tolled. Just in time for tea as Arwen had predicted. Faramir drank a cup and ate a white cake or two in courtesy then took his betrothed for a walk on the battlements.

"It will be summer before we can return." Eowyn told him.

"And longer than that before I have someplace fit for us to live." he said ruefully. "I thought we could build in timber first and replace it with stone at our leisure."

"Why?" Eowyn asked. "I prefer wood to cold stone, and it lasts just as well; Meduseld has stood for five hundred years!"

And Minas Tirith for more than three thousand, but Faramir didn't say that. "If you prefer wood, wood it shall be." he answered. "Have you any other wishes?"

"Yes! I don't want to live in separate sets of rooms with the full width of the house between us as my aunts and their husbands do! I want a shared apartment - like Elessar and Undomiel's."

"I would like that very much myself." he smiled, then it faded and he asked gently; "What is troubling you, Eowyn?"

She sighed, she'd long since given up trying to hide anything from him. "I don't really know. I am not jealous of the Queen - I know I'm not - yet seeing her and Aragorn together..."

"You offered your love to the Lord Aragorn and he turned from you to another." Faramir said gently. "However much you accept that it was meant to be so, it is still bound to leave you a bit heart sore. It will pass, Darling."

Eowyn relaxed a little in acceptance, then a thought struck her and she slanted a challenging look at her future husband. "How do you come to be so wise in the ways of love, my Lord Faramir?"

He smiled wryly and perhaps blushed a little. "I too have loved where it could not be returned." her eyebrows rose questioningly and he continued a little defensively: "It was no green boy's folly - I was young but not so young as all that! I chose as well as you, Dear Heart, she was a wonderful Woman; beautiful, wise and high born. But she was also very much my elder, and widowed, and regarded me as a son not a lover."

"Poor Faramir." Eowyn said with tender amusement. "I know how that hurts. Is she still alive? I must meet this paragon!"

"You know her well." he said and smiled ruefully down at her. "She is Morwen of Rohan."

"Grandmother!" Eowyn's laughter spun in a delightful silvery arc. "You were in love with my grandmother?"

He nodded.

She mastered her laughter. "I trust this was some time ago and I have not caught you on the rebound!"

"Years and years ago." he assured her. "You must still have been a little girl when it ended and the heartache has long passed," he smiled down on her. "I see the traits I loved in Morwen in you - but much more besides."

She looked up at him suddenly sober. "I understand. There is much of what I loved in the Lord Aragorn in you," then she smiled radiantly. "and a great deal more!"

Eomer King returned the parting cup to Queen Undomiel with a bow. "Farewell, my Lady, the days will seem long and dark to me until I may look upon your beauty again." Arwen pretended not to notice how his eyes strayed past the her to a certain slim, dark haired maiden among her attendants but laughed. "I had heard the Rohirrim were valiant warriors but not that they were so sweet tongued!"

"I have never heard my brother speak so prettily before," said Eowyn from horseback, "you have inspired him, my Lady."

"Of course she has." said Eomer, swinging up into his own saddle. He looked at Aragorn. "I will send word of what I find upon my western border." then his eyes moved to Merry standing at the head of a small detachment of Knights of the Mark. "Watch over Theoden King, Sir Holdwine, until we return to claim him."

"My Lord, I will." Merry answered bowing.

Eomer wheeled Firefoot around, heading for the stair to the lower circles. Eowyn gave Faramir a last smile, sweet as a kiss, and followed her brother trailed by her tirewoman Auda and the knights of the King's guard.

The King, Queen and Steward of Gondor moved to the buttress wall to watch as the Rohirrim procession wound its way down the City and out onto the green fields of the Pelannor.

"I assume you will be leaving for Ithilien today, Prince." said Aragorn.

"Within the hour." Faramir answered. "There is nothing now to keep me in the City - and much for me to do across the River before I can bring my bride home."

"Yes, get you quickly to work, Faramir." Arwen told him with a wicked sidelong glance at her husband. "We ladies do not like to be kept waiting!"

Aragorn gave her one of his dark looks in return and offered his arm. "Come my Lady and Queen, we too must get to our work. We have a kingdom to govern."

"A kingdom to renew." said Faramir.