Disclaimer: They belong to the BBC and the Tolkien Estate. I'm just playing in the sandpit for a while.
There was green grass outside the TARDIS door, a scent of flowers, and – as the Doctor stepped out, the clear clarion call of a trumpet from somewhere close. Automatically he glanced up; one sun, and to his right, a tall white tower with a black banner blowing out in the wind.
He smiled. He had not set coordinates this time, had let his ship take him where she would. It was, perhaps, not surprising she had chosen this place, given his state of mind. There had been a kind of healing here, once before, or at least the beginning of healing.
Closing the door behind him, he crossed the lawn he had landed on and passed through an arch of greenery into a new garden. Flowers grew abundantly in the beds, and trailed up the walls. Under a tree dripping with golden blooms, three women sat surrounded by sewing, one of them singing in a clear voice. The Doctor paused to listen.
One of the women turned her head, saw him, and let out an exclamation which broke the spell. The song stopped, and the woman pulled a dagger from underneath the sewing and stood up.
"Halt there, stranger," she called across the grass. "Who are you and how did you come into the Queen's private gardens?"
"Are they private?" said the Doctor. "Terribly sorry. Wrong turning, I expect. I'll go."
"I think not." The woman advanced, dagger at the ready. "Do not think you will escape so easily. Name yourself."
"I'm the Doctor," he introduced himself. "Lovely to meet you. I'm unarmed, always unarmed, so d'you mind putting that dagger away?"
She lowered it, but the grip did not waver. The singer had risen too now, and came to join her companion a few paces away from the Doctor. "Did you say you were the Doctor, sir?"
"Then I believe you are welcome here. I am Arwen, queen to Elessar of Gondor, and I think you have the freedom of our realm."
The Doctor nodded. "I have that honour, yes."
The queen laid a hand on the other's shoulder. "Éowyn, I think this man means us no harm, if he is who he says he is. Doctor, the Lady Éowyn. Wed to Prince Faramir. And my daughter, Idril."
"Charmed," said the Doctor, as Éowyn slipped her dagger into its sheath and made a courtesy. Arwen held out her hand.
"Come, Doctor. Though I trust you, I would take you to my husband myself so he can judge."
She turned and led him through the garden, into a courtyard the Doctor recognised, and up a short flight of stone stairs. Guards at either side of the door snapped to attention as they passed, and they were admitted into a passageway. Another door at the end stood open, and Arwen walked briskly up the corridor and into the great hall beyond. The Doctor noted that the place was busy, with servants, guards and civilians hurrying from one place to another – quite the opposite from the air of tension that had pervaded the city when he had visited before. But that was another time and he had been another man back then; it seemed that the promise of peace and prosperity had, in Gondor, come to fruition.
The various people passing by all paused to acknowledge the queen as she passed. She and the Doctor swept up the hall to the far end, where a man in elaborate red and gold garb was speaking quickly and gesturing widely before a tall black throne at the top of a dais. As they approached, the man seated on the throne looked up, smiled at Arwen, and looked down again.
"I will consider the request, your Grace," he said, in a tone brooking no argument. "I cannot promise more at this stage." The man in red and gold spread his hands in an expression of disappointment, bowed deeply, and withdrew with a sideways glance at the queen. With a sigh, the man on the throne turned his attention to Arwen. "My love, I am glad to see you."
"Harad?" she asked, ascending the steps and bending to kiss him.
"Harad. We'll talk of it later. But you bring a guest, Arwen?"
"He appeared in the garden," said the queen, taking a seat on the smaller, silvery throne by the king's side.
"Just ... appeared?" asked her husband.
"You make it sound like I came out of thin air," the Doctor interjected. "Just came through from the next garden along, that's all."
"And may I be permitted to know who is wandering through my gardens?" said the king, with a raised eyebrow.
Arwen turned to him. "But don't you know, Estel?"
"I have never met him before in my life," the king returned.
The Doctor pulled at an earlobe. "Actually, that's not true, y'r Majesty. Last time I dropped by you gave me the freedom of your realm and said I was welcome any time."
The king rose, and came down the dais steps. "Did I? When was this?"
"Just after the War," said the Doctor, remembering. Wars for both of them, and happy endings for only one. "I was ... a little different, back then."
"He told me he was the Doctor," Arwen cut in.
"I am the Doctor," said the Doctor. "Last time, I came when your friend Frodo was here with his companions, and the rest of your Fellowship. Sauron had been defeated and you were building a brand new kingdom. I brought a friend, chap by the name of Tolkien."
The king nodded. "All true. But you could have gained that information through many means, foul and fair."
The Doctor, wishing – not for the first time – that he had some sort of passport to carry around with pictures of all his regenerations, sighed. "You gave me some athelas for my garden. Hands of a healer. We're both reluctant soldiers, you and I, Aragorn."
"But how, then, do you appear so different?" asked the king, before holding up a hand. "No, but wait; when Mithrandir fell in Moria he was sent back, anew. Is this a similar trick?"
"Similar," the Doctor agreed. "A way of cheating death. It's been a while, for me, since that last visit."
Aragorn relaxed, and laughed. "Aye, and a while for me as well." He took the Doctor's hand. "You are welcome once again, Doctor. You seem to have met my Undómiel."
The Doctor gave Arwen a bow. "Indeed I did. And Faramir's rather angry lady. Does she often threaten visitors with a dagger?"
The king glanced at his queen, who nodded.
"Éowyn did not trust someone just appearing in the garden," she said.
"The lady Éowyn is more than a match for any stranger in our gardens, or anywhere in our realm," said Aragorn. "As long as she merely threatened."
"She merely threatened," agreed the Doctor. "Although, as threats go, it was a good threat. I've got experience."
Aragorn grimaced. "Aye, and so have I. But what brings you here again, Doctor? Not that I am not happy to see you, whatever your looks. Do you bring us another visitor from a distant world?"
"Just me, this time," the Doctor said. "My ship made the choice. She thinks I need some peace and quiet."
"Your vessel thinks?" exclaimed Aragorn. The Doctor nodded. "Well, at some point I must look inside your little blue box. But not now. I fear there is less peace and quiet here than you would wish."
The Doctor stuck his hands in his pockets. "The Harad thing?" he asked. "Couldn't help noticing. Desert country to the south, right?"
Leading the Doctor to a table set aside, Aragorn sat down and gestured for his guest to take a seat also. "A large and powerful nation, but one that's oft been at war with Gondor." He explained that Harad had been beset with a plague, one that was killing large numbers of the population and which the country's healers had been unable to deal with. "They know that we have different skills in medicine – they want our aid. But I have never heard of the sickness and I do not know if I can spare the men and the supplies they are asking for. And I wonder, when should a conquering nation step back and allow the conquered to manage for themselves?"
"What are the symptoms?" the Doctor queried.
Aragorn spread his hands. "A fever, vomiting, constant thirst; the ambassador said some are showing a rash also. I've no idea what it is."
"Sounds fairly straightforward," said the Doctor, "though I couldn't give a name to it either. When did it begin?"
"Three weeks ago," Aragorn said. "After a sandstorm, strangely enough. They discovered the first symptoms in the capital city, and it has spread across the land."
Arwen came to join them at the table. "I wish I could ask my father," she said, and Aragorn took her hand.
"I know, my love. But we cannot. This is something Harad, I think, must deal with."
The Doctor was considering the problem, possible diagnoses running through his head, possible causes. The sandstorm seemed important somehow. Perhaps sandstorms were this year's theme. The idea came without warning and popped out of his mouth as soon as it had emerged into his head.
"I could go and have a look," he said.
"A look? At what?" asked Aragorn.
"The illness," the Doctor elaborated. "Come too, if you want. We'll nip down to Harad, find out what's wrong, and then you'll know if you can afford to help them."
The king drew a map towards him. "Harad's a journey of at least a sennight, Doctor, including the sea passage."
"Harad's a journey of a few moments if you happen to have a TARDIS handy," said the Doctor. "Which I do. In your garden, remember. My ship."
Arwen and Aragorn exchanged glances.
"I remember," the king said, "seeing your ... ship, before. It disappeared."
"The technical term is dematerialise," the Doctor explained. "She travels in space and time, Aragorn; I could have you in Harad before you left Gondor, if I wanted. Though actually I'd aim to arrive sometime today, and get back here about the same time." He grinned at the king, putting persuasion into his voice. "C'mon, don't you want to come? I can see you do. You're a traveller, Aragorn, and you haven't travelled until you've journeyed in my TARDIS."
Aragorn stood up, his hand fiddling with the hilt of a knife at his side. Eventually he turned back to the Doctor. "But why? Why would you do this?"
Sighing, the Doctor leaned back in his chair. "It's what I do, really. I travel, but somehow I always seem to find things that need doing. Planets to save. Rifts to close. Sometimes it's sicknesses to heal."
"Planets to save?" Arwen's tone was that of astonishment mingled with disbelief.
"It's surprising how often a planet's in danger of destruction," the Doctor said. "Not all of them have hobbits around to help out, you know. Anyway, how about it?"
"I shouldn't really just leave," said Aragorn, doubtfully, but with the edge in his voice that told the Doctor he was on the verge of agreeing.
"Time travel," the Doctor said, going in for the kill. "Nobody need even know you're gone. Seems to me you have a perfectly good person to leave as regent, in any case." He bowed to Arwen. "It's the perfect solution, Aragorn. The only solution, really. I can go alone, but it's much more fun with two."
The king sighed, and nodded. "I cannot imagine it being a joyous journey, but you have persuaded me, Doctor. I will go, as long as you can promise me to return me here no more than a few hours after we have left." A strange expression crossed his face. "What a strange thing to request!"
"It's a deal." The Doctor held out his hand, and Aragorn shook it briefly.
"I had better go and change into some more suitable clothes," he said. "If we are to do this, I wish to do it without it being known that Elessar of Gondor is wandering Harad without an invitation. They are people with strict notions of ceremony." He strode off towards a side door, leaving the Doctor with Arwen.
He stood up and began to examine the statues around the hall, aware of the queen's gaze on his back as he did so.
"You are quite as extraordinary as Estel told me," she said, breaking the silence.
The Doctor, absorbed in contemplation of the statue of a former king, said, "one of a kind, that's me."
"And you will bring him back safely?" Arwen asked, coming up to him with a rustle of silken skirt. Turning, the Doctor found himself meeting a pair of keen grey eyes that held wisdom and humour and concern.
"Yes," he said, "I will. Though frankly it's not a question I'm used to people asking when I'm taking someone like your husband with me. I think he can handle himself."
Arwen laughed. "He is one of the greatest warriors and swordsmen Arda has seen, but I am his wife. I worry when he is abroad in battle. I always have, and I always will. That is my job, Doctor." She held his gaze. "Who worries about you?"
He broke the moment by going back to the statue. "Who's this one, then?"
"Doctor." Arwen's voice was soft, but firm. "Who worries about you?"
"Nobody," he said, noting the precise carving of the statue's robes. "Nobody. It's better that way."
"Is it? Really?"
"It's easier," he admitted.
"Easier is not always best," Arwen said, gently. "I think there are people who worry about you, who love you, though you push them away."
The Doctor thought of Sarah Jane, and her gentle admonition in that anonymous London park. "It's ... it's just easier," he repeated. "Now, tell me about this king."
With an exasperated sigh, she did so, and the history of Gondor kept both of them occupied until Aragorn returned. He had exchanged his rich clothes of silk and velvet for some old, scruffy garments in faded leather and wool. By his side a battered scabbard just failed to hide the richness of the sword it contained, and there was a pack on his back.
He drew Arwen aside and they exchanged murmured words and a kiss while the Doctor examined the mural etched into the window.
"Let's go and see your ship," Aragorn said, linking arms with his queen.
Together they made their way back to the garden. Servants and guards alike bowed as the royal couple passed, and did not seem to take any particular notice of the king's garb.
In the garden the TARDIS seemed undisturbed, sitting incongruously amid the rose bushes.
"A present from Sam Gamgee," said Aragorn, brushing his fingers over a yellow flower in bloom. "His wife is Rosie. I have seldom met a more blessed couple. Six children so far, and they don't seem to be stopping." He looked away from the roses. "And here is your blue box, Doctor. Tell me, what is a police call box?"
The Doctor busied himself with finding his key. "It's not important. A disguise." He unlocked the door. "It's what's inside that really matters."
He stood back to let Aragorn past, wondering what the king's reaction would be. There had been so many reactions over the years – bewilderment, astonishment, fear, horror, delight, often disbelief, to the TARDIS. They had come to appreciate all of them, he and the time-ship.
The king embraced Arwen, and taking a deep breath stepped inside the door.