They walked for some time, their eyes and throats dry from the sand. The Doctor's mind went back to another sandstorm, far away, that had not been a sandstorm after all. Aragorn remembered a long-ago, lonely journey through the dunes, when he was young, and had been searching for things that belonged on Middle-earth and not in the skies above it.
At length, by which time their clothes and hair were coated with sand, the Doctor let out a muffled cry of triumph as the screwdriver buzzed. In front of them, looming through the haze, was a metal shape. Aragorn hefted his sword, but the Doctor put away the screwdriver and fished a torch out of a pocket.
Working their way around the side of the crashed ship, they found an opening that could have been a door, or a window, or merely a crack. It was big enough for both of them to fit inside and with a glance back at Aragorn the Doctor led the way.
The interior of the spaceship was much less sandy, so they removed their handkerchiefs and breathed clean air. All was dark save for the blueish light of the Doctor's little torch, and all was utterly quiet. The Doctor gestured with a nod of his head.
"This way, I think," he said.
Slowly, they picked their way through the crashed spaceship. The metal corridors were dented and broken, but Aragorn noticed the Doctor seemed to be perfectly at home in the confines of the wreck – just as he had, strangely, been at home in Minas Tirith or in the city of Harad. He certainly appeared able to find his route without much hesitation.
After perhaps ten minutes they emerged into a large chamber with a high roof and a flat console covered in intricate patterns and screens. The Doctor went straight to it, and putting the torch between his teeth began running his hands over the patterns.
"Let me," said Aragorn, taking the torch and pointing the light at the console.
"Thanks," said the Doctor. "Under here?" He crouched down and pulled out a mass of wires, picking through them and buzzing the sonic screwdriver at them quickly. With a hiss and a crackle, first one then several of the screens burst into life. A little more fiddling and lights came on in the room. The Doctor took the torch from Aragorn and turned it off. "Now," he said, "let's see if anyone's home." He swept his hand across the console.
At the entrance to the chamber there was a shimmer in the air, and Aragorn felt, somehow, that they were no longer alone. The Doctor was leaning nonchalantly on the console, arms folded.
"I thought you'd appreciate some light," he said. There was a pause; the Doctor seemed to be listening to something. "I'm the Doctor," he said. "I've come to help. Would you mind very much ... hold on a second ..." He turned to the console, tapped it a few times, and pointed the sonic screwdriver in the direction of the doorway. Suddenly Aragorn could distinguish tall, thin shapes in the room. "Now," the Doctor continued, "what's going on here?"
"We are lost," said the shapes. Aragorn felt, or thought, rather than heard the words. "So very lost."
"I know." The Doctor's voice was compassionate. "I'm sorry, I really am. But you can't go about taking over other people's bodies as a result."
"This is a good place for us," the shapes returned. "We can belong here."
The Doctor straightened, putting his hands in his pockets. "No, you can't. This world is taken. You're killing its inhabitants. Let me help you get home."
"Our home is locked from us," came the reply.
Aragorn looked over at the Doctor, who had become very still. "Locked?" the Doctor said, after a pause.
"We cannot return."
"What do they mean, locked?" Aragorn asked.
"Their planet is time-locked," said the Doctor, his voice flat and his eyes empty as he glanced at Aragorn. "It's locked in a war. Somehow, they've escaped, but they cannot return. Nobody can break that lock."
Aragorn thought about the words. "I confess I cannot understand you, Doctor. You will, I am sure, explain later. Can you help these people? Can you help the Haradrim?"
"Of course I can," said the Doctor, visibly shrugging off his strange mood and beginning to dance his hands over the console. "Now, let's see ... there's a lovely little planet, nice and hot, quite uninhabited, just a couple of million light years from here. How about that?"
"We cannot move," said the shapes. "This place is suitable."
"This place is taken," the Doctor repeated. "And of course you can move – your ship's a bit battered, but she'll fly. Nice vessel. I like her. If I just reroute this ..." his fingers tapped, "and jury-rig that ..." a green light shone out, "she'll fly just as well as ever." A hum filled the air. "There you go, engines." He turned around again, folding his arms. "Call your fellows back."
The shapes gathered form and substance, becoming easier to see. "No."
"Call them back," said the Doctor.
"This is not your world," the shapes returned. "You have no jurisdiction here."
Aragorn realised the Doctor was about to argue, and stepped forward. "He does not. But I do." The full attention of the strange beings was on him; he felt them probing his mind, questioning. He raised Andúril in salute, and lowered the sword. "By rightful conquest the peoples of this land answer to my rule. The blood of my people won peace for this world. I will not see that peace destroyed by invaders, not again. I ask you to leave. My friend here can find you somewhere else, and you too can build a land free from war and strife."
"And if we refuse?"
"I would not advise it," said the Doctor, softly. "Come now, you have a choice, to save your people and those of this planet. It's not every day you get to make that sort of choice. Let me help you."
There was a long pause. Aragorn felt the tension humming in the air; saw it in the Doctor's posture, the way he was playing with his sonic screwdriver.
At length, there was a deep sigh from the aliens. "We will let you help us," they said. "We have consulted. We have heard of you, and we feel you owe us this, at least."
"Thank you," said the Doctor. He turned to Aragorn. "Hold on to something, and put that hanky back over your mouth. There might be a bit of wind." He grinned, wrapping his own handkerchief over his face once again. A few moments later, as Aragorn gripped on to a support strut, there was indeed a violent gust and sand came streaming into the room. The shapes gathered in mass and number, and then the wind died down.
The Doctor tapped at the console again. "Lovely to see you all. Now, I've set your coordinates and you'll be lifting off just as soon as we're off your ship. Safe journey. I'll pop in in a few years and see how you're getting on." A row of lights shone out across the console. "Thank you. And – I'm sorry, I really am. C'mon, Aragorn."
They scrambled back through the ship, and as they stepped away from it hatches began closing and the engines roared into life. The Doctor gestured. "Back to the TARDIS. This thing will sweep us away at take-off if we're not careful."
Hurrying through the dunes, their hair was whipped around their faces by the power of the ship's engines. As they reached the safety of the little blue box, the other spaceship lifted into the sky and vanished in a rush of wind and a flash of greenish light.
Aragorn brushed sand out of his hair and clothes as the Doctor proffered him a glass of water. He drank deeply, setting the glass down on the TARDIS's cluttered console when it was empty. "Will the Haradrim be healed?"
"The Caliph will be up and about within the hour," said the Doctor, clearly pleased with himself. "Want to go back and find out?"
Shaking his head, Aragorn declined the offer. "No. I risked too much in any case going there once. Time to return to Minas Tirith."
"We could stop by their new planet," suggested the Doctor, coaxingly. "A whole new world, Aragorn, think of that."
"iNo/i," Aragorn said. "You might have the liberty to travel when and where you will, Doctor, but I have a kingdom to run."
The Doctor sighed. "It's a time machine, I've told you that. I can still get you back five minutes after we left, even if we travelled for months."
"An hour or so will suffice," said Aragorn. "And I will insist you stay for dinner. I have questions."
"Why don't you just ask them now?"
Aragorn smiled. "I would prefer to ask them on my territory, Doctor. Minas Tirith?"
Without further argument, but giving Aragorn a hard look, the Doctor did his strange little dance around the machine. The engines groaned and the TARDIS jolted before quietening.
They had landed in the gardens again. Nobody was about and, returning to the Citadel, they found Arwen alone in the King's study.
"I've only just sat down!" she exclaimed. "Did you forget something, Estel?"
"We have been to Harad and returned," said Aragorn.
The Doctor pulled a book off the shelves and flicked through it. "What did I tell you?" he said, clearly pleased with himself. "Back just after we left."
Arwen turned to Aragorn. "So, did you discover what the sickness was?"
"Discovered it and, I am told, cured it," said Aragorn. "We were in Harad perhaps six or seven hours. Truly, Arwen, the Doctor's box is miraculous."
"What will you tell the ambassador?" she asked.
The King unbuckled his sword-belt and propped the sword against the desk, perching on the edge of it. "That I've sent a messenger with some remedies. I suppose I should send someone in truth. They will get there, discover all is well, and return with the good news. In the same time the ambassador will doubtless receive word himself." He stretched. "My love, will you stay here and keep the Doctor company while I change? He is staying for dinner."
"I don't mind staying here with a book," said the Doctor.
Aragorn shook his head, knowing his guest would try and slip away if left alone. "I will not have a guest left alone in Minas Tirith."
"It will be my pleasure," said Arwen. She pulled forward a small table, on which was set up a chessboard. "Do you play, Doctor?"
The Doctor visibly brightened and took a seat. As Aragorn went to wash and find some clean clothes, the pair were already deep in the game. By the time he had returned, the game was on a knife-edge; he watched silently from the doorway as Arwen made her move, only to throw up her hands in despair with the Doctor's next go and his triumphant "checkmate!"
"Nobody's beaten her in months," said Aragorn, impressed.
"I think Imrahil was the last," Arwen said. "Well-played, Doctor."
In a small but luxurious hall dinner was laid for three – a light soup, a dish of beef, and an array of cheeses and puddings to follow. Aragorn sent away the servants and served his guest a bowl of soup.
"Now, we talk," he said, dipping his spoon into his own bowl. "When you were here, before, Mithrandir told me a little of what you are and the life you lead. But only a little. I would know more. Where do you come from?"
The Doctor swallowed his soup, clearly buying time. Eventually he put down his spoon and leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. "Another world," he said.
"That much I had worked out for myself," said Aragorn, a hint of annoyance in his tone.
"It ... it was called Gallifrey," the Doctor continued.
"Was?" asked Arwen, softly.
"It burned." The Doctor's eyes were gazing into the distance. "Your war destroyed many things, Aragorn. But Arda survives. My war tore down civilisations."
Arwen, still soft, said, "What were you fighting for?"
"I'm not even sure," said the Doctor, with a wry smile. "Domination of the universe, I suppose, though if we'd continued there wouldn't have been a universe to dominate. That's why I had to end it. I ended it, and I locked the inferno away. I can't go back, even if there was anything to go back to."
"So those creatures in Harad ..." said Aragorn.
"They must have escaped before the end," the Doctor agreed. "But it's my fault, that they can't return to their own world. In a way, Harad was my fault too." He spread out long, thin fingers. "Sometimes I wonder that I'm the only one who can see the blood on my hands."
It was seldom that Aragorn found himself lost for words. Instead, Arwen reached out and took the Doctor's hands in hers across the table. "But you did a good thing today, Doctor, for Harad and for the creatures you saved."
"Yeah." The Doctor's voice was bitter. "My lady, I spend every day trying to do a good thing, on a hundred different planets."
Aragorn said, "So this is why you choose not to fight with weapons, but with words."
"I've always preferred words to weapons," agreed the Doctor, "but yes – since the Time War, I don't like them. I'm a talker, not a fighter."
"You certainly talk more now than you did on your last visit," said Aragorn. "You've barely stopped."
Arwen poured some more wine, pushing the glass towards the Doctor. "Does it help?" she asked.
The Doctor shook his head. "No. Not really." He drank. "That's why I've always travelled with someone," he went on. "But I keep losing them. I find some brilliant, bright person, and they travel with me, and it's all wonderful for a while. But I lose them – to someone they love, to a crack in the world, or I do something that destroys them utterly. It's better, I think, to be alone."
"Or to hide, in plain sight," suggested Arwen. "Behind the talk."
Raising his glass, the Doctor granted her a rueful smile. "You see too clearly, my lady." He turned his gaze on Aragorn. "So, you've asked your questions and you have your answers. Will you let me go now?"
Aragorn pushed his chair back, crossing long legs and pulling out his pipe. He sent a long stream of smoke up to the high ceiling before answering. "I never thought I could stop you going, had you really wanted to," he said. "You are always free to come and to go, here in Gondor, should you wish, my friend. Whatever face you're wearing."
"But next time, come with someone else," Arwen put in.
"I'll try," said the Doctor.
They walked out to the gardens together, Aragorn puffing on his pipe. The fragrant smoke rose into the clear night air, and the Doctor's eyes followed it towards the stars.
"Eärendil's bright tonight," he remarked. "Sure you don't fancy a ride, the two of you, out to see your grandfather?"
Aragorn and Arwen looked up too. There was a longing in both their faces, but Arwen shook her head. "We cannot," she said. "Once we left, would we ever return? Our duty is to Gondor."
"My lady's right, as usual," added Aragorn. "We must, but reluctantly, decline."
At the TARDIS the Doctor pulled out his key and unlocked the door.
"So where will you go next?" asked Aragorn. "Who will you help next?"
The Doctor shrugged. "Dunno. Might see where the old girl fancies going." He patted the wooden side of his ship fondly. "She generally has a good idea about these things."
Aragorn held out a hand, and the Doctor shook it. "In Dol Amroth they wish travellers fair winds," the King said. "And the hobbits wish you an easy journey until your next meal. I will just wish that you go in safety."
"And in peace," added Arwen.
"Never been especially good at either," said the Doctor, "but the sentiments are welcomed. Till next time, y'r Majesties." He slipped inside the TARDIS, and closed the door.
The wind blew through the garden briefly, and when it was gone and Arwen's loose hair had settled around her face, the TARDIS had vanished.
Aragorn held out his crooked elbow. "Shall we go in, my lady?"
She took his arm. "We shall."