Stones Remember

a Blake's 7/Lord of the Rings crossover

The Stones Remember

by Sheila Paulson


        "Open the gate! Quick!"

        The soldiers whose responsibility it was to open the great gates of Minas Tirith looked at each other in astonishment. Open the gate when those on the wall above had reported a huge army of orcs massing before the city? The very plain of the Pelennor Fields was darkened with battalions of orcs, with their great siege towers advancing every moment. Unless Rohan came to the aid of beleaguered Gondor, this might be the last day the soldiers would see, that any in Minas Tirith would see. Would tomorrow's sunrise break upon the battered ruin of the greatest city in Middle-earth?

        Yet an officer's command could not be ignored, so they opened the gate, its great system of pulleys aiding human strength that would never be enough to force the White City's protective gateway. Orcs there were, close enough for the soldiers to breathe in their foul reek. Countless orcs, so many they almost blocked the view of the distant ruins of Osgiliath on the mighty river Anduin. Even Minas Tirith's huge wall could not withstand so many orcs. With their siege towers, they could flow right over the top of the walls and overwhelm the defenders. With their catapults, they could bring down the stone and crush the folk beneath it.

        Directly before the gate a horse shifted uneasily. The soldiers saw an arrow piercing its flank before they realized an armored soldier, his foot still trapped in the stirrup, lay nearly beneath the horse, whose feet could at any moment crush him. Two arrows jutted from his body, one in the shoulder, another in the side, and the blood from the wounds seemed unnaturally bright against his armor. He was helmetless, and the pale sun touched his red-gold hair.

        The guards rushed forward, and one of them cried, "It's Faramir," in a shocked voice.

        Faramir? How boldly the Steward's son had ridden out at the head of his men, his face rigid with pride and duty, for he had surely believed he led them to their deaths against Sauron's orcs. How still he looked in death, and how noble. Yet was he dead? Could there be hope he lived? Faramir was beloved by all in the city, at least all save his father, who had favored his first-born, Boromir. Yet Boromir, too, had fallen.

        "Quickly," ordered an officer. "Draw him in and seal the gates. We offer too great a temptation."

        The soldiers bent in a body and freed Faramir's foot from the stirrup. Another officer took the horse's reins and led him into the city. Then soberly, they lifted the wounded man, supporting him, cautious of the arrows that thrust from his body. Did he moan as they lifted him? Could there be hope? Yet how long had he been dragged about out there while the orcs massed? Could he survive? And if so, for what? For death at the hands of the invaders?

        As the gates began to close, the soldiers looked through the narrowing opening, over the orcs' heads to the distant mountains of Mordor, where the red glow of Mount Doom's fires painted the seething clouds in baleful red.

        "A litter, quickly," commanded the officer. "We must take him to his father. Lord Denethor must see him before the battle starts."

        A battle they were destined to lose?

        The soldiers looked at each other and shivered. What hope for Faramir now? What hope for Gondor, for Middle-earth?

*****

        The prisoners sat in a row on the metal bench, held in place by wrist and ankle shackles, and gazed at Commissioner Sleer with expressions that suited their natures. Vila Restal, the thief, wore his customary I'm-not-important-ignore-me aspect that was true nine times out of ten; the tenth time Restal could astonish, as he had done when he had whisked Orac beyond her reach over Terminal. Beside him, Del Tarrant sat tall and alert, his blue eyes fixed coldly upon her. Most decorative, Tarrant, annoyingly honorable, equally annoyingly pragmatic, young enough to be manipulated if she was very clever, yet he had grown so wary of her she doubted it would work again. Hatred for her shone in his gaze. Next to Vila, Kerr Avon sat, locked within himself, his eyes almost vacant, nothing but hate and emptiness there, in equal portions. Too passive to respond, he merely watched her with a near-animal alertness.

        It was Tarrant who spoke. "What do you want, Servalan? Have you come to gloat?"

        She had expected one or more of them would fling her name about, the name that would lead to her arrest and probable execution if heard by the wrong person. That was why she had ordered the monitors turned off and had come alone. A button pushed on the bracelet upon her wrist would instantly summon soldiers to defend her, but she was certain she would not need it.

        "To gloat? In part, yet mainly I have come to offer you a choice."

        Suspicion flared in Vila's eyes. "We won't like it," he said, and darted a sidelong glance at Avon. "I know we won't."

        "Did you expect to, Vila?" Avon spoke as if by rote, but the fact he spoke at all proved him still dangerous. How much more so when he saw what she had waiting for him?

        "Well, yes, I never expect anything good, and then I'm never disappointed, am I?"

        "Shut up, Vila," Tarrant said, his voice weary and yet free of any real malice.

        "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Vila glanced over at Tarrant, then turned to Servalan. "Where's Soolin?" he asked.

        "Oh, I am sorry, but I fear she is dead."

        "Dead!" Tarrant leaped to his feet. "You killed her--like Dayna."

        "It was not I who killed Dayna," Servalan replied dismissively. "It was Arlen, doing her duty."

        "I don't believe it," Vila said. "You're lying to see what we'll do." He eyed Avon as if afraid the computer tech would leap up and wrap his hands around Servalan's throat, and bring doom down upon them all.

        "Believe what you will. She would have revealed my identity. That I could not allow. Why do you think you have been so carefully restrained? Only those who know my identity already have been permitted to question you. But no matter. Here are your choices. They are three."

        "Three?" Vila echoed. "All of them bad, I'll wager."

        "Not necessarily. You are an inconvenience to me, no more. Your credibility with the rebels is shattered, and none will mourn when you are never seen again."

        Vila leaned slightly closer to Avon, as if for protection. Odd when it was reported Avon had tried to kill him only months before. Avon turned his head to study Vila, and faint surprise flickered in his eyes before they again grew passive.

        "Your first choice is this. You will die, privately, here in your cell, and your bodies will be fed into a mass/energy converter."

        "We'll pass on that one," Tarrant said, and his mouth curled.

        "Your second choice is a public execution, at which you will not be permitted to speak. You will be branded terrorists and traitors, and a viscast of the murder of Roj Blake will be shown." Avon flinched. "Thus it will appear to the ignorant masses that resistors hold no honor among themselves."

        "And several other advantages to your cause, Sleer," Avon said coldly.

        "Why, naturally, Avon," she purred at him. "I do nothing that does not serve me--and the cause of order. In my return to the rank of Supreme Commander and President of the Terran Federation, I will seize any advantage. You have presented us with one. Yet I would not have you appear as martyrs to those with discernment to see. And that brings us to the third choice."

        "We won't like that one, either," Vila muttered, and Tarrant elbowed him in the ribs.

        "Perhaps not, Vila, yet I suspect you will choose it," Servalan replied. "There is an experimental ship waiting beyond the domes." She gestured vaguely to her left. The vast majority of the people from Alpha down to Delta believed that the wasteland beyond Earth's domed cities was full of poisoned air and land, and that to venture outside was death. It had not been true for a long time, and these three knew it, for they had been beyond the domes before. True, some areas still had poisoned air and water, but none in this vicinity. "The experimental ship requires a pilot and a computer expert." She looked at Vila. "It has no need of a thief, but I have no need of one either, and out of my kindness of heart I will permit you to remain together."

        "Your generosity astounds us," Avon said tightly.

        "We will take the ship," Tarrant replied. "What guarantees will we have that it is not rigged to detonate?"

        "Why, if you will not take my word..." She arched an eyebrow when the three of them merely looked at her. "I will give you detection equipment which Avon will determine functions adequately, and you will have as long as necessary to scan every millimeter of the ship. I will also give to you, Vila, the tools of your trade."

        "It's a trick," Vila said under his breath.

        "Of course it's a trick, Vila," Tarrant said. "The ship she so 'kindly' offered us on Terminal was badly damaged. This one may be no better."

        "Or she may take us out beyond the domes and shoot us there," Avon said. The look on his face said all too clearly that he did not care either way. "However, we select this option."

        "I thought you might." She smirked. "There will be a surprise awaiting you on the ship. It need not be lethal. It may even please you, and compensate for the loss of your... Ah well, no matter." The smirk broadened. "I almost wish I could be there to see you when you find it."

        "That sounds bad," Vila said to Tarrant in an undertone.

        "If you expected good, Vila, you are a fool."

        "Well, I am, then," Vila replied. "Avon always says so."

        "Shut up, Vila," Avon and Tarrant said in perfect unison, then stared at each other in surprise. Tarrant smiled faintly, although Servalan did not understand the smile. "We accept," he said. And to Avon, "It may be a trap, and likely is, but it gives us the best chance."

        Servalan smiled. The ship was not a trap as he perceived it; yet if all went as planned, she would be rid of the trio forever. For a moment she experienced a fleeting regret over Avon. It might still be possible to tame him and keep him at her side, yet she knew that should she do so she would tire of him quickly. To return to power, she dared not allow herself the luxury of such an indulgence. "Very well," she said, "so be it." She pushed the button on her bracelet.

*****

        "This is not a ship," Tarrant said, his mouth tight. "I'm not sure what it is, but it is not a spacegoing vessel."

        "It looks like one," Vila said as if his words could make it so. He stared over Tarrant's shoulders at the controls.

        "From the outside, perhaps."

        Servalan's small army of mutoids had escorted them here, although the ship was largely concealed in a grove of stunted trees and allowed for no easy outside viewing. Hastily they were guided to the airlock. The mutoid leader had offered them scanning and detection equipment, which Avon had studied and announced to be working properly. They entered the ship while the mutoids guarded the door to prohibit their escape, and began a scan. Avon was still scanning, yet he had found no detection devices, no bombs, nothing to indicate the vessel would explode upon leaving the atmosphere, or at any time. At that point, although Avon was still scanning, Tarrant had seated himself at the controls--and froze.

        "What do you mean?" Vila asked uneasily. He looked smaller than usual in the simple brown tunic and pants they had all been given.

        "None of these controls will lift this vessel off the ground. If it is a ship it is so experimental that my training might not serve. These readout panels--" he gestured to the screens before him that had illuminated when he powered the vessel--"resemble nothing I have ever seen before. I want Avon to look at them and see what sense he makes of them. I would almost say..." His voice trailed off.

        "Say what?" Vila asked uneasily, and glanced over his shoulder.

        Tarrant hesitated, his face tight. "That it might be a time ship."

        "Vila!" Avon called before either of them could do more than stare at each other. "I have found a locked room. Come open it. Now!"

        Tarrant came, too. It could be the source of the problem. There was certain to be a problem, perhaps above and beyond Tarrant's speculation over the ship's purpose. Servalan's 'surprise' was no doubt concealed there. From Tarrant's memory of what little he had been allowed to see of the outside of the ship, there would be a small cabin behind the door, no more than two meters square. Vila took out the kit Servalan had given him; the thief's cry of surprise when he had accepted it had proven the kit was his own. Now he used several pieces and the door slid open.

        Vila preened himself. "The master thief has not lost his touch. He--"

        His voice chopped off so suddenly it was as if he had been punched in the stomach. At his stillness, Avon thrust him aside with a hard hand and stepped up to the doorway. His whole body jerked.

        Expecting a new and deadly weapon, Tarrant peered cautiously over Avon's shoulder, ready to jerk him away. Then he saw what the other two had seen, and the breath went out of him in a long gasp.

        "Blake."

        The man on the cot in the tiny room opened his eyes and looked at them. He was garbed as they were, in drab brown, and it made his face seem very pale. The scar at the corner of his eye stood out vividly against his pallor. From the way the fabric of his tunic bunched over his middle, he was bandaged beneath it. When his eyes opened, Vila cried out, but Avon held himself as still as stone and his hands tightened into fists.

        "Avon," Blake said and shifted uncomfortably on the bed as if he were in pain. No wonder. It was remarkable he was still alive. "Forgive me."

        The three exchanged doubtful glances, but Avon instantly turned his attention to Blake. His muscles were as taut as steel, and his eyes were hollow and suspicious. "That's good, Blake," he said. "Forgive you? For your utter stupidity on Gauda Prime?"

        "For saying what I had been programmed to say, and driving you to shoot me," Blake said. His voice came thinly, and he sat up with aching caution, one hand pressed carefully against his belly. How could he be alive after taking three charges in the gut? A body shield? They had been known to fail at close range.

        Avon stepped into the room and put out a hand to Blake. To strike him? To assist him to his feet? Before he could do either, all the lights on the vessel blinked and a strange buzzing sensation ran up through Tarrant's feet from the floor.

        Avon cursed, then studied at the edges of the door, tracing it with a curious finger. No doubt it would be easier to do that than to face Blake. "A trigger," he snarled. "Crossing the threshold activated it. Damn her." She would have known Avon would go to Blake, for whatever reason.

        The buzzing feeling intensified, and all the lights in the ship dimmed. The three standing men staggered, and Vila fell against Tarrant, who shoved him. Vila put both hands on the wall to steady himself, and Tarrant planted a hand there, too. Blake fell back on his cot, and Avon gripped the door frame. A strange rumbling sound echoed through the vessel.

        A moment later the sensation passed. Lighting flickered then returned to normal. Vila pushed himself away from the wall. "What was that? I don't like it, Avon."

        "Since you like nothing..." Avon began automatically, then he looked at Blake, who once again ventured to sit up. To Tarrant's astonishment, Avon steadied him, face tight and wary, suspicion filling his features. "I don't suppose you care to explain what just happened, Blake?" he asked.

        "I'll explain what I can, but it's not much. Servalan revived me after GP. I had been programmed to react to your presence; I was conditioned not to know it until I had succeeded in bringing you down. I was in stasis all the way to Earth, where she had me looked after by the best team of surgeons she could muster. I am nearly recovered."

        "Patently," said Avon with heavy sarcasm, and let go of Blake's arm as if it were capable of giving massive shocks. Tarrant frowned. Best surgeons? He very much doubted it. Blake looked like a dying man rather than a healing one. Avon would have seen that immediately.

        "Servalan told me I must disappear, that if I lived and were executed, even privately, the people might learn of it, and I would become a martyr to the cause. She would not have that."

        "So she put you in this ship and waited for us to come and trigger--trigger what, Blake?"

        "It's a time ship," Vila said. "That's what Tarrant thinks, anyway."

        Avon frowned at him, then glared at Tarrant. "Explain."

        "I don't know it for certain, Avon, but it could be. The controls are not standard for a spacegoing vessel. There are panels and grids that make reference to time rather than the usual controls. I see no way of lifting off the ground." He gestured vaguely with an upward movement.

        "And you had no thought to tell me of this?" Avon snapped.

        "I had just realized it when you called for Vila."

        "He's right, Avon," Blake said. "Servalan said she would strand me in time. She said once the door opened, anyone crossing the threshold would trigger the time jump. And you crossed it."

        "See, Avon, it wasn't anything I did," Vila offered. Then his face fell. "We traveled in time? Do you know where, Blake?"

        "When, not where, Vila," Avon said scornfully, but then he turned his back on Vila. "When, Blake?" He asked through gritted teeth.

        "She refused to tell me that."

        "Of course not. But I can imagine it could be anywhere, past or future, as long as it is sufficiently distant from her. The controls may tell us. Come on." He hesitated and asked in a strangely diffident voice totally unlike his normal tones, "Can you make it, Blake?"

        Tarrant stared at him. Had Avon felt as guilty as that over the shooting of Blake? They had not discussed it, not once, because Avon had closed away at the slightest hint of it. But now, from the way he looked at Blake and actually stretched out his hand to him, Tarrant realized he must have. As they had recovered from the heavy stun during the long voyage to Earth for what they had presumed would be a trial and execution, Avon had grown cold and hard, speaking only when he must. Tarrant had half expected Avon to fault him for telling Avon Blake had sold him. It wasn't true, but Tarrant hadn't been meant to know that. Instead, Avon seemed to blame none but himself. If so, he would likely treat Blake better than he usually treated people. So be it. Perhaps Blake could humanize him. Tarrant doubted it, but one never knew.

        "I can make it," Blake said, but he took Avon's arm anyway. A deliberate ploy? Genuine need. Vila's mouth hung open as he watched them, but there was only mild surprise in his eyes. Blake moved unsteadily enough to belie his claim of recovery, and Avon held him up the whole way. Tarrant doubted Blake could have managed without that grip.

        When they reached the control room Tarrant was unsurprised to find the controls dead with no indication of the time period. When he tried to activate them, nothing happened. Only the lighting remained, and as they waited, it, too, began to fade.

        "I think we better move," he said. "I wouldn't put it past Servalan to have included a self-destruct."

        "Travel us in time and then kill us?" Vila said. "I call that hardly fair."

        "Ah, but when has Servalan ever been fair, Vila?" Avon asked. "I suggest we see if the hatch will open. First, is there anything useful here? Weapons? Foodstuffs?"

        There was nothing more than a few odds and ends. They searched rapidly and found no more than a black leather coat that fit Vila--he put it on and smiled broadly at the image--and a flowing cloak of the same brown as their garb, which Avon gave to Blake, no doubt in deference to his healing state. Just before they would have given up the search, Vila opened a drawer and cried out in surprise. A moment later, he came up with a sword.

        "Odd," Blake murmured. "Have we traveled in time to a period where swords were used? Do any of you know how to use them?"

        "I do," Tarrant said and, when none of the others spoke, appropriated the blade. "At least I've had fencing training. It was an elective at the Academy, the implication being we might face beings on primitive planets who use such weapons and if we should be disarmed we would not be helpless." He made a pass or two with it that made Vila jump out of range with a yelp. Tarrant smiled to himself and looked in the drawer for a sheath. He found it and fastened it on. One weapon between the four of them would offer them scant protection should there be hostile forces outside, or even if they remained in their own time with mutoids waiting.

        The light flickered and dimmed still further, and Tarrant jumped across the control room and hit the door panel, fearing the power to the door would fade if they left it much longer. One final glance around the room to see if anything else would be useful. Avon grabbed what looked like a long staff from a corner and offered it to Blake. "A walking stick as you regain your strength," he said, and if he sounded harsh and impatient, he hovered long enough to see if Blake could manage with it before he approached the door that opened slowly.

        Daylight greeted them, and an outdoor scene. It did not look like the same scene they had left, for they were on the slope of a hill that looked down into the valley of a vast river. Across the river, high, dark mountains rose and a fiery glow above them suggested fires or perhaps a huge volcano. Reminded of the planet Obsidian and its massive volcano, Tarrant grimaced.

        There seemed to be no one in sight, but down on the river, off to their left, just visible beyond the shoulder of a hill, a ruined city lay. Keezarn, Tarrant thought, although these stone ruins were only similar in that it was a ruin. It looked ancient.

        The four stepped out of the time ship, if indeed that was what it had been. Avon looked skyward. "The sun appears the same," he said. "If this is not Earth, it is a planet with an identical sun."

        Trust Avon to consider that. Tarrant had noticed it immediately and subconsciously. "Gravity is earth-standard," he observed. "The atmosphere appears the same, too," he said. "No difficulty in breathing. A pity we don't have Orac to analyze it for us."

        Of course they did not have Orac. Servalan had gloated at the recovery of the miniature computer. She would never have allowed them to have it. Avon had merely smiled a crocodile smile, and told them when she had gone that she would not find Orac compliant. Tarrant had wondered what sort of orders with no countermand Avon had given Orac, and only wished he could witness the result.

        They stepped from the ship, Vila staring around nervously and hovering rather close to Tarrant, who had their only weapon. The black leather jacket appeared to provide him some warmth on a day that appeared at best like very early spring. From the appearance of the trees and bushes, Tarrant realized his guess was accurate. New buds appeared on the trees, and the grass that stretched out, long and waving in the slight breeze, was only beginning to turn green after a winter brown. The air was dry, and perhaps did not turn bitterly cold in winter, but he could not guess at the climate. No one who was raised in the domed cities of Earth had reason to learn much of meteorology. Only experience on many planets had given Tarrant an appreciation. In the old days, before the domes had become necessary, there had been people called 'weather men' who read the signs and warned of upcoming severe weather.

        "Look!" cried Vila, and pointed off to the left.

        That was when Tarrant realized he'd been hearing distant shouts and the ring of metal on metal. When he turned in the direction Vila indicated, he saw a huge white fortress set at the base of a huge mountain, evidently the first in a long chain of mountains, the fortress rising in ever-narrowing levels to the top level, a sharp thrust of rock sticking out through each level, and at the top level a tall spire of a tower rising half again as high as the whole fortress. But the fortress was not what had evoked Vila's panicked shout. A few steps brought Tarrant up the ridge to Vila's position, and he sucked in his breath in shock.

        On the vast stretch of land before the fortress, a great battle was being fought, a battle without neutron blasters and technological weapons, a battle with men on foot and on horseback, using swords and spears and lances. Some of the men looked like aliens, an ugly breed with greyish mottled skin, and they were attacking the humans who defended the fortress. Surely the humans were vastly outnumbered. Worse than that, giant creatures that looked like the extinct animals called elephants only far bigger and with more tusks, stomped through the battle, with men on their backs, men who sided with the aliens. Every now and then one of them would step on a horse and rider and squash them utterly.

        "I don't like this," Vila moaned.

        "Shut up, Vila, and take cover," Avon snarled. "Back to the ship." He whirled, then cursed savagely.

        The ship was gone.

        "Automatic recall?" Blake theorized, leaning heavily upon his stick.

        "Either that or it was never here, simply a portal, and once we stepped through, it closed." Avon's face grew even colder. "Damn her," he gritted through clenched teeth.

        "We need to find shelter," Vila wailed. "What if those aliens see us?"

        Avon stepped between Blake and the battle.

        "What's that?" Vila's voice rose to a wail. He gestured down toward the ruin.

        Tarrant followed his pointing finger and froze. More aliens? Different aliens? They came in an impossible swarm, and even from here, he could see that they were green and semi-transparent, and flowed over the ground as if their feet barely touched it. Vila moaned and ducked behind Tarrant, and Avon's breath quickened.

        "Look," Blake said, peering over Avon's shoulder, even though standing taller must have hurt, for his face twisted in a wince. "They side with the humans, not the aliens."

        They did indeed. The ugly grey monsters were struck down, as were the giant elephants and their human passengers. Whoever the green men were, they fought on the side of the fortress city.

        "If we stay down," Tarrant said, "we may be able to wait until the battle is over."

        He should have known better than to say such a thing. Even as he spoke a band of mottled grey aliens in filthy leather armor cried out and ran at them, brandishing swords.

        Tarrant whipped out the sword he carried, wishing his training had not been so cursory and so long past. He heard Avon urging Blake back, and asking for the staff. Then he muttered something fierce to Vila, who cowered uneasily, then cried out and darted off to the side. Fleeing? No, he ran toward the battle, but circling widely around the aliens. Tarrant and Avon fell in at each other's side as they had often done, Blake behind them, and took on the small band of aliens.

        Tarrant was taller than any of them, and when the battle fury took him and he lunged at the creatures, yelling, they hesitated. Always prepared to defend himself, Avon thrust out with the staff and caught one of the creatures hard across the face. Thick blue-grey blood ran from its shattered nose as he tipped over backward. Inspired by Avon's move, Tarrant thrust his sword into the belly of the closest alien. He had never gutted anyone before, and the sound the sword made going in was sickening, but he yanked it free and whirled to face the next one.

        Then Vila returned, gripping a sword in each hand. He waved them menacingly, yelling, and the aliens lost heart and retreated. As they fled, Vila gave a great shudder and thrust one of the blades at Avon, who took it distastefully, for its blade was reddened with human blood. He passed the staff to Blake, who accepted it and leaned heavily upon it. Then he bent and wiped the blade in the grass.

        Tarrant copied him.

        "What do we do?" Vila moaned. In spite of his surprising courage at retrieving swords from the battlefield, he looked shaken, as if he wished to go off and be sick.

        "We fight, Vila," Avon snarled. He glanced at Blake. "Get down among those rocks, Blake, and sham death."

        A good suggestion, unless the aliens were the sort who went around mutilating bodies. Tarrant kept that thought to himself, as it would panic Vila and annoy Avon. Blake obeyed, and pulled the cloak around him. His face was dead white; there had been no time to examine his wounds, but Tarrant feared he might yet die if they could not find treatment for him. How could they do so in the midst of such a vast battle?

        No time to think of that. The battle swirled and moved this way and that, and to run would not make them safe. "Stay together," Tarrant urged, knowing it might well be impossible.

        Vila looked as if he wished to glue himself to them, or failing that, turn himself invisible. "If only we had teleport," he moaned.

        "Well, we don't," Avon snarled. "So shut up and fight, Vila." He added only fractionally less harshly, "It is either that or die."

        After that, there was no more time for conversation.

*****

        Meriadoc Brandybuck staggered through the battlefield clutching in his left hand a sword that was too big and too heavy for him, wishing for invisibility, longing for Pippin, for any of the Fellowship. What could one small, injured hobbit do in the midst of such a great battle? He had fought hard and slain many orcs, but he had long-since lost track of Éowyn. Théoden King of Rohan was dead, and the pain of that loss sat heavy in Merry's heart. Even more than his numbed arm from the blow he had struck the Witch King, Théoden's fall ate at him. Lost and alone in Edoras, separated from all his friends, he had come to love the king. "You shall be as a father to me," he had said, but Théoden had fallen. Merry would have stayed at his side in memorial, stayed with Éowyn, the king's niece, but the battle still raged, and he had to fight the best he could. He had lost his sword; it had turned to dust and blown away after he had stabbed the Lord of the Nazgûl. But he had found another lying beside a slain lad of Rohan who looked not much bigger than Merry, and even if it was too heavy, he had used it to slay several orcs.

        Now he found himself alone on the great battlefield, helpless and lost, too weary to lift the blade, when a crashing behind him made him turn, half afraid one of the vast oliphaunts charged at him. But most of the tusked monsters had been brought down, either by the Rohirrim or by the spirits that Aragorn had gone to fetch. Merry had seen Aragorn in the distance, and had been so heartened by the sight it had given him a flash of brief energy.

        Two orcs ran at him, and he scarce had strength to lift the sword. Even as he lifted it to battle, a dark haired, dark-visaged man whose hair was very short for a human slew one of them with an awkward stroke, leaving the other to Merry. He thrust up with the Rohan sword and jabbed the orc in the belly. It fell. Merry let the sword tip follow it to the ground and leaned on it, gasping.

        "Do children fight here?" the man asked, his voice hard and cold, although Merry did not think the coldness was meant for him.

        "I'm a hobbit, not a child," he replied, and thrust out his chin. The man's garb was strangely cut; but then Merry did not know all the customs of men. He had no helm or armor, and he held his sword as if it were the first time he had ever handled one. Maybe it was. Desperate times... "If you move your grip up the pommel a bit," he added, "it will give you a better swing." Boromir had taught him that on the Fellowship's journey south from Rivendell. How long ago it seemed. Boromir, too, was dead, and would not know Merry fought here to help save his beloved Minas Tirith.

        The man's mouth tightened, but he tried it. A nod acknowledged Merry's instruction.

        "All must fight, even those who are not trained," Merry said. "Boromir trained us, my friends and me, but only for a few weeks. We had to learn fast, just to survive." He drew great, shuddering breaths. What would Boromir say if he could see Merry now?

        "What is wrong with your arm?" the man asked. He looked spent, too, at the end of his strength, at the end of his endurance. Every now and then he glanced over at a pile of rocks. Had a friend fallen there?

        "It went numb," Merry admitted. "I'm so cold."

        "What are those creatures we're fighting?"

        Merry blinked at him. "The orcs?" He nodded at one of the fallen orcs. "Haven't you seen any before?"

        A quick shake of the head.

        "But you must live in Gondor. How can that be?"

        Before the man could reply, if he even meant to, another band of orcs appeared, and Merry heaved a sigh and raised his sword. Two riders of Rohan galloped toward him and the stranger, and a fierce little battle was fought. A small group of the strange green spirit men went to their aid. When the orcs had fallen, Merry looked around for the stranger, but he had gone.

        Battles were like that, with constant shifting and movement, and the man who battled at your side in one skirmish might be halfway across the field at the next. How odd he would know that, when he had not even imagined what a battle was before he had left the Shire.

        Exhausted, Merry moved over to the rocks the stranger had watched. If he could just sit for five minutes, catch his breath, slow the thudding of his heart, he would be able to fight again. None followed him. It seemed like the spirit creatures--were they the Oathbreakers Aragorn had sought?--had tipped the scales. Orcs were now in retreat.

        Merry peered over the top of the rocks.

        A man lay there, unconscious or dead, for his eyes were shut. Was he a friend of the cold man? What showed of his garb beneath the enveloping cloak resembled the stranger's. So many dead lay sprawled upon the battlefield. Where was Pippin? Safe in the great white city? Where were Frodo and Sam? Somewhere deep in Moria? Fallen already? Cut off from the other three hobbits, Merry shivered, desolate. He gazed down at the scar-faced man who lay sprawled amid the rocks, his cloak tucked around him like a blanket. The man did not rouse, but he was breathing.

        Merry would have helped him if he could, but he heard the sound of orcs, so he darted around the rocks and dared not linger for he could not fight five of them at once. Keeping low, he tried to make his way back to Théoden's body. Maybe he would find the lady Éowyn there. If he found men, he would tell them where the stranger lay.

        The orc came out of nowhere, so quickly Merry didn't even see it until it ran at him, even though he ducked toward dubious shelter between the legs of a fallen oliphaunt. The thundering of hooves pounded in his ears, and he scarcely saw the rider who lashed at the great orc. A second later it crashed to the ground, taking Merry with it, and all but smothering him beneath its body.

        Borne down by its weight, Merry struggled fiercely to free himself, but his strength was spent, and he had no energy to wiggle free. At least he would be invisible to other orcs--but he would also be invisible to rescue.

        Despairing, he lay pinned to the ground while the sounds of battle faded around him. If he called out now, orcs might hear him. Better to wait a bit until they had been vanquished. Surely the battlefield would be searched for survivors. They would find him then.

        Where are you, Pippin? Are you safe?

*****

        The battle was done, and the survivors searched the battlefield, bearing away the wounded on makeshift litters to be borne to the Houses of Healing. Healers mingled with the searchers and offered treatment for those wounded whose needs were urgent, and, sadly, shook their heads over those who would not live. Those who could be saved must be treated first. Aragorn had dismissed the Oathbreakers, and now he watched and searched with all the rest. At this moment, he was not Gondor's king presumptive, but simply a survivor with a strong back and arms, who could help to bear the wounded to the White City. He saw Pippin trailing unhappily about the battlefield, searching for Merry, calling his name. Every now and then the miserable hobbit would find a survivor and cry out to the litter bearers, but he had not yet found Merry. Was Merry lost? Several of the Rohirrim had told Aragorn they had seen Merry fighting bravely, holding his own despite his small size. As he searched the Pelennor, Aragorn always kept his eye out for Merry.

        "Excuse me?" The little man who clutched at Aragorn's sleeve wore brown garb that looked not quite common, the boots cut differently than any Aragorn had seen before. He clutched a short sword in an awkward, untrained grip, and blood had run down the side of his face from a scalp cut, sketchily mopped away with his sleeve, for it was streaked with red. The man's thinning hair pointed in all directions in disarray, and his eyes were huge and hollow. He had a cringing stance as if he would have preferred to go unnoticed altogether. In the aftermath of such a great battle, Aragorn could scarce blame him.

        "You are hurt," Aragorn said. "Let me send for the healers."

        "No, I'm not hurt," the man said. He looked dazedly at his bloodied sleeve and grimaced. "I hate the sight of blood--especially my own." But then he grimaced and made a vague gesture as if to dismiss his words. "Will you come? Blake's dying, I think."

        "Healers!" Aragorn cried, and summoned a pair of litter-bearers to his side. "This man's friend is sore wounded. Lead us to him."

        "This way. Come quick." The man made for a pile of boulders where his friend lay, wrapped in a cloak. "It's an old wound, not from the battle," the man said. "I think he had...um...healers before, but they were not very good." A wealth of unspoken information flashed in his eyes, but there was no time for questioning. The healers lifted away the cloak, and cried out at the blood that stained the front of his tunic. They set to work on the wound, removing the old bandage and applying a field dressing to enable him to be safely moved.

        "Take him quickly to the Houses of Healing," Aragorn bade as they carefully eased him onto the litter. He did not stir except to offer a faint moan. "Will you go with him..."

        "Vila," the man said. "I'm Vila Restal, and they say you're the king. I never met a king, not that I can remember; we don't have kings where I come from. But I have to find my other two...friends." He hesitated over the word as if he doubted it were true. Yet he had worried over this one.

        "Call for help if you find them injured," Aragorn said and clapped Vila upon the shoulder. "We must see to the injured first before we bring in the dead, and only then can we burn the orc carcases."

        "No!" The drawn out horrified cry made everyone on the Pelennor turn to seek out the source of the sound. Aragorn's heart lurched into his mouth as he saw Éomer of Rohan race toward a fallen form, crying out another fierce protesting, "No!" He flung his sword from him and threw himself to the ground. It could not be! The lady Éowyn lay upon the sward, as pale and white as death, and as still, as her brother drew her up into his arms, his face raised in agonized protest of this great horror. A glance across the battlefield showed Gandalf, shocked and still, staring, and Pippin scarce attending for he had snatched up something that looked very much like Merry's cloak.

        So much horror, so much grief. Aragorn could not go to Pippin now, nor could he aid the hapless Vila. As Vila's friend was borne away, Aragorn strode to Éomer and knelt beside him, gripped his shoulder, offered him what comfort and reassurance he could.

        "Come, we must take her to the Houses of Healing. There she can be attended."

        "I fear she is dead, My Lord," Éomer gasped, his heart broken. Did he yet know his uncle had fallen? This was hardly the moment to tell him. How could any endure such savage blows?

        Aragorn rested his hand upon Éowyn's pale brow. She was cold, but it was not the chill of death. "There is hope, but we must hurry," he said. "Come, will you bear her? We can go more quickly."

        He helped Éomer to rise, and steadied Éowyn in his arms. What a toll this battle had taken. Yet they had won.

        Gandalf joined them as they hurried toward Minas Tirith. The White Wizard arched a questioning brow at Aragorn. Éomer did not notice; he would have noticed naught less than one of the great mûmakil blocking his path. He plodded on, bearing his sister's weight as if it were no burden at all, or else the greatest burden he had ever borne, his steps leading him to the White City.

        "She lives, but she must be tended," Aragorn told Gandalf. "I will go and see to her and do my small best to save her life."

        "I will stay," Gandalf said. He wasted no time asking further questions but stepped aside. Aragorn trusted him to see to the battlefield as he would trust none other.

        All the way to the Houses of Healing, climbing higher, ever higher, through the White City, passing rubble and battle damage, charred stone, passing bodies lying in the street, Éomer merely put one foot in front of the other, talking breathlessly to his sister, encouraging her to live. Aragorn ached for him, but could do naught except periodically press his hand to Éowyn's forehead and will strength into her. From the desperation on Éomer's face, the new king of Rohan thought it not enough.

        A desperate healer greeted them. "My lord, it is said you are our long-lost king. We are frantic, for Faramir, our beloved steward, lingers near death."

        Aragorn looked from him to Éowyn and back. "So, too, does this brave lady," he said. "I will do what I can. I will see them both."

        "What can you do, Lord? Are you a healer?"

        "I have some skill," Aragorn said. He looked at Éomer. "Bring her this way," he said, and gestured to him to follow the healer. So many wounded filled the place, so many who needed help. Would that Aragorn could be given athelas to use in their care. What he might do with that. Faramir? Boromir's beloved younger brother? Word had spread through the city that Lord Denethor had fallen, so Faramir would indeed be steward now. Aragorn would not lose him, not only for Boromir's sake, but for Gondor's.

        He girded himself for the battle ahead, different but no less fierce and draining than the battle he had just helped to win. He would see to the one who needed him most first. Pray that his strength would endure.

*****

        Avon had quickly lost track of his companions in the fierce fighting. Now he found himself on the battlefield as the light left the sky, looking around. Folk from the fortress city prowled the fields, many now bearing torches, finding the wounded. Some of them had begun removing the dead. Avon felt half dead himself. He had a wound in his left arm, and blood had trickled annoyingly into his eyes from a cut in his hair, but he was on his feet. He had gone to the place where Blake had been concealed amid the stones, and found him gone, not even the cloak with which they had covered him remaining.

        "Blake!" Avon shouted. "Vila! Tarrant!"

        No response. A few of the armored men or the robed healers looked at him, but he was not the only one staggering around the battlefield shouting for fallen comrades. Too many others did the same, and the silence among the slain was regularly broken by urgent cries.

        "They may have been taken to the Houses of Healing," a soldier said as he passed. He gestured vaguely. "The sixth level of the city. You need treatment yourself. Go there and seek them." He patted Avon sympathetically on the shoulder.

        Avon hesitated, so tired he doubted he could climb one level, let alone six. His arm throbbed in time with the beating of his heart. How had it come to this, that he be stranded in a world not his own? Where was Blake? Dead? Rescued by the healers? Taken away by Vila and Tarrant?

        "Help!" The cry was near at hand in a space between the legs of one of the gigantic, many-tusked elephants. It was not Blake's voice, but no one else was near enough to hear. Sword trailing as he walked because Avon would not divest himself of a weapon even now when it appeared no longer needed, he went to investigate.

        There knelt another little fellow like the one who had instructed him on his sword grip. Before him lay an injured man, and it was indeed the one who had spoken with Avon. Automatically he knelt beside the pair. His battle companion looked up at him with dazed eyes.

        "You survived."

        "Thanks to your instruction," Avon replied. He had always believed in awarding credit where it belonged, and he appreciated competence.

        "You know each other?" the one who guarded him asked. "Who is he, Merry?"

        "I don't know his name. We met in battle, and he didn't know how to hold his sword right, so I told him." He offered a weary grin. "Boromir would be glad to know we learned."

        "Yes, he would." The little man wore a black tunic under his cloak, with a stylized white tree designed on it like the ones on the soldiers' armor. Under it he wore a mail shirt, and, like his friend, his feet were bare and hairy. "Please, sir man, will you bear Merry to the Houses of Healing?" He saw the blood on Avon's arm. "If you can," he added.

        "I can," Avon replied. He might not have survived without Merry's instruction. "I am going there in any case, to seek my...companions."

        "I'm Peregrin Took, sworn to Gondor," Merry's friend said. "They call me Pippin. I'll help you. No, Merry, let us do it. We'll get you help as soon as we can."

        "There are others hurt worse," Merry said. "Éowyn...I meant to go back to her. King Théoden's dead, Pip."

        "Shhh, I know. You told me. He was brave," Pippin soothed as Avon knelt beside him and lifted Merry up with Pippin's help. He looked up at Avon. "Are you from Gondor? You don't have armor, but you don't look like a man of Rohan."

        "No, I am not a man of Rohan," Avon replied. "I have never been to Gondor before, either." He gestured around the battlefield. This was scarcely the time to explain exactly how he had come here. "The orcs are enemies to many," he said, and it must be true, for Pippin did not seem surprised. "You are not from here, either, are you?" It was a guess, but he thought it a fair one, even if Pippin's livery matched the designs on the soldiers' armor. These two were the only ones he had seen of their size, barefoot small warriors, perhaps members of an entirely different race from the men of Gondor and Rohan.

        "No, from the Shire, far in the north," Pippin said. "There, can you carry him?"

        Avon's arm ached worse from the effort, but he took most of Merry's weight in his right arm, and that could be managed. A part of him wished to abandon the pair and go off to seek Blake and the others. Stranded here in this archaic world, the need to find them was stronger than it would have been in their own time. Yet Merry's instruction had perhaps saved his life, for he had immediately noticed the flexibility in wielding the blade it had given him. "I can carry him," he said. "I have never been in the fortress, but I am told the Houses of Healing are on the sixth level." Perhaps Blake would be there.

        "I have been there," Pippin said. "I will lead the way. Come." He set off purposely across the field, dodging around orc carcases and fallen horses, but hesitating when he passed the body of a human and kneeling to check each one for signs of life, even though his worry for his friend shone vividly on his face. The dead were often gruesomely mutilated, with severed body parts and internal organs spewing forth, but Pippin refused to let that stop him.

        Once, when he found a living man, he yelled and waved until a soldier came and knelt to check the victim. Then Pippin said, "Come on," and forged on.

        They were nearly to the gates of the White City when a tall man with long white hair and a beard, clad all in white, came before them. Pippin shrieked, "Gandalf! Gandalf! Merry is hurt."

        The old man cast a quick glance at the limp and passive bundle in Avon's grip, observed the blood from Avon's wounded arm, then said, "I will take him."

        Avon hesitated then nodded upward. "It is a long way to the sixth level."

        "I am not as ancient as I look," the man replied and a twinkle lit his eyes for a moment before it faded. "Or rather, I am even more ancient than you could possibly imagine, yet it will not hinder me."

        "Gandalf can do it," Pippin said. "He is the greatest wizard in all of Middle-earth."

        "Wizard?" Avon echoed skeptically.

        That made Gandalf hesitate in the retrieving of Merry from Avon's arms. For a moment, computer expert and wizard stared at each other, each trying to take the other's measure. Gandalf's brow wrinkled. "You are like the other one," he said.

        "Other?" Avon asked sharply. He found Gandalf incomprehensible, like no man he had ever met. Such power lurked in the mild blue eyes. Power? What a ludicrous idea. No doubt Avon was weakened by loss of blood and disoriented by the time transition followed so closely by the battle. Yet he could not will away the impression he had of Gandalf, that there was far more to him than one would see at a casual glance, a great strength, even a power, and a timelessness that shone out of his mild blue eyes.

        Did he speak of Blake? Vila? Tarrant?

        "I am told there are three, but I have only seen one," Gandalf replied and strode toward the entrance to the fortress, where great broken gates that had once been carved with human figures hung jagged and shattered on their hinges.

        "Which one?" Avon asked. Could it be Blake?

        "Tall, with curly hair like a hobbit." He nodded at the one he carried. "Rather swashbuckling in his manner, but weary, and grimly determined to find his companions. Tarrant is his name."

        "And the other two?"

        "Their names I know not, but one is in the Houses of Healing, where healers struggle to save his life. The third, I am told, has followed him there."

        "Blake..." Avon heard his breath go out in a gasp. It could be Vila, but he was certain it was Blake. The butchers Servalan had assigned to him had obviously done just enough to keep him alive. Knowing the former President and Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation, she would have taken great pleasure in granting Avon hope that Blake would survive, only to have it fade away with Blake's life.

        "That was the name I was told. Quickly, we must take Merry to the healers. Are you still with me, Merry?"

        "Yes," Merry said in a voice that sounded half asleep. "Gandalf, I can't feel my arm."

        "He says it's numb," Pippin said. "But he has no wound."

        "He stabbed the Lord of the Nazgûl, Peregrin. It was brave of him and saved Éowyn, although she, too, suffers as Merry does. She has been found and is being cared for. We will take you to Aragorn, Merry."

        "Good old Strider," Merry murmured and closed his eyes.

        They began the climb to the sixth level, up a ramp that curved around the structure, and wove around at higher levels. It tunneled through the great prow of rock that thrust through the city as they passed each level. At times they needed to scramble around fallen masonry, and here and there, people with minor wounds sat while others treated them. On the lower two levels, Avon saw traces of fires, blackened stone, a burned-out dwelling or two, and once, a row of bodies loosely covered with a tarp, their booted feet protruding. At the sight, Pippin gasped unhappily and looked up at Gandalf, his eyes huge and glistening with distress.

        "The city is safe, Peregrin," Gandalf said to him. "Its brave defenders would count it worth the cost."

        Pippin looked up at the sleeping--or unconscious--Merry. "So many fell, Gandalf. And...and it's not over, is it? The Enemy is not yet defeated. Frodo..."

        "Frodo has not fallen, Pippin," Gandalf said. "I would know it, should he have done so. Sauron does not have the Ring. We could not have this victory if he had snatched it from Frodo."

        Avon had no idea who Frodo might be or what a Ring had to do with it. If he asked, he would reveal his ignorance, for what they spoke of might be known to all. As long as they believed him a refugee who sought shelter in the fortress, they would not look too hard at him. He must be wary, do nothing that would prevent them from treating Blake's wounds. In this primitive place, could they save him? They must. It was not that he had been the one to wound Blake, not entirely, although shooting Blake had made him responsible.

        Avon would have chosen to shun such responsibility and walk away, but he could not do so. As long as Blake lived, he must stay. And if Blake did live, if he healed, if the healers' skill did their work, it would fall to Avon to atone.

        Stranded in the past--if they were truly stranded--what else was there to rely on? He would not have chosen this, but it had been this or death. He might not have chosen to strand himself in the past with Vila, Tarrant, and Blake, but it had happened. There were surely no computers here, no ships for Tarrant to fly, no locks of the type Vila understood. And if Blake might find cause in standing against the Enemy Pippin mentioned, Sauron, then he would have no trouble finding those who would stand for the same cause.

        All Avon could do was to put one foot ahead of the other and follow Gandalf--who had mysterious power--to the Houses of Healing. Where fate would carry him after that, he did not know. Until he learned more, he could not choose his fate. He would wait and see.

        Suddenly two men approached them. "Look, it's Merry," the short one cried. He had the longest, thickest beard Avon had ever seen, and carried a great double-bladed axe like a weapon. Not greatly taller than Pippin, who trailed along beside Gandalf, he was broader, and wore a helmet, and boots. No bare, hairy feet for him. The other man was taller than Avon, but perhaps shorter than Tarrant, slender and graceful in his movements, his blond hair long and utterly straight, his ears...pointed? Another different race? A mutation? He looked younger than Tarrant, but there was something in his eyes, an agelessness different from Gandalf's, that made Avon believe him older.

        "Gandalf, how does he?" the man with pointed ears asked.

        "He will mend," Gandalf replied. "I will ask our Aragorn to see to him when he has finished with the Lady of Rohan."

        "He has seen to her, and to Faramir," the blond man replied. "They will live, he says. He is fatigued now, but Éowyn has told him Merry also struck the Witch King. He will be wearied from that, and greatly need aid."

        "Will he die?" Pippin ventured, his face stricken.

        The bearded man put his arm around Pippin's shoulders. "Die? He will not die, laddie. Trust Aragorn."

        "I will take him, Gandalf," the blond said. "I can go very quickly, and I am not fatigued."

        "Not even slaying a mûmak single-handed daunts him," the bearded man said as his friend accepted Merry from Gandalf. "And I say it still only counts as one," he added as the blond set off at a run, his feet incredibly light as if Merry weighed no more than a clipgun.

        "Wait for me, Legolas," Pippin cried and raced after him.

        Gimli didn't run. He looked up at Gandalf. "You must come, Gandalf. Aragorn will exhaust himself."

        Gandalf inclined his head. "I will come, but I cannot stop him. It has long been said the hands of the king are the hands of a healer. Glad I am to know Faramir will live, and the lady of Rohan. And now, Gimli, if you will aid me, our friend here is on his last legs. He has allowed no treatment of his wounds in his quest to find his friends, but they have gone before him to the Houses of Healing. He has not yet told me his name, but we will aid him there, you and I."

        Avon's arm throbbed savagely, and his head pounded. Knowing Blake was being cared for, that Vila and Tarrant survived, there was nothing left for him to do. "Avon," he said to Gandalf. "My name is Avon." With a weary sigh, he allowed Gandalf and Gimli to escort him upward, steadying his steps.

        When they reached the Houses of Healing, Avon drew back in dismay at the vast number of wounded being treated. Injured men sat along the walls of the corridors, while healers moved up and down among them, examining their wounds, applying makeshift dressings, calling for more aid if the wounds proved severe. On the opposite wall, those who had already been cared for and needed only rest sat, sporting bandages, some of them dozing, others talking to the men beside them in soft tones. Occasionally a victim would be borne past them on a litter. Gimli spoke to a soldier or two as he passed, men he must have known or recognized, and Gandalf, too, greeted one or two.

        "Avon, come," he said. "I will see your wound treated and then take you to your companions."

        Here in this strange world, Avon discovered within himself a need to see them, to see Blake. There was also a knowledge in Gandalf's eyes it would be futile to deny, so he merely inclined his head and let Gandalf take him to a healer who did something painful to his arm, frowned over the cut, and calmly proceeded to stitch it up. The idea of deadening the pain before performing such a barbaric act evidently did not occur to him, or perhaps the vast number of wounded made him pressed for time. Gandalf, who remained near him--guarding him?--watched his face, and although Avon tried to keep it impassive, Gandalf made an exasperated sound. He clasped Avon's shoulder, and the pain of the process receded.

        What was he that he could do such, that he could look at Avon and see deep within him? Avon didn't understand, nor did he wish to, except that to know one's enemy saved trouble. Was he an enemy? He did not feel like one, and that, also, disturbed Avon. Had he lost all his defenses when he blasted Blake on GP?

        The healer finished his work, applied a liberal coating of an unguent that reeked, and wrapped Avon's arm in a cloth dressing. He then mopped away the blood from Avon's forehead to examine that wound, and proclaimed it minor and already mending. "Bump it not, but it needs no dressing." He pasted more of the smelly stuff on it, and Avon wrinkled his nose.

        Since he had nothing else to wear, he put on his tunic once more, glad the sleeves were baggy like the ones Blake had often worn on Liberator. The dried blood on the one sleeve made it hang oddly, but he ignored it. He had fought in the battle, to save himself, true, but that meant the people here owed him treatment without demanding payment, and also fresh clothing.

        "You need not remain in the Houses of Healing," the healer instructed. "Come the day after tomorrow and your wound will be examined. Come sooner, should it become inflamed." He settled Avon's arm into a sling. "Wear this for at least two days," he instructed.

        "I will see that he does," Gandalf replied.

        "Thank you, Mithrandir," the healer said.

        "Mithrandir?" Avon asked as Gandalf bore him away.

        "So they have oft called me in Gondor. It means 'the grey pilgrim' in the Elvish tongue. Before I became Gandalf the White," and he gestured at his white garb, perhaps even at his white hair, "I was Gandalf the Grey."

        To name oneself after the color of one's garb seemed peculiar to Avon, but he scarcely cared. Yet, if he and the others were truly stranded here for all time, he must learn as much as he could, and as rapidly as possible. To make obvious blunders would add to the suspicion of the Gondorians--Gondorites? People of Gondor? That would serve. Perhaps he could question Merry and his friend Pippin later. They had seemed sympathetic.

        "I will now take you to your two friends," Gandalf the White said.

        "What of Blake?" he asked.

        "He is sleeping. Aragorn says he must rest. You shall see him later."

        "I shall see him now," Avon hissed.

        The wizard met his gaze unblinking, as if he could read Avon's every thought and feeling, and that was so disconcerting that Avon yielded. He was uncertain of Aragorn's identity, save that he must be one of the healers. Doctors in his own time often became arrogant and tyrannical, and while Avon knew himself the match for any when he was not exhausted, wounded, and stranded in a world not his own, he decided it would be wiser to wait.

        Did Gandalf induce that decision? The man had a power Avon did not understand, and did not trust, although Pippin evidently trusted him wholeheartedly, and trusted him with his companion from home, whom he appeared to regard as closer than a brother. Avon was not inclined to trust so easily, but he would not serve his cause, or even Blake's, by alienating people here before he understood this world.

        He could always find Blake later, when Gandalf had gone about his business.

        Vila and Tarrant waited in a garden open to the sky and lit with torches. It was too early in the season for there to be many flowers, but the few early blooms added a fragrant aroma that warred with the smell of burning and of blood. A crowded place, it seemed to hold a number of mildly wounded men, who were attended by healers and by people who appeared to be friends or family. "Those who wait here may return to their homes this night, should their homes still be standing," Gandalf explained to Avon. "There have been many volunteers to take wounded soldiers into their homes."

        As Avon watched, two women, one elderly, one very young, helped a tall man with a bandage around his head to leave the garden.

        "Avon!" Vila raced over. His brown tunic had been replaced with a light blue one, and he wore a bandage similar to the soldier's but smaller, held in place by a narrow strip of cloth. Behind him came Tarrant, who seemed unmarked save for raw knuckles on his sword hand and shadows in his eyes. Neither moved with their customary energy, but Vila astonished Avon by gripping his arms and squeezing them with what almost might seem fondness. He was even careful not to squeeze over Avon's wound. A familiar face must have good value. Avon discovered in himself a surge of relief to see them both intact.

        "I'm glad you made it," Tarrant said to Avon, just as Avon had said to him on Gauda Prime. "No one had seen you."

        "What did you do to your arm?" Vila asked.

        "An orc was quite unfriendly," Avon replied.

        "I will leave you to your friends," Gandalf said in the background. He rested his hand upon Avon's shoulder, just for a moment, and before Avon could shrug away the touch distastefully, a surge of comfort that must have come from the white-garbed man ran through his body. "Someone will show you where you may sleep, and you may see Blake in the morning."

        Vila stared after him as he walked away. "Tarrant says he's a wizard," he offered.

        "And should you believe that, Vila, I have a perfectly good artificial planet to sell you by the name of Terminal." Avon frowned at him.

        "This is not our time, Avon," Tarrant replied.

        "No, yet it is our world, and here, as everywhere, the laws of physics still hold. Wizards would have powers that violate that."

        "No, they wouldn't," Tarrant argued. "They would use the laws of physics. I don't think they understand physics here, but I have been on many worlds at similar levels of development, and the people in them understand nature better than the people of Earth in our time who live in the domes. One of the soldiers told me Gandalf drove away three of the Nazgûl, those flying lizard things we saw when we first got here, using his wizard's staff."

        Skepticism flared through Avon, but not as fierce as it would have been before he felt Gandalf's touch on his shoulder. "No matter," he said and scowled to dismiss the subject. "What news of Blake?"

        "Aragorn saw to him," Tarrant replied. "He saved Faramir, who is the steward of Gondor, and he saved the lady Éowyn, and now he is seeing to one of the hobbits."

        "Hobbits?" Avon echoed. "Not Merry?" He had not heard the term 'hobbit' before, but he knew Merry and Pippin must be members of a separate race.

        "I think that was his name," Tarrant replied. "Do you know him?"

        "Yes, I know him," Avon replied. "He had the arrogance to instruct me in the proper manner to grip a sword." He drew a breath. "Which may have saved my life."

        "Well, good for Merry, then," Vila said in wry tones. "Aragorn took care of Blake, too. He had them out on the mountainside looking for some weird plant to use because he'd used all he could find to save Faramir. He came and told us he thought Blake would make it."

        Avon did not express his relief, but something inside him acknowledged it. Had that cursed wizard's touch opened up a gateway within him, to weaken him and allow his feelings to show? He hated that. With an impatient snarl, he turned away.

        Vila came up behind him and patted his shoulder. "At least the battle's over," he said. "I hate battles. I hate orcs. Worse than hairy aliens they are."

        "Since they are aliens and some of them appear to have hair..." Avon began tightly, annoyed to be drawn into a pointless discussion by Vila.

        "They aren't aliens," Tarrant put in. He stretched out long arms and drew Avon and Vila into a remote corner of the garden where an unoccupied bench waited, just freed by a departing soldier. "They're just one of the races that live here, like hobbits and elves and dwarves."

        "Elves and dwarves?" Avon echoed scornfully. Yet his mind dutifully presented him with an image of the pointed-eared Legolas and the sturdy, bearded Gimli. Gandalf had mentioned an elvish language.

        "This is not our time, Avon," Tarrant replied. "Why not elves and dwarves? Perhaps the myths and tales told to children were true once."

        Avon didn't bother to answer. He sat down on the bench, his fatigue draping him like a shroud. He would rest a moment, collect his strength, shake off the wizard's power, and then he would visit Blake, in spite of the order to wait.

        As sleep enveloped him, he was vaguely conscious of Tarrant sitting on one side of him and Vila on the other. Vila leaned against him just as if he were a cushion, but Avon was too sleepy to object to the thief's presumption. Just a short rest and he would see Blake. A short rest....

*****

        Aragorn slipped into Faramir's room and hesitated within the doorway catching his breath, one hand splayed against the wall to support himself. Running for more than three days and nights after the orcs who had taken Merry and Pippin had not drained him the way healing did. Would that those sent out had found more athelas. The dried sprig that had helped to save Faramir had not offered enough to treat the others, but runners had scoured the slopes of Mount Mindolluin and found a small plant. It had helped with Éowyn, its leaves in the bowl of water he had used, had helped Merry, whose arm was numb from the blow he struck the Witch King. The rest of it had gone to the strange man with the peculiar belly wound.

        The injury had not been sustained in the battle, for it was an old one that had partially healed and then broken open during the battle. Aragorn had never seen such a wound before; it looked as if someone had cast fire at him, for the scar tissue around the edges of the wound resembled burn scars, yet smoother and less puckered. Had he encountered Saruman before the wizard's fall from the Tower of Orthanc? Yet the fire Isengard's wizard had cast at Gandalf had been huge, large enough to encircle the mounted Gandalf and his horse, repelled only by Gandalf's power and the shield he had cast up to protect himself. Aragorn would ask the stranger when he revived.

        The man had been weakened because the treatment he had received prior to his arrival in Gondor had been sketchy at best. It was as if someone had wished to prolong his life to cause him to endure pain and linger, helpless and dying, for a long period of time. Such might be the work of Sauron, and Aragorn meant to question him about that when he roused.

        So many had been wounded in the great battle that not even Faramir had been granted a private chamber, although within a day the numbers would thin out as those with minor wounds departed. For now, Faramir's room also accommodated Merry, who slept fiercely on a makeshift cot in the corner, and the stranger with the belly wound. Since Aragorn would need to monitor both of them through the night and to look in on Merry as a friend, it seemed meet to place the stranger here, but a soldier guarded the room, since none seemed to know the stranger, and the two who claimed to be with him were clearly newly come to Gondor and ignorant of much that people took for granted.

        Aragorn shared a smile with the soldier, who bowed to him in evidence of his acceptance of Aragorn's identity as Gondor's king. Inclining his head in reply, Aragorn bent over Faramir.

        Gondor's steward slept deeply, and in the light from the wall sconces, his face wore a healthier color than it had displayed earlier.

        But Faramir was a soldier, and his senses, well honed during his years as a ranger in Ithilien, warned him of a presence looming over him. His eyes opened and his hand reached automatically for a weapon. The motion roused pain in his wounded shoulder and he braced himself against it, but by then he had seen who it was who watched him, and a smile lit his face. "My king," he greeted his visitor, and his voice held more strength than before. Enough for him to recall what had happened to him? To inquire after his father? Aragorn would have him stronger before he heard that fell tale.

        "I am merely here to see how you mend," he said softly. "There is no need to awaken. The city is safe, the orcs fallen. The siege is ended, and we have triumphed."

        A smile touched Faramir's weary face. "That is good to hear, my liege. Yet I think the Enemy is not yet fallen."

        "No, he is not," Aragorn confirmed. "Not yet." A slight motion off to one side indicated the stranger, Blake, was awake and listening, but he spoke not.

        "You mean to march against him," Faramir said. "To take the battle to his doorstep." No tinge of doubt colored his voice.

        It was as if he had known Faramir for years; they understood each other utterly in that moment, as if his efforts to summon Faramir from the shadows of death had bonded them for all time. He clasped Faramir's sound shoulder. "I must," he said. "As you found the strength to free Frodo on his quest, I must find the strength to confront Sauron. It will distract him from Frodo, or so I hope. Tomorrow morning there will be a council to determine our direction, but this is my plan." He glanced at Blake. If the man served Sauron, he could not be allowed to send word to him of this. Yet Blake merely watched them unspeaking, and something glowed in his eyes that might be honor or strength of purpose. As weak and weary as Faramir, he appeared exhilarated at the thought of the planned march.

        "It is a bold plan," Faramir replied. He darted one quick glance at Blake, but would know naught of his surprising arrival and the peculiar nature of his badly treated wounds. "Would that I could ride to battle at your side."

        "Would that you could," Aragorn agreed. "All I have heard of you, from Gandalf, from Pippin, from your soldiers, and from Boromir as we journeyed south from Rivendell, convinces me I could have no finer companion and ally."

        "Boromir spoke of me?" Faramir asked. He must sleep soon, but Aragorn would see he rested reassured.

        "Often," he replied. "He would enliven our nights around our campfires with tales of Gondor, which he loved wholeheartedly, and with stories of you, and we could all detect the deep bond between you. I would give anything had we been able to save him and bring him home to Minas Tirith, for he longed for it, and for the sound of silver trumpets announcing his return."

        "He loved their call," Faramir said. In his weakened state, tears started in his eyes but did not fall. "Father...Father knew, and gave commands that they always ring out, clear and strong, when Boromir returned." He raised his hand to dash the tears away, but Aragorn caught it in both of his own.

        "Think it not wrong to weep for him, for so did I weep at his fall. I had thought, as I came to know him, that we would serve together, but it is not to be. I accept you in his stead. But now, I would have you sleep, for you must not undo my handiwork. I will come to you when our departure is determined, and we will confer over what needs to be done in my absence."

        "Much," Faramir said. "I have heard bits about the fighting and what damage was done. The words came to me as if in a dream, but now my head is clear. While you are away, I will put what I can in order, if I may command Húrin of the Keys."

        "Surely you may, for he rules Minas Tirith next in line after you. I will see the Warden comes to you, and your uncle of Dol Amroth is come to the city, and will hold Minas Tirith until you can leave your bed and take up your full duties. He will visit you on the morrow, for he has a great concern for you." He rested his hand upon Faramir's brow. It was warm, but not fever hot. "Sleep now, my steward, and we will speak again before I depart."

        Faramir smiled sleepily up at him and obediently closed his eyes. Aragorn did not lift his hand away until Faramir's breathing deepened, then he took up a cloth and gently mopped away the remnants of Faramir's tears.

        When he turned, Blake still watched him.

        Aragorn drew up a three-legged stool and sat beside Blake's bed. "I know not where your loyalties lie, friend," he said. "But if they lie with Sauron, you will have no opportunity to speak of what you heard this night."

        "I came here with no loyalties at all, for this world is strange to me," Blake replied. His voice was no stronger than Faramir's, and he had to pause to catch his breath, for he breathed shallowly to avoid the pain of movement. "Yet what I have seen is a people fighting domination of a cruel enemy. My whole life has been given over to fighting oppression. I will choose a side, and it will be Gondor."

        "When you are rested, I would hear the tale of how you arrived in our...world. I know not if you speak figuratively, or whether you mean in truth that Middle-earth itself is not your world. To have no knowledge of Sauron would indicate the latter, for I know not where you might live without understanding of his malice. Even the Shire, safe and protected, virtually unknown to the wider world, is aware of the danger of orcs and has heard the name of the Enemy."

        "I have heard him called the Enemy, the Shadow, the Great Eye," Blake replied. "And Sauron. In my time, our enemy was the Federation, the ruling body that would deny freedom to all, that would drug the population so they would cease any resistance. I fought for freedom for the masses, and if I could fight, I would do that here. All people deserve freedom."

        "So they do," Aragorn replied. He could see the fervor of his beliefs in Blake's face and hear its ardor in his voice. Unless Blake were a skilled deceiver, Aragorn would concede belief. He had not met the other three who had asked after him, but he had heard of them from Gandalf. In the morning, he would speak with them, one more task among many. "But for now, friend, you must sleep, as I instructed Faramir. A guard will remain in this room, because the world is too perilous for me to offer trust, yet in my heart I would offer it. Sleep and mend."

        Blake closed his eyes and drifted into a sleep more restless than Faramir's.

        Aragorn watched him a moment, then went to Merry, who did not rouse, but slept deeply and well. Aragorn caught up his hand, glad to feel the warmth of healthy flesh. Ah, that was good.

        He was just preparing to depart, for he knew Legolas and Gimli would be seeking him to see him to bed, when the door opened and a man entered. The guard stiffened and gripped his sword, but Aragorn held up his hand to stay him. The newcomer was evidently one of Blake's companions, for he wore the same brown garb as Blake had worn. He carried one arm in a sling. When he saw Aragorn kneeling beside Merry's bed, he looked at Merry.

        "He will recover?" he asked.

        "Merry will awaken nearly mended, and the healers will release him then," Aragorn replied. "Or did you mean Blake?"

        "Both," the newcomer replied. "Merry aided me on the battle ground." He looked down unsmiling at Merry, and Aragorn had the sudden feeling that the stranger was not a man given to smiles, and that his steady regard might even bespeak a fondness for Merry. That made him think of Frodo who had smiled less and less as the Fellowship journeyed, and how, by the end, he had long-since stopped laughing. This man could not bear a weight as terrible and fierce as the One Ring, yet his burden bowed his shoulders.

        He went to Blake and gazed down at him, his shoulders taut, and Aragorn made no attempt to halt his steps.

        "Do not awaken him; he has just fallen asleep."

        "You are Aragorn?" the man asked. "I am told you are both king and healer and that you saved Blake from death. For that I am grateful."

        "I possessed the skill, and he the need," Aragorn replied.

        "You have spared me a burden," the stranger said. "I have long believed his death and mine were linked, and yet it was I who wounded him, believing him traitor." The words emerged involuntarily, as if an inner force compelled him to speak. "He was not traitor, simply idiot, and he danced to the enemy's tune, unknown to us both," the stranger said fiercely. "Ah, Blake, what fools we mortals be."

        "Because we are mortal," Aragorn said gently, "we have an advantage. We may learn from our errors. We are not bound to relive them unless we are great fools."

        "Ah, but he is a fool. I have thought so from the beginning. Not so great a fool as Vila or as dashing a fool as Tarrant, but a fool who believes he can save his blessed rabble."

        "And would save our blessed rabble as well," Aragorn said in hopes of winning a reaction from the stranger.

        He got one. "Damn you, Blake. You will not ride away to battle. I will not permit it. You will mend and you will live."

        "So he shall," Aragorn said more mildly, for the stranger's fury had been far more telling than he had realized. Aragorn would not push him to admit the bond of friendship, strange as it might be, that existed between the two men. Perhaps life under the domination of the Federation had been as harsh as life under Sauron. "Yet he will not be well enough to ride to battle, and must, like Faramir, remain behind when the army departs."

        "Faramir? I am told he is steward of this nation. But you, they say, are king."

        "I am not yet king," Aragorn said, "but I am heir to Isildur in direct line, and the throne may be mine, should we survive the fighting that is to come, and should Gondor deign to accept me. Faramir has done so already, and I suspect he will see it done, for he has a fierce determination about him. I am not as yet certain how to be a king, although I have studied under a king and a steward to learn how to rule. It will come to me because it must, and I will do it. As for you, you have seen Blake and you have chided him, and offered yourself, in your own way, for penance. I think he will not extract it from you. If he foregoes it, then so shall Gondor. In troublous times, a man's loyalty may be shifted by forces beyond his control, or deception may confuse issues. Blake was not traitor, but he will understand your belief. Come, let him sleep, and if you must do penance, do it on the morrow."

        The stranger opened his mouth to speak hotly, then he closed it again and drew all emotion tightly within. "You are arrogant enough to be a king," he said, which made the soldier at the door stiffen with outrage.

        "I try not to be," Aragorn replied mildly, and waved a cautioning hand at the guard. "Will you gift me with your name?"

        "Avon," said the stranger tightly as if words were as valuable as mithril and must therefore be spent sparingly.

        "I am glad to meet you, Avon. Have you a place to sleep?"

        "Gandalf arranged a small chamber for Vila, Tarrant, and myself," Avon replied.

        "Gandalf can always be relied upon," Aragorn said. Did Gandalf's involvement with the strangers from what truly appeared to be a different world serve as a protection for Gondor, for Middle-earth? Did he suspect these four of being Sauron's agents? Yet Aragorn did not. Blake's sincerity had been too real to doubt, and had Avon been Sauron's spy, he would have been more willing to please, pretending a loyalty he did not possess. "Go now and rest," he said, and urged Avon away. The man went with a long look over his shoulder at Blake, his face utterly and determinedly impassive.

        He passed Legolas and Gimli in the doorway, who greeted him then descended upon Aragorn like a kindly storm and bore him away to bed.

*****

        Pippin slipped away to see Merry at first light. He could wait no longer; he would have slept in Merry's room, but neither Gandalf nor Aragorn would permit it. "The Houses of Healing are crowded following the battle, and you have a room already, Peregrin Took," Gandalf reminded him. "Use it."

        One did not argue with Gandalf when he took that tone. Pippin had gone to his bed, where he had slept intermittently, rousing to dreams of falling masonry and the search across the terrible battlefield for Merry. His friend had fought and been wounded there, bravely facing the horror of war, while Pippin had been in the White City, not safe, but spared, for the most part, the ordeal of stumbling amid broken bodies, many with severed limbs or gutted, so he had searched on, determined to find Merry. Each new body he found had reminded him he might find Merry in a similar condition, and so he had, in dreams. When the first edge of light touched the darkness of the doorway to the balcony and the sky took on a shading of grey, he had eased from his bed so as not to awaken Gandalf who was sleeping in the next chamber. He flung on his own clothes rather than his livery, sketchily washed his face and cleaned his teeth, and hurried up to the Houses of Healing without even a thought for breakfast.

        The hour was so early hardly anyone moved, save workmen on the lower levels, already clearing away rubble. Pippin could hear the sounds of stone against stone as he made his way to his destination, loud on the still, clear air. As he hurried along, he could see his breath, and the stone pavement chilled the soles of his feet. Glad of his elven cloak to protect him from the dawn chill, he spoke soft greetings to those he passed, surprised when many greeted him by name. Still, as the hobbit who had sworn allegiance to the Steward, he must be known to many. He wished he knew their names to greet them in return.

        The Steward... That recalled Lord Denethor, grieving for Boromir, claiming none would take Gondor from him, treating Faramir so coldly, refusing to believe his son lived, the horror of the pyre. Recalling the heat of the flames as he struggled to roll Faramir out of harm's way, Pippin gnawed his bottom lip. If only Faramir did not remember the sight of his father as the flames engulfed his body, did not recall the horrible, agonized scream or the unspeakable odor of burning flesh... Pippin swallowed hard. The smell of smoke on his livery had made him hang it over the balcony rail when he had removed it the night before, in hopes of airing it out. He would not part with it, for it had once been Faramir's, but he would not wear it while it reeked of the pyre. It had been fresher this morning, and he had brought it in and draped it over a chair.

        He would see Faramir after he had seen Merry. Aragorn had told him Faramir would live, but had refused Pippin a visit to him last night. "For I would not have him roused when he needs sleep." He had smiled at Pippin. "You will see him and Merry on the morrow."

        Now it was the morrow, and he made his way to the sixth level, setting his feet with determination. Finding Merry... He had been so weak, but he had said he had known Pippin would find him. And Pippin had. It had seemed so long since he had separated from Merry in Edoras, and impossibly long since Frodo and Sam had taken one of the boats and crossed the lake from Parth Galen. Would he ever see them again?

        As he neared the Houses of Healing, he saw it was busy, even at the dawn hour. People came in and out, some wearing bandages, perhaps being released to go home, usually accompanied by a woman or child, occasionally an old man. Others went in, no doubt to visit their kin. Pippin slipped around and entered the garden. He would catch his breath there and hope to see a healer to ask about Merry and Faramir.

        It was too early for patients to sit there, yet a man with a bandage around his head already had come. He sat slumped and uneasy, tense enough to jump when Pippin appeared. When he saw Pippin, he relaxed slightly. His short, thinning hair stuck up at odd angles around the bandage.

        "I'm not an orc," Pippin said with a reassuring smile. "I'm just a hobbit."

        "I don't know what that is," the man said. "Hobbit? I didn't know what orcs were until yesterday."

        "I wish I didn't know what they were," Pippin sympathized. How could any not know about orcs? Even safe in the Shire, everyone knew about orcs, because once, several hundred years before, orcs had tried to attack the Shire, and if not for Pippin's kinsman, Bandobras Took, the Shire might have been enslaved. "I've killed more of them than I ever thought I would." He shuddered.

        The man's face twisted in a grimace. "I did, too," he said. "I wanted to run away and hide, but there was nowhere to hide, so I had to fight." He shuddered extravagantly.

        "I know," Pippin said. He sat down beside the man. "When you have to fight, you fight. Boromir taught Merry and me how to use our swords." He patted the sword he had donned automatically, even though he doubted he would need a sword today. "Look at that. I put it on just like I put on my shirt. Don't you think that's wrong?"

        "Wrong?" the man asked. He had a sword, too, but it stuck out at an awkward angle as if he didn't know how to adjust it when he sat down. "I hate weapons. I hate blood. Especially when it's my own." He touched his forehead where the dressing wrapped. "I want to go home," he moaned.

        "I know," Pippin soothed him. "I do, too. But I can't, not yet."

        "I can't, ever," the man said.

        Pippin shivered. Had his home been destroyed? How terrible that would be. "I'm Peregrin Took," he said. "They call me Pippin."

        "Vila Restal, thief extraordinaire." He sighed. "At least I was when I was where I belonged. I don't belong here, you know. I don't know where I belong."

        A thief? And one who took pride in it? Pippin didn't know what to say. In the Shire, thieves were considered wicked people. But this was the wide world. Maybe it was different here. "What...what do you steal?" he asked in a small voice. Into his mind crept a terrible memory, of the sleeping hall in Edoras, of how he had roused in the night and tiptoed over to steal the seeing stone from Gandalf. How could he fault Vila when he had proven to be a thief himself? He sat, small, huddled, and ashamed, and waited for Vila to answer.

        "Nothing I'd like, not like money or jewels," Vila admitted. "Avon has me stealing things that will bring down the Federation, and so did Blake before him."

        "What is the Federation?" Pippin hadn't stolen the palantír because it would threaten Sauron. It had compelled him, but it had still been wrong. His heart ached. How could he have been so quick to judge?

        "It's the government where I'm from. It's evil. Probably not as bad as that Sauron." He gestured vaguely at the jagged mountains across the river. "If someone is a resistor, they kill his whole family or ship them into slavery. They try to adjust your head so you will believe their lies. They couldn't adjust mine so they sent me to a prison planet, and that's where I met Blake." He offered up a wry grin. "Either the best day of my life or the worst. I don't know yet. I met Avon then, too." He grimaced expressively.

        Pippin didn't understand most of what he said, but he often found the world of men confusing. "What's a planet?" he echoed doubtfully.

        Vila hesitated, then he pointed up at the morning star, gleaming brightly through a tattered gap in the clouds over Mordor. "That's a planet," he said.

        "That's Eärendil," Pippin corrected. "The morning star. He was a great man who went to Valinor--where men can't go, but they accepted him--and now he sails the sky in his boat bearing the last of the Silmarils." He smiled at Vila's open-mouthed surprise. "At least that's the tale I was told when I was a lad. Bilbo Baggins told me. He knew all the ancient legends. There were three Silmarils once, and they were the greatest jewels ever to exist in Middle-earth." Maybe Vila would want to steal them. Pippin resolved he would never steal again, not even if he found the palantír lying before him in the road. "He was Lord Elrond's father, and the father of Elros. Elrond chose to be an elf and Elros to be mortal. Elros was the first king of the Númenorians but he's been dead for a long, long time. Elrond is still alive, of course, because he's an elf, and they live forever. I've met him."

        Vila stared at him, speechless, and the way he frowned made Pippin think he wanted to laugh at the tale but didn't quite dare. "I met an elf called Legolas yesterday. Will he live forever?"

        Pippin nodded. "I think he will. Elves can die in battle, but otherwise, they just go on living. Sometimes when we traveled together, he would call us children because we are all so much younger than he is. I'm not sure about Gandalf, though."

        "Gandalf doesn't look ancient, just getting old," Vila said. "But...is he an elf, too? His ears are normal."

        "No, he's the greatest wizard in the world. They say he's an Istari, but I don't know exactly what that is. I know he's lived for many, many years, and...and he fell in Moria, but he was sent back, he said."

        "Here now, people don't come back when they're dead." Vila shifted uneasily upon his bench. "We thought maybe Blake had, but he hadn't been dead, just almost dead. Maybe Gandalf was just almost dead."

        Pippin frowned. "Maybe," he said. It didn't really matter which it was, as long as Gandalf wasn't dead now. "Who is Blake?"

        "He's a rebel," Vila said. "All he wants to do is get freedom for everybody."

        "Well, that's a good thing, isn't it? That's what we're fighting for, freedom from Sauron, so he won't take over all of Middle-earth. That's what Frodo..." He trailed off. Maybe he shouldn't talk about Frodo, not to this man who talked of strange worlds in the sky. Maybe he was a spy of Sauron's, although he didn't look like a spy.

        But then Pippin was just a hobbit. He didn't know what spies should look like. He often feared Gollum was a spy, because people didn't just escape from the tower of Barad-dûr. Once Pippin had heard Gollum was traveling with Frodo and Sam, he'd been afraid Gollum would lead them into a trap. Faramir had warned him and threatened him, but once the trio had left Osgiliath and traveled to Mordor, Gollum wouldn't care what Faramir had said. He could do what he wanted, maybe even kill Frodo in his sleep and take the One Ring from him. Pippin shivered.

        "Who's Frodo?" Vila asked.

        "Just another hobbit. He wants freedom for the Shire." Pippin rose. "I have to go see Merry."

        "He's the one who taught Avon how to hold a sword," Vila said. "Avon said he saw him last night but he was asleep then. Of course he really went to see Blake, and didn't tell Tarrant and me he was going." Vila nodded knowingly. "Blake is in the same room with Merry."

        "Do you want to come with me?" Pippin asked, although he did not quite feel comfortable with the thief. Talking with him reminded too much of the terrible thing he had done in Edoras.

        "No, I want to sit here and pretend none of this is happening. If you see Avon there..." He let his voice trail off. "No, you probably wouldn't, not when people might come in and see him there. Avon never fusses, and if he wants to do anything like that, he does it when no one will ever know."

        "Even when it's his friends?" Pippin asked, disbelieving. He couldn't imagine not going to see Merry and fussing over him to make certain he was all right.

        "Avon doesn't admit he has friends," Vila said darkly. "Sometimes he tries to kill them."

        Pippin's mouth fell open in horror. "Did he try to kill you?" he asked involuntarily. The image of Avon agreeing to help bear Merry to the Houses of Healing came to Pippin's mind. He had hesitated, but then he had helped. He couldn't be so terrible if he would help Merry, could he? Trying to kill his friends? Had he been influenced, the way Théoden King had been by Saruman?

        Vila's head bobbed once. "Eerie, it was, him searching for me through the shuttle so he could throw me out into space, calling my name in a terrible eerie voice." He swallowed hard. "I think he was mad then, so maybe I can't blame him. He was probably even worse when he shot Blake. And now he's sorry, but he's Avon, so he can't say it and has to pretend he doesn't care."

        "Why?" Pippin asked. "He sounds terrible. Maybe Sauron is controlling him."

        Vila's head shook in denial. "No. Because we only came here yesterday. We never heard of Sauron before. Don't you have people here who...who hold everything inside and try to be hard so they won't be hurt?"

        What a terrible way to live, but Pippin could understand how people might choose to be that way. Before he had met Lord Denethor he had not really understood, although he knew a few bitter or unhappy people, even in the Shire. "Maybe the healers can help him," he said. "Or Aragorn. He's the king, you know, and they say the hands of a king are the hands of a healer. I never thought about a person's mind needing healing before, but maybe Avon's does." He edged away. "Talk to Aragorn and see. Even if he's going to be king, he isn't haughty or anything. He'll listen."

        Vila hesitated. "Maybe I will," he said.

        Pippin nodded and hurried away.

        Merry was sitting on a bench outside the room where he'd slept the night before, and he looked so much more like himself that Pippin gave a glad cry and hugged him fiercely. "Merry, Merry, you're better."

        Merry hugged him in return. "Thanks to you, Pip. I might still be out there if not for you."

        "Well, you're not," Pippin said quickly. "I would have searched all night." He let go and snatched up Merry's hand. "It's not numb any more, is it?"

        Merry made a fist to demonstrate and then wiggled his fingers. "No, see, it's fine. Aragorn came just now to see me, and told me I might get up. He wants me to rest today. I can go about the city with you if you don't have duties, but Aragorn says he'll tell Éomer that I should be free today." He smiled suddenly. "To think we should be in service to great lords, you and I."

        "What will Frodo say when he finds out?" Pippin said. "Do you think I should swear allegiance to Aragorn now? I know I should to Faramir. Denethor freed me from my service, but I swore it to Gondor, not just to him. I never said anything about allegiance to Denethor, just to Gondor."

        "Éomer came last night to see me, and he apologized to me, Pip. He said he'd never doubted my heart but thought I was too small to fight. To think a king would apologize to me." Tears started in his eyes. "Oh, Pip, how could I not fight for Théoden? He was such a noble man, and he was very kind to me after you and Gandalf rode away. And now he's dead."

        Pippin sat beside Merry on the bench and put his arm around his shoulders. "He died heroically in battle," he said. "I think to the Rohirrim, that's the best way to go. He rode to save Minas Tirith, and he must have known he might die, but he came anyway."

        "He was a great hero," Merry said in a small voice. "And he treated me like a son. His own son had died just a few weeks ago."

        Pippin hadn't really known much about Théoden King, but he had heard the king's son was dead. "Then you and King Théoden were good for each other," he said. "My da always says that when somebody dies we should celebrate that we knew him, and be glad they had been a part of our lives, instead of only grieving. He's a wise man, my da."

        "I am glad I knew him," Merry said. "But I still wish I could have saved him."

        "You saved Éowyn anyway," Pippin reminded him. "Éomer must be very grateful to you."

        "He said so. But what else could I do?"

        "Nothing else. I'm just glad you're better."

        They sat side by side in silence for a space, and no words were necessary between the two of them, for they had been friends since Pippin was old enough to walk and talk. He couldn't imagine his life without his best friend and cousin in it.

        After a bit, Merry said, "Aragorn saw to Faramir this morning, too. He's doing better. He was awake, and Aragorn saw he took breakfast."

        "Then I can see him?" Pippin asked hopefully. Faramir still seemed like a great hero to him, but he was also a friend, even if they had known each other such a short time. To see Faramir riding into Minas Tirith with his men after the attack of the Nazgûl had been to see a great hero. Then to witness his father's cruel treatment of him was to see the man beneath the hero's cloak. How brave he had been, and how honorable, to ride out to certain death for Gondor's sake, without even a kind word from his father.

        And now his father was dead and so was his brother. Pippin could scarcely imagine the pain of that. Of course he had feared he had lost Merry, who was as close as a brother. There would be no happy resolution for Faramir. At least he had an uncle, Pippin had heard, his mother's brother, and maybe he would stand for Faramir.

        If he didn't, Pippin would.

        "I think you can see him," Merry said. "But don't upset him and come away when he's tired."

        "I would never upset him," Pippin proclaimed. He jumped up, squared his shoulders, and went into the chamber.

        Faramir was not alone in the room. Another man had a bed on the far wall. But Pippin paid him no heed for Faramir was propped up with three pillows behind him so he did not lie quite flat, and his eyes were open. He had evidently finished his breakfast for a tray with an empty porridge bowl and mug stood on a table near his bed. One of the healer's apprentices hovered near the other man, removing his tray, but Pippin scarcely noticed. Instead he ran across the room to Faramir and stopped just short of his bed.

        "Oh, Faramir, you're getting better."

        "Pippin." Faramir held out his left hand to Pippin across his body, because his right might have hurt too much to move. "I am told I owe my life to you."

        "To Gandalf. I tried and tried, but nothing worked, so I ran for Gandalf." He squeezed Faramir's hand.

        "Into the heart of the battle," Faramir said. His eyes were clear, but his voice was thin yet. "And then leaped onto the very pyre to save me." His eyes held great fondness as he looked upon Pippin, and a humility that Pippin would risk his own life to save him. Pippin thought of Faramir as brave and heroic. Did he see the same feeling in Faramir's gaze?

        "I had to," Pippin said and scraped his toe against the floor. "I'd tried everything else. Why wouldn't they listen?" He realized as soon as he said it that it was the wrong thing to say and wished he could call back the words.

        "They could not, Pippin, for they were given commands," Faramir replied, and his sorrow showed, a great pain not only that his father would wish to burn him but that his father's men would obey such an order. "They believed me dead, or if not dead, dying, and they believed the city would fall, for the Rohirrim did not come until dawn, and they were greatly outnumbered." He swallowed hard, and the pain in his eyes had naught to do with the arrow wounds. "The fire would have been a cleaner death than that which orcs would have accorded me."

        "But now the orcs are defeated and you are safe," Pippin said hastily. How dreadful that Faramir had needed to think such thoughts. Yet how could he not? He cast about for a new topic. "And now the king has come, and they say he saved you. Are...are you glad?" He was not sure what he asked, if Faramir were glad to have the king come again, or if he were glad that he had been saved.

        "I knew him for my king the moment I roused," Faramir said, and his eyes shone. "I will serve him all my days." The tension eased from his muscles, and he smiled. "He called me from the shadows, and I heard his voice and knew him, knew his value. Ah, Pippin, he will be a great king." He paused to catch his breath. "All my life, I have hoped the king would return, but I never dreamed it would be in my lifetime."

        "I'm glad," Pippin said. "You will truly like him. He's wonderful. We four hobbits would have been dead many times if not for him." Yes, Faramir was grateful for his life. He was too strong not to be, even wounded. Pippin beamed at him. "I will let you rest, for I can see you are very sore and tired yet, but I must swear to you my oath as I did... your father." Another mistake.

        "I hope he was glad of you, Pippin," Faramir said, and even if pain for his father's cruel treatment and ghastly death glittered in his eyes, he did not seem stricken at the words. "I am glad you can mention my father to me. So far, all others would shrink, and that will not aid me as I heal. Later, when I am stronger and will not fall asleep in the midst of your words, I would hear tales of Boromir from you, and your journeying together."

        "They are wonderful tales, and I will tell them gladly. For now, I will offer allegiance and then leave you to rest." He dropped to his knees and repeated the words he had pledged to Lord Denethor while Gandalf had stood witness. The only witnesses this time were the healer's aide who had hovered to make certain Faramir did not falter, the soldier in the doorway, and the other patient, who lay listening because he had no choice. "Here do I, Peregrin, son of Paladin, swear fealty and service to Gondor, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me or death take me." He raised the hand he still held to his lips and kissed it more fervently than he had the father's ring. "And I will swear before Aragorn, too."

        Faramir detached his hand and rested it upon Pippin's head. "I shall not forget your oath, and gladly do I accept it. Gondor could have no more loyal esquire."

        Pippin smiled at him joyfully. So many things could still go wrong, but what he had done in this moment felt right and good. "I hope I am still your friend as well as your esquire," he said.

        "Always, Pippin."

        "Come away now, Master Pippin," the healer's apprentice said. "Lord Faramir must rest."

        "I know. I only meant to stay a minute."

        Faramir smiled at him, and obediently closed his eyes. Pippin and the healer waited side by side watching him until his breathing evened out.

        Then Pippin studied the other man, who was propped up like Faramir, a sheet covering his legs, his robe open to expose bandages around his middle. "I hope you are mending well, Blake," he said. His parents had raised him to be polite, and he could not walk out of the room ignoring the man.

        "They say I am," the man replied and smiled at Pippin, but his eyes filled with curiosity. He shifted on his pillow. "How did you know my name?"

        "Well, I met Vila, and he said you were in the same room with Merry, and I knew Merry was in with Faramir, so it had to be you, then, didn't it?"

        Blake stared at him, and then he laughed delightedly, breaking off to press an arm across his bandaged belly. "Oh, don't make me laugh. But you sounded so much like Vila then. He rambles, too."

        "But he is a thief," Pippin blurted out, and instantly wished the words recalled.

        Blake studied him. "And you think that is a terrible thing to be. But consider, Pippin--and I know your name because Faramir and the healer so named you--that if Sauron controlled everything and the world was dark and evil, to steal might be a way to strike against him. There would be few enough ways. Vila may be a thief--and so he is, down to his finger ends--and a self-proclaimed coward, but he has a good heart, and he stood by Avon when there was no one else to do it. Do not judge him by that one thing."

        Pippin stood there before Blake and considered that. "In the Shire, where I live, the people scarcely know Sauron exists. They live in peace and harmony, and everyone is good to everyone else. Oh, there are busybodies, and greedy people, like everywhere, but we love peace so much. We value our neighbors and our friends. Even now that I've seen more of the world, and how cruel it can be, it's still hard to believe." He shivered. "Yesterday, I went on the battlefield to find Merry, among all the slain. If I could only strike at Sauron by being a thief, maybe I would do it." He bowed his head, feeling the need to confess his shame. "Once, I stole something. I did not meant to keep it, and it was a terrible experience. I will never steal anything again. Shall I apologize to Vila?"

        "No need. Just treat him kindly. I see you have it in you to be very kind." He nodded at the sleeping Faramir, who slept on, oblivious to their regard.

        "I will. But now I see the healer is urging me to leave. You must sleep, too."

        "I am glad to know you, Pippin. The kindness of your land is what I have always wished for my own people. Freedom from oppression."

        "I should have known," said a new voice behind Pippin, and he whirled to see the man who had helped to carry Merry from the battlefield. He wore his left arm in a sling, but he did not look as if he were in pain. Instead, he regarded Blake with a curious diffidence, very unlike his manner of yesterday. "Blake must have his cause."

        "It's a very good cause," Pippin said, facing the chilly man. He had faced orcs and a cave troll, and consorted with kings. It would not do to give ground. "It's what we believe in the Shire, so don't you blame him, Avon."

        "He knows who people are without introduction," Blake said to Avon, his voice full of amusement.

        "Well, I do, then," Pippin replied. "Anyway, I met him yesterday even if he did not give his name, so I figured it out. Besides, Vila mentioned him."

        "Oh, did he?" Avon purred, and his voice held a hint of threat for the absent Vila for talking out of turn.

        "Oh, yes," Pippin babbled, fearing he had gotten Vila into trouble. "He said you were his great friend and a noble hero, and that everywhere people had to shade their eyes when you passed because of your radiance."

        Blake roared, and then broke off to press his hands against his middle. "Pippin, you are not to make me laugh," he urged.

        Avon, whose mouth had quirked reluctantly, tensed up at the sight of Blake's pain. He took two hasty steps in Blake's direction, then caught himself.

        "Here," said the healer, darting closer with a small pillow. "If you must laugh--or cough even--press that against the wound. It will help."

        Blake accepted it gladly, and used it. "Avon, Avon, if you could have seen your face..."

        "I saw yours, and that was enough." He looked over at the sleeping Faramir, then at the impatient healer. "I see I am to be driven away. There are things that still need to be said between us, Blake. I shall return." He whirled about and departed without another word.

        "I suppose I shouldn't have said that," Pippin muttered ruefully. "But I was afraid he'd be mad at Vila."

        "That is the normal state of affairs. Don't worry about it."

        Pippin was not sure if he should worry or not, but the healer tapped his foot impatiently. He was tall enough to manhandle Pippin from the room, so Pippin only said, "Goodbye, Blake," and made good his exit.

*****

        Avon left the Houses of Healing without bothering to look about for Vila, or to allow a healer to examine his bandaged arm. His conversation with Blake did not require an audience, for he meant to chide Blake fiercely for his idiocy on Gauda Prime. "I set all this up," was not a line guaranteed to reassure, but rather to create extreme suspicion. Blake was a fool, but Blake had always been a fool. And worse, he was a fool who had been conditioned. Did that make up for Avon's actions?

        He chose not to dwell upon it, instead concentrating on the world in which he found himself, a world in which the rabble rose up in arms against their oppressor, a world after Blake's own heart. Yet how could Blake drive them when they were already driven? Should the forces of Gondor defeat Sauron, would Blake regard himself as obsolete? He had never appeared to possess a sane plan for winning the peace, should the Federation fall. Avon had more than once tried to imagine Blake as president of a new Federation, and failed. Figureheads served little purpose in peace except perhaps as models for statues like the huge mounted warrior in the main square down on the ground level of the city. The man Aragorn, who would be king, would need to be more than a figurehead, for the city was battered and broken, with many dead. War was futility.

        Yet Blake would surely claim a battered peace was better than continued oppression. Ah, Blake...

        His steps led him to a ramp that climbed to the highest level of the city, and since he had not yet been there, he followed it up to a great courtyard, narrowing at the eastern end to a point on the prow of rock that thrust through the city, a prow aimed at the distant land of Mordor across the river. Broken clouds hung low overhead, gapping from time to time to allow a flash of sunlight through. In the other direction he found a great hall, and the soaring white tower, and four soldiers with winged helmets guarding a dead tree and a fountain. A dead tree? Ah, no doubt symbolic, more pointless symbolism. It seemed any world or time was prey to such.

        The soldiers did not bother him or even look at him, but the ones who guarded the door to the great fortress stiffened to attention. Apart from the shortness of his hair in comparison to that of the men who belonged in this time, Avon would have looked like a man of Gondor; the clothing he now wore, replacing the drab brown Servalan had given the four from the future, was in the local style. When offered a choice, he had chosen dark blue rather than black. A considered choice, avoiding the black he had worn when he had shot Blake?

        Ignoring that thought, he moved slowly to the edge of the fountain where he gazed at the white tree. Not dead after all, for a white blossom or two stood out amid its stark branches. The rigid, impassive soldiers paid him no attention, yet he was certain they watched him from the corners of their eyes. Did the sling he wore reassure them? It should not, for in his own time, a man might conceal a weapon within it. Yet they had no hand weapons here, short of swords and bows. A dagger would fit, but they made no attempt to restrain him.

        The door to the great hall swung open and a number of people emerged. Avon recognized Gandalf, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli. Another man, tall and broad in the leather armor he wore, with the blond hair customary among the Rohirrim, accompanied them. Aragorn came last, for he had been pointed out to Avon in the Houses of Healing. The man who would be king...

        Aragorn hesitated, speaking earnestly to Gandalf. Avon was too far away to make out the words, and he made no effort to listen. This might yet involve him, but only in that he was stranded in this world without technology, no computers requiring his skill. Tarrant, the trained soldier, would happily adopt the sword and march away to battle, Blake would orate against Sauron and rouse the people. Vila, of course, would blend in anywhere, and thieves could work in any environment. That left Avon, Avon without purpose.

        Gandalf passed something to Aragorn, something small and wrapped in cloth. A thrill passed through Avon he vaguely recognized, the thrill he had always subliminally experienced when working with computers. Oddly enough, it recalled to him the moment when he had handled his first tarial cell, the backbone of the computer network, Ensor's great design. With that invention, computer unification was complete, communication was rapid, even between worlds. Orac's great gift had been to read all tarial cells and thus to have access to any knowledge or information anywhere. In the old days, people who could access any computer had been called hackers, but with Orac, the universe had been at Avon's fingertips. How many hours had he spent amassing knowledge through Orac, knowledge he meant to use to protect himself, to find himself that bolthole he had always claimed to want. Yet he had never taken it. There had always been something to prevent him from doing so. Often, maddeningly, it had been Blake himself.

        Yet that feeling lingered. It was said the true computer expert was born to the job. Perhaps it was true, or perhaps it was a reaction to the handling of tarial cells. Some could do it without that inner sensation, but Avon had asked a few very discreet questions and learned that the ones he considered brilliant all experienced it. His research on Ensor, who had been considered the greatest computer expert of all time, proved that Ensor had experienced the thrill, too. He had developed the tarial cell when he was only eighteen. Avon had followed bitterly in his shadow, resenting that none would ever know him as the greatest computer expert in the Federated worlds.

        Once he had access to Orac, he had assiduously pursued any and all information regarding Ensor and the way he had created his tarial cells. The one thing he had learned was that Ensor had treasured a giant version of the cell, big enough to be cradled in both hands, a glowing orb that accessed communications. He had linked his original test cells to it. Avon had longed to study the prototype model, but could find only fleeting references to it, and those sketchy and incomplete. Bizarre theories abounded: that it was a product of the violent war at the end of the first calendar, the fused and melted remains of an earlier tool, or that it had been found in a glacier cast up in the northern wastes of Earth where few dared venture.

        Now, as Aragorn accepted the item from Gandalf, the tarial cell feeling Avon had never thought to feel again slammed into him with bludgeoning force. He had not gone down to Aristo to meet Ensor because he was still suffering from the radiation sickness picked up on Cephlon. He would have wished to meet Ensor, but it was not to be. Orac, it was said, possessed Ensor's personality. Perhaps it was as well Avon had not encountered him. Yet he would have relished an opportunity to see Ensor's prototype.

        Did Aragorn hold a facsimile? If Ensor had found his prototype rather than creating it, did that mean the development of tarial cells was no more than a lucky chance, built on the work of a nameless ancient genius? Drawn by the pull of whatever it was Aragorn held, Avon advanced slowly, watching the king return to the hall, bearing the item warily as if it were a snake prepared to strike him. The others waited and did not enter. Legolas frowned as he watched, the elf's brow wrinkling at the sight, and made a move as if to follow him, but Gandalf shook his head and gestured to wave Legolas back.

        "He must do this himself," Gandalf said.

        "Well, I don't see that is right," Gimli objected. "We followed him even along the Paths of the Dead. We know yon stone is dangerous. I saw what it did to Pippin."

        Stone? Avon frowned. Could it be such as the one Ensor had possessed? Was that what had stirred the strange feelings within Avon? He shifted uneasily from one foot to another and stared broodingly at the gathering on the steps.

        "Peregrin Took will be well. If he had the strength to resist, how much more will Aragorn possess?" Gandalf reassured them. "I shall wait for him here."

        Legolas and Gimli exchanged reluctant frowns, then came down the stairs, accompanied by the other man, who had not spoken during the exchange on the stairs. Driven by a curiosity to understand what the item was, Avon stepped forward without speaking and waited for their approach.

        Legolas and Gimli greeted him and introduced him to the blond man. "Éomer, king of Rohan, this is the man who helped Pippin rescue Merry," Legolas said. "I am sorry, I did not learn your name, but I believe it to be Avon."

        "It is," Avon agreed. Uncertain how to greet a king, he inclined his head to Éomer. "Your majesty."

        A wry grin darted across Éomer's face. "I will accustom myself to such address in time, no doubt, but it yet seems strange. Avon. You are a companion of Tarrant?"

        It was not how Avon would have described it, but he merely nodded. "You have met Tarrant?"

        "On the battlefield, slashing about with more determination than skill, but learning every moment. I saw him save the life of Grimbold, one of my officers. Then Grimbold saved his."

        "Tarrant has always been more bold than wise," Avon replied. "He fancies himself the dashing hero."

        "And so he was, on the Pelennor," Éomer said with a slight note of reproach in his words toward any who would mock bravery. "You fought as well," and he nodded at Avon's sling.

        "The orcs gave me little choice."

        "Nor any of us," Éomer replied. "Excuse me, I must go to see my sister." He nodded at Avon, and at the elf and dwarf, and hurried toward the ramp.

        "The lady Éowyn fought bravely in the battle and was wounded defending her dying uncle," Gimli told Avon. "Aragorn helped to save her. She will be well."

        Gandalf reached the foot of the stairs as Legolas and Gimli departed after Éomer, and beckoned to Avon to join him. The pull of the item Aragorn had taken still drawing him, Avon advanced. "Ah, Avon." The wizard stared at Avon as if he had never seen him before. "I sense something within you that was not present earlier. Do you understand what it is?" He regarded Avon levelly with the steady, patient stare of a man who will have an answer, need he wait until the end of time. Not even Blake had looked at him like that, Blake, who had always seen more than Avon had wished, and Avon resented it.

        Did he know? He wanted to tell Gandalf to stay out of his head, but instead, he heard himself replying, "I sense a device to which I have a bond. You passed it to Aragorn, and it stirred something inside me." Damn him, how could Gandalf do that, pull forth answers? How could Avon even know the object Gandalf had given Aragorn had been responsible for the curious sensation within? Yet he did.

        Gandalf's eyebrows lifted, and genuine surprise touched his features. In that moment he looked not old but ageless, as if he had seen everything possible in the world--except perhaps this one thing. "You have a bond to the palantír? How is this possible? Yet they are not all accounted for..." His voice trailed off thoughtfully.

        "Palantír?" The word meant nothing to Avon.

        "The seeing stone," Gandalf explained and made shaping motions with his hands to sketch the dimensions of the orb.

        Seeing stone? A device to reveal distant locations? To communicate across great distances? Should Ensor have discovered one such rather than created it, how could he have known its purpose if there were no others with which to communicate? Or did it simply reveal distant visions? "I have never seen one," he said. "But I know of one that existed in my time."

        "Your time?" Gandalf echoed, although he did not seem as surprised as Avon had expected. His face grew very thoughtful. "Yes..." he said slowly. "That might account for the differences I have sensed in you and your companions, as well as your unfamiliarity with the customs of the world. I have seen great surprise on the faces of your companions when confronting factors that would arouse no such reaction in those who have always dwelt here. They have spoken to me--"

        A wave of energy and power, swirling with great evil, suddenly overwhelmed Avon, and he nearly staggered, gasping. "I feel its power," he admitted. "I must go." Unable to understand the sudden, urgent compulsion that twisted his heart and made his head throb, he ran past Gandalf up the stairs.

        Gandalf followed him, moving remarkably quickly for a man of his evident age. "Wait," he urged, but he must have gestured the soldier guards to allow Avon through because they pulled the massive doors open for him and Gandalf and shifted aside to allow them to pass within.

        Aragorn stood at the far end of the hall before a flight of stairs that rose to what must be the king's throne. The room's light seemed focused upon that area, although a few wall torches gave additional light and high windows allowed a slant of sunlight in. A simpler chair sat at the staircase's base--the Steward' seat? On the platform's riser lay the palantír, gleaming with an inner light Avon could see even across the vast tiled space of the hall. Towering statues marched in rows on either side of him, but he took no time to observe them. With Gandalf on his heels, he hastened across the hall to Aragorn's side, nearly running.

        The man clutched a sword in one hand, his head bowed, his face twisted as with unendurable pain. Gandalf went to him and clasped his shoulder and spoke to him in an undertone, but Avon knelt before the object that lay glowing on the dais, and curled his fingers around it to lift it.

        Aragorn jerked in astonishment when Avon picked up the stone. "Don't touch it," he shouted, but Avon did not relinquish his grip. Gandalf caught Aragorn's arm and restrained him.

        "Wait."

        For an instant, Avon thought he saw an image of a woman, more beautiful than any he had ever seen, her hair dark and lustrous, her eyes closed in what might be death or dying, but before he could study her, the image swirled away and a monstrous great eye with a cat pupil regarded him out of the stone. Avon could feel the dreadful strength of its regard and recognized it for a conscious being, one of an evil so terrible, Servalan would be virtuous in comparison. So this was Sauron. He had no doubt his guess was correct.

        I see you. The words echoed, heavy and malicious, in his mind, and he knew he had not heard them aloud. Name yourself. Speak.

        He responded in the same manner. I see you as well. Identify yourself.

        You know me. You fear me.

        Well, now, Avon thought icily, twisting his face into a sneer, that is a dangerous assumption on your part.

        His realization of who looked at him out of the stone sent a rush of near exhilaration pouring through him, to know he could control such power. The stone would bow to him, because his constant use of tarial cells had attuned him to it. Sauron would not expect that. He doubted he could resist forever, but if he could resist long enough...

        "Wait," said Gandalf. "Avon, reveal nothing to him."

        You have no power against me, the dark voice thrummed in his head, nearly strong enough to inflict physical pain, but Avon ignored the sensation, even though he winced at it. Denying pain had long been his habit, although he stiffened with the brush of agony.

        You do not control me, Sauron, he snarled in his mind and tightened his grip upon the stone.

        Do I not? The image swirled and in its place came another, one of Blake, sprawled upon his bed in the Houses of Healing, his face silent and still, as if in death, like the beautiful dark woman. You have slain him. Your hope for atonement will come to naught.

        The knot in Avon's belly tightened hard, as if a fist had grasped his inner organs and squeezed them with barbed gloves. The Enemy had delved into his mind, as he must have done Aragorn's, and would use the shooting of Blake against him. Yet he hardened himself against the emotional manipulation. Take what images you will from my mind, but you will not defeat me, he thought at Sauron, cold and furious as ever he had been. With an effort of will, he blanked the stone, shutting away the images that would have revealed themselves. He caught one fleeting glimpse of Anna, dead by torture as he had originally believed, then as she had really been, Bartolemew, Central Security's top agent, using him for her own ends. Next came Cally, crushed and broken on Terminal, her eyes staring at nothing, blood in her hair, dead alone and silent, then fading away as the globe darkened to a mere flicker of flame at its heart. Trembling, Avon returned it to the dais and backed away two steps, automatically scrubbing his hand on his tunic.

        "What saw you?" Gandalf asked urgently.

        "The great eye of Sauron, plus a few images he cast my way in an attempt to manipulate me," Avon replied through gritted teeth. He would not speak of them in more detail, for they did not involve this world and were no concern of Gandalf's. "He meant to control me, but I do not know to what purpose."

        "You resisted him?" Aragorn asked, staring. He must have seen images, too, perhaps the dying woman had been someone close to him, perhaps even his Anna. Anna had been a lie from beginning to end, but that did not mean Aragorn should have been so betrayed.

        "There was a compulsion, but I have long handled devices designed to resemble the communication power of the palantír. I could resist."

        "What did you tell him?" Gandalf demanded.

        "That I did not fear him and that he had no power over me."

        "You spoke nothing of Frodo or the Ring?" Gandalf persisted anxiously.

        Avon grimaced. "I don't know anything about Frodo and the Ring, except the little I have heard in passing and paid no heed to. My thoughts were far from that."

        Aragorn and Gandalf stared at each other with dawning hope. "A natural immunity?" Aragorn asked. "Yet long usage does not grant immunity. Denethor long used the palantír of Minas Tirith, and eventually it misled him into bitterness and despair."

        Avon's mouth tightened. Too many such images as of Blake, Anna, and Cally could work on him, he knew. Yet he would not allow sentimental and bitter wallows to be forced upon him. He would shut away his emotions, as he had long done, to seek safety apart from them. Denethor? That was the past steward, the one who had burned himself alive. Not a pleasant image. Avon's fingers flinched away from the cloying feeling that clung to them.

        Gandalf rested both hands on Avon's shoulders, and although he resented the touch, he found also a curious comfort in it. "We are fortunate," he said, "for you are not known to Sauron, and he will not understand your abilities nor your reluctance to be intimidated by his threats. You set the stone aside only when Sauron had withdrawn, and that speaks of your strength of will. If you would, you could aid us greatly."

        Avon almost remarked that he could see no reason why he should aid them, that their problems were not his. At the last moment, he held back the words. The healers here had treated Blake. Why should they not, though, because Avon, Vila, and Tarrant had fought for this land without obligation? He frowned. This land might be theirs forever, if there should be no means of returning. Would Servalan be convinced they were gone forever? Would she destroy the time ship to prevent their return? Or would she consider it a successful test and use it again to visit this time and to find ways to manipulate it to her advantage?

        The image of a large force of mutoids bearing Federation hand blasters stepping out of the ship and blasting the people of Gondor filled his mind. No, she would not risk coming here. She would sit on her throne--assuming she could again rise to the rank of Supreme Commander--and gloat over the downfall of the rebellion.

        If he used the palantír to seek out her intentions...

        It was not his way to volunteer to risk danger for the sake of others. Yet that image of a dead or dying Blake lingered in his mind and would not be banished. He had let his emotions guide him, let his need to hold himself aloof from all others and to need no one lead him, and it had led him to a room on Gauda Prime with alarms hooting and Blake's open eyes gazing up blankly at him from the floor. Servalan's words to him in the dungeon on Earth, "It's an old wall, Avon. It waits," echoed in his memory more powerfully than Sauron's intimidation. If he turned away now, the wall would need wait no longer. Sauron would see Blake dead; he might even be able to find Blake without further information, to strike out in retaliation fo Avon's resistance.

        It's an old wall. It waits.

        No. He spoke angrily, but the anger was not directed at Gandalf or Aragorn but at himself. "What would you have me do?"

        Gandalf's eyes were knowing, as if he understood what Avon had endured to reach this point. Had he been talking with Blake? How dare he go behind Avon's back?

        Then he looked at the stone that lay flickering gently on the dais. That was why Gandalf dared, because of the malign intelligence that had gazed at Avon out of it, that had seen into his very soul and was prepared to twist and use what he saw there for his own ends. Avon had never believed in Blake's cause, although for a time he had allowed himself to believe in the man. He and Jenna had shared that in common. It would have been far better for Avon to have left Blake long ago, or to have abandoned the search for him when Blake had failed to return after Star One. But he had not done so. He had pursued every lead, telling himself that to find Blake was to finally free himself from him.

        Poor, deluded fool. Sauron, in one glance, had seen more truly than Avon had ever admitted. Now that the Enemy knew, Avon had a responsibility, one he had not sought, one he did not wish.

        "As yet, we know not," Gandalf said thoughtfully. "But the stone can safely be left with you. I do not believe you will betray us, for you would not betray Blake."

        "Some would say I already have," Avon replied, and he kept his face rigid and expressionless.

        "Yet Blake himself does not. Even Tarrant has told me you were made to believe he had betrayed you. In perilous times, the fear of perfidy may drive many men to the breaking point. Middle-earth faces great peril, great doom. The shadows gather. We have won a victory here, but the war is not yet won."

        "What am I to do with the stone?" Avon asked reluctantly. He saw Aragorn's doubt, his unwillingness to trust Avon in the way the future king regarded him through narrowed eyes.

        Gandalf exchanged a glance with Aragorn. "What I would have you do is use the stone periodically after the army has departed for Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor. We wish to distract Sauron from...various actions. He will know the army comes, but it will not harm any for him to believe the army is greater than he suspects or that troops from other lands will also attack him. We know he will send his minions against Lothlórien, against Mirkwood, against Erebor, and they must defend their lands, for we cannot. But all hangs on Sauron's attention being focused upon the threat of our army and of Aragorn."

        "He knows I shall no longer hide from him," Aragorn said in a tight voice. "Gandalf, I showed him Andúril, the blade reforged." He displayed the sword to Avon before settling it in his sheath. It was the longest blade Avon had yet seen, although his entire experience had been gathered the previous day upon the field of battle. "Long has he sought me. He knows now I seek him in return. His end will come," he concluded very fiercely, as if, by determination alone, he could end Sauron's threat. "I must go and give orders to the officers, to begin the process of readying the army, as Éomer no doubt readies the Rohirrim. Gandalf, I entrust this task to you."

        "Gladly do I accept it. When shall we depart?"

        Aragorn frowned. "One cannot whip up an army in one day. It is too soon after the battle. Not yet tomorrow, but the day following, if all can be readied, supplies prepared and wains loaded. We will travel as light as we can, but we must take food and a supply of arrows, and several healers to deal with the wounded for after the battle." His face twisted. "If Frodo should fail, they will not be needed, but even if you no longer sense him, that only means he is within Sauron's realm, not that he has fallen."

        "No," Gandalf replied very softly. Avon did not know more of Frodo than his name and that he carried a special Ring, but he saw in Gandalf's face a great fondness for Frodo and a terrible fear that his task would fail, not only for the sake of Middle-earth but for Frodo himself. "Frodo has carried on this far, and Sam will never abandon him. Faramir reports that Gollum accompanies them, and I fear that, yet I see some purpose in it, for good or ill." He lifted his shoulders in a shrug to prove he didn't know which. "Go and see to your duty. I will reveal to Avon what he must know."

        Aragorn set off across the huge hall, his boots ringing on the marble floor, his shoulders rigid with determination.

        "It is a heavy load he bears," Gandalf said, watching his departure with a soft smile. The soldiers pulled open the great doors to allow him to depart, revealing a glimpse of the White Tree and of Legolas and Gimli standing near it waiting for Aragorn. "I have known him for more than fifty years," Gandalf continued. Fifty years? Aragorn did not look as old as that. "To be Isildur's heir is a huge burden, yet he will bear it with strength and honor, even if it be at great personal cost. If all falls out as we hope, he will be a magnificent king."

        Avon had sensed the strength in Aragorn. "Can Sauron fall?" he asked. He needed to know that, for he was stranded here and had no wish to exchange one tyranny for an even greater one.

        "Any being can fall. His master, Morgoth, far more powerful, was finally vanquished. Sauron will fall if the Ring is unmade, so we will hope it can be done."

        Unmade? Surely a different shade of meaning than simply 'destroyed'. Avon had many questions, but he chose not to ask them. Gandalf would only tell him what he wished to reveal. Avon had not known him long, but it was long enough to know that. So he inclined his head and asked instead, "What exactly is a palantír?"

        "There were seven of the seeing stones brought to Middle-earth many years ago," Gandalf replied. "They were created by Fëanor, a Noldor elf, long ago in the Undying Lands. Fëanor was perhaps the most brilliant, creative elf of all time, but he possessed fatal flaws that led to much suffering and the cursing of his people. He died because of his colossal ego."

        To Avon's surprise, his resentment at the pointed words was tempered with a sudden amusement. "If that is intended as a lesson..."

        Gandalf laughed. "If you see it so, then so it shall be. The stones were meant to offer communication between lands. It will mean nothing to you yet to know the location of all the stones, but one was here, one in Osgiliath--the ruined city on the river, one at Minas Ithil across the Anduin in the shadow of Mordor. Minas Ithil fell to evil long ago, and the stone Sauron uses may have come from there, or it may be the one that vanished from Osgiliath. This stone came from Isengard, the tower of Orthanc, where Saruman held sway. He was once of my order, but fell to power, and is now dead. As Isildur's heir, Aragorn possessed the ability to master the stone."

        "I am no one's heir," Avon replied.

        "No, but from what you tell me, you may have experienced long exposure to small versions of the stone of Annúminas or the one from Amon Sul, both of which were lost in an ice bay to the far north."

        "Ah." Avon caught his breath. "One of the reports of Ensor's master device indicated he did not create it but instead found it in a glacier. It may indeed be one of the missing stones."

        "And this Ensor created replicas of it?" Gandalf asked.

        "Miniature cells that were inserted into computers to change the very nature of computer science." When Gandalf lifted a questioning eyebrow, he said, "Computers are the communication devices of our time, and are also used for data storage and endless functions of information, creativity, and power."

        "Power, indeed, if a miniature element of a palantír lives within each one." He gathered up the stone and wrapped it in cloth so that nothing of it showed. "I shall secure this in a safe place, and when the time comes for me to depart with the army, I shall leave it with you."

        "Using the interval to determine how trustworthy I might be?" Avon asked skeptically.

        "If you would offer me your sworn word, I would accept it," Gandalf replied simply and waited.

        "Thus proving yourself a trusting fool," Avon returned.

        "No. For both Vila and Tarrant have spoken of you, and both have informed me that if you gave your word you would keep it. You would not always offer it, but when you did, they knew they could rely upon you."

        "What leave did you have to discuss me with them?" Avon hissed through clenched teeth.

        "None, save the need to preserve Middle-earth and to ensure Sauron's fall. I spoke with them at some length, learning of your unexpected arrival here, for strangers at such a time could easily have been Sauron's spies."

        The unclean malevolence emanating from the stone would have precluded him from choosing to work for Sauron, but he did not say so. Instead he frowned. He did not care for the thought that Vila and Tarrant would reveal much of him. Had Blake?

        "Before you depart," he said, "I will give you my word or explain my reasons for not doing so. Does that satisfy you?"

        "For now. We will speak again. Come," Gandalf said. "We have exchanged brief information. I have many duties this day. I have but one request of you. Speak not of the stone to any, save Aragorn and myself. Above all, mention it not to Peregrin Took, who was once compelled by its power to steal it from me, and who also saw the Enemy within. I think he has learned well his lesson, but I would not have temptation placed before him. When he rides out with the army, he will leave it behind. I do not believe he would again fall to temptation, but he has ever been an impulsive hobbit, young, by the standards of his people, not yet adult."

        "But brave," Avon said impulsively, surprising himself. He had wondered when assisting Pippin to aid Merry whether any would have searched a battlefield so determinedly for him.

        Gandalf's face warmed. "Brave indeed," he said, and gestured Avon toward the door.

*****

        "Wait, Gimli," Legolas commanded midway down the ramp to the sixth level. He paused, his eyes closed as if he communed with an inner vision.

        Gimli eyed him in alarm. "The lad is in peril?" he asked.

        "How could he avoid it, when risking the Enemy's direct regard?" Legolas stood silent a moment, his hands closing tightly into fists. "The Enemy's eye searches. It is here." Grasping Gimli's shoulder, he urged him up the ramp.

        "Will it hurt him the way it did wee Pippin?" Gimli gasped as they raced across the Court of the Fountain. He could still remember rousing to Pippin's cries of pain as he writhed on the floor, the glowing palantír in his hands. Aragorn and Legolas had burst in and Aragorn had snatched it from the hobbit, but the stone had stolen the strength from him and made him swoon. What would it do to him now?

        As they hurried toward the Hall, Gandalf and Avon vanished within. Why would Gandalf take Avon with him? Gimli did not trust the man; he was hard and cold, and held himself arrogant and aloof. He might even be a spy of Sauron's.

        Abruptly Legolas stopped. "It has ended," he said. "Wait."

        "You want to wait when Aragorn is in peril?"

        "Gandalf can aid him far better than I. The Enemy should see as few of us as possible, for to see you and me ranged at Aragorn's side would tell him elves and dwarves support him. He may have taken that knowledge from Aragorn's mind, yet he stole no such knowledge from Pippin. Gandalf said Sauron might even believe Pippin had the Ring. He was at Edoras, not journeying into Mordor, which would offer protection to Frodo."

        "Aye, but Aragorn knows Frodo is in Mordor now. What if Sauron snatched that out of his mind?"

        They exchanged worried looks. Gimli shook his head, not to deny the possibility, although he wished to cry out that it could not happen, but in lingering disbelief to know that he would stand in brotherhood at the side of an elf, and allow the elf to see his inner fears. Only a few short months ago in Rivendell, he had cried, "Never trust an elf." Now he knew he trusted this elf as surely as he trusted himself.

        Legolas gasped and stiffened. "He is returned," he breathed.

        "Sauron?" Gimli took a step toward the Hall, determined to plunge to Aragorn's aid, although the thought of touching the seeing stone made his stomach plummet.

        Legolas caught Gimli by the shoulder. "Wait. It is not Aragorn who confronts him now but Avon."

        "Avon? But he is not even from Middle-earth," Gimli objected. "They come from the future or some such unlikely place, he and the others. What can he do?"

        "What he cannot do is overpower Gandalf and Aragorn to do it. He is a man, of the race of men, and not even of the race of Númenor. I would have sensed it."

        Gimli stared at the Hall then looked up at Legolas. As he watched, the elf's taut muscles eased. "It has ceased," he said. The urge to run to the Hall and make certain Aragorn was well shone on his face, but he restrained himself. He would not fear to go into the presence of the palantír, Gimli knew. But he would trust Gandalf. If the greatest Wizard in Middle-earth could not aid Aragorn, what could one elf and one dwarf do?

        Moments passed and Legolas waited, slowly releasing his held breath. "It is done," he said. "The Enemy's eye has turned away from us."

        "Would that he does not seek Frodo," Gimli murmured.

        "Aragorn would not allow himself to think of Frodo. If Pippin did not reveal him, trust that Aragorn would not. I think that Avon knows too little of him to understand the value of such knowledge."

        That might be true.

        A bird flapped past Gimli and landed in the White Tree. The dwarf half expected the soldiers to drive it away, but they stood unmoving as they always did. What had they done yesterday in the battle? Run to fight? Guarded the Tree even when the Nazgûl swooped overhead?

        Legolas stiffened, watching the bird, and a change came over his posture that Gimli liked not. "A gull," Legolas breathed. "Here, so far from the sea." He was silent a long moment. "The sea..."

        Gimli shivered. He had learned enough of elves to know that a longing for the sea would drive them from Middle-earth, to sail away to the Undying Lands. He had not thought the woodland elves like Legolas felt the call, but what if he did? Would he leave Middle-earth once the war was won? Would he sail away to Valinor and abandon his friends?

        The bird regarded them as if it were intelligent. Was it a spy of Sauron's? Saruman had sent crows to spy out the Fellowship as they journeyed south from Rivendell. Could Sauron have sent this lone invader to learn of the palantír?

        "Go on, shoo," Gimli cried and waved his axe at the bird. It burst into flight in a flurry of white wings, and flew off toward the Anduin.

        Legolas gazed down at Gimli, startled out of his rumination. "Why did you drive it hence?" he asked in a soft voice.

        "For fear it came from Sauron," Gimli replied.

        "No, it was not his creature," Legolas replied. "He would use more fell assistants, like the crebain who sought us in Eriador. Yet it is well to be wary." Silently he watched the bird until it flew from sight. When he turned, he said, "That is not the only reason, Gimli," in a very soft voice.

        "I thought it reminded you of the sea," Gimli replied, avoiding Legolas' eyes.

        "And so it did." Legolas hesitated. "I will not deceive you, Gimli. I have been touched by the pull of the sea, the pull of the Undying Lands. It does not usually fall upon my people, but it has touched me, and will not depart my heart. Yet there are pulls which hold me in Middle-earth. I will not yet sail beyond the Havens."

        Before Gimli could formulate a reply, Legolas turned. "Aragorn," he said, and in the concern that filled his voice at the utterance Gimli heard a pledge, although Legolas might not even know he made it. "Come, Gimli," Legolas urged and hastened to meet Aragorn, with Gimli hard on his heels.

        "You saw the Enemy?" Legolas asked, and gripped Aragorn's forearms.

        "He showed me Arwen, dying," Aragorn replied involuntarily, as if the pain filled him so fully it needed to spill forth. Leaning into Legolas' grip, he drew deep breaths, then he straightened. "Avon has an affinity to the palantíri. Gandalf believes he can use it to distract and confuse Sauron as to our purpose, once we march away to war."

        "Gandalf would so trust him?" Legolas asked sharply, and Gimli gave a vehement nod to prove he shared the same doubt.

        "Gandalf would not permit it if he could not reassure himself," Aragorn replied. "He will decide before we march away. Come with me, both of you, for I must see to the army and begin our plans to march out." He offered the pair a quirked smile. "No doubt they already know and begin without my commands, but I will see it done. I must also confer with Faramir at some length, for he will have the rule when I am gone. I believe the warden of the city will accept the responsibility for what must be done until Faramir is able to move about the city." He spread his hands, already putting the horror of the palantír behind him. "Come. There is much to do and far too little time to do it if we are to see Frodo as well protected as we can." As they started for the ramp, he heaved a huge sigh. "Our diversion will be very costly in lives, but without it, all Middle-earth will fall. To lead so many good men to their deaths... Ah, Legolas, I have not wanted this."

        "Yet it has come to you, Aragorn. Know I will ever stand ready to aid you."

        Ever? Was that a pledge to shun the Grey Havens as long as Aragorn might need him? They had known each other many years. Gimli watched Aragorn's face.

        His features softened, and his eyes lit. He understood, Gimli knew, and took heart at the elf's pledge. "Ah, Legolas, I am, as always, glad of you. As I am glad of you, Gimli. Come, we must hurry." He let a hand fall on the shoulder of each as they started down the ramp.

*****

        Exhaustion and pain flooded Faramir as old Ioreth shepherded him to his bed. Ten minutes in the garden had sapped what minuscule strength had returned, and he should have wallowed in a flood of despair at his inability to recover more quickly when Gondor needed him so gravely. Instead, hope filled his heart and warmed his being, and even his blasted weakness did not bring despair down upon him. He knew he would mend, for so his king had commanded it. His king... To think he would live to see the return of the king to Minas Tirith.

        Even above that joy, a new pleasure touched his heart. How strange to think all could alter in a minute. For as Ioreth led the way to his chamber he had paused to rest beside a pillar and looked up to see a woman clad all in white, gazing at him from a window.

        She had been superbly fair, her hair a glorious white gold, loose around her shoulders, her face filled with such a great, aching sorrow that, in the first breathless moment, he had wanted nothing more than to go to her and comfort her. Then their eyes had met, and he had seen the strength beyond the sorrow, the spirit not even great unhappiness could crush. She was being cared for here; she was hurt. And in that moment, he knew her for the White Lady of Rohan, Éowyn, sister to the new king, and niece of Théoden who had fallen. Even in his sickroom, the word had come of her great courage on the Pelennor.

        "My lady," he had said, knowing Ioreth would not allow him to tarry, and that his own body would betray him if he remained much longer from his bed. "I am Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and, like you, a prisoner of the healers. Should you require aught, you need only command me."

        A faint smile touched her face, although it did not ease the pain in her heart. "I am Éowyn," she replied. "I will remember your kind words."

        Ioreth stepped up, bearing a torch, for the day was drawing to a close. "My lady, forgive me, but Lord Faramir must return to his bed, for he was gravely wounded and must rest."

        "I am well protected here," Faramir told Éowyn. "But I will be stronger on the morrow. I will come to you when I am able, for it is Gondor's privilege to serve you in your need."

        "I thank you," she said, and a faint touch of wonder touched her eyes, along with a curiosity. How pale and lost she looked. If only he could drive the sorrow from her face, could see her smile in genuine delight.

        He bowed his head, for to risk more of a movement would likely pitch him onto the flagstones beneath his feet. She inclined her own, and if she did not smile again, she studied him with sudden interest, as if he had offered her a puzzle to distract her from her sorrow. Her uncle lay dead in the House of the Kings in the Silent Street. Her brother would ride to a battle as futile as Faramir's charge on Osgiliath. How could she not grieve?

        "Farewell for now, Éowyn," he said.

        "And to you, Faramir."

        Ioreth chivvied him away, the torch in one gnarled hand, her other gripping Faramir's left elbow. He looked over his shoulder to see Éowyn lingering in her window, watching him, and he let his eye linger upon her until she passed from his sight.

        Ioreth saw him lying down, and adjusted the pillows so he lay slightly propped up. "There, there, laddie," she soothed and smoothed the hair back from his face. She brought a cold cloth and mopped away his perspiration. Well did he remember her of old. When he was five years old and his mother had died, it had been Ioreth who had come the first night to cradle him and sing him to sleep. His father had arranged a woman to care for him, but Ioreth often came at night, and he remembered clutching at her gown with shaking fingers and pleading for his mother, even if he understood she was gone beyond recall.

        Ioreth had told him tales she had heard of the Undying Lands far across the Western Sea, and Faramir had imagined his mother there. She had some elvish blood from long ago, too small a portion to grant her the right to the Halls of Mandos, but small Faramir had pictured her there all the same, and in his sorrow and loneliness, the thought had comforted him. He had never spoken such, not to his father, who had grown cold after Finduilas had faded into death, not even to Boromir, with whom Faramir had shared almost everything. To imagine his mother waiting in the Undying Lands had comforted him when he was too small to understand how final was death in the world of men.

        Thoughts of his mother passed to thoughts of the Rohan princess. He would see to her comfort here, for surely she would not march with the army to the Black Gate. They would console each other at being left behind, and he would make certain Gondor served her well. To spend time in her company would ease the waiting for news, but it was more than that. Although he had spoken but a few words with her, he thought he began to know her. The courage and honor in her eyes spoke of a woman of great strength. To know her better would be his privilege.

        When Faramir was settled, Ioreth went over to Blake and fussed over him. She was the oldest of the city's healers and some said she might be past the time when she could do her duty, but in this crisis, she had been as a gift from the Valar. It was she, Faramir had heard, who had insisted the hands of the king were the hands of a healer. And when Aragorn had drawn Faramir from the deep shadows on the edges of death, it had been Ioreth who had proclaimed to all who would listen that the king had come again.

        When the healer woman departed, Blake looked over at Faramir. "If such a short release from bed exhausts you so much, I don't look forward to mine tomorrow."

        Faramir smiled. He found the man Blake of great interest and was glad they had not yet moved him from the chamber. Blake had spoken about his desire to achieve freedom from tyranny for his people. In that cause, Faramir could see honor, although he suspected Blake was so driven his cause needed leavening. Yet who could deny any the right to stand against Sauron. Faramir had ridden forth to Osgiliath in a foray he knew to be futile, but he had hoped they would slay some orcs and delay the siege of the city long enough for the Rohirrim to come. What a small time they had added. Yet Gandalf himself had spoken to Faramir this very morning; when Faramir had expressed his grief at the loss of his men on a fruitless charge, Gandalf had offered him a gentle smile.

        "Ah, Faramir, your charge was not wasted. The city survives; it did not fall. And had the Rohirrim come even one minute later, I might have fallen, for the Witch King stood ready to slay me when the horns of Rohan blew. You gave enough time to save my life and Pippin's, for he was with me, and we rode urgently to save you at that very moment."

        "I had not known of your great peril, Mithrandir." He thrust out both hands, and Gandalf had clasped them. "Glad I am you were spared, for we need you greatly." He had offered up a smile. "I would have been greatly grieved, had you fallen. I still offer thanks to the Valar that I did not know of your fall in Moria. How glad Frodo will be, when he returns, to discover you live."

        Both had fallen silent, fearing Frodo might not return, and Gandalf had quickly turned the subject and soon after that gone on his way, for he had many duties in the city. But Blake had listened to their exchange; for, short of pulling pillows over his head, he could not avoid it. In his face, Faramir had seen an understanding of the need that had driven Faramir.

        "They will allow you up only briefly, but longer each day," Faramir replied. "I heard Healer Girand tell you your wounds begin to heal, but that it would take time. The march on Mordor will not be for either of us."

        "No," Blake replied. "I suspect Tarrant will go. Perhaps by the time the army marches someone will have taught him restraint with a sword."

        "He is not experienced, I am told."

        "More than the rest of us, but it was several years ago at least, and then not the depth of training your people must endure." Blake shook his head. "Yet that is for Tarrant to decide. You returned looking pleased with yourself. Once there was a saying, something about a cat and cream... Before my time, after your own. Something pleased you."

        Pleased him? Yes, greatly. "I met the lady I..." He hesitated. "It may be folly, but I believe I met the lady I will one day wed."

        "And you knew it so quickly?"

        "She is lost and sad, but there is great strength in her. It was she who slew the Lord of the Nazgûl."

        "I saw some of them flying over the city on their winged beasts," Blake replied. "I lay among the stones, where my friends had hoped to conceal me, because I was too weak to fight, and it was like an evil dream, as if I had lost all hope. I thought of dragons out of very old myths."

        "Dragons were bigger than the Ringwraiths' fell beasts," Faramir said. "I think there are none left in Middle-earth. For if there were, surely Sauron would command them against us. Éowyn struck the head from the Witch King's beast, and then slew him with the help of young Merry Brandybuck."

        "Merry? The one who taught Avon how to hold his sword? The one your friend Pippin brought to meet you not long ago?"

        Faramir nodded. His shoulder throbbed, his side ached, and his breath still came too fast, but he was content to lie here. The world held many shadows, but everywhere he saw sparks of brightness and hope. His father had fallen terribly, and Boromir was gone, but Boromir had died heroically, atoning for his weakness over the Ring, redeeming himself, and in that Faramir, too found hope. Boromir had pledged himself to Aragorn as he died, and that made Faramir glad, to know that he and his brother would both honor the king.

        Amid his grief, though, there was hope, for there was Gandalf, more powerful than ever in his white robes, ready to stand for Faramir if need be, with their old friendship. Pippin had thrust himself into Faramir's life, laughed with him, offered him understanding, proclaimed Faramir's strength. And then he had flung himself into fire for Faramir's sake. The king had come, had snatched Faramir from death, and now would stand for Gondor in her moment of greatest need. Rohan had come when Gondor called, had sacrificed their king to save them. Éowyn had come, riding boldly in battle, garbed as a man, and brought the Witch King to ruin.

        And Éowyn had gazed at Faramir from her window, and had not turned away until he passed from sight. There must be hope in that.

        "Many threads have woven themselves into our hope, Blake," he said. "And many more still join the warp and woof. Other lands stand with us, even distant Rivendell and Lothlórien. You and your friends came in the heart of our trouble. I know not how this will affect us, but you stand for freedom everywhere, and Tarrant is bold and brave."

        "If rash," Blake tempered, and the two smiled.

        "As for your other two friends, I know little of them, except that Vila seems a good soul, and Avon feels great pain for what he did to you in error."

        "You can't know that," Blake said, and an edge of bitterness touched his voice. "I blame myself for much of it, for I foolishly tested Tarrant, not knowing him, knowing he had been with Avon for two years, but no more. He had once been a Federation officer, and might well have been under cover, pretending to be a rebel. Later, when I was a prisoner, and their doctors--healers--did so little for me, I had time to reflect, and I knew that Tarrant had many chances to surrender the Liberator, and later the Scorpio--their ships--to Servalan, if that had been his plan. At the time, I only wondered if he meant to take Avon and me together, and so I tested him, and he broke away before I could reveal my supposed treachery was only a test. What was worse was that I did not even know, until I was wounded, that I had been conditioned to behave such, to lure Avon in, perhaps even to drive him to shoot me. Servalan meant to use my fall at Avon's hands to return herself to power. But I did not know, and even as I heard myself saying all the wrong things, I only thought Avon might have changed, not that I had."

        "Perilous times make all men wary," Faramir soothed. He knew the mind of a man could be twisted by evil power, for he had seen it happen, and had heard briefly the tale of Saruman's control over Théoden King this very day.

        "So they do, and Avon was always warier than most. I blame myself, for I said the wrong things when I saw him, and Tarrant told him I had betrayed him, believing it. I could not alter it, for the control drove me, but mingled in with it was my own resentment that it had taken him two years to find me. Perhaps I was the easier to condition because I was too willing to believe that he had been glad to be rid of me."

        He drew a fortifying breath. "You do not know Avon, but he is not an easy man. He holds his pain within, where it cannot help but fester. He will forgive me far more easily than he will forgive himself, because he knows now that I was programmed to respond as I did. Yet even that will not be easy. You saw him when he came before--no, you were sleeping. But he was not accommodating. I may encourage him to shout at me. It will do him good."

        "Does the...conditioning still hold?" Faramir asked. Was conditioning what had happened to Théoden King, or was it a separate process, part of the evil of Blake's time?

        "No, because Servalan is devious. She wanted it to fail, to allow me to understand before I died what I had driven Avon to. As I fell, I remembered the conditioning, and remembered she had told me it would end once Avon had gone beyond forgiveness. Yet I will not have it so."

        Faramir smiled at his fierce determination. "You are a loyal friend, to understand him and worry for his sake."

        "He will not believe I have any purpose but my cause, which he despises. He says idealists are fools, and perhaps we are, but I cannot change."

        "No," Faramir said. "Idealists may be fools, but not out of idealism. In such times as these, the people must have hope, or they will bow to despair. I do not know if Sauron can fall, but he will not fall if idealists abandon hope. If none will struggle to free themselves, then we shall always be slaves--or dead."

        "Avon would call you a fool, too," Blake said, but he smiled as he said it.

        "I doubt he would be the first." He chuckled, but pressed a hand to his side as he did, for he had learned that unrestrained laughter was very painful. "I am a ranger in a time of war; all my life I have been a soldier. My brother was the captain general of Gondor's armies, and he thrived on war. I think he loved battle; he would wield his sword with his incredible skill, and come more alive as he fought than at any other time. The men worshiped him and trusted him to lead them to victory, and often he did in spite of near-insurmountable odds. Yet I do not love war and battle. My heart cries out for peace, and longs for it, although I have only known it in brief moments, snatched from the need to protect Gondor. To forget, even if it be for no more than an hour, that a shadow looms over all is a gift to be cherished."

        "Then you are wiser than I am," Blake said. "For I have never been able to see past the need to fight. I know I struggle to bring peace, but then I would fear the people could not understand it and would again give over their rights to tyranny, out of ignorance, because they do not know how to behave when they are free."

        "My people will understand," he said. "But I think perhaps our enemies are different. Sauron is not a human enemy; he is powerful and evil, one of the Maia, long corrupted and turned to darkness. There will be freedom if he falls, and the people will relish it. While the elves linger, they will perhaps guide us, and Gandalf will offer his wisdom. But I often dream of the early days of Númenor's greatness, and wish for that for us. This city was built by the men of Númenor, long ago, and if I have needed to fight, it was to preserve what they created and to bring us back from the shadows of decline." He smiled suddenly and brilliantly. "Aragorn possesses the strength to lead us into freedom, even into prosperity. We will find Númenor's wisdom and glory again."

        "You are certain of it," Blake said. He lay regarding Faramir, stroking his chin as he pondered. "When did this feeling come upon you? When you saw Éowyn?" And he smiled with a hint of humor.

        "When the king drew me from death," Faramir replied. He settled himself more comfortably against his pillows. "When I learned Gandalf and Pippin had rushed to save me. And yes, when I saw Éowyn, for in her I saw the hope of a future free of war, when men can learn to cherish the ways of peace."

        Blake drew a deep breath, then pressed his cushion against his belly. "I think I am glad to be here. Even if it is not forever, even if we find a way to return to our own time. You give me hope, too."

        "And that," said a new voice from the doorway, "is a terrifying thought."

        "Avon," Blake said involuntarily, his eyes widening. He did not speak of any gladness that Avon had come, but Faramir had understood enough of Blake's description of Avon to realize that would be the worst thing he could do.

        Yet the man who strode into the room seemed subtly changed. Faramir had been half sleeping when Avon had conversed with Aragorn on the previous evening, had not actually seen him before, although he had been told Avon had come briefly while Pippin was still here this morning. He was dark and brooding of mien, and his muscles were taut and wary as if he feared a confrontation with Blake far more than he would fear one with Sauron himself. But there was something else about him that made Faramir hesitate, staring. He did not understand it, not yet, but he would listen. What he did believe was that the man meant Blake no ill, and might indeed mean him well, even if it would prove very difficult for him say so.

        Behind Avon in the doorway stood Mithrandir, but the wizard remained there and entered not. His eyes met Faramir's, and he lifted a questioning eyebrow. He must have seen a change in Faramir, but he would not understand the hope that the sight of the White Lady of Rohan had brought to him.

        Faramir smiled at him, and Gandalf's face warmed, then he nodded at the other two, and held his position.

        There was no way to get up and leave the room to allow the two men privacy, for Faramir had not yet regained his strength from his last foray, but he closed his eyes and feigned sleep. He could almost feel Avon's suspicious and wary gaze upon him, but he lay breathing slowly and steadily, and the regard passed.

        "Avon," said Blake again, this time in a level voice, neither hostile nor overtly welcoming.

        "Blake." Equal impassivity filled Avon's. He was silent a long moment, and Faramir imagined a battle of wills as the two confronted each other. He risked opening one eye to see Avon move over to Blake and loom over him, glaring down. "I should not be surprised to hear your foolish idealism at full play, Blake. It was ever your undoing."

        "Perhaps," Blake said mildly enough. "Yet it is what I am, and I cannot change it. You would not like me if my cause was gone."

        "Which presupposes I like you now," Avon replied. Faramir had expected him to say it, and so had Blake, because he smiled. Over in the doorway, so did Gandalf.

        "I would rather assume that than believe you hate me enough to kill me," Blake replied. Ah, he was risking much with that.

        Avon froze. Faramir saw the urge to whirl and flee the room pass through his body, but he stiffened against it. "Damn you, Blake," he snarled. "You said you set me up. Failing to read your devious and twisted mind, what could I assume but that you had betrayed me?"

        "You could not guess that Servalan had programmed me," Blake responded. "Nor could I do anything else but what I was programmed to do. She designed it to fail, Avon, after its purpose had been fulfilled. As the charges struck me, it failed, and I knew what I had done. That was why I asked your forgiveness when you found me on the time ship."

        "Convenient," Avon sneered.

        "You don't believe me?"

        "That she conditioned you? It seems completely plausible, given her nature and your previous susceptibility to such programming. Frightening, actually, considering such programming never worked with Vila. But then again, one actually needs a mind, for it to be adjusted."

        Blake ventured a tentative smile. "The programming is gone, Avon. If you like I will ask Gandalf to confirm it for you, because from all I have seen and heard of him, I believe he could do so."

        Gandalf inclined his head fractionally, but did not move closer.

        "Gandalf..." Avon's voice trailed off. He stared at Mithrandir. "Could you do that?"

        "I could. And have. His mind is his own. I have seen Théoden King when under Saruman's fell influence and instantly knew it for what it was. No such shadows linger about Blake."

        Faramir saw Avon's taut shoulders ease. He believed Gandalf, accepted his words, and for a man who possessed no easy ability to trust that said much for Gandalf's strength and reassurance.

        Blake also noticed, and his eyes narrowed. "You could not take me on trust, even this once?" he challenged, and Faramir realized it stung that Avon had asked his question of Gandalf. Blake would not yet understand the strength and power of Mithrandir, or perhaps even realize he was a great wizard, but as a man who had nearly died at the hands of a friend, Avon's action must leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

        "I take no one on trust," Avon snarled. He added then more softly, "Not even myself."

        "Yet you believe him when he says I am no longer programmed?"

        Avon stopped as if he suddenly realized he had done just that. "There is more at stake here than you realize, Blake," he returned, then he forced the anger from his tone and the rigidity from his body language. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, not easy, for he was evidently not an easy man, but slightly more conciliatory. "Once, after the Auronar were destroyed, I told Cally that regret was a part of life, but she should make it a small part."

        "Did that console her?" Blake asked. Faramir was not certain it would have consoled him, any more than it appeared to do Blake.

        Avon hesitated, then he said with some difficulty, "Perhaps what consoled her was the fact that it was I who said it."

        "That you offered her a form of comfort," Blake said. "I am very sorry about Cally."

        "I am...sorry myself," Avon replied, then added grimly, "We went to Terminal because Servalan convinced me you were there. She had an image of you that I believed to be you--but that was not real. She played me there, as she did you on Gauda Prime."

        "Gandalf," said Blake, "is Avon still controlled?"

        Avon drew back his head in affront, but when he looked expectantly at Mithrandir, a wariness in his eyes mingled with hope of a reply. Could he justify what he had done to Blake had a power like Sauron controlled his actions? Could Faramir blame Sauron for his father's fall? Or was that an easy excuse, a means of avoiding guilt and blame, or even to avoid true bitterness, that one's evil was not one's own fault?

        Gandalf glanced sideways at Faramir as if he understood. Perhaps he would, for he knew the strength of the palantíri, better than perhaps any, and would know how Sauron might have deceived Denethor through it. All three men waited for Gandalf's judgment.

        "No," Gandalf replied at last. "Avon, you are not controlled by any outside force. For if you were, you could never have bent the palantír to your will."

        Avon had used a palantír? Blake, who could know naught about the seeing stones, wrinkled his brow but spoke not his question. Instead he said, "If we are to trust Gandalf, as you appear to do, then neither of us are now controlled. Servalan used my knowledge of you in her programming, and her own, no doubt. But it is past, and we are both free of her. Are we to live our lives here in this new world bound to the bitterness of the past?"

        "In other words," Avon said drily, "regret should be a small part, after all?"

        Blake's mouth quirked, but he prevented himself from smiling. "Do you believe what you told Cally?" he asked.

        Avon opened his mouth for a quick, glib answer that would protect him like the invisible shield he wore as if it were armor, then he closed it again. He darted one look at Gandalf, who waited blandly in the doorway and said not a word. Faramir made no effort to feign sleep, but Avon did not so much as turn his head in Faramir's direction. Instead he looked directly at Blake.

        "Well, now," he said in a voice that was almost a purr, "I find the advice far more accurate in the abstract than in the concrete."

        "Ah," said Blake, and again he almost smiled. "So, it seems, do I. Shall we consider it all said, and progress from this point?"

        Avon hesitated, quite prepared to grasp at this temptation to avoid any more open declarations. Then he bowed his head. "I am sorry I shot you, Blake," he said. Then he straightened to his full height and added with a heavy layer of sarcasm that failed to daunt Blake, "However, if you should in future utter such idiocy as you did on GP, it would be a mercy to end your life before the orcs could do it."

        Blake laughed aloud, then grasped his protective cushion. Avon made an involuntary motion as if to offer ease from pain, and Blake waved one hand. "The healer instructed me to use this when I laugh. It is most effective."

        "You have found cause for laughter?" Avon ventured, and his voice was tentative.

        "It was Pippin," Blake replied. "Have you met him? He talks somewhat like Vila--you know how Vila babbles."

        "Regrettably, yes," Avon said sourly, but Faramir, who was beginning to recognize Avon's tactics suspected there might be an element of tolerant fondness in his voice. The dark man heard himself, frowned, then added, "Blake, we appear to be stranded here. I have heard you expounding your cause to Faramir, which is unfair, for he cannot get up and walk away. We need to discuss the future."

        "Yes, we do, Avon."

        "But not yet," Healer Girand proclaimed as he entered. He looked weary, and why not, for it had been a long day and he had far too many patients to see to. His bushy red hair stuck out in many directions. Even his beard seemed in disarray. "I wish Faramir and Blake to rest. Visit again tomorrow. You too, Mithrandir, if I may be so bold."

        "It is not bold," Gandalf replied. "Come, Avon, we shall have a lesson, you and I."

        "That," said Avon with exaggerated sourness, "was, of course, my first choice."

        Blake pressed the pillow against his abdomen as chuckles shook his body, but he was smiling as Gandalf took Avon by the shoulder, to the instant resentment of the dark man, and led him from the room.

        "Now, My Lord Faramir, I shall see how your wounds survived your excursion. And then, Blake, I will determine if you may be allowed a similar foray on the morrow." An assistant healer joined him, and Faramir braced himself as Girand bent to loosen the dressings.

*****

        "I don't think we should be here, Pip," Meriadoc Brandybuck said in a whisper as Pippin led the way across the great Hall to the table near the throne, where five men sat in conference. The meager morning light slanted in from the windows high overhead; not much sunlight, for the turbulent clouds still lingered over the White City, parting occasionally to allow a wary beam through. As they approached the conference table, a bright sunbeam fell upon the table, highlighting Aragorn, where he sat at its head but facing the throne on the far side.

        Pippin looked around and winced. He had told Merry that when Faramir had ridden out with his men on the fatal charge on Osgiliath Lord Denethor had asked Pippin to sing. How hard it must have been for him to do that when he believed a friend rode to his death. He would have no fond memories of this place.

        "Yes, we should. It's important." Important enough for him to return to a place that must distress him, yet if he continued to serve Gondor, he would need to come here from time to time, and better he do it now, when he had strong purpose. Clad in his Gondor livery except for the mail tunic, since he did not expect to fight, and it was heavy, Pippin might claim right to attend his lord in the Hall of the Kings. But Merry doubted he should be there.

        Then he realized one of the men at the table was Éomer, and another was Grimbold, and he was glad he had put on his own armor that had been Théoden King's as a boy.

        The other two men with Aragorn were strangers to Merry, but they were men of Gondor from their appearance and garb, and one of them, a tall, elegant looking man although clad as a warrior, watched the hobbits approach, his clear grey eyes measuring. The man beside him was also tall, and wore what Merry suspected might be formal court robes in honor of Aragorn.

        "If you please, Strider, I mean Aragorn, I mean, your majesty," Pippin blurted out. "Merry and I have a request."

        Aragorn struggled not to smile. "I will hear your request," he said, and rose. "But first I must make the pair of you known to all. Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth," he said to the warrior of Gondor, "these are Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck, hobbits of the distant Shire. Pippin, as you see, has sworn allegiance to Gondor, and Merry to Rohan."

        Pippin bowed to the Prince, and Merry hastily followed suit. But Prince Imrahil leaped to his feet and stood before Pippin. To the hobbits' astonishment, he dropped to one knee before Pippin and grasped his shoulders. "Squire Peregrin, you have my gratitude for saving the life of my sister's son. You will always be welcome in Dol Amroth, for my family and I have a great love of Faramir and would not be deprived of him."

        "You are Faramir's uncle?" Pippin blurted. "I am so glad you are here, because he needs family very much. Please, your highness, will you be kind to him?"

        Prince Imrahil started, then a great smile spread across his face. He looked somewhat like Faramir, especially in the nose and the height of his brow, although his hair was dark and his eyes grey. "I hope I am always kind to my beloved kinsman, Peregrin Took. As I see you mean to be."

        "He is my friend," said Pippin simply. "And I did not mean to give orders to a prince when I am only a squire, but I have been very worried about him, you see."

        "As have I, but it is good to know he has such a loyal protector. There are none in the city, or even in the whole of Gondor, who would wish him ill, and he will be lovingly tended in the Houses of Healing."

        "I am glad he need not go again to fight," Pippin said, "although he will not be."

        "No, he has said as much to me," Aragorn interjected as Imrahil rose and bowed to acknowledge Merry. Merry gave him a formal bow in return.

        "This is the Warden of Minas Tirith, Húrin of the Keys," Aragorn continued with his introduction, and the Warden rose--he was even taller than Imrahil--and nodded at the pair of hobbits. They nodded politely in return.

        "I should have spoken your name first, Éomer," Aragorn told the king of Rohan. "Yet I am certain both know you."

        "Merry and I are well acquainted now," Éomer said and smiled at Merry. "He knows how much I have come to value him. Peregrin, I thank you for the rescue of my esquire, although I know you did not search the great battlefield for my sake. I was bound to see to my sister, and could not see to you, Master Merry."

        "I am so glad the Lady Éowyn mends," Merry said. "I tried to protect her, even after...after your uncle fell, but the battle pulled us apart. I am sorry."

        "You need make no apologies to me, for I have heard from my men many tales of your courage in battle." He nodded at his companion. "Grimbold has spoken of seeing you fight."

        "And this is Grimbold," Aragorn continued, "who is now appointed Third Marshall of the Mark."

        The older warrior rose and bowed to the two hobbits. Merry bowed back. He had seen Grimbold's courage in battle as well and respected him greatly.

        "Now we are all known to one another," Aragorn said. "What has brought the two of you to council?"

        Pippin looked over at Merry and smiled, then he squared his shoulders and stood as tall as he could? Was he taller than Merry? Merry straightened fully at his side, and that won from Pippin a quick sparkle of amusement, even at such a moment.

        Then Pippin spoke. "We are coming with the army," he said, as if he defied even kings to say him nay. "We know you ride out to offer a distraction to allow Frodo to reach Mount Doom, and we are Frodo's kin, both of us. We have the right to defend him because of that, and if you say no, we will follow you, anyway."

        "Pippin," Merry whispered reproachfully.

        "Well, we will," he said. "We don't like battles, but we have to go, don't you see?"

        Aragorn struggled manfully not to smile, yet when he spoke, his voice was grave. "I cannot speak for Rohan, but for Gondor I may." He looked at Prince Imrahil, who nodded as if to confer his blessing, for Aragorn did not yet wear the crown of Gondor.

        "Faramir has accepted you as his king; I can do no less," Prince Imrahil said.

        Aragorn smiled. "Pippin, you serve Gondor, and I could command you to remain behind, and you would need to obey." Before Pippin could protest, if indeed he meant to, Aragorn clasped his shoulder. "Yet I issue no such commands. I have seen your courage and doubt it not. In Moria the pair of you leaped onto the back of the cave troll for Frodo's sake. I would not deny either of you the right to ride with us to protect him." Then he laughed. "Besides," he teased, "we shall need people of intelligence on this mission...quest, er, thing."

        "Strider!" Pippin protested, squirming to hear his words recalled.

        Aragorn squeezed his shoulder and released it. "Gandalf has already said you may ride before him, Pippin, for he has grown accustomed to you now."

        "Grown accustomed?" Pippin asked suspiciously.

        "So he said to me. But before I enlarge upon that, I yield to Éomer."

        Éomer approached Merry, who dropped to one knee before him and murmured, "Your majesty."

        Éomer laughed and drew Merry to his feet. "Ah, Merry, I once said I doubted not your courage but rather the reach of your sword arm. But from the tales I have heard of the Pelennor, I can no longer doubt even that. Hobbits are bold warriors and very brave, and I will bear you behind me on my own horse when we ride to the Black Gate."

        Merry stared up at him, awed. "Thank you, sire," he said in a voice scarcely above a whisper. "I will fight as well as I can in honor of your uncle, for I loved him."

        He and Éomer stared at each other, sharing their grief in the look they exchanged, then Éomer squeezed his shoulders and released him. "You must rest and mend fully before our departure, Merry," he said. "We do not gallop to Mordor as we did to Minas Tirith, for we would give Frodo as much time as possible yet still make our intent to attack Mordor known."

        "His spies will know when we depart," Aragorn replied. "I have shown him the blade that was broken. Gandalf tells me he fears me, and I hope he may. We do not face an easy task."

        He meant they might all die, but Merry knew that. If they could protect Frodo, dying would be worth it, although he shivered, fearful of the journey. He could not stay behind where it was safe, because there would be nowhere safe if all cowered in shelter. There won't be a Shire, he had told Pippin at the Entmoot. He was only one small hobbit who could not singlehandedly save Middle-earth. Not even Frodo could do it alone. But Merry would ride out with the army and fight the orcs who would not expect great danger from a small hobbit, and might not even notice him until he thrust up with his blade. For Frodo, he thought. For Frodo and the Shire.

        "Come on, Merry," Pippin urged and gestured them toward the door. All five men nodded their heads to them, and Merry and Pippin bowed. Then, relieved at the success of their mission, they left the great hall.

*****

        Tarrant ran his fingers through his tangled curls and grimaced at the cloud of dust he freed. For want of a better task, he had found himself conscripted to aid in the clearing of debris on the city's first level. He had no duties here, and it was not his way to sit at Blake's sickbed. That should be Avon's task, but Avon had never been one to agonize over what was finished and done. Vila, who had chosen to sit in the garden of the Houses of Healing until two healers drafted him to fetch and carry for them, had reported the night before that Avon had finally talked to Blake near twilight, and that they had evidently achieved a dubious accord. Knowing Avon, such a pact might not endure, but when they had all gathered in their chamber for the night, Avon was, if not open and effusive, less icy than before. He did not, of course, encourage questions, but he never did, and tended to ignore them when asked.

        With Vila an extremely reluctant conscript of the healers--"I hate the sight of blood!"--and Avon off somewhere this morning with Gandalf, the one they said was a wizard, Tarrant had set off to explore the city, and found himself hauling stone.

        After a morning of that, and a morning listening to rumors, learning all he could about the world in which the four of them found themselves, he understood another battle was planned. This time, the army would take it to the Enemy's own doorstep.

        Considering the number of dead and wounded following the battle of several days ago, it seemed unlikely the army had even a slim hope of victory. Rumors of the One Ring abounded, and Tarrant had learned enough to know that Sauron had forged it an impossibly long time ago, to control other magic rings. He had scoffed at the word "magic," but then shook his head. What could it be but an unfamiliar technology? Yet in a world with elves and dwarves out of ancient legends, who knew how matters worked? Tarrant's piloting skills would be useless here, just as Avon's computer skills would be. Vila, of course, could steal anywhere, and if his tools were geared to technological locks, no doubt he could adapt to manual ones rapidly enough.

        Tarrant had lectured him sternly about stealing from their hosts. Vila had said he would try not to take anything, and Tarrant knew that might be the best he could expect--as long as he kept a stern eye on the thief. Here in the White City, the four of them must surely be on sufferance. Gandalf knew they had come from another time, no doubt the future. He was a wizard, which Tarrant could not discount, for too many folk believed it, including those who would be expected to see past primitive gullibility.

        Very well. There were wizards here and magic rings, and another battle would take place. Tomorrow the army would march to Mordor.

        Tarrant had no place here, but he had a sword and small skill. Could he acquire more? Should he join the army? He was a soldier; he had been one his entire adult life. He knew much of strategy, although not the strategy of hand-to-hand combat. Yet surely there must be universal principles.

        If he spent the afternoon refreshing his long-ago sword skills, if he found one who would train him, would the army consider him? What else could he do but stay here, useless? Moving fallen masonry was necessary, but Tarrant could fight. He did not wish to march away to fight in a battle for a land that was not his own, but how did that differ from his mercenary days when he had gotten involved in other people's wars? This was only one more war, one last war, to involve himself in.

        With a laugh, he went in search of the nearest soldier to ask after training with the sword, and the man bore him off to the training area where the swordmasters worked to hone the skills of the soldiers of Gondor. Over on one side of the room, five pairs of cadets of no more than fifteen battled each other under the eye of an instructor. Two of the boys sported small bandages, no doubt from wounds received in the siege. Two more skilled men thrust and parried and their naked blades rang out in the air that was smoky from the pyres of orc carcasses on the Pelennor.

        The afternoon proved long and painful. When he heard what Tarrant wanted, the swordmaster stepped forth. "I will work you hard. What scant skill you possess will not protect you from orcs. True, they have no finesse, but there are many of them, and brute strength and stubborn persistence will wear down the endurance of a skilled swordsman. Even Boromir fell, so vastly outnumbered that not even our greatest swordsman could endure." The swordmaster's name was Tindrel, and he looked lean and weathered, his skin browned by the sun, his hair near Rohan blond. A pair of bushy eyebrows that jutted up to emphasize his words granted him an expression of perpetual surprise, and the mobile mouth half concealed by his thick brown mustache far darker than his hair wore an expression of amused skepticism.

        "He was Faramir's brother," Tarrant said, for he had listened to the men talking as they worked with the stones.

        "Lord Faramir," Tindrel corrected. "Ah, but you are a stranger here and know not the way. Come, show me your sword."

        When Tarrant drew it and showed it to him, the man tested it and frowned. "No more than garbage," he said. "The steel is worked in a manner I have not seen before, but it looks as if it was stamped from a mold. It has no individuality." He thrust with it a time or two. "Badly balanced, too. You fought with this on the Pelennor?"

        "And killed my share of orcs," Tarrant replied. "It was the only weapon I had. The grip is wrong for my hand, and I know what you mean about the balance."

        "Well, we shall see to that. Come." He led the way to an inner chamber where piles of swords lay in disarray. "I apologize for the chaos. These were retrieved from the field of battle. Some will be claimed by our wounded, but those over there"--and he gestured to the far wall-"lay beside our honored dead. They would wish their blades to give service." He made Tarrant thrust out his arm, measured the length of it with a wooden stick with notches upon it, then offered Tarrant a series of grips. When one felt right to Tarrant and passed muster with Tindrel, he nodded, then he searched among the pile and discovered five with similar grips. Eager to begin his practice, Tarrant shoved aside his impatience as the swordmaster made him try each one. But in the end, the one Tindrel approved almost became an extension of his arm. The difference between that and the blade he had found on the time ship was remarkable.

        Still the swordmaster offered no lessons. Instead, Tarrant was made to display what he had been shown in his long-ago training, conscious of Tindrel's scorn. "Ah, that would work for a man who might go stand with a band of villagers against an orc or two, but in real battle, you will survive only by luck and persistence. You march with the army tomorrow?"

        "I hope to, yes. I am a soldier, although where I come from, we use different weapons."

        "Have you any?"

        "No."

        "Then forget them, and come over here." He led the way to the dueling men, who moved with such grace and skill it was almost like watching a dance. "You will not learn to move like this in a day or even a year of days, young Tarrant. But I might drill enough common sense and basic moves into you to keep you alive...if any live."

        Avon would scoff at the idea that Tarrant could learn common sense, but Avon was not here. Tarrant doubted the computer expert had it in him to be a swordsman, but it seemed Gandalf had another task for him. So be it. As for Vila, the thought of him deliberately choosing to fight was ludicrous. Vila was better here. They made him work in the Houses of Healing, and he had come to their chamber last night exhausted and silent, lost in uncharacteristic thought.

        This place might be the making of him. Of all of them, perhaps.

        If it did not first break them.

        Tarrant settled down for an afternoon of hard, hard work.

*****

        Blake sat cautiously on a bench in the garden of the Houses of Healing, and looked out between the arched pillars to the land of Mordor, guarded by its mountains across the distant river. The clouds that bunched and shifted overhead occasionally allowed a thin beam of sunlight to break through and make the water gleam for an instant, only to shadow quickly. Yet the overcast sent an eerie chill through Blake as if it were no normal cloudbank.

        The afternoon being cool, the healer who had escorted him here had offered him his cloak, and he sat with it wrapped around his shoulders. They had given him ten minutes, and in truth he suspected that would test the limits of his newly returning strength. His gut ached from the movement, but he had walked so stiffly he doubted he had damaged the healer's work. The memory of being stitched and treated with a strange paste made of plant leaves made him long for the Liberator's healing devices, but Liberator had been destroyed more than a year earlier. The knowledge that in days before technology, people had undoubtedly been cured by natural means reassured him, but he had not realized until now how long natural means would take. He would be laid up for at least a few weeks at this rate, and not at full strength for more weeks after that.

        Across the garden was Faramir, whose wounds had been made worse by a delay in treatment and by nearly being incinerated upon a pyre, yet progressed more quickly than Blake did. Blake's wounds had been sketchily treated and then ignored for weeks. It was a wonder he lived at all.

        A woman in a white gown moved through the garden, the elderly woman healer trailing her protectively, urging, "Please sit, my lady. You must rest."

        Faramir's head jerked up and he went at once to meet her. "Lady Éowyn, you are better." He put out both of his hands to her.

        "Not well enough to ride to battle," she responded. For an instant, Blake thought she would ignore Faramir's hands, but she did not. She raised her own and clasped them briefly.

        "No, others must bear the torch for us, for I am also a prisoner of the healers. Yet tell me how I may serve you, for it shall be my honor to do so."

        Éowyn looked at him, and Blake realized that she did not entirely see him, that her thoughts were far away, and that her longing to ride with the army was so strong Faramir's sincere concern for her simply passed her by. Yet there he stood, smiling down at her, ready to serve her in any way he could.

        Something about Faramir's stance and face told Blake he very much wished to be private with Lady Éowyn. Blake could not yet rise and leave him, for his legs were shaky enough for him to require assistance, but he turned his face away and concentrated upon his own thoughts instead.

        The world he had always known was gone, and unless Avon could build a time machine in a world without modern technology or unless Servalan should require them for some new ploy, this world was now his and likely to be his forever. It was a world in torment, a world facing evil dominion that almost made the Federation seem benevolent. Blake could do nothing for the people he had left behind, his "rabble", as Avon insisted upon naming them. He could not fight for the people here because he had no strength, and the battle would surely be fought before he could be well enough. The fact that he knew little of the sword and bow was another factor.

        But Blake had been a resistor all his life, except for the period when the Federation had controlled him and made him tame and docile. They had given him tranquilized dreams instead of memories, and even now, he knew gaps remained in what he recalled. Most of his memory had returned, but not all, and resentment of what they had stolen from him had driven him fiercely, that others not face the same fate. From what he had heard of Théoden King, who had suffered under mind control, but had been freed of it and had ridden to Minas Tirith to save Gondor, he realized the concept was known here--and used here. There had been references to Faramir's father, who must have suffered some form of control, that he would consider burning his own son to death.

        Which meant there was a cause for Blake to fight against, to stand for freedom. Here, the "rabble" would listen, surely. Here, they would need inspiration, in spite of their desire to rid Middle-earth of the Enemy. Here, they would need someone to speak the meaning of freedom.

        Blake paused. Over by the outer wall of the garden, Faramir and Éowyn spoke softly together. She gazed outward, toward the land of Mordor, but Faramir looked at her. In Blake's world, there had been no time to think of love, although Jenna had sent him unmistakable signals. He had been too committed to his cause to respond to them, for his heart was given over entirely to freedom.

        Here in this new world, he concentrated upon Faramir, whose determination and honor had shone forth. If the army triumphed, if Sauron fell, Blake would do what he could, however little, to ensure the peace, to ensure that freedom continued.

        He chuckled to himself. Aragorn would no doubt have something to say about that. Blake had been forced to listen to Aragorn's meetings with Faramir as they had planned for what must be accomplished while the army was gone. Aragorn might be newly come to Minas Tirith, a king who had not been raised here, but he knew much of government. He spoke knowingly of the various offices here in the city, the way Gondor was organized, and had explained to Faramir that, years ago, he had served here under Faramir's grandfather. The fact that he looked little older than Avon had not disturbed Faramir, who accepted his words, and had even said that he had heard of Aragorn under the name Thorongil.

        When Blake had asked for an answer to this after Aragorn had departed to meet with Éomer and see to the armies, Blake had learned that Aragorn was of a line named Númenorean, and that they lived longer lives than most men. "I share Númenorean blood," Faramir had admitted, "and Gandalf insists it has come out strongly in me, but it is still far thinner than that of my king.

        If Aragorn were gifted with long life and Faramir with life longer than normal, as well, it was possible the two of them might find a way to bring Gondor to prosperity. That was a cause Blake could value. He didn't know if he could do anything to help, as ignorant of this world as he was, but he was learning daily.

        Tarrant would surely march with the army, as Blake had already suggested to Faramir. Blake scarcely knew the young pilot, but he could see the reckless need that drove the man. Not Vila; Vila would keep himself unobtrusive until the army passed, and in any case the healers had recruited him to fetch and carry for them, to perform simple tasks. Learning he was deft of hand, they had accepted him to help them. Vila hated the sight of blood--but he had not shirked the duty they imposed. Even Vila was capable of surprising one.

        As for Avon, he was changing. The two of them had forged a wary peace, not a thorough one, but one they could live with. Avon would never speak his inner feelings, for he had long learned to deny them. Yet he had somehow accepted Gandalf as an authority in whom he could warily believe. He had spent several hours with the wizard earlier today. Whatever had occurred with them yesterday had given him a purpose, too, and put a grimness in his mouth when he looked toward Mordor. He was not to march with the army, but Gandalf had assigned him a task here while they were gone. So be it.

        Blake saw the red-haired healer coming to return him to his bed and he was glad, for even sitting peacefully in the garden taxed his strength yet. The deep throbbing in his belly had eased to a duller twang when he moved, and when lying quiet in his bed he could almost forget it if he did not move too suddenly.

        Behind the healer came Avon himself, rid of his sling. "Your friend improves, Blake," the healer said. "He will see you to your bed, for I must fetch Faramir."

        The healer Ioreth came to Éowyn, and Faramir spoke a few quick words to her that made a faint smile lighten a face that often held many shadows. She went with Ioreth, but looked once over her shoulder.

        While Healer Girand brought Faramir back to their shared room, Avon walked at Blake's side, and actually took Blake's arm to guide him. "I imagine you have been redesigning your cause to fit Middle-earth," he said knowingly.

        Blake would have loved to laugh, but laughter still hurt, especially when standing, so he merely smiled. "You know me too well, Avon."

        "I have just seen Vila," Avon said in a thoughtful voice. "He was assisting a healer to change a dressing. A gory sight, and Vila looked sick, but he held his ground. It might be possible I have underestimated Vila. Might, I said. Surely his resolution will fail."

        "With your continual low estimations of people, it is no wonder your life is not full of constant pleasant surprises," Blake said dryly. He hoped Avon would not realize how a few short steps had made him nearly breathless.

        "A life of constant pleasant surprises is not likely in any world," Avon returned in a dead level tone. "Sarcasm becomes you ill, Blake."

        "Yet it is your normal pattern of speech."

        Avon pondered that a moment, no doubt searching for hidden pitfalls in his words, but then he changed the subject. "Tarrant, I am told, has found a swordmaster and is working with him this afternoon. Our dashing hero means to accompany the army." Suddenly a genuine smile lit his face. "He also tells me he means to grow a beard."

        "And let his hair grow long?" Blake asked. The two men contemplated the mental image, and Blake could not help laughing. With a moan, he pressed his arm across his stomach.

        "Blake?"

        "Laughing hurts," Blake said. "I had considered myself quite safe with you, for you were never a comedian."

        "Shall I strive harder?" Avon countered. Ah, he was easier. Wary but easier. What did he and Gandalf discuss in their meetings? How had Avon come to trust a wizard? According to Vila, he had been very suspicious of him in the beginning.

        "Certainly," Blake replied. "At least if you wait till I am healed."

        "That I can manage. To become humorous will no doubt take time, despite occasional accidental bursts."

        Blake struggled against laughter. Was it the freedom from Servalan's control that had brought forth this side of Avon, or was it simply relief that Blake would live? He had never been sure what Avon thought of him before and had often considered it safer to believe Avon despised him, as he appeared to despise everyone. Yet there had been moments when the possibility of friendship between them had hovered tantalizingly just beyond reach. It had been those moments that had made him long to reunite with Avon again after Star One. He had told Avon then that he had always trusted him, from the very beginning. It had been at least partially true. He trusted the inner Avon, the man who seldom emerged from his protective shielding. That man had honor; that man always kept his sworn word. That man could be trusted.

        That man walked at his side today.

        When he reached his room, he was smiling in spite of his fatigue and his aching body. Avon aided him into bed, and his hands were gentle and reassuring, although his face was impassive. Faramir, also aided into bed, did more for himself than before. He could rise without aid and move around the room now. For Blake that would come within a day or so.

        He would rise in the morning to see the army depart.

        "I must leave you, Blake," Avon said. He flexed his arm carefully, and allowed no pain to show in his face. "Gandalf expects me, and he has a way of making certain one does not disappoint him." He scowled, but not at Blake. With no more than a nod, he turned and left the room.

        Faramir stared after him. "I believe Gandalf likes him," he said. "I have known Gandalf since I was a lad. He is a great wizard with powers men cannot imagine, but he was always kind to me."

        "I have scarcely spoken to him," said Blake, who rather envied Avon the relationship.

        "I learned much from him when I was growing to manhood," Faramir said, his eyes filling with reminiscence. "He taught me to speak and read elvish, and encouraged my love of lore. When I would daydream of ancient times and fabled elves, mighty dragons, and even distant Valinor, he would guide me to more practical uses of what I learned. I have wondered these past days since I awakened to the King's call if he had foreseen that I would one day be steward to Aragorn, and that I would need to be learned in such matters. Aragorn means all the races of the world to unite in harmony, not only against Sauron but in the peace we all hope will follow. He told me only this morning, when we sat in the garden, that his plan was to bring harmony rather than strife."

        "And wide knowledge would aid in his plan," Blake said, understanding. "Faramir, I know little of this world, and what I do know is sketchy and may be inaccurate. Are there books that would instruct me? In my own world, I was what was known as a resistor, a rebel against the totalitarian government. Here, I feel the urge to bring down Sauron, because he stands for all I have long opposed. There is nothing I can do to defeat him, not like this." He gestured vaguely at his wound. "But I can study and learn."

        "I will order books brought to you," Faramir replied. "I know you speak our tongue, but do not know if you can read it."

        Blake stared. "I didn't think of that. In the Federation, all speak standard, but this can't be standard." He frowned. "It may be the device that brought us here adjusted our ability to speak in this tongue, but I don't know how that could be done. I am by profession an engineer. There could be devices implanted in the body to offer instant translation. When new worlds were discovered, they would be used to make contact. The Federation would determine if the world could be exploited, but until then, they would sham benevolence. If we have that, I doubt it would apply to the written word."

        "There are wonders in your world, friend Blake."

        "And the price for them is too high. The freedom of all men, to know none need live in fear, or have their memories stolen or their minds altered..." He gazed vaguely into the shadows of his memories. "Still, if it allows us to communicate..."

        "Mae govannen," Faramir said abruptly.

        "Well met to you as well," Blake said, then paused. "Elvish," he said. "You spoke in the elven tongue. I heard the difference but understood it instantly."

        "Then you might even understand the language of the orcs," Faramir said. He pushed himself up onto his sound elbow to settle the pillows more comfortably behind him. "I wish there were time to speak of this with Mithrandir. Yet he will surely come to offer farewell, and I will tell him then. If Tarrant rides with the army, and if he possesses the same ability, it may serve our cause."

        Blake chuckled. "Ah, if only Avon could hear you. He scoffs at me for my cause, because he is not one given to noble dreams. Cold practicality drives him because he believes it is safer than to give his heart and his dreams."

        "Safer, yes," Faramir agreed. "There were times when I wished I possessed that happy facility, for life has never been easy. Yet I would not surrender my heart, even if it causes me to bleed within."

        No doubt it did, losing his brother, having his father attempt to burn him alive. There seemed no easy reply, for Blake had come to recognize that his own means of distancing himself from hurt was to embrace mankind, his rabble, in the collective sense, and stand apart from individuals. He had not asked to come to Middle-earth, and he believed with complete certainty that he could never return home, but this world might offer all of them a new start.

        "Perhaps that is how one knows he is alive," he said quietly. "For all his surface stoicism, I believe Avon bleeds inside. I could never fully reach that part of him."

        "His problem is that you did reach it," Faramir said. "I have seen his face when he looks at you. He might not have pledged himself to your cause, but you are his friend, even if friendship is difficult for him. Hold to that. I always found it easier if I had something affirmatory to hold to. My men followed me and looked up to me--they valued me when...when others did not. My brother did, too, always supporting me. I understand more about my father now, hearing of the palantír he used. How could he have hoped to stand against the power of Sauron?"

        "Yet you believe Aragorn can?" Blake asked.

        "Aragorn with Gandalf at his side and an army at his back." He smiled softly. "And Frodo, freed to venture into the depths of Mordor to see the One Ring destroyed. Always I will be glad I freed him to complete his task, although if he should fail, I will have scant time to wonder how I might have differently addressed the situation. Should I have traveled with him and offered him the strength of my sword and bow? I could not, for I had the responsibility of the rangers, and I dared not cede it. In the darkest hours of the night, I look at my actions and think of Frodo, so small, and growing increasingly frail, journeying into shadow with only valiant Sam at his side."

        "Too small, perhaps, for easy notice," Blake said. "And the coming of the army will surely draw the orcs of Mordor to meet them. You did the right thing." He had heard enough of the army's plans in various conversations between Faramir and visiting officers who spoke freely to him about the planned departure, from what little Gandalf had said, and from Pippin's rambles when he visited Faramir, as he often did. "Would Sauron guess our intent is to destroy the Ring? Might he think we would attempt to use it against him? Would he believe Aragorn carries it?"

        "So Aragorn would have him believe," Faramir replied. "That is why he revealed himself to Sauron through the seeing stone."

        "Avon has scarcely mentioned the stone," Blake replied. "But he can control it, I think. That is what Gandalf has been meeting with him about."

        "Against Sauron, he might not control it for long."

        Blake had already considered that. Sauron was impossibly old, of a race of beings that evidently had existed even before the elves. How could any stand against him?

        "Faramir!" Pippin appeared in the doorway. "May I visit?"

        "You need not ask, my small friend. Always you are welcome."

        Pippin glanced between him and Blake. "I will go away if I am interrupting."

        "We were only speculating, Pippin. Come in."

        Blake made a gesture to suggest to Faramir that he would catch a nap, and left them to their conversation, but he saw Pippin perch on the foot of Faramir's bed. "I have been watching Tarrant suffer," he said with a smile. "The swordmaster works him hard. Merry and I went to the training rooms to practice, and saw him there."

        "I hope you practiced well," Faramir said. "Would that I could ride with you on the morrow."

        "We will manage," Pippin said and sat as straight as he could. "We are too small for the orcs to fear, so we can sneak up on them."

        "Sneak well, for I would have you return safely."

        "So would I," Pippin said. "Now tell me, did you see the Lady Éowyn today? Merry says she is very kind and beautiful. You like her, I can tell."

        "Pippin..." Faramir groaned, and Blake smiled to himself as he drifted into sleep. Perhaps everyone needed a friend like Pippin, someone to laugh with and tease, and be at ease with.

        Ah, Avon, I would not have you too different, but to laugh with you... That is a gift I would cherish.

*****

        The combined armies of Gondor and Rohan prepared to march out shortly after dawn the next day, with Aragorn at their head and Éomer of Rohan close behind, with the rest of the king's party. Gandalf the White was there, mounted on the great Shadowfax, the hobbit Pippin mounted before him. Shadowfax needed neither saddle nor bridle, and Pippin had grown accustomed to riding with him on the journey from Edoras to Minas Tirith and didn't bother to grasp the white horse's mane. Merry rode behind King Éomer, and looked proud to be there, but awed and uneasy, like Pippin. Legolas, as usual, had Gimli behind him, the two of them conversing easily in the teasing manner they had adopted, planning their strategies to see which of them would slay more orcs at the Black Gate. Pippin had never tried to keep score when fighting. He had enough to think of just keeping from being killed.

        Over there in a corner of the courtyard, Vila stood with Tarrant, who wore the armor of Gondor. He was going as a foot soldier. Blake could not come down to say farewell to him, but Pippin had learned Blake had scarcely met Tarrant before they had journeyed here, and he was not yet strong enough for the long journey from the sixth level. The other two knew Tarrant better. Avon was not here, but Avon was to Pippin an awe-inspiring figure with a cutting tongue and a scornful face, even if he had helped Merry. Yet when Pippin remarked to Gandalf that he had not come to farewell Tarrant, Gandalf had chuckled softly.

        "He has another task, one I have assigned to him. And no, Peregrin Took, I will not tell you of it."

        Pippin started to protest then thought better of it. Gandalf was always telling him not to speak without thinking. Maybe he should start now. Gandalf would have all the way to the Black Gate to lecture him, should he say the wrong things.

        "Be careful, you great lout," Vila told Tarrant. The thief no longer wore a bandage around his head, and his wound was healing well, scabbed over. Pippin had heard he worked in the Houses of Healing now. Maybe Blake was right that he should not judge the man. As far as Pippin knew, he hadn't stolen anything here. And how could Pippin fault him after his own action in Edoras?

        "Don't tell me you actually care, Vila?" His helmet tucked under one arm, Tarrant looked down at the smaller man with a glint of amusement in his eyes. One brow lifted.

        "No, but you're big enough to hide behind when Avon's mad at me," Vila returned, and grinned. "I'll have to find a new shield, then, won't I, if you get lost and don't come back."

        Tarrant stared at him, and then he returned the smile. "You'll just have to avoid behaving in your usual style while I'm gone, then." He looked around. "I know it's not Avon's way to come down and see me off, but where is he? Hovering just out of range of Blake?"

        "I think he went up into the tower," Vila said, and pointed upward.

        "Did he tell you why?"

        "Avon? He never tells me things. Why should he now?"

        "Because he's different somehow. I don't know why, but he actually told me that if I were foolish enough to get myself killed I should deserve it."

        Vila's eyes widened. "That sounds like Avon," he said. "Why are you surprised?"

        "Because of the way he said it." Tarrant's shoulders lifted, and Pippin, who could hear their conversation because Shadowfax was near the men also heard the rattle of Tarrant's armor.

        Vila's forehead wrinkled. "He is different, isn't he?" A quick glance at Gandalf proved the thief was quick enough to have noticed Gandalf had taken an interest in Avon. Pippin knew not what they did when they were together, but from the way Gandalf had avoided the subject entirely, Pippin was afraid it had to do with the palantír. He never wanted to see one again. The urge that had driven him in Edoras was gone. Since then, Pippin had dreamed several times of the Great Eye watching him and demanding his name, and had awakened in darkness, half expecting the Enemy's eye to loom over him. When they reached the Black Gate, he might even see it for real, and that thought knotted his belly with dread. Would Sauron know he had come? Would the Eye single him out, and mark him for death? He had to go because the whole excursion was for Frodo's sake, but he wished, for perhaps the six hundredth time, that he were safe at home in the Shire, waking up in his bedchamber in the Great Smials to the smell of his mother's hot buns and the wonderful aroma of frying bacon.

        At Gandalf's urging, Shadowfax fell in behind Aragorn's horse before Pippin could hear any more of the conversation, and the party rode out through the broken gate. Pippin craned his neck to see behind them, and had a glimpse of the men in the armor of Gondor and Rohan who had been within walls forming up to follow. The largest number of the soldiers had already lined up outside the walls, and waited as the leaders rode past. Some of both army went mounted, but the rest, even the Rohirrim who usually went mounted, would march on foot. Pippin had seen so many dead horses on the Pelennor that he realized there might not be enough mounts for everyone. Did the men of Rohan fight as easily on foot as they did from the saddle?

        He looked over at Merry and grinned, afraid it would look more like a grimace. Merry nodded. His face was tight and he gripped Éomer's armor. Neither of them were speaking to each other, but then everyone had fallen silent. Even Legolas and Gimli did not jest with each other. At the start of such a great undertaking, maybe silence was best. Pippin did not even feel inclined to speak to Gandalf, not yet.

        When they had ridden far enough for him to see the whole of Minas Tirith, he leaned sideways and looked past the wizard at the White City. Gandalf put a restraining hand on his shoulder but did not stop him. Smoke still rose from the pyres on the Pelennor, but not as many of them as there had been two days ago. The dreadful reek of burning orcs had permeated the entire city, and the folk had been glad when the wind had shifted around from the west and blown down off the mountain, even if it had carried a lingering tang of winter from the snows that still lay in the high passes. At least it drove away the worst of the odor.

        The army meant to cross the Anduin at Osgiliath. Scouts had reported the orcs had laid down a temporary bridge there, for the original bridge had been shattered in battle. Riding through the ruined city made Pippin think of Faramir, who must be watching the army depart from the garden of the Houses of Healing. He leaned in the other direction when the path turned enough to give him a clear view and waved.

        "He will not see you from so far away," Gandalf said, and Pippin twisted in the saddle to look up at him.

        "No, but I will know I waved," Pippin said. "I know how much Faramir wished he could have come with us. I'm glad he can't. It would have hurt to have to ride toward Osgiliath after the last time."

        Gandalf smiled down at him. Was that actually a trace of fondness in the wise old eyes?

        "It surprises me not you would have considered that, Peregrin Took. Yes, it would be hard, but he would not hold back."

        "I know that," Pippin said. Gandalf sounded very fond of Faramir. How relieved he must be to know Faramir survived. "But once the war is over, it will be better. If he wants to ride to Osgiliath then, I will ride before him and chatter to distract him, and make it easier. And maybe...maybe Frodo can come, too."

        "So I, too, hope, Pippin," Gandalf said, and his use of Pippin's nickname proved he had been moved. "I can no longer sense Frodo, now that the dark walls of Mordor separate us. To open myself further would be to reveal myself utterly to Sauron, and I will not do so, for I would choose to offer him no advantage. If he suspected I sought Frodo with my mind and worried for him, he would suspect Frodo journeyed into Mordor, and that he must not guess."

        "Hobbits are good at remaining unseen if we wish to be," Pippin declared, hoping he could ease the worry Gandalf wore like a cloak. He knew he couldn't ease it entirely, not when it pumped through him the way his blood did. "And Sam will protect him. He has ever since we left the Shire. They can hide from the orcs. After all, compared to orcs, we hobbits are very small."

        "A certain pair seem to have grown a bit," Gandalf remarked.

        "Well, that was the water in Fangorn, you see." Pippin sat very tall in the saddle.

        "The Entwash," Gandalf said thoughtfully and did not protest. "How it warmed my heart to see the strength and courage of the Ents."

        "At the Entmoot, they told us it was not their war, and Merry said, 'But you're part of this world. You must help.'"

        "And so they did. Be not modest, Peregrin. I know you urged Treebeard to bear you past Isengard where he saw the dread results of Saruman's slaughter of the trees. For all the trouble you have caused me, you have had your uses here and there."

        "I'm glad," Pippin said. "I always wanted to help."

        "Ah, modesty?" Gandalf chuckled. "Although many times I wondered at Elrond for permitting you to accompany us, I can only now be glad. You and Merry have done your part in this war, and done it well."

        Pippin suspected he was blushing. Praise from Gandalf was a remarkable thing. "All we have to do is win one more battle, isn't it?" he asked and tried to ignore the thought of all those orcs in Mordor. Maybe Frodo would reach Mount Doom before the army arrived. That would be good. He tried to imagine the map of Mordor he had seen in Minas Tirith, and estimate how long it would take Frodo and Sam to get there from the pass of Cirith Ungol. They could not simply walk straight there, for the land was harsh and terrible. He remembered Boromir's words in the Council of Elrond when he and Merry had been hiding and listening. The Plain of Gorogoroth sounded dreadful. They would have to hide from orcs, too. If Gandalf could not sense them, that must mean they were in Mordor.

        But it might also mean they were dead.

        "None of that, Peregrin," Gandalf said.

        He tilted his chin to study Gandalf. "Can you see my thoughts?" he asked.

        "It is not difficult when they are written upon your face and in the lines of your body. We must assume our friends are free and traveling toward Mount Doom. For should we believe in their doom, we would not even try, and try we must."

        Aragorn rode close to them. "Gandalf speaks true, Pippin. We must have hope for Frodo, for hope will carry the day."

        "Hope will carry the day," Pippin echoed, and looked back at the way they had come. The White City rose out of the plain, the tower Boromir had loved thrusting into the morning sky, gleaming in the early morning sun. A surge of hope ran through him. They had saved Minas Tirith, all of them. If that could happen when all had seemed lost, if Faramir could survive when there had been no hope for him, if the Oathbreakers had risen to follow Aragorn's summons, then surely Frodo could reach Mount Doom.

        He looked over at Merry, who offered him a quick grin. There had to be hope. How else could they have ever come so far?

*****

        Avon braced himself and reached for the palantír. His task was clear, to take it up, to confront Sauron, to reveal to him that an army came, that Aragorn led it, that Isildur's heir not only lived but that he meant to challenge Sauron. Avon knew little of the history of Middle-earth, but Isildur had apparently vanquished Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Sauron would not be happy to face his heir.

        Still, from what Avon had learned, Sauron was so powerful he made Servalan seem no more than a leaf in the breeze. Sauron had endured for more centuries than Avon cared to contemplate. If the army failed and Sauron triumphed, he would crush them instantly--and then he would find a way to destroy Avon, the one who had dared to challenge him.

        His task was simple, to reveal to Sauron the emergence of the army from Minas Tirith. Not the entire army, but enough for the Dark Lord to discover it was a considerable force. If he saw how few they truly were, he would no doubt laugh at them, but to think that Aragorn meant to bring the battle to him would at least make him think. And it would distract him from other matters.

        Avon was not to know of them, but he did know of Frodo, who meant to carry a ring deep into Mordor and destroy it. Gandalf had forbidden him to even think of Frodo when he used the palantír. He had offered to put a block in Avon's mind to prevent it, but Avon had declined. "If Pippin could resist, so, too, shall I. If Sauron asks questions, I will distract him. To hear I come from a future in which he does not exist will no doubt inflame him."

        Gandalf had approved that. If Sauron's curiosity focused upon Avon and his unlikely arrival in Middle-earth, he might not try to gain information about Frodo. He had agreed to that. Avon was not entirely certain the wizard had not planted a suggestion to ignore Frodo in his mind, but he would not know unless Sauron challenged him, because he could think of Frodo and speculate on whatever idiocy had driven the leaders of Middle-earth to entrust their entire survival to one small hobbit against the might of Sauron's orc armies.

        What puzzled Avon more than that was that he had agreed to take his part in the plan at all. Middle-earth was not a safe bolthole, not while Sauron existed, but Avon and the others had no means of escape. Even if they had, the viscast of Blake's supposed death at Avon's hands would no doubt have been transmitted repeatedly throughout the Inner and Outer Worlds. Returning to the Second Calendar would place him in a situation where Federation and Rebellion both considered him an enemy. Here, at least, there was not that. He had made no enemies here, although some folk were wary of him. Avon did not object to that. He rather enjoyed it.

        He did not care particularly for the freedom of Middle-earth, just as he had not cared for the freedom of Blake's rabble. What he had done there was to protect himself, even if it meant others might be protected, too. Vila had understood that, and it was why he had often concealed himself in Avon's shadow. Yet Sauron was so powerful that if Avon did not do his part to thwart him, Middle-earth would fall--and Avon with it. Self-motivation had always worked well for him, and would this time, too.

        But Blake was here, and Blake was mending. He had to mend, for a part of Avon demanded it. A means of atoning for his actions on Gauda Prime? If it were true that Blake had been programmed--and Gandalf had confirmed it--then Avon had a debt to pay, and meant to pay it. Once Blake was well again, Avon would be free of him at last and could do what he chose.

        Why did that seem such an empty possibility?

        And why believe Gandalf? The man was a wizard--he might not even be mortal. There had been hints that his power meant he was something else, something beyond human, something that had lived forever, like Sauron.

        Yet he did believe the wizard, inexplicable though it was. He had seen both expectation and awareness in Gandalf's eyes, as if he had looked at Avon soul-deep and understood how self-serving were Avon's motives. Yet in that knowing look was something Avon had seen, on occasion, in Blake's eyes, when Avon had saved him even though there was no profit in it, often at risk to himself. He had passed such actions off as instinct, but Blake had known better. Gandalf, like Blake, had seen through Avon's facade, which made Avon resent them both quite fiercely. Yet they understood the workings of his honor, his refusal to break his given word. Perhaps that was one reason why he believed he had to do this.

        The other reason was a sense of power, that if he could control the palantír, there might be a future for him here. The world was wide and computers were perhaps millennia away. Yet the need for communication existed. Could he design something based on the palantíri, something that did not require computers? The elf Fëanor had made them long ago and they had functioned for a long time offering communication between Minas Anor, the old name of this fortress, and Minas Ithil across the river, now fallen to Sauron's power. Did that mean Avon could be second to him as he had been to Ensor? His mouth twisted. No, he would devise something more powerful, something that could not be corrupted.

        All things could be corrupted.

        Sounds from below and shouts from the walls indicated the army prepared to march. Trumpets blared. Avon strengthened his resolve and picked up the seeing stone, splaying his fingers to secure his grip.

        At first, the orb lay limp and unresponsive in his hand, with only the fire that flickered at its heart an indication that it lived. Yet a gentle heat spread across his palm and ran out to the ends of his fingers, responding to the part of him that had worked so long with tarial cells and acclimated him to their strength and energy. The whimsy that it knew him, recognized and accepted him, sent a surge of pleasure through him that he had never experienced before. It had the power to change him, he realized, and he resented it even if a portion of him made him tighten his grip. The stone was his, none other's. He controlled it, rather than the other way round. He would fulfill his task and let it go. He would not fall victim to it as Faramir's father had done.

        Sauron, I summon you, Avon thought to the stone as he took his place in the window. Far, far below, the army had begun to move out. He could see Aragorn leading them on his horse; he was too far away to be recognized, but it must be Aragorn, since he rode in the lead with a standard bearer at his side, miniature figures to stand for Middle-earth. The banner fluttered in the breeze, too tiny to reveal its image of the White Tree. Witness your fate.

        The flame within the stone danced hotly, then it swirled away, replaced by the monstrous eye. Under the awesome and malevolent power of its regard, Avon's muscles tautened, and he braced himself to withstand Sauron's might, drawing on the inner ability he had not even realized he possessed until he came here and saw the stone for the first time.

        I see you, came the voice in his head, a voice that rumbled with the depth of a vessel throbbing around its crew in deep space. Little man, you hold no power over me.

        I hold power over this stone, Avon replied, his face tight with concentration. Enough power to challenge you. Look upon your doom. Sauron might respond angrily to such melodrama, and if he were angry, he might not be at the top of his form. Avon thrust out the stone to show Sauron a glimpse of the army. He held it there, even though his arm trembled from the strain of bearing it, then he drew back the orb, turning it away from the emerging army before Sauron could guess its numbers. That should be sufficient. Isildur's heir will see your destruction.

        And I will see to yours. The one you nearly slew can still die.

        Blake... Avon grimaced, but then he smoothed away all expression as he stared into the stone, turning his thoughts away from Blake with all his strength. Did Sauron see his face? Did he see more, the feelings Avon had long denied, the weaknesses he struggled to ignore? Could he read the inner Avon, the one he had long ago learned to shield against all observers? Could he find the cracks through which a very few had ever crept? Blake, damn him. Cally. Even Vila.

        Do not believe that pitiful army can hope to thwart me, came the voice in his head, rising to a deep and echoing crescendo that battered against his mind. The hand that held the palantír trembled, and it was all he could do to keep from dropping it. With the entire force of Sauron's might turned upon him, Avon had to struggle to retain the inner link that bound him to the stone. It had grown, unrecognized, within him all his adult life, and aided him in his resistance. Yet, through that bond came the Enemy's attack, relentless, inexorable, beating down against him, battering his shields, twisting his will, threatening what little he held close. He was a man against a being with powers far beyond that of humans. It enveloped him like the full force of a neutron blaster at point-blank range.

        You will fall, Avon thought with the last of his strength, and with a desperate effort, he blanked the stone. It lay in his palm, flickering dimly, the flame scarcely dancing, and he felt it gathering strength as if Sauron meant to draw him into his power, to end it, to take control. If he did that, he could destroy Avon with a mere twist of his power. The darkness would come down upon him, upon all Middle-earth, and Blake would die after all.

        Frantically, Avon let the stone fall onto the bundle of cloth that had bound it, and drew the fabric around it so that no portion of it showed. It felt like lifting the Liberator. His hands trembled, and his breath whistled out harshly. He could feel his heart drumming in his chest, and knew sweat dripped from his forehead into his eyes. Yet he concentrated upon the task with every fiber of his being, knowing he must cover the stone completely, or it would find him through even a sliver's width of opening.

        When it was completely covered, Avon drew a shaky breath, closed his eyes to seal away even the sight of its shrouded form. He could not do that again. He could not risk it. He could scarcely stand. Had Sauron forced a feedback through the stone? Something had happened, a surge of power that had seared his brain.

        Yet risk it again he must, for he had given Gandalf his word, and he could not break it now without breaking himself utterly and finally.

        A faint rumble came from the stone and touched his feet. He did not know if the entire tower quivered or if he did. He had to leave this place. He took a step backward, then another, but the pressure in his mind increased, darkness pressed close, and then he pitched forward beside it and went out like a light.

*****

        Húrin of the Keys, Warden of Minas Tirith, had wished to be present when the army rode out as his duty to see the uncrowned king and the army on their way, but Gandalf had assigned him another task, and Aragorn had seconded it. He was to follow the stranger, Avon, the dark man from the future, who had a task atop the Tower of Ecthelion, in the very chamber where Denethor had spent so many brooding hours, from which he had come forth so greatly changed.

        Few in the city knew of the palantíri, the Seeing Stones of long ago, but Húrin's duty was to know every detail of the Minas Tirith, to read its long history from its founding as Minas Anor by the men who had fled drowned Númenor, to understand what had brought Númenor to its fall. Sauron and pride, he had reasoned, perhaps the same causes of Lord Denethor's fall.

        The newcomer Avon possessed more than his share of pride; one could see it in the way he held his head, the way he looked down his nose at almost everything he saw, the coolness with which he even treated his own comrades. Only in his reaction to Mithrandir did Húrin see a reaction he could understand. At least the man was not fool enough to ignore the White Wizard's strength.

        "He will use the stone of Orthanc to contact Sauron," Gandalf had informed Húrin the previous evening. "He has a gift for the stones unknown in Middle-earth. He will hint to Sauron of the army's strength. You know what it is we must conceal from him, which I will not speak here for even though many in the city know, it would be wise to be discreet. We wish not the wrong words to reach the Enemy."

        Húrin indeed did know of the hobbit Frodo's desperate mission, so he inclined his head. He had been briefed by Faramir that very morning, because Faramir was not yet freed from the Houses of Healing. He would see to the city from his sickbed, but he could not go forth to give his orders. Húrin would serve as his arms and legs until the steward could emerge to issue his own commands. The meeting with Faramir had heartened Húrin greatly. The new steward understood the city's needs, and his very deep love of Gondor would drive him to do his all for his nation and for the White City. He had even thought of several tasks that had not yet occurred to Húrin. What a steward he would make. Should an evil fate yet befall the king, Faramir would hold Gondor exceedingly well. Yet it was wrong to anticipate the fall of Aragorn, and Húrin had pushed away the very thought. Gondor's king presumptive was as strong and bold a man as ever Húrin had met, and wise. He would return. He must.

        So Húrin followed Avon up the stairs of the great tower, always remaining far enough behind that Avon would not become aware of him, until he heard the door close ahead. Then Húrin approached the door, where he would hold himself in readiness.

        And so he had waited. He had not been as close to a palantír as this before, and hoped he need not again, for he could feel a stirring in the air that shivered through him, and made his skin tingle distastefully. An ugly feeling, malevolent, the force of the Great Eye's regard. How could one man ever hope to stand against it? It was rumored among those with the wit to understand that Lord Denethor had used the seeing stone to scry the lands of Middle-earth, to amass knowledge. Húrin suspected Sauron had controlled what he saw and twisted it so that Lord Denethor would despair. Something had altered him from the strong and confident man, wise in lore and knowledge, who had originally ruled. Húrin knew it was partly the loss of his wife, whom he had adored, that had twisted his heart, but it had been more than that. Many had lost beloved spouses and not succumbed to madness.

        Had it been the seeing stone?

        A faint rumble touched his feet and faded, and Húrin shifted uneasily. Dared he enter? The tremor faded, and with it passed the uneasy sensation, leaving him breathing harder than usual. He waited a moment and Avon did not emerge. Should he enter? Should he wait?

        In the end, it was his desire to serve Gondor that made him go in. Suppose Avon had been controlled, was revealing many secrets to the Dark Lord? It would be Húrin's responsibility to halt him.

        The door was locked to him, but Húrin held the keys to many such places; it took but a moment to use the key he had readied for just such a chance. Thrusting open the door, he spied a wrapped bundle on a table, and Avon sprawled senseless before it upon the floor. The dark man breathed, with hard, gasping breaths, but his face was pale and his brow wet with sweat. Upon his body Húrin saw no marks beyond a reddening of his right palm. He was not bleeding, and no bones appeared to be broken.

        Húrin bent at his side just long enough to feel for the beat of life in the side of his neck where it could be easily read, and to watch his chest rise with steady breath. Then, glad of his height and strength, he gathered up his limp burden and draped him over his shoulder for the long journey down all the steps of the tower.

*****

        Something was wrong, Vila knew. Weird and frightening things had been happening ever since they had arrived here in this place that seemed to thrive on swords and bloodshed and other nasty occurrences. He'd had to fight against ugly aliens, even if everybody called them orcs and didn't consider them aliens. Didn't even understand what aliens were. They had no spaceships and no computers, so that Tarrant had to content himself with marching off to fight in another battle carrying only a sword, and Avon had taken to playing with a mysterious stone that worked like a long-range communicator, as if Avon had a personal T-P Crystal. He'd halfway come to terms with Blake, but was not yet comfortable with him. Being Avon, he was avoiding everyone except for the wizard Gandalf, who probably had enough power not to drop dead from Avon's lethal glares. He might even be strong enough to stand up to Avon at his icy coldest.

        Blake had told Vila he was concerned for Avon. In a way that was good; it meant Blake had forgiven Avon for Gauda Prime. Had to, though, didn't he? It was Servalan's programming that had made Blake behave so stupidly and drive Avon to it. It only proved Servalan knew Avon far too well. They were better off here where she couldn't interfere any more, where she couldn't kill them.

        Now Sauron could kill them instead. Vila hardly considered that fair, but then he didn't expect anything in life to be fair, so why should this? Look at what had happened to him. He'd had to fight aliens, and wound up with a bloody head--I loathe the sight of my own blood--and now he spent his days actually working, horrible thought, taking care of people who had worse wounds than Vila's. That old healer woman Ioreth, who could talk the leg off a donkey--since being here, Vila had actually seen donkeys for the first time--had even dragged Vila along protesting to help her change the dressing on Blake's wounds and Faramir's yesterday afternoon. Now there had been ghastly sights. Blake's wounds, she had said, were not as deep as Faramir's arrow wounds but they covered more surface. Ugly and rippled they were, from the burns, and she had said Blake would have scars there. She seemed pleased with the look of them, though. That was more than Vila was. He hoped he'd never have to see Blake's unhealed wounds again.

        Faramir's were smaller, just little marks where the arrows had gone in, but they were sore looking, and ragged around the edges from pulling out the arrows. That leaf potion she put on the places smelled so good Vila had taken deep, rapturous breaths the whole time. He wondered if it could be made into a drink. After all, no one here had ever heard of adrenalin and soma.

        Faramir had some slight burns, too, but they were not as bad as Blake's. They had blistered but they were mending. The paste went on those marks, too. Vila shuddered as he realized those burns had come from the pyre where his father had meant to burn him to death. He scarcely remembered his own father, who had vanished when he was very small, although he liked to claim the man was an alpha. Would he have burned Vila if Vila had gotten in his way? Nasty thought.

        After Tarrant had marched away with the army, Vila had hurried up to the seventh level of the city. He had not been that high before, and the sight of the White Tree with its guards in their elaborate winged helmets made him stop uneasily. Would they send him away? He liked the look of those helmets, and his fingers itched. But he knew if he stole one, he would find himself in great trouble.

        The tree was beginning to bloom. Spring was coming, Vila knew. He had never thought about spring being anything but a time of year until he was sentenced to imprisonment on Cygnus Alpha and then wound up on the Liberator. Once he'd started teleporting down to various planets he had learned that seasons meant different weather. He had seen spring on a few planets and quite liked it, although weather didn't matter if he could find a good tavern and enough interesting things to steal. Minas Tirith had many fine taverns, but Avon, Blake, and Tarrant had all forbidden him to steal a thing. It wasn't that he had any obligation to obey them, but he didn't know this place well enough yet to guess what might happen to him if he were caught. Avon had informed him with great relish that some primitive societies cut off a thief's right hand when he was caught, and while he didn't think they did that in Gondor, he didn't know for sure, and he was afraid to ask a local for fear they would then suspect him. He tucked his hands into his opposite armpits, just in case.

        The great hall beyond the fountain and the tree looked interesting--plenty of things to steal in there. But he had come to look for Avon, not to case the seventh level. So he pasted on his most innocent look so the seemingly indifferent guards wouldn't challenge him, and edged over to the tower. That was where Avon would be. He'd overheard Gandalf say so.

        Just as he reached the door, a very tall man in the elegant garb of a noble with the White Tree embroidered on his tunic came out, bearing a clearly unconscious--or dead--Avon over his shoulder. The man was breathing hard, probably from hauling Avon down from the top of the tower, and sweat had beaded his brow. Vila knew who he was, he was Húrin, the Warden of the City, whatever that meant, and probably the highest ranking man here after Faramir. At the sight of Vila, he gasped with relief.

        "Vila, aren't you? I found your friend unconscious. Help me bear him to the Houses of Healing, quickly. Then I must return for..." He let his voice trail off, but Vila knew what he meant. It was that stone thing Avon had been fussing over, the one Vila wasn't to know about. Vila would have preferred to fling it off the prow of rock from the place where they said Denethor had fallen in flames, but he didn't think anyone would agree to that, and Gandalf would be furious when he returned. From the little Vila had seen of Gandalf, the last thing he wanted was to come under the wizard's hostile scrutiny.

        "He's not dead, is he?" he asked, and was surprised to hear how anxious he sounded. After the shuttle over Malodaar when Avon had tried to kill him, he had not believed he would ever feel anything for Avon but anger, betrayal, and distrust, but he discovered he did not want Avon to die.

        "No, he's not dead, but I don't know what's wrong with him. I could find no wounds."

        "The healers will know," Vila said with more confidence than he felt. "They've got that wonderful athelas stuff."

        "Which our new king used to save Lord Faramir," Húrin replied. He lowered Avon, and they arranged an arm over each of their shoulders and then wrapped their own arms around Avon's waist to hold him up. He was a bit taller than Vila, but Húrin was taller than either of them, so they made a lopsided procession down the ramp toward the sixth level, with Avon's head lolling and his feet dragging behind them. Two soldiers stationed there leaped to help, and Húrin directed them to bear him to the Houses of Healing. He nodded to Vila to let him know he must return to the tower, but Vila trailed unhappily after the soldiers to the Houses of Healing, where he had been expected in any case.

        There he found the healers shooing their patients to bed; as many of them as could rise briefly had gone out into the garden to watch the army ride away. There was Faramir, on his feet at the side of Éowyn. Vila liked her very much, but had hardly said two words to her.

        Faramir saw the soldiers bearing Avon in and the healers rushing to aid him, and he said a few words to Éowyn, then hurried to meet Vila. "What has befallen Avon?" he asked. "I will inform Blake."

        "I don't know," Vila admitted. "Lord Húrin found him and was bringing him here, but he said he had another task and sent him with me and the soldiers. I don't know what's wrong with him. I have to go see."

        "What would you have me say to Blake?" Faramir asked. "He will be vastly concerned. Shall I bring him?"

        Vila hesitated, then he bobbed his head. "Yes, better bring him if he can come. He can sit once he arrives, after all." Avon couldn't die, could he? Not now when they were far away from Servalan and the Federation.

        Faramir clapped Vila on the shoulder. "I go at once," he said and went off as quickly as he could. He was regaining his strength, but had not been well enough to go with the army.

        Vila gave him no further thought, but trailed after the healers, pausing to speak to Girand, who usually assigned him his tasks. "Avon's hurt, I have to go see."

        Girand looked at Avon in surprise and nodded the healers to lay him on a nearby bed. "Do you know what happened to him, Vila?" He asked. "I see no trace of blood."

        Vila's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I don't know. Húrin found him on top of the tower. I think..." He looked around to see who might overhear. "I think it was to do with one of the seeing stones."

        Girand's face darkened. "What business had he with such?"

        "I think it was Gandalf's idea," Vila defended Avon. "Nobody told me anything, but Avon...there was something about it being in his blood, or something like that; he'd worked with something from our time that was based on one. That's all I know." Girand needed to understand, and he was one of the main healers and an honorable man. Vila had seldom met honorable men before he came here. It still seemed odd to him that he could recognize one. Maybe it came from knowing Blake.

        "Ahh," said the healer and tested Avon's pulse. There were no diagnostic machines here. Vila had feared for Blake when he had realized that. But the healers understood the body. He wasn't sure what they would do if someone's appendix burst, but maybe they had learned to know the symptoms and could operate without machines to tell them when and how. Blake would have scars that, in their own time, might have been erased, assuming anyone would have been willing to treat him. But this was not a question of anything like that. How could one mend a backlash from the seeing stone?

        Was Avon's brain destroyed?

        Vila shuddered, and the last lingering remnants of his resentment of Avon for the shuttle melted away. Even when he had been so furious and brokenhearted after Malodaar, he would not have wished this on Avon. Poor old Avon had only done on the shuttle what life had taught him, that none but he would protect himself, that the only way to survive was to strike first. Vila could believe nothing else, but instead of striking first, he had hidden, made himself seem small and harmless, sought shelter in the shadow of one more powerful than himself. He had won himself no respect that way, not even from himself, but at least he was alive. Malodaar had taught him that he could not rely on protection. If he wanted to survive, his native cunning would have to serve.

        But the people here didn't seem to think that. They faced a worse threat than the Federation, but they stood together and prepared to take the fight to the enemy, even if it meant they would die. What Vila had seen of Faramir proved he would never have threatened Vila on the shuttle. If they had to stay here, could the four of them learn such behavior? Blake already knew it, even if living in the Federation had tarnished him a bit. Tarrant was bold and consciously noble, and supported his crew, but Vila couldn't quite trust him. Would Tarrant consider him expendable because he was a Delta grade? Would he have cheerfully tossed Vila off the shuttle to save himself with no effort at reasoning an answer? Probably. Blake, of course, would have resigned himself to going down with Vila, the way he had prepared to stay behind on Albian while Avon and Del Grant attempted to disable the solium device, and he'd meant Vila to stay with him, even though dying with the people of the planet had been pointless.

        Girand frowned as he examined Avon, and presently called in another healer, a tall, skinny man with flowing yellow hair and a tidy beard. Vila liked the fact that many here wore beards and planned to grow one himself. The depilatory pills most people took in the Federated worlds prevented beard growth, but there were none here, and eventually the last one would wear off. Vila thought he would look quite dashing with a beard, and if he let his hair grow long, he could arrange it so it didn't look quite so thin on top. That would show Avon.

        He looked at the unconscious tech and shivered.

        "Falador, there is no evidence of physical injury," Girand said. "He does not rouse, and yet his pupils react to light."

        Falador studied Avon as if he were a thief preparing to open a delicate lock. "Hmmm," he said, and stroked his chin the way Blake often did. "Breathing is deep and regular. But I don't like that." He pointed to Avon's hands. Vila gasped as he saw they were clenched tight into fists. "Or that." That was the muscle tremors that ran through Avon periodically. "I have seen it before," Faldor said, and his mouth tightened. From the shadows in his face, it had not been good, and Vila's muscles experienced a few tremors of their own.

        Before Falador could explain, Faramir came into the room with Blake, whose face was tight. He was not fully steady on his feet yet, and he was too pale. Faramir, who was not much better, had hold of Blake's arm. When Blake saw Avon, he pulled away from Faramir's support and shuffled over to the bed to stare down at Avon.

        "What's wrong with him?"

        "That is what we are struggling to determine," Girand said. "Blake, you will not serve him if you fall. If you must remain--"

        "I must."

        "Then sit." He gestured to a bench against the wall. "Lord Faramir, I would prefer you to sit as well."

        Faramir's mouth quirked. "My legs would tend to agree with you. I watched the army depart, and discovered the limits of my strength. Blake, come and sit, for you will be weaker yet than I."

        Blake surprised Vila by catching up Avon's hand first, uncurling the clenched fingers, and squeezing. "Avon, it's Blake," he said. "I shall stand guard over you. No," he added with a faint tinge of humor, "I shall sit guard over you." He tightened his grip once more. Vila looked very carefully but saw no response from Avon's fingers. Blake let go, and as soon as he released it, the hand tightened into a fist. Had he held off when Blake gripped his hand for fear of crushing him? Was it a conscious reaction? Or subconscious?

        Blake sighed softly, then he let Falador and Faramir urge him to the bench. A healer apprentice entered and found cushions for the two men to lean against.

        "What happened to him, Vila?" Blake demanded as the aide saw him settled. He let out a wary and cautious breath to be off his feet, and leaned his head against the wall, but his eyes never left Avon.

        Falador glanced over at Faramir, who had been similarly settled. His robe gaped slightly open across his chest to reveal a strip of bandage, and he stretched out his feet in front of him and shifted to ease his wounds.

        "Forgive me, Lord Faramir," the healer said, "but I fear my theories will pain you."

        Faramir's muscles tightened like Avon's but he consciously relaxed them, and only a flash of pain in his eyes marked the way the movement had reminded him of the arrow wounds. "Speak. I would hear your answer. Any pain I might feel must be set aside in time of need."

        There he went with that honor thing. Vila saw Blake straighten at his words, and he patted Faramir's arm. Blake must just love Faramir. He probably wished he'd had a whole crew of men just like him.

        "Then I must speak. Lord Faramir, it is now believed that your father used the palantír of the city to gain information from the world beyond our walls."

        "I knew he had a means of acquiring knowledge of the world beyond the White City," Faramir replied gravely. It couldn't be easy to remember his father, but he never hesitated. "He often knew things not even Gondor's intelligence network could have revealed to him." Could his father have seen the One Ring on the way to Rivendell? Was that why his father sent Boromir forth to acquire it?

        The healer hesitated, but then spoke openly. "Yes, my lord. Your father had a means of amassing information, and a few now know of the palantír. I have not been party to such discussions with Mithrandir save once, when he questioned me about your father in such a way that I realized what he suspected. It would explain much, for I fear the Enemy could show him true facts yet let their interpretation be colored to lead your father to despair."

        Faramir inclined his head. "It grieves me my father endured such pain for Gondor's sake."

        "Forgive me if I speak out of turn, my lord, but such fell experience may have even colored his...attitude toward you, for, in them, he was alone in his views. The people of the city hold you in high esteem and always have."

        Faramir offered the healer a faint smile, and Vila noticed it lightened the shadows in his eyes but did not entirely drive them away. "It is kind of you to suggest such. Yet I can hardly console myself at the thought of my father's pain." He made an impatient gesture with his sound arm. "How then does this relate to Avon's plight?"

        "My lord, on three occasions I witnessed your father returning from the high tower, and on his face I observed just such tics and tremors, and also the clenching of his fists. He did not lie insensible, but he had many years to inure himself to the working of the seeing stone. When Mithrandir spoke to me yesterday of the effects use of such a stone might have upon a man, I could not but recall that. I believed he feared for our new king, but now, recalling how much time the wizard spent with Avon before he departed, I believe he meant to entrust the stone's use to Avon upon his departure."

        "He did," Blake replied. "Avon spoke to me of it, in his usual enigmatic manner. You were there, Faramir. Did you suspect he meant to use the stone?"

        "I knew he meant to work with Gandalf, but guessed more. It is not my skill to read what Avon did not speak openly. You would know more from your long knowledge of him. But I wondered if he referred to a seeing stone." He frowned. "I understand not the 'computers' of which he spoke, but I reasoned they may be devices of your time intended for communication. I could not but recall the seeing stones."

        Blake drew another cautious breath. It must hurt to breathe deeply. "Avon had worked all his adult life with computers, with tarial cells, which altered the very nature of computers. It was the use of tarial cells that enabled Orac to read any computer. Orac was our master computer."

        "Like the master stone that remained in the Undying Lands when the seven were brought across the sea," Faramir said.

        Vila didn't know about that, but it made sense. "Avon could almost do magic with computers," he offered. "Not real magic, I suppose, but once when he was working late on the flight deck and I was there, he was relaxed and talked to me a bit. He said he could feel the tarial cells and know when things were wrong. I thought it was just like me when I can tell whether or not a lock will open, but I think it was more than that. I think he was attuned to them in a different way from using them so long. I didn't understand it, and then he seemed to really notice I was there and he said, 'Go away, Vila,' like he always does and wouldn't talk to me any more about it."

        "You believe a physical link existed?" Blake said in surprise. "How is that possible?"

        Vila spread his hands. "I don't know. I'm not the great brain." Reminded of the greatest brain he knew, he looked at Avon's white and shuttered face and swallowed hard. Avon would hate this, not just people gathered around talking about him while he was unconscious but the fear that what had happened had damaged his brain. What if it had? What if Avon woke alert enough to know? Vila was sure he would rather be dead than that. He shuddered.

        "Could it be some kind of backlash?" Blake asked. "Feedback through the stone from Sauron? Faramir says he was once one of the Maiar, and they are supposed to be very powerful."

        "They are," Faramir agreed. When Vila opened his mouth to ask what the Maiar were, Faramir continued, "Sauron was the lieutenant of Morgoth--he was one of the Valar who fell to evil. After his defeat, Sauron thought to take his place. At first he seemed penitent, but it may have been a ruse, or else he feared punishment. Since then he has sought power on his own. He fell at the end of the Second Age, but his essence lingered and gradually found the strength for him to rise again."

        "But this is the year 3019 of the Third Age," Blake objected. "How could he have lived so long? Do the Maiar have such long lives, like the elves?"

        Vila gulped. He had heard elves lived a long time, but he hadn't thought it might be thousands and thousands of years. How long would Faramir live? Someone had said Aragorn was eighty-seven. If that were true, he didn't look it.

        "The Maiar existed before the elves came into being," Faramir replied. "This is not the time to go into the history of Middle-earth, but what matters to us now is that the Enemy is vastly powerful. Avon's gift to use the palantíri might not stand against the full intensity of Sauron's potency." He shifted his right shoulder slightly. "Pippin told me when he picked up the palantír in Edoras, Sauron's will was so strong that he fell thrashing to the ground and only recovered when Aragorn knocked it away and Gandalf soothed him."

        "Gandalf is gone, and we can't ride out and fetch him here again, not when he is committed to such a great cause," Girand said. He combed his fingers through the vivid red hair. "We are none of us wizards to summon Avon forth from the darkness, as you say Gandalf did Pippin. He, too, is beyond our reach and cannot be questioned."

        "Do you think Avon can hear us?" Vila asked uneasily. "Do you think he knows we're here?"

        "Why do you ask, Vila?" Blake stared, and a glimmer of hope lit his eyes. Vila had never really understood the wary and tentative friendship that had existed between Blake and Avon. He doubted either one of them understood it much better than he did. But he could hear it in the question, in a thread of hope that wound through Blake's words.

        "Because look at his hands."

        They all stared at the tightly clenched fists, the whitened knuckles. His fingernails would soon drive into the skin of his palms at that rate.

        Recognizing that danger, Girand pried one hand open and let the fingers close around a roll of cloth, and Falador did the other. "What does it mean to you, Vila?" he asked.

        "When Blake grasped his hand, Avon relaxed his grip. It was as if he didn't want to crush Blake's hand. As if he knew who Blake was."

        Hope flared dramatically in Blake's eyes. "Could Vila be correct?" He asked.

        The healers frowned and looked at each other, trying to decide if there was anything to Vila's words. The people on the Liberator and then on Scorpio would never have considered his suggestion for an instant. They were too primed to fault him and scorn him. Here in this different world, he wondered how much of that treatment his own cringing protective coloration had evoked.

        "It may be," Girand said at last. He rubbed his prominent nose as he pondered. "A backlash, you suggested, Blake? What little I understand of the stones suggests they have great power, and it was hard for our new king to face Sauron through it. Who knows how long Avon had confronted Sauron, there at the top of Ecthelion? A challenge would have infuriated the Enemy. It is possible he struck at Avon through the stone."

        At his words, Húrin entered, bearing a wrapped bundle. Vila eyed it uneasily. "Here is the palantír," the warden said. "I suggest it be sealed away for safekeeping, and I mean to do so, where it can await Gandalf's return or the king's. I brought it in hopes it might offer information, for Avon worked at Gandalf's command, to reinforce our threat to Sauron and distract him from other matters we would not reveal."

        "Don't uncover it," Blake said hastily. "Sauron might be able to strike Avon again if he can see him."

        "Is that the stone my father used?" Faramir asked, then he shook his head. "No, this must be the one from the tower of Orthanc in Isengard. The one King Aragorn used to reveal himself and show Sauron the reforged blade, Andúril. Has its power been veiled?"

        "I know not, my lord," Húrin replied. "I can feel its power through the cloth, but only in a strange, impalpable manner. It does not summon me, but then I have not used it. I think it would wait, quiescent, unless used, but that is mere theory."

        Vila watched the bundle uneasily, half expecting it to leap from Húrin's grip and attack Avon. On their bench, Faramir and Blake stared at it with varying degrees of alarm and revulsion.

        "Keep it away from Avon," Blake urged.

        "No," said Vila suddenly. "If he's attuned to it, maybe it should be kept near him instead. Maybe he can draw strength from it. If it's covered up, Sauron wouldn't be able to see him, would he, then?"

        "Expose him again when he's been struck down?" Blake cried. "You can't be serious, Vila."

        "Tarrant would say I'm never serious," Vila replied, and he stood there as tall as ever he could. He looked across at Faramir. "They say you know all the lore there is to know."

        "No one does, except perhaps Gandalf," Faramir replied. "Yet I have a reputation for being learned. What would you have me do, Vila, for I am greatly reluctant to touch the stone when another may have been the cause of my father's downfall, however indirectly."

        "No, I don't want you to touch it," Vila said. "But you know about them, I'll bet. Who made them and all that kind of thing."

        "Fëanor of the Noldor elves made them long ago in Valinor," Faramir explained. "He was perhaps the most gifted elf to ever live. I do not believe he designed into them the ability to use them for domination. That was a refinement of Sauron's, I deem. I know not how Fëanor made them nor the many ways they function; that information was lost long ago, were it ever known to Men. But if Avon is indeed attuned to the stone's matrix, perhaps he can draw strength from it, as Vila suggests."

        Blake looked wary, but Girand gave a faint nod. "We shall try. At the first sign of distress or a deeper sleep, we will then remove it and secure it in a safe place, perhaps deep in the vaults." The healer took it from Húrin, who wiped his palms on his tunic as if to rid himself of a clinging unpleasantness.

        "Avon," the red-haired healer said, "I bring to you the palantír. I do not unveil it, for such may cause great harm. If it be true you have a tie to it, perhaps it can aid you. We shall remove it if we sense harm to you. If you hear my words and know this to be the wrong course, show to us a sign."

        The only sign Avon gave was that of an unconscious man who fought something deep in his mind. His clenched fists did not relax, and the twitches continued in his muscles.

        "I sense naught," Girand said and lay the shrouded stone next to Avon. He lifted Avon's wrist and lay his fist atop the stone.

        Everybody held his breath, but there was no change. Avon did not flinch away from the stone. Vila didn't think he even knew it was there. Maybe it had to be uncovered to work, but Vila didn't want it uncovered. He'd heard tales about the great Eye of Sauron, and he didn't want to see it. He didn't want it looking at him and knowing him. He couldn't think of any more horrible confrontation than that. It would be worse than the shuttle with Avon calling his name in that eerie, mad voice. He took an uneasy step backward from the edge of the bed.

        Girand caught his eye and grimaced. "I, too, wish to step away from it, Vila," he said. "There is a fell power in the stone. How much is from Sauron's fell use and how much is intrinsic I know not."

        "The stones were not evil in the beginning. It is their use that is evil, not the palantíri themselves," Faramir replied. "I have read of them in ancient texts. Once they were simply used for communication between the cities and outposts of Gondor. It is Sauron who has twisted them, and even then I do not believe the stone itself is corrupt, but merely the presence of one with such great strength to warp the minds of the users."

        "I believe Lord Faramir speaks truly," Húrin agreed. "The stone was also bound and dormant when I found Avon, which suggests he possessed the strength to resist long enough to enclose it." He looked down at Avon with a degree of respect. "From his current state, I also suspect continual use in contact with Sauron would overpower that strength completely. He must not use the device again to contact Sauron."

        "Or use it at all," Blake insisted. "I don't like this."

        "I, too, am uneasy," Faramir admitted. "How much is colored by my father's fate I know not, but the presence of the stone, of which Sauron is aware through several uses here--and the many Saruman made of it before it was claimed from Isengard--will no doubt make it easier for the Enemy to twist it to his will."

        "Avon can't stand against that," Vila said. "Nobody could."

        "True, Vila." Húrin frowned. "I should seal it away."

        "Wait." Girand studied Avon's face. "Look, he is easier. Perhaps it does aid him."

        Blake made as if to get up and come over, but Falador put a hand on his shoulder to restrain him. "No, Blake. Wait and tax not your strength. I would have you return to your bed."

        "Not until I know about Avon," Blake insisted. "Give me a bed in here, if you must. Faramir is the Steward and should have his own room in any case."

        "That is not necessary," Faramir said. "I am a patient here like any other and deserve no special treatment. But stay with Avon if it consoles you."

        Vila was pretty sure that Faramir did get special treatment, not that the healers would deny anyone their full attention to any patient. The care given to all was equal according to need, and Vila, who had found himself binding wounds and aiding healers as directed, knew that to be true. But Faramir's room was spacious, just like the one given to the Lady Éowyn. The morning sun shone in on Faramir on the mornings when the cloud cover thinned enough to allow it, and Vila, who had never seen the sun until he was sentenced to Cygnus Alpha and then only alien suns for a long time, had not realized until now what a treat it was to greet the sun in the morning. If only the army could defeat Sauron, Vila would quite like it here, even if it meant he would be expected to help the healers and see nasty wounds.

        There was a second bed in the small room where Avon had been brought, so Blake was ensconced in it and propped up with four pillows. His color improved when he was reclining, and Falador clucked in satisfaction.

        Faramir, whose wounds were not as grave as Blake's, remained where he was, but took up the cushion Blake had abandoned and settled into the corner of the wall where he could recline more comfortably. One of the attendants brought him a nourishing drink and one for Blake. Vila thought longingly of adrenalin and soma. Sparing that, the ale here was excellent. He cornered the aide and asked for a mug of ale, and the man grinned--he and Vila had worked together before, and Vila liked him--and trotted off to fetch him one.

        Vila had drunk half of it before Avon finally stirred. The motion made Blake push himself up from the bed and force his way to Avon's side in spite of the protests of the two healers. Faramir did not rise, but then he barely knew Avon, and Vila suspected he only remained for Blake's sake and to learn of the palantír because he would deem it his responsibility. Beside him on the bench Húrin, the warden of the city, waited, and Vila realized he was here to sternly order Faramir back to bed, should it be necessary. Second only to Faramir in the ranking of the city, he would have the authority.

        Avon's fingers uncurled and flexed, then he felt the bundle under his right hand, the one that had reddened. Vila couldn't see any trace of mild burns now. Had the palantír healed him? Avon's hand closed around the shape beneath its cloth protection, and his muscles eased still further. A strange sensation, an itching feeling, ran through Vila, and from the way Blake shifted and the healers shuffled their feet, perhaps they sensed it, too, but it was so mild it did not seem threatening. It passed almost immediately.

        Avon's grip tightened involuntarily and then relaxed. After a long moment when everyone held his breath, he snatched his hand away from the stone and sat up away from it. His eyes opened wide and he stared around wildly, his face full of alarm and anxiety, emotions open for all to read. Vila winced.

        When he saw everyone watching him, he stiffened and controlled his features with a visible effort. "I scarcely require an audience," he said tightly through his teeth. Then, wryly, "While I despise such a cliche and will avoid asking where I am, since I recognize this as the Houses of Healing, I will ask how I got here."

        "Gandalf instructed me to guard you," Húrin explained. "I came and found you in a swoon, the stone well covered. I brought you down from the tower and your friend Vila assisted me to bring you here."

        "Ah, then I am fortunate in my...friend." Avon's voice was very dry, and he glowered at Húrin. "All know my purpose?" he asked.

        "All here," Faramir replied. "The news shall spread no further, for that would be Gandalf's wish and would serve Gondor's purpose."

        "Ah yes, and one must always dance to Gandalf's tune," Avon muttered sourly. He massaged his temples. "I was never one for dancing."

        "As I well know," Blake replied, but without malice.

        "Why are you up?" Avon demanded. He made no attempt to urge Blake to bed.

        "To discover what was wrong with you. You have been unconscious nearly an hour."

        "Was it an hour? It felt like a month." Avon's mouth twisted, and Vila saw his eyes shadow.

        "The Enemy is no longer within your mind?" Faramir asked.

        Vila hadn't even thought of that, and clearly Blake hadn't taken it that far either, because he drew in a sharp breath and put out a hand to Avon.

        Avon watched the hand but did not extend his own. When Blake realized that he wouldn't, he gripped Avon's shoulder instead. "Is he right, Avon? Did Sauron control you?"

        "He tried," Avon replied. A look around the room proved he resented being questioned before witnesses, but Vila had no intention of leaving, and he could hardly order the city's leaders to do so. The healers needed to be here, and Blake had his own need. Avon must have realized that because he favored them all with impartial scowls and continued. "He would have dominated me if he could, but I managed to blank the stone. I showed him a portion of the army and tried to make him believe it larger."

        "What did you tell him?" Faramir demanded.

        Avon glowered at Faramir. "That the army meant to strike him and that Isildur's heir would destroy him. I made no mention of Frodo, nor allowed my thoughts in that direction." He added tightly, "Gandalf instructed me to report to you."

        Both healers gasped at what they perceived an insult to the rank of the steward, Vila guessed. But Faramir merely nodded. "So he also informed me. I know the experience was vastly difficult and caused you great pain, and for that I am sorry. I have not seen one of the palantír, although I knew one existed here. I once asked my father about it, when I was a lad, and he said it was not for me to know, but that it would pass to my brother when he became steward." His mouth twisted as if he'd tasted something bad, like Federation-issue gaol food. "Now it shall pass to our king and I shall see one only at his command."

        Húrin looked at Avon. "Are you instructed to use it again?"

        Avon flinched before he could prevent himself. "If I deemed appropriate, Gandalf said," he replied through clenched teeth. "He believed I would relish a show of strength, but Sauron..." His voice trailed off. Vila realized with a sudden thrill of fear that Avon was very frightened. "It took more strength than I believed I possessed to sever the connection. It clung to my fingers and would not fall..."

        He must be shocked to admit so much. If he had been anyone else, Vila would have patted him on the shoulder.

        Blake did, and won a withering frown for his pains. He lifted his hand with a crooked smile and allowed Girand to help him into bed.

        Faramir swallowed. "Should it be necessary, I will stand with you, and even grip the stone," he said.

        "No," said both healers in chorus. "My lord Steward," Girand continued, "at peak health, you might withstand the stone--none here doubt that. But you are not yet mended. To attempt it without full strength would be folly. Gandalf would say it was folly."

        "Perhaps it is, and perhaps the same weakness that claimed my father would claim me, but he used it for many years and his decline was gradual. It is true I am wounded, but my energy returns. The fate of Middle-earth is more important than one man. If it be needed, I shall do what must be done."

        Blake smiled at him as if he were the ideal recruit, and Avon eyed him suspiciously.

        "Even knowing what such a stone did to your father, and what it did to me, you would risk this?" he asked. "You are a fool. Why do you offer?"

        "For Gondor," Faramir said simply. "For my people."

        "He's as bad as you are, Blake," Avon said, but a trickle of amusement touched his eyes and drove the shadows away. "Between the two of you, I foresee my life shall not be my own."

        Vila could tell Faramir saw the humor. He was a smart man, and more than once Vila thought he had guessed what even Avon was thinking. Somebody had told Vila that he even had visions, and while Vila hadn't decided what he thought about that, he was pretty sure Faramir understood Vila's nature better than Vila would have liked. If he could understand Avon, he was doing better than everybody else. "That is not Gondor's way," he said. "We all serve as we must, for the common good."

        Avon must have suddenly remembered that Faramir had ridden out at the head of his men on a suicide mission and that his wounds were the result of that; he was the only one to survive the charge on Osgiliath. No doubt Avon would consider him a great fool, but Avon also respected courage and competence, and Faramir possessed both. "I am not of Gondor," he said, but the words were not meant as a challenge.

        Faramir met his gaze levelly. "No, but your world is lost to you, and you have already served Gondor. Gondor accepts you, should you choose to accept us. All of you. Tarrant has gone with the army to fight for us, Vila serves here in the Houses of Healing. Blake and I have spoken much, and we have set forth goals to achieve in the peace that is to come. You have confronted Sauron directly. Gondor finds you all worthy."

        Avon blinked. "That was not my intent," he said. "Anyone will tell you, I protect myself."

        "Any who does not protect himself is a fool," Faramir replied. "But there are times when the greater good must be protected first. That has been my path since I was old enough to take up the sword and the bow to defend my land. Should victory come, I will serve Gondor in peace."

        "It's a whole nation of Blakes," Avon muttered. "Have I the right to sleep now? For my head is killing me."

        Vila's smile lit his face. "Have you considered amputation?" he asked as Avon had once asked him.

        "You have been waiting for this moment, haven't you, Vila?" Avon said, but the corners of his mouth twisted involuntarily.

        "Come, Lord Faramir, you must return to your bed," Falador urged. "Blake, you may stay here, since there is a bed, or return, if that is your wish."

        "I will remain here," Blake said.

        Avon proved he was mending. He pasted on a put-upon look and muttered with ponderous sarcasm, "Oh, joy."

*****

        Leading their horses, Aragorn and Éomer reached the top of a rise and looked out across the ground ahead of them. As they drew nearer to Mordor, the land had grown more desolate as if even trees and brush had retreated from Sauron's realm. One more day would bring the army to the Black Gate, and Aragorn could tell that dread had grown among the men of the combined armies. They would not yield; they were brave and well-tested in war, and he admired them greatly, but they could not help but be disheartened by the land that had been twisted into submission by the Enemy.

        To their right rose the stark, jagged peaks of the Ephel Duath. The mountains of Mordor shut the world out of that land, and Aragorn had no desire to venture within. It might not even come to that, for surely the orcs would march out to meet them at Morannon. He imagined the Black Gate swinging open and orcs emerging, and the thought twisted his own gut. He was Isildur's heir. Isildur had risen, even in defeat, from the side of his slain father and snatched up the broken blade to slash the Ring from Sauron's finger. At times, the heft of Andúril, although perfectly balanced and natural in its sheath, seemed to bow Aragorn down with the weight of Isildur's legacy. That it also included Isildur's refusal to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom burdened Aragorn more than the weight of the blade and its accompanying responsibility did. There was great strength in the blood of Númenor, but there was also weakness, pride and arrogance. Númenor had fallen beneath the waves. Would Gondor now fall beneath the surge of Sauron's power? Aragorn touched the hilt of Andúril. It felt natural and true in his hand, as if the elves who had reforged it had used their gifts to attune it to him.

        He knelt and fingered the tracks that had preceded them all along their route. The westering sun made their outlines more vivid than they would have appeared at noon. "Two days before us," he said to Éomer. "I thought some of them might hesitate and attack us as we marched, would lie in wait for us and hinder our advance, but they have not done so."

        "Perhaps they feared the Oathbreakers would march with us," Éomer replied. "Or, more likely, Sauron has bidden them return to face us with the greatest possible strength. He knows you mean to challenge him. Would he not prepare to guard himself with every orc at his command?"

        Aragorn bowed his head in confirmation. "That is my belief, although hidden archers would have reduced our numbers. Yet perhaps he would relish watching us fall before his gate."

        Éomer looked over his shoulder. None but Legolas and Gimli were close enough to overhear them. At each halt, the men gathered together to rest and eat, to toast their courage with flagons of ale, to see to their weapons. Tonight all would make certain their blades were honed to perfection.

        "You believe we shall fall," the king of Rohan said.

        Legolas took a step nearer and placed himself at Aragorn's side in a gesture of solidarity. "You have seen Aragorn in battle," he said and the words were a reproach.

        "I have not seen an army as small as this vanquish ten thousand orcs," Éomer replied. "I mean not to disparage Aragorn's skill, which I believe to be the greatest in Middle-earth. But not even he can overpower such a force."

        "We give time to Frodo," Aragorn reminded Éomer. He gestured at the mountains that loomed over them to their right. "Somewhere within those borders, Frodo nears Mount Doom. This I must believe. I have hope for Frodo and confidence in his strength. You do not know him, nor Sam, who would never leave his side, no matter the peril. Such loyalty as Sam possesses is the stuff of ballads and great tales, although Sam himself would not believe it."

        "The wee lad considers himself ordinary, merely a gardener," Gimli said. "We know better. To venture into Mordor itself when many would break and flee... Faramir said Sam never yielded in all the time they traveled together."

        "I do not doubt their courage," Éomer said. "I have seen the great heart of one hobbit. Before the Pelennor, I confess I underestimated Merry, but no more. My men have told many tales of his courage, and my sister would lie dead if not for him. I believe Frodo has the will to do his task. But he is so greatly outnumbered. How can he succeed?"

        Legolas smiled gently. "Because they are small, they can be unobtrusive. Hobbits have long dwelled in Middle-earth, unknown by the rest of us, except as legends. Long ago, my father met Bilbo Baggins, who had a remarkable impact upon the times. It was he who united elf and dwarf at the Battle of the Five Armies. Doubt not Frodo and Sam." He knelt beside Aragorn. "What see you?"

        "Old tracks. Two days old," Aragorn replied. "Moving with great haste from the length of their strides." He traced one large bootprint to the side of the large body of tracks. "Orcs and Uruks, moving together, moving fast. Sauron has summoned them."

        "To meet us," Éomer said. "My men will not give ground, but I hate it that my first battle as king of Rohan is to lead my men to death."

        "I am not crowned king, but I lead the men of Gondor to a similar fate. All of us know this is Frodo's only chance, the only chance for Middle-earth." He fingered the spoor once more then rose. "We will camp here for the night and give the men another hour's sleep to hearten them before the battle. By mid-morning tomorrow we will reach our destination. Post extra guards tonight." He gestured to his officers and gave commands.

        "You must rest tonight, Aragorn," Legolas told him when the officers had scattered to do his bidding. "Yet I know you will rest little."

        "There is much to see to," Aragorn replied.

        Legolas and Gimli exchanged meaningful looks and Gimli gave a snort of exasperation.

        "Laddie, you are king now. We have a king in Erebor, and I have seen him often. A king learns to delegate tasks. You will exhaust yourself in the first week of your rule if you insist on doing everything for yourself."

        "You will also lead your people to believe you do not trust them to see to their tasks," Éomer said. "You have not yet come to know these men as I know my marshals, but they are brave men and skilled. Trust them."

        Aragorn smiled. "Why, so I do, for I have great respect for Gondor's armies."

        The men who were near enough to hear that straightened their shoulders. Seeing that, Aragorn knew the others were correct. He beckoned his orderly to his side and bade him summon the officers for a planning session following the evening meal.

        Facing orcs might even prove easier than serving as king of Gondor.

*****

        Merry heaved a sigh as he set aside his empty plate. Beside him, Pippin still picked at the last bit of trail stew. From the way his mouth twisted, he found the meal as unpalatable as Merry did.

        With a sigh, Merry looked around the camp. Gandalf was meeting with Aragorn, Éomer, Legolas, Gimli, and the officers of both armies. There was no place for hobbits in such a strategy session, for hobbits had no armies and no skill in strategy and tactics. He and Pippin knew how to fight because they'd had to, and had both learned to use swords, and to judge how best to take on the far larger orcs. They had survived, which one of the soldiers had told them was not only a sign of luck but proof that they had good survival instincts. From Amon Hen when they hadn't known how to use swords to the siege of Gondor, they had learned and gained skill. Boromir's training had stood them in good stead, but Merry did not believe even the training from Gondor's greatest swordsman would be enough on the morrow's battle.

        Pippin looked like he wished to go off by himself and be sick. He forced down the last bite and set aside his plate to clean later. "Are you scared?" he asked Merry in a small voice.

        "Yes," said Merry without any attempt to lie. "Even more than when we rode to Gondor. I told Éowyn there was not much point in hoping. Do you really think Frodo can reach Mount Doom just when we need him to?"

        Pippin hesitated. "Maybe," he said, and his reluctance wasn't because he doubted Frodo. "I found you on the battlefield when all hope seemed lost, Merry. Rohan came just in time to save Gandalf and me. When the White City was near to falling, Aragorn brought the Oathbreakers. Why shouldn't Frodo make it in time to save us tomorrow?"

        "No doubts?" Merry asked scarce above a whisper. His hand reached out and clasped Pippin's wrist.

        Pippin turned his arm so his hand could grip Merry's arm. They stared into each other's eyes. "I want to believe it, Merry. I want Frodo and Sam to be safe. I'm just so afraid for them. All those orcs in Mordor... We've got the whole army, and the rest of the Fellowship right here with us, but they're alone."

        "Hobbits can hide better than anybody," Merry insisted, as much in an attempt to convince himself as to reassure Pippin. Could they hide from ten thousand orcs? He felt sick.

        "Sam will protect Frodo," Pippin said. He squeezed Merry's wrist and they both let go.

        Merry looked around. So many soldiers. Some of them looked familiar; he recognized a few of the officers of Rohan, but he hadn't really come to know any of Gondor's soldiers yet. He recognized Aragorn's standard bearer, sitting with two other men, the three of them playing almost automatically at dice as if they needed something to do with their hands, something to distract them from thoughts of the morrow. Off just beyond them sat a man of Gondor, all alone, his helmet propped beside him, his hair as short and curly as a hobbit's. It was Tarrant, Avon's friend from the future.

        "Wait a minute, Pip," Merry said, and went over to Tarrant, who looked up at him in surprise. "You're Avon's friend, aren't you?"

        "His friend?" Tarrant asked and offered up a wry grin. "Well, I'm his shipmate. Avon doesn't tend to accumulate friends."

        "I'm Merry Brandybuck. Avon carried me from the battlefield, even when he was wounded."

        "You must be the one who taught him how to hold his sword." Tarrant's eyes danced. "He mentioned that. Of course, being Avon, he sounded utterly resentful, but he was glad of your instruction and valued it. Avon does respect competence."

        "He must be an unhappy man," Merry said involuntarily. At a gesture from Tarrant, he sat beside him.

        "Well, yes, so he must, but one doesn't think about that. He's strong, and he's cold in self-defense. If he can make peace with Blake, perhaps it will help. And this world... Ah, I don't know what will become of us." Before Merry could reply, he picked up his sword and tested its grip. "As for me, I will probably die tomorrow, and then there will be no need to worry."

        "We won't die," Merry said. "I thought I would die on the Pelennor, but I didn't. Pippin found me. You don't know Aragorn, but he's a great man, and Éomer King is bold and brave."

        "I've been a soldier all my life," Tarrant replied. "I have seen bold and brave men fall too many times to count. I saw my own brother fall, and lived his death inside my mind, as if it were my own. Courage is just the way you prepare yourself to die."

        Merry sucked in his breath. "Don't think like that. Don't go into battle so bitter."

        "And should I accept it rejoicing?" Tarrant challenged. He must be as lonely as Merry in Edoras when Pippin had ridden away with Gandalf, leaving him impossibly far from any other hobbits.

        Were there answers for Tarrant? "Not rejoicing, not about death," Merry said. He wasn't wise enough to deal with this. Gandalf might be, but Gandalf was planning the campaign with the leaders of the armies. Pippin had a kind heart but Pippin was young yet and only beginning to find answers for himself. No, this was for Merry, and he didn't really know what to say. "You feel alone here, I know. Your friends remain in Minas Tirith."

        "My companions," Tarrant muttered.

        "No," said Merry fiercely. "Your friends. Vila farewelled you. I saw him. Avon had his own task and could not, and Blake had to stay in the Houses of Healing."

        "Avon told me, as scathingly as possible, that I was a bloody great fool to join the army," Tarrant replied.

        Merry chuckled. "I know Avon best of any of you, not that I know him very well. But I think that might be the way he has of being fond of people."

        Tarrant looked down at him in surprise. "You may not know him very well, but there may be something in what you say."

        Merry smiled. "One thing I've learned since I left the Shire is how very important friends are. I always knew it, but now it's more real than ever. When I was separated from all three of them, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam, I never felt more alone and lonely in my life. All I wanted was to see them again, even if I had to ride to battle to do it. Maybe no one's friends are perfect, but they're still our friends."

        Tarrant gave a laugh, and his face lightened. "Ah, Merry, to think that I would sit here longing for Avon and Vila." He ran his fingers through his curls and offered Merry a smile that revealed a great many gleaming white teeth. "Here we are, marching to a battle we have no hope of winning, in a world where Sauron can dominate people's minds and has the means to crush all hope of freedom. And yet people in this world still take the risk of friendship."

        "Don't they in yours?" Merry asked, his mouth agape. "How can you survive without friends? How can you find any comfort without them? I thought you and the others were just stiff because it's a new world for you and you knew you couldn't go home. Is it always like that? It can't be."

        "Why not?" Tarrant asked.

        "Because Avon was worried about Blake. Anyone could see it. And because he carried me to the White City when he didn't have to, only because I'd told him how to hold a sword. There was no debt. Boromir taught me and he didn't do it for pay, but to help me." He drew a shuddering sigh. "And then he died. He died for Pippin and me, and that's why Pippin serves Gondor." He gestured over at Pippin, who had joined the dice players and was talking eagerly to them as he rolled his dice.

        "Because Boromir gave his life for you?" Tarrant asked.

        "Because we loved him," Merry said. Moisture stung his eyes. They had scarcely dared remember Boromir after he and Pippin had won free of the orcs. Treebeard had come and then they had learned Gandalf wasn't dead after all, and the joy of that had made them push the horrible memory of Boromir's fall, his body pierced with arrows, into the backs of their minds. Pippin had told Merry how he had first seen Denethor, mourning over Boromir's shattered horn and how it had brought all that back to him as if it had newly happened.

        "I don't understand," Tarrant said.

        "I don't either, not really," Merry admitted. "But even if the orcs did capture us, Boromir probably prevented them from killing us. He gave us our lives, you see. If we'd done nothing but mourn, then we'd have--have thrown his gift in his face. We had to laugh together and find things to give us pleasure, like finding the larder at Isengard, and the pipeweed. But in the dark, when we were lying awake, we still remembered. I miss him." He swallowed hard.

        "I miss Cally and Dayna," Tarrant said, and great sorrow showed in his eyes. "There has been no time to miss Dayna and Soolin since we came here. But it hasn't gone away. And I still remember Cally, even if she's been gone more than a year."

        Merry heaved a sigh. He didn't know who Dayna and Soolin were, friends from their own world, like Cally, probably. But seeing friends die was hard. He had seen Gamling fall on the Pelennor, and that had hurt, even though he had not known the Rohan officer well. Everyone had lost friends and family.

        "That's why we're here," he said. "Because we've lost those we love. We have to stand for them, or it means nothing. And for those at home. If Sauron wins, the Shire will fall, and all my family and friends there, maybe not right away, but soon. The Shire is a good place, Tarrant. We have peace, even if it's not real. Sauron will destroy the Shire if he wins, and the people there don't really know about Sauron. So I have to be here. I'm fighting for my home and for Frodo, and for those who can't be here, like the Lady Éowyn, and Faramir."

        Tarrant was silent a long time, and Merry didn't break the silence, but merely sat at his side, wishing he had his pipe, and remembering home: the convivial evenings at the Green Dragon, the cozy family sense of Brandy Hall and its many hobbit families in its warm communal setting, the smell of autumn bonfires, the green fields, the flowers, the happy meals with folk laughing and talking together, the small adventures he and Pippin had shared. It was not the great, noble life they lived in Gondor, but it was home and Merry ached for it. Tarrant might ache for his home, and he could never, ever return. If he had always been a soldier, he would probably be happier in Gondor than in the Shire, but he would have to make it home. How hard would that be? What if Merry could not go home?

        "Gondor will welcome you and your friends," he said. "You can make a home there."

        Tarrant tilted his head to look down at Merry. "Are you a mind-reader?" he asked.

        "No, but I was imagining what it would be like to be so lost. There are good people in the world. You don't have to sit here alone unless you choose to." He gestured at Pippin and the dice players. "They would welcome you. Do you know how to play dice?"

        Tarrant grinned. "Some things must be universal, Merry. I've spent many an evening playing games with dice, gambling away my pay. And other games on many different worlds. That is how soldiers will pass the time." His face eased. "I'd forgotten the companionship of it."

        "Well, don't forget any more. It's better not to sit by yourself tonight. Come on." He tugged Tarrant's arm and led him to the gathering. "Are there room for two more?" he asked.

        "Always," said the biggest man, with a grin. "Your coin is good."

        "Well," said Tarrant, offering him a matching grin, "I haven't been paid yet."

        "Then your chit is good. Come, sit down. I'm Mendo, and this is Rond, and Charnin, and that's Pippin. Beware of him. He has a real way with dice."

        "I'm Tarrant, and this is Merry," Tarrant said and sat down.

        Merry joined Pippin, who leaned over and whispered in Merry's ear, "That was good, Mer." He grinned, then added, "He'll owe me a fortune before we march back to Minas Tirith."

        "I heard that," Tarrant said. "Be wary, Pippin. I may be a prodigy."

        The men laughed and made ribald comments, and Merry sat back, beaming. Somehow, the night didn't seem quite as dark as it had a few moments before. Leaning against Pippin's shoulder, he watched Tarrant stretch out a long arm to corral the dice, and toss out a set of sixes as if he had the luck of the Valar behind him. Mendo groaned, but Pippin let out a cheer and accepted the dice, prepared to match Tarrant's throw or even beat it.

        Companionship, Merry thought as Gimli and Legolas drifted over to join them. That was what made all this bearable.

*****

        Avon brooded. Every day he watched the sky over Mordor, but he did not use the palantír again, for Húrin had taken it away and secreted it. Resentful of the warden's actions, Avon took to glaring at Húrin when they should meet, but Húrin merely nodded, smiled gently, and went about his duty. When Avon pressed him, Húrin merely said, "I do what I must for Gondor," and nothing could shake him.

        In truth, Avon was greatly torn, for the last thing he wished to do was to encounter Sauron again. Twice was two times too many. What did he owe Gondor in any case? Not the risk of his mind and sanity, that was certain. Except that he was stuck in this benighted place, he would not care if Sauron swooped down and covered the whole world with his evil. Perhaps he would spare a few individuals. Yet he and Blake were here now, and Vila, and even Tarrant. With luck--which Avon had never believed in--Servalan might leave them here, for he could see no advantage to her in retrieving them. Blake, alive, would serve as a beacon for the resistance. She might wish to ensure their deaths, but she was a vindictive bitch, and might relish the thought of Avon stranded in a primitive land with no computers. He doubted she had sent any through to investigate Middle-earth. There was nothing here she could learn in a quick survey that would serve her. No, she had cast them into exile and meant to strand them here forever.

        Yet the palantír called to him. He had not realized his constant handling of tarial cells had created such a pull in him. He had always loved computers; he understood them far better than he did people; they were predictable in the way that people never were, and if they broke down, it was not a personal betrayal. They had always represented safety and security to him, and he had worked to hone his skills, to content himself with the knowledge that his was the greatest skill in the Inner and Outer Worlds--if one ignored Ensor, of course. Ensor had died, and that would have left Avon at the top of the game. He was by far the greatest computer expert in Middle-earth, but it was a meaningless title. The only thing here he could possibly master was a palantír.

        And the last time he had used one, it had sent a blast of feedback into his brain that had nearly killed him. Even if he had found the strength to shut down the seeing stone and block Sauron, he had not won the encounter. Sauron had not won it, either, yet Avon feared another bout might finish him. Sauron had endured for thousands of years, and his strength far overshadowed that of any human. To challenge him was utter folly.

        Still, the stone drew him. Here in Minas Tirith, he could not see what the army was doing, could not know what fate would befall him. To sit and wait helplessly while others decided his fate made resentment flare within him. He took to avoiding Blake and Vila, and instead prowled the city, learning its workings. With the fate of the entire world hanging over the people, Avon expected them to cringe away and hide in their pitiful shelters waiting for the fatal stroke, but they didn't. They went about their daily lives almost as if in ignorance of it. They were not ignorant, though. He often saw people pause along one of the walls and look off to the north, worried for sons and husbands and fathers who had marched away.

        He had half expected some folk to flee into the wilderness, to hide from the threat of Sauron's orcs, but none did. Instead. they simply lived their lives.

        Avon spent considerable time in the archives, studying the history of Middle-earth, for if he must live here, he would know what he could. He sneered over their creation myths, but found the race of elves intriguing. It was generally believed here that it was the race of men who craved power, but such a drive existed in the elves as well. Ego and acquisitiveness was as much a portion of the elvish nature as it was of men's. The story of the Noldor elves and the Kinslaying of the Teleri made him grimace wryly, for he was never surprised at the evil people could do to one another.

        Yet here in the White City, he saw endless courage, even honor. Faramir did not just give lip service to honor and duty, but he lived it with his every breath. He was as big a fool as Blake, but he did not think so. He had ridden out on a suicide raid that had failed, and his only regret was that he had been forced to sacrifice his own men. He bore his wounds with honor and would have traveled with the army to the Black Gate in a heartbeat if the healers had permitted it. Blake liked and respected him greatly, but then Blake would. He was the ideal model of what Blake would have loved to see in every one of his pitiful rabble.

        This was the day the army would likely arrive at the Black Gate of Mordor. Fitting that the day would be cold and gloomy with a tearing wind out of the north. Some fools in the city remarked that the wind might even bear the sounds of battle to them, although that was impossible.

        His footsteps took him to a blacksmith's forge, where the smith beat a white-hot sword, shaping it into a deadly blade with a neat precision of strokes.

        Avon had always respected competence, so he paused to watch the man. When he had done what he could with the blade, he thrust it into the hot coals and worked a lever to stir up the flames of the forge. A leather apron protected his chest from sparks, and his forehead was beaded with the sweat of his labors, even in the chill of the north wind. Unlike most men in the city, he wore no beard, only a mustache. His forearms, bare in the chill air, were knotted with muscles, and his shoulders were broad and powerful. At Avon's interest, he looked up. "Good morrow, friend. You look as if you had never seen a smithy before."

        "I never have," Avon replied. "Why do you make blades? The fate of the world will surely be determined today."

        "And if it is, then there will still be fighting and swords will still be needed. If we should win, there will still be orcs in the world, and small wars will not cease because the enemy has fallen. If we should lose, then we will not surrender easily here in the city and will still need blades."

        Avon shook his head. "I do not understand you."

        "I am a smith," the man said. "My father was a smith and his father before him. We have long served Minas Tirith. Smiths make the tools of our trade, you see, and then use them to make all else." He gestured at a variety of items here and there, tripods to hold cooking pots made of three narrow poles that wove together by a clever arrangement of the designs on the ends of each. Avon fingered one and saw how sturdily the pieces fit together, even though they had not been welded together. One could separate them and move them easily. A lantern pole held a finial at its end that vaguely resembled the stylized white tree design so prevalent in the city. On the walls were displayed more elaborate designs that could be mounted on walls for decorations, and a whole row of pots and pans in varying sizes graced shelves at the rear of the shop.

        "In general," said the smith, as he moved his unfinished blade around in the glowing coals, "I would not do the final honing work on this, but merely shape the blade while others honed it to sharpness and finished it. An itinerant smith would do all," and he gestured to indicate anywhere beyond Minas Tirith, "but here in the city we have specialists. But the war has made for hard times. I do more than I would normally, for Denilon, who created the hilts for these blades has gone away to war, and now even his son who is but fifteen has marched with the army. I have their hilts and have learned the task, but it is not my own."

        "And being a smith contents you?" Avon asked. He could see the man's skill, and respected it, but to do no more than come to this small booth and work the forge and beat out shapes in the glowing metal would not have satisfied him.

        "It is my life. It is not heroic, not like Lord Aragorn's task, but it is no less necessary. We all do what we must, and I must be a smith, for it is in my blood and my heart." He offered Avon a smile. "When I strike to shape the blades, it is my way of striking blows for Gondor. I have no skill in the use of a sword, but I used one when the orcs broke in and even slew a few of them." He laughed. "A sword I made, perhaps. Ah, friend, I would be naught but a smith. Sometimes I think of all I have made and how many people's lives have been eased a bit by what I have done. Think you not that I wish for any other life."

        Avon stared at him, pondering. "You are fortunate," he finally said. "Even in such times." Fortunate indeed. How rare was the contentment that went from knowing what one did mattered, not only to himself, but to others. There was no hint of arrogance in the man's claims, just a simple peace that it was so. To Avon's surprise, he envied the man.

        "Today," said the smith, "we shall know how fortunate." He pulled the glowing blade from the coals and raised his hammer. "Stand back, friend, for I would not have you burn yourself."

        Avon said his farewells to him and walked along the passage, then he paused, smiled a wry and amused smile, and went in search of Húrin.

        "You wish the palantír," Húrin said, and there was no surprise in his face at the sight of Avon when Avon ran him down on the fourth level talking to several members of the city's guilds. He had left them at once and come to speak to Avon privately in the shelter of an arch. "Even knowing it could kill you."

        "If the army besieges the gates of Mordor, Sauron will have enough to occupy his mind and will hardly worry about me. I might learn how the battle goes."

        "Besieges?" Húrin echoed. He looked down at Avon, for he was even taller than Tarrant. "Our small army will stand and the orcs will pour forth, far more than we could muster. We know not if the orcs harried the army all the way and picked off our brave soldiers from ambush." His mouth tightened. "Very well. I would know, too, for it is my duty to do what I can for the people of this city. We can report to Lord Faramir afterwards. If it is true Sauron will be too occupied to concern himself with the palantír, you may learn what has befallen."

        He led Avon to the vaults of the city, a place Avon hoped Vila did not discover, for he saw many treasures here, jeweled goblets, boxes that may have contained gold, elaborate statues of gold and mithril, items too many for Avon to enumerate. In a place of honor, Avon saw a great crown with wings rising on the sides. Aragorn's? No, Vila must never learn of this place. It was locked and guarded, of course, but what was that to a determined thief?

        "Lord Denethor meant to bring the One Ring here," Húrin told Avon. "Thus did he send Boromir forth to fetch it, but Boromir was tempted by it and failed to secure it. Fortunate for us all that it eluded his grasp, and thanks to the Valar that he regained his honor in his defense of the small halflings."

        Boromir was said to have been Gondor's greatest warrior. The tales of the Nazgûl came to Avon, the great lords of men who had accepted the rings Sauron gave them in a desire for power. Yes, power could lead to a man's downfall. Even Servalan had fallen, although she struggled to rise again, clawing after power. Avon would have liked to see her fall permanently, even to close his own fingers around her elegant throat and choke the life from her, but that was not to be her fate, nor his.

        "What is to stop the Ring from tempting Frodo?" Avon asked. For a long time, he had wondered about the possibility, but no one else seemed to believe that would happen. What could a hobbit do against the power that had toppled Gondor's greatest warrior?

        Húrin grimaced. "I do not think hobbits suffer from personal ambition," he said. "So I must hope. It is not a great reassurance, but it is one."

        "Believe as you will," Avon said, "but give me the stone."

        "It is here," Húrin said and unlocked a door with one of the many keys upon his ring.

        The inner chamber was dark, but Húrin picked up a lantern and bore it within. There on a small platform, wrapped in its cloth protection, lay the palantír. No, two wrapped bundles, similar in shape, lay side by side. Two palantíri? Yes. The one that had driven Lord Denethor mad must be secured here as well. They would not have left it where it could be found and used by some reckless idiot who would take it up without understanding it.

        "Know you which you used before?" Húrin asked.

        Avon did. Although he could sense both stones, the one he had handled and bent to his will, the one Aragon had controlled before Sauron had shown him the image of Arwen, the elf woman he loved, called out to Avon, and he pointed. "That one."

        "So it is. You do possess the gift, my lord."

        Even at such a time, Avon smiled at being called such. Did use of the stone grant him such a title? A flicker of amusement ran through him at the thought of his friends' reaction to his being so named.

        His friends?

        Ah, simply a word. Companions, then. He shrugged the thought aside, fearing Gondor was corrupting him.

        "If it possesses you, I will knock it from your hand," Húrin volunteered, although he looked uneasy at the very thought.

        Avon grimaced, but inclined his head in agreement. Then he uncovered the stone and picked it up.

        "Sauron, I seek you," he said aloud.

        At first, there was no response. The flame within the stone shifted uneasily, as if in a great wind like the one that blew against the White City. The stone tingled against his palm, pulsing with power. He could take control of it, and knew he could do great things with it. He would learn more of Fëanor, of that visionary and driven elf who had fallen so long ago. He had made great jewels, too, Avon knew. Vila would love the thought of such jewels. One of them was supposed to be the morning star, a foolish legend. Yet the one who supposedly bore it was the father of an elf who still lived. That brought the legend much closer to the present reality. Avon shook his head at the thought. What did it matter?

        Then the stone stirred. Sauron was there, and Avon had a glimpse of the Great Eye, but it merely passed over Avon as if he were unimportant. Recognition flashed between them, and Sauron's voice thundered in his head.

        Watch now the fall of your pitiful army. You have no power over me, Avon of Gondor.

        I am not of Gondor, Avon replied. I am of a future in which you have no place. You will fall, Sauron. You have no hope.

        Rage touched him in a pulse that made him shudder, but the full force of Sauron's might and evil was not turned upon him. Instead, the Dark Lord abruptly turned away from him with an urgency Avon did not understand. Instead of the Eye, he saw Nazgûl soaring through the sky toward a great volcano. Mount Doom, he realized.

        Had Frodo reached it? Was Sauron so distracted because he had suddenly realized his end might be near? Avon sucked in his breath. "Yes."

        "What do you see?" Húrin demanded behind him, but Avon made a vague gesture with his free hand to silence him.

        "Wait."

        The image of the great mountain blurred as if Sauron had no attention to spare for the palantír, but he had not severed the connection. No doubt he meant to slay Frodo and allow Avon to see it. The loss of all hope would surely devastate a man of Gondor. Sauron had no doubt believed Avon's words of the future were lies.

        Then the image shuddered and twisted, and a terrible roaring of pain came soaring through the link. Strong as it was and as savage, it scarcely touched Avon. He felt it as if he witnessed a compelling viscast of something distant and almost imaginary. Darkness swooped around the stone in ever-narrowing circles, and shattered in a burst so violent Avon let the stone fall from his hand before the explosion could reach him. Yet even as the palantír dropped upon its folds of protective cloth and blanked out, a tremor ran through the stone floor beneath Avon's feet, and the very air of the hidden chamber shimmered.

        "Earthquake!" Húrin cried and caught Avon's arm, dragging him into the doorway, which might offer a structurally safer position.

        "No," said Avon as the tremor passed and the air bore with it a sudden freshness and warmth that even he, cynic as he was, could not help but feel. When he spoke, the words surprised him, for in that moment he sounded like Blake. "It is a breath of hope."

*****

        "This might be the day," Faramir said to Blake as he encountered the man of the future in the Garden of the Houses of Healing. He had come seeking Éowyn, but she was not yet there. Much mended, she had begun to aid some of the more seriously wounded, and Faramir knew the sight of her fair face and her gentle touch would comfort them greatly. Just to see her smile brightened his days.

        Blake, too, was much improved, although he still spent part of each day in bed. His wounds had been deep, and too-long untreated. Yet he had taken to spending his mornings in the garden, often surrounded with a stack of books that Faramir had ordered for him, histories of Middle-earth, books about the rise of Gondor, tales of fallen Númenor. Blake had claimed himself an engineer by profession, a historian by avocation, and a resistor by nature. Apparently engineering in the future was different from such skills here, being much more mechanically inclined. Faramir understood little of it, but he could see that Blake possessed reasoning ability and a sense of how things worked. He had even ventured down, in the back of a market cart, to look at the ruined gates of the city and to see how they might be repaired. "It is not the work I usually do. I can design a schematic of weights and pulleys to repair the gate. But what I have heard tell, dwarves are great builders. You might do well to ask Gimli for aid when he returns from the Black Gate."

        Neither of them had admitted that no one might return, that there would be no need to repair the gates. But they had exchanged a glance to acknowledge it. Yet Faramir had hope, a hope that surprised him, but that had not departed. "I do not believe this darkness will endure," he had told Éowyn, and had clasped her hand. To feel her fingers return the pressure of his grip and for her to rest her head against his shoulder still brought warmth to him. Her thoughts still reached out across the leagues that separated her from her brother--and from Aragorn. But she now seemed glad of Faramir's companionship. He longed to feel the bond strengthen between them, and knew he must not yet push too hard. But he had hope there, too, that she would turn to him and learn to love him as he had come to love her.

        Yet it was not just the dream of bliss with Éowyn that gave him hope. It was Sam's words in Osgiliath, that there were things worth fighting for. He often thought of the great stories Sam had mentioned. If folk had not taken a stand in those tales, naught would have happened but failure. Yet people had taken a stand, just as the army did now. Frodo might be so gravely burdened by the Ring that Faramir feared for him, but he had a great heart, great determination, and the great support of a true companion. Faramir had hope for him, too, and longed for him to triumph and to return.

        But this day was cold and gloomy, with a sharp wind from the north as if to remind them winter was not long departed. Seven days had passed since the army marched away. Faramir wrapped his cloak about him and saw that Blake did the same, yet neither of them succumbed to the urge to seek shelter within.

        As Faramir spoke, Blake closed his book, and looked up at Faramir.

        "What day?"

        "The army should reach Mordor's Black Gate on this day."

        "And then we will know the fate of the world?" Blake shivered. "Come, sit with me," he urged and pulled his cloak tighter about him. "I have questions. We can't sit and do nothing at all, even if others will decide our fate." He gestured at the books on the table beside him, several of them weighted down with small stones to keep them from blowing open. "There is an assistant who will tote the books about for me, because they do not yet want me to carry their full weight. But by the time the army returns--you see, I am clinging to hope--I will be mended."

        Faramir sat and settled his cloak, too. His shoulder still twinged at sudden, unwary movements, but the wound in his side, which had not been as deep, seldom reminded him. The slight burns he had sustained from the pyre had eased greatly. He could move his arm with nearly its normal range and the healers had designed exercises for him to strengthen it. They meant him to return to the archery range within a few days, using a smaller bow than customary, to resume his practice, under the guidance of one of the healers whose expertise it was to aid patients in their return to full flexibility. He rotated his shoulders, and was glad that the pain evoked was entirely bearable.

        "Had the army left today, I would have accompanied them," Faramir said. "But it was not to be. If I had the teleport device you have described and could move instantaneously from one place to another, I would yet go."

        "I don't think I can build you a teleport, Faramir. It requires material and technology you don't have here. Gandalf might know a means of bypassing that, but I don't believe he would. Nor would I, even if I could, because such knowledge must come to a people naturally."

        "Or else they would not have earned it and might misuse it?" Faramir asked. "I am glad you hold such a belief."

        "I have been thinking of what I can do to aid Gondor. There seems no hope of returning to our own time, and while I feel for my 'rabble', as Avon calls them, I see no chance of aiding them." He smiled suddenly, looking years younger. "Instead I will try to serve your people instead, because, as Avon would tell you, without my cause, there might be nothing left of me."

        "Call it not a cause, but a crusade, to serve the betterment of mankind. Then it is a true purpose, and a worthy one. Avon is scornful on your behalf, because he feared that your actions, in your own time, would lead to your downfall and death. I know him not well, but I see it. He is not an open-hearted man, but he has a heart. Carefully does he protect it, but I have seen him watching you when you did not see, and glad he was that you live."

        "I know," Blake replied. "I have learned to expect no declarations of friendship from him. Such are rare in our time, where anyone might betray a friend or relation. We have all learned to protect ourselves."

        "Yours is a harsh world, Blake. Here, we have long lived in Mordor's shadow, and watched our young men die to stave off a tide that had seemed inevitable, that would rise up over the land like the waters rose up over fabled Númenor. Now, I find hope in my heart in spite of this brooding day. The King has come, and I have seen Frodo and know his determination, and the brave loyalty of Samwise Gamgee." He smiled suddenly. "And in Éowyn I have seen a glimpse of springtime after a long, bleak winter. Never despair, Blake, for even Avon might yet see a springtime. You live, and that is a miracle to him, although he will not name it such."

        Blake laughed. "I don't think I want him to do. It would seem unnatural. I am comfortable with our relationship, with the way we don't speak with any warmth. Such, perhaps, is the way of men everywhere. But I can admit to you that I am glad he and I are here together."

        "Glad to be in a time not your own?" Faramir asked. His ties to Gondor were so strong he could not imagine being elated to travel into the past, despite the wonders he would surely see.

        "None of us had ties in the world we came from. Vila--well, I don't know a thing about his kin, and he's never mentioned family. Avon's family shunned him when he was convicted, and although he has a brother, I doubt they were close. Tarrant's brother is dead. I have a cousin and uncle but we were not close either. Rebellion left us no time for friends or for marriage. We stand alone. Why not stand here?"

        "I have found value in you, Blake. And in Vila for his dogged help here in the Houses of Healing, although I can see it goes against his inclination."

        "Nothing to steal," Blake said with a chuckle.

        "Perhaps we can recruit him for our espionage service once Sauron has fallen, to help root out Sauron's agents who have no doubt lurked here in the city. Let him steal secrets rather than jewels."

        "And what tasks will you assign Avon when Sauron has fallen?" Blake asked, amusement lighting his eyes. "I warn you, he is not a man who can be driven. He might choose to follow, but he will not volunteer to support a cause, not even a worthy one."

        "No, but once Sauron is no more, his evil will fade from the palantír. There are at least three remaining, but the one Sauron must possess has no doubt been corrupted beyond redemption. If Avon's gifts can tame the two that remain, perhaps we may use them as a ready means of communication between Gondor and Rohan. Perhaps Avon may find a way to create more. I suspect he would relish the thought of duplicating Fëanor's work."

        "He would wish to make it better," Blake said with a laugh. "I think he resented fiercely the fact that he could not top Ensor's work in creating Orac. He will resent Fëanor for designing this. Avon does not care to be second-best."

        Faramir laughed, too. "No, I have seen as much. We need not settle your futures now. Tarrant, I see, is a soldier, and has been an officer. There is a way he carries himself that proves it, as does his dedication in learning more of the sword before the army marched. No doubt he staged practice matches at each halt. Good officers are always needed for Gondor's armies. Even at peace, we can not entirely trust our former enemies. The Haradrim will not come tamely to treaties, and the Easterlings even less so. Long have we guarded against them. Sauron's fall will not make them docile and friendly, so Gondor will need to maintain a show of strength. Tarrant, I believe, is of noble blood."

        "He's an Alpha grade, which might be the equivalent," Blake replied. "Our society was broken down into grades, even though we had no rank titles as such. The Alphas were the privileged ones, the ones in power, the ones who had the wealth, the least likely to rebel, for they relished the status quo. I am of that grade, but it was in me to resist. Avon has the arrogance of an alpha, of course. Vila was of the service grades, the Deltas."

        "Yet Avon and Vila are friends," Faramir said.

        "If you see that, you are perceptive. Events have distanced them somewhat, but they always relished banter--somewhat in the manner of Legolas and Gimli."

        Faramir smiled. "I have seen them but little, as have you, and you do not fully appreciate the wonder of that. Elves and dwarves have long been estranged, in enmity, although both stand against the Enemy. To see them in brotherhood gives hope for the peace we can but dream will come."

        Blake drew a deep breath. "Freedom," he said. "It was always my dream, in my own world, that the people could live free from oppression. I never had the luxury of thinking beyond that, what they might do with freedom. Avon always claimed they would waste it and surrender it to the first powerful oppressor who came along. He is a cynic, of course, but he claims it is no more than human nature. What I do see is that a strong and powerful leader, a moral leader, an honorable leader, could steer the people into a glorious future. Aragorn might well be that man, from what little I have seen of him."

        "He and I spoke much before he departed," Faramir said. "You were there for some of it. I knew he was our long-awaited king when he saved my life, and the more we spoke together the more I knew I would be honored to serve him all my days. He will not hold himself aloof from the people's needs, for he has friends among all races, and has dwelt among the people. He knows the kingdom of Gondor, for he served under my grandfather, and knows Rohan, for he served under Éomer's grandfather as well."

        "I know little of this world yet," Blake said. "But if he will have me, I will work with him for peace."

        "No doubt he will," Faramir said, and then he caught his breath, for Éowyn had come. There she stood, wearing the warm cloak that had once belonged to Faramir's mother, that he had gifted her. The rich blue became her, yet Faramir could imagine naught that would fail to become her.

        Blake followed his gaze and smiled. "Go to her," he said. "I have much to learn here."

        Faramir went to Éowyn and smiled down upon her. She returned it, but then turned her gaze to the north.

        "What do you look for, Éowyn?" he asked, although he was certain he knew.

        "Does not the Black Gate lie yonder? It is seven days since he rode away."

        He? Did she speak of her brother? Or were her thoughts still for Aragorn, riding off to battle at the head of the army? Did she still love him, and if so, could he wonder at it? Faramir himself loved Aragorn as his king and would as long as he should live. Could he wonder that Éowyn would gaze at him with admiration and love? If only she sighed for her brother, and turned her thoughts at last to Faramir.

        Those seven days since the army's departure had brought Faramir both pain and joy, joy to know her and to spend this precious time with her, time that might be the last they would ever know, and pain because the evil loomed, the sky was dark, and there might not be hope for any brave future at her side. "I would not have this world end now, nor lose so soon what I have found."

        "What you have found, lord?" She gazed up at him and there was kindness in her eyes. Did she mean to cling to her love of Aragorn and gently turn his thoughts from her? She shivered then in the cold wind. "But let us not speak of that. Let us not speak at all, for the world is dark and I see a great abyss before my feet. Whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell." She gazed up into his eyes. "I wait for some stroke of doom."

        He felt it, too, a breathless pause, as if the world itself caught its breath. "Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom," said Faramir and they stood there upon the wall. The wind died, the darkness grew thick and encompassing, and the sun was bleared. The doom had come, yet he knew not what it would be.

        Faramir could not turn his head to look at anything around him, but without realizing it, his hand caught Éowyn's, and she gripped his fingers with all her strength.

        Then, beyond the mountains of Mordor rose up a huge cloud of darkness that could engulf the world, and a tremor ran through the land. It seemed as if the earth around them sighed.

        And suddenly Faramir smiled. "When the army rode away, I told you I did not believe this darkness would endure, and I still believe it not. Even now." He bent and kissed her brow.

        Then the wind came, a great wind that blew around them, and suddenly the darkness vanished and the sun emerged from its cover, and the world glittered, free and new. The Anduin shone in the sunlight, as bright as mithril.

        "What is it?" Éowyn asked and gazed up at Faramir, her eyes alight with wonder.

        "It is the dawn of hope," he said, and enclosed her in his arms.1

*****

        Tarrant sat on the battlefield, leaning against a convenient boulder, and cleaned his sword. He would have been glad of a stream in which to wash his hands which were filthy with dried blood both human and orcish, but this was a dry, sere land with scarcely more than dead winter grass that broke beneath one's feet, a land now slick with blood from the battle. Tarrant had removed the helmet he had never found comfortable, and like many of the men, had simply stopped in place when the ground opened before them and sucked in vast numbers of orcs. The rest of them had fled when Sauron's great tower had fallen and the terrible glowing eye had popped out of existence.

        So much had happened that Tarrant was still numb. He had killed orcs mechanically, acquiring his share of small wounds in the process, none that limited him. A slice to his forearm had made him pause long enough to wrap a cloth around it, and then fight on. He had seen the troll that had threatened Aragorn, but had been too far distant to go to the king's aid. Legolas had fought his way in that direction, screaming Aragorn's name, but before he could arrive to aid his friend, Sauron had fallen. Just like that, the war had ended.

        Even as jubilation filled the army, and many cried Frodo's name, knowing he had succeeded in his quest, the great volcano had blown its top. Since Obsidian, Tarrant wasn't surprised, but he had seen how stricken Merry and Pippin were. He was too far away to go to them, and Gimli and Legolas were there to see to them. Tarrant was a stranger to them, even if Merry had befriended him the night before.

        He had thought himself incapable of being surprised by anything, but then the gigantic eagles that had joined the battle had landed and the leader of them had spoken to Gandalf. A bird actually talked. Tarrant's mouth gaped open as Gandalf conversed with the eagle and then climbed upon his back and flew away toward the erupting volcano. Tarrant had had enough of volcanoes on Obsidian, but that world was destroyed now. Mount Doom would not destroy this planet, this world that he had to keep reminding him was in fact his own, yet countless years in his own past, but had it destroyed Frodo and Sam?

        Aragorn watched them depart, then he went to speak briefly with Merry and Pippin, resting a hand upon the shoulder of each. The hobbits huddled together, shoulders bowed, tear tracks upon their faces, staring off at the massive volcano. They were kin to Frodo, Tarrant had heard. Remembering Deeta's death, being inside his head when he slipped from life at the Teal-Vandor Convention, he could empathize with Merry and Pippin, who had witnessed their cousin's death, even from such a distance. Gandalf could not restore someone who had died so violently, even if it was said he had returned from death himself. Yes, he was a wizard, but Frodo and Sam must be dead. Tarrant averted his eyes from the hobbits to give them their privacy.

        "Tarrant?"

        Aragorn stood before him, and Tarrant, well conditioned by the behavior of the other soldiers and by his long-ago military training, jumped to his feet and stood at attention. "My lord?"

        Aragorn clapped him on the shoulder. "I saw you in battle. You may not yet be as skilled with the blade as those who have used one daily, but you have the skill to lead. I watched you rally a band of men to defend the hobbits, and to stand off that attack of the Uruk-hai."

        "Any would have done the same." Tarrant was not a modest man. He knew he could lead--well, lead any but the crew of the Liberator or Scorpio, who made a point of going their own way. Yet he had seen in Aragorn far, far greater skill than his own, and a charisma that made men want to fight for him even to die for him. It was more than natural talent in the art of war, or even the skill honed during his long years of life. It was the knowledge he projected that he cared for the men and would do his all to protect them. "It was nothing compared to your own abilities," he said. Had he offered Avon a line like that, Avon would have been unbearably smug, but Aragorn was not smug.

        "I have fought in many battles," he said simply. "But now I have need of you. I am putting my officers to the task of organizing us, seeing to the wounded, determining who has the strength to march and who must travel in the wains. We cannot leave the dead unhallowed, there among the slain orcs, either. If you will accept the task, I promote you to the rank of captain, which, I am told, you possessed in your own land."

        "I did," Tarrant replied. He hesitated. Accepting Aragorn's field promotion from the ranks would mean accepting Middle-earth. Could he do that and abandon all hope of returning to his own time?

        Yet what hope existed of that? Servalan would count them well gone, and would dismiss them from her thoughts, even Avon. There was no technology here capable of building a time-traveling vessel. Gandalf might have returned from the dead, but not even he could break the barriers of time and space and return them to a world where they would be killed on sight. Servalan dared not return them, not if she meant to rise again to the rank of Supreme Commander. No doubt a viscast of Gauda Prime, suitably edited, had been transmitted everywhere throughout the Inner and Outer Worlds. Everyone in the Federated worlds would believe them dead. No, they would have to stay dead. Servalan meant them never to return.

        Even if they could, would he? What did he have there that he did not have here, except a ship to pilot? Aragorn regarded him patiently, and with respect, and the part of Tarrant that craved honor, a part deeply buried, rose to it.

        "If hope should come that you return to your home, you would have the liberty to take it," Aragorn said. "It is my understanding none of you believe that will happen."

        "No, and if it could, there is nothing to return to," Tarrant admitted. "I have no family there. As for the others, going back would gain them nothing. But as you said, I have little skill with the sword yet. Would the men resent my promotion?"

        "A leader is more than a swordsman, Tarrant, and you will perfect your skills in the years to come. I have seen you sparring at each halt, honing your abilities. That is the mark of dedication. Will you serve me in Gondor's army?"

        Tarrant hesitated only a moment. He saw Legolas and Gimli beyond Aragorn, waiting for their friend, and in their eyes he saw no astonishment or disbelief at Aragorn's offer. Legolas inclined his head and Gimli actually winked at him.

        Suddenly Tarrant laughed. Why was he hesitating? It was what he had wished for, a purpose here, authority to use his skills. Ever since he had deserted Space Command, he had fought other people's wars. This was a chance to do the same, no, to fight in a war that had become his own. Even with this great victory, many orcs remained, for too many of them had fled. They were masterless, but they were still vicious and dangerous. Aragorn needed his army yet, and the army needed leaders.

        "I accept your offer," he said formally, and remembering stories he had heard from the men he had marched beside, he bowed to Aragorn. "My lord, I offer you my allegiance."

        "And I accept it gladly. Come, I will introduce you to the officers and we will begin our work. I would have us depart this place as soon as it can be arranged." He nodded at the line of wains that approached, which had followed the army. They had borne supplies on the journey here, but they also offered space to carry the wounded home. Tarrant had wondered if they would be needed, if all would fall, but instead Sauron had fallen.

        "I won't be sorry to leave here, either," he said to Aragorn and fell in with the king as he led Tarrant over to one of the officers.

*****

        Roj Blake stretched out on his bed, and smiled to himself. He had remained in the garden as Faramir had spoken with Éowyn, but had been distant enough that he could shut out their words. He would not eavesdrop on their courtship. But instead of courtship, they had stood together on the wall and watched as the very world changed. Blake had felt it, too, the sudden stillness, the cloud of darkness, the shock wave that had run through the land, and afterward, a feeling he could not explain, but one that promised hope. Faramir must have thought so, too, for he kissed Éowyn's forehead and they had smiled at each other. Had Sauron truly fallen? Could it be as easy as that?

        Yet how could it be easy when so many had fallen to the Enemy, when the battle before the Black Gate must have been as fierce and terrible as the one before Minas Tirith? How many brave men had died in the struggle to bring Sauron down? How many had fought and given all they had in the name of freedom? Blake wished his "rabble" in his own time had been as willing to stand for that right.

        Avon and Húrin arrived within half an hour, having hurried all the way up from the vaults, and Avon actually looked eager and excited. "You will now be content, Blake. Sauron has fallen."

        Húrin went to Faramir and bowed to him. "My Lord Steward, it is true. Avon took up the seeing stone and witnessed Sauron's end. The stone showed him a vision of Mount Doom, of the Nazgûl racing there to stop Frodo, but too late."

        They all stared across the Anduin Valley to the walls of Mordor. Flame leaped into the sky from Mount Doom, even as the clouds that had darkened the world shredded and blew away. Faramir caught his breath. "An eruption," he said. "Frodo..." He bowed his head. "I fear he has given his life to free us all."

        Éowyn looked up to him and squeezed his hand. "He would count it worth the cost, my lord," she said. "Just as my uncle sacrificed his life to save Minas Tirith. One cannot fight without loss." She gazed into his eyes. "You would have done no less, were you free from the healers to go and fight."

        "I have been a warrior all my life, Éowyn. It is my duty as well as my honor. Frodo came from a peaceful land that possesses no armies. He had never held a sword before he began his great quest. How can I comfort Pippin at this great and terrible loss when the whole world will be rejoicing?"

        "As he comforted you over the loss of your men," she replied. "You have told me how he visited you here in the Houses of Healing before he marched away and offered you comfort and support. You will stand for him, as you would stand for any you love."

        Avon caught Blake's eye and grimaced. He would not be easy at such talk. Yet he said nothing, and did not stride away. Instead his eyes narrowed as he looked at the red glow above the mountain tops. Did he worry about Tarrant? He would scarcely feel concern for Frodo, whom he had never met.

        Yet when Avon spoke, the words were unexpected. "Merry will grieve," he said. "Caring comes with too high a price."

        "Does it, Avon?" Blake asked. "You do not truly believe that?"

        "Why not?" Avon replied, as cold as ever he could sound.

        "Because if it were true, you would not so continually and so fiercely insist upon it," he replied. "What was it you said once? Something about there being no need to prove one cares?"

        "You were not present when I was once foolish enough to say anything so ambiguous," Avon retorted.

        "Ah, Avon, when did you ever say anything that was not ambiguous?"

        "When I told you what a great fool you were, Blake," Avon replied triumphantly.

        Blake laughed. "Avon, no one is expecting you to prove a thing. But I suggest you prepare yourself for the army's return, for no doubt your friend Merry will expect your sympathy."

        "More fool he, then," Avon replied, but Blake knew Avon could be sympathetic in his own peculiar way, and had done so more than he would admit. Telling Cally that regret was part of life... Ah, but that had been comfort, or at least understanding, which no doubt had offered Cally a measure of comfort. Would it have consoled Faramir when he awakened after the pyre to learn all his men had died and that his father had tried to burn him to death?

        Faramir stood tall, one arm around Éowyn's shoulders. "Húrin, see that the word is spread through the city. Most will feel our victory, as we did here, knowing the world had changed. But send forth the heralds to cry out victory." He stepped away from Éowyn and caught the warden's arm to halt him. "We will send out wains to meet the returning army with any healers we can spare, for they will have wounded, and with foodstuffs. See it done."

        "Yes, my lord." Húrin bowed to him, nodded at Avon, and hurried off to do his bidding.

        Soon after that, the healers urged Blake to return to his bed, for he still rested a space in the afternoons. His wounds were greatly improved, but not yet fully mended. He was forbidden to lift anything heavier than a small book, so an assistant trailed the healers to pick up the stack he had brought with him. Once Avon had been dismissed from the Houses of Healing on the day the army rode out, Faramir had urged Blake to return to the room they shared. "For I value our discussions on the nature of freedom, and the dreams for the future."

        Blake valued them, too. In Faramir he saw an ideal leader, although Faramir would serve Aragorn. Together they could bring to Middle-earth the kind of future Blake had only dreamed of. With the fall of Sauron, anything was possible. Avon might claim the people would not understand freedom, but they did understand it. He could hear shouts of joy and singing ringing out through the city. What a time to be in Minas Tirith.

        So the victory was won. Now would come the time to win the peace.

        Perhaps Blake could help. He meant to. Avon might scorn him, but Avon would value peace. He would immerse himself in palantír technology and find a way to use the stones. It would offer him an excuse to accept being here. Avon always needed to justify himself. Perhaps in the peace that would come, he would learn to believe he need not do so.

        As Blake was dozing off, he sensed a great disturbance, people shouting, running, and he pushed himself up with the care and went to investigate. He heard no fear in the shouts, but a great deal of awe.

        "Hurry! Bring them this way!" That was Girand, the healer. "Quickly now."

        "Stand back," another voice sounded, and Blake frowned, for it was a familiar voice but he could not remember where he had heard it. "Move aside."

        He emerged from his room just in time to see Gandalf hurry past in the wake of two litters.

        Gandalf? How could he be here? Middle-earth possessed no teleport technology. And who did he shepherd forward to anxiously? Those litters were hobbit sized.

        Frodo? Could it possibly be Frodo and Sam?

        Faramir hurried to meet Gandalf. "Mithrandir?"

        "Ah, you are mended," Gandalf said, and smiled at him. "Good it is to see you. I have brought Frodo and Sam; indeed the Eagles have brought the three of us here, so that Frodo could quickly be seen by the healers."

        "They were not slain in the fiery eruption?" Faramir asked, and Blake strained to hear the answer as the pair hurried after the hobbits. Blake trailed in their wake, although he knew he had no right to join them in the treatment room.

        "No, but the heat has drained them and they have sustained burns. Frodo is greatly weakened by the power of the Ring. But he will live. Yes," Gandalf said, and his voice was rich with satisfaction. "He will live. They both shall."

        Blake had a glimpse of the joy on Faramir's face at the words, then the two passed into the chamber where the hobbits had been carried, and Blake smiled and left them to it. He would hear more soon enough. News spread through the city like wildfire, and he would hear every detail from each person who came his way. As he turned, he saw Vila, wearing an assistant healer's robe, dart into the room after Faramir, and knew he would offer his services out of curiosity. Blake would hear more from him when this was over. But to know that Frodo lived made the triumph complete.

*****

        Vila had never really liked working in the Houses of Healing, but he did it because they had saved Blake, and because he had nothing else to do. Avon and Tarrant had both forbidden him to steal so much as a cup while he was here. Taking all the fun out of life, they were. What a pair of great louts. Tarrant had gone off to play at war, waving a sword and looking as dashing as possible, which, for Tarrant, was always very dashing indeed. Better if his temperament matched his flamboyant looks, but Tarrant had always been as arrogant as any Alpha. Taken time, hadn't it, to knock sense into his brain, to realize that Vila wasn't his fetch-and-carry slave just because he was labeled a Delta grade. He'd bought that rating after all, to keep himself out of trouble.

        Well, if he kept insisting on it long enough, he might even come to believe it himself.

        As for Avon, well, he was just the way he was, poor blighter, unable to let go for an instant for fear someone would have something on him. For a time there, Vila had actually mellowed him out to the point where he'd relish their sparring, but toward the end before GP, that had faded. When Avon snarled at him, he had meant it, and then had come Malodaar and the shuttle. Made things different, that had. Yet Vila could see traces of the old Avon, the one who had actually been his friend, through the cracks in his armor. Funny, that. He'd heard the term about cracks in armor before, but now, here in Minas Tirith, he understood where the phrase had come from. He'd have to tell Avon one day.

        But not today. Today he had an important task, helping Girand with the actual Ringbearer, who wasn't dead after all. Vila looked down at Frodo Baggins, and thought how small and frail he looked, not at all like someone who had actually saved the whole world. His skin was reddened from the volcano's great heat, and even blistered here and there. Horrible bloody marks on his neck marked where the Ring's chain had chafed his flesh. Gandalf said it had grown heavier as time passed, and Vila was surprised to realize he meant it literally. How could a Ring be that heavy? Well, maybe a Ring with all Sauron's evil in it could. How could exposure to all that evil leave Frodo untouched?

        Vila had been exposed to enough evil in his life to know it always left its mark. Sometimes, at vulnerable moments, he remembered the crowded and casual warmth of his actual family home, before the Federation came and took away the children of a certain age. Delta children didn't have the luxury of Alpha children. No, it was away to labor when they were still young. But until then, he'd had a mother and a father. They worked, too, of course, long, hard hours, and his father was as bitter and cynical as Avon--except with his kids. He had vanished when Vila was eight, and was never seen again, and a few months later, Vila was off to the dormitories where older boys picked on younger ones and made them slave for them and often did unspeakable things to them. It was there Vila had learned how to seem small and unobtrusive, to vanish into the shadows, to be overlooked. That was the only way to survive around the bigger brutes. The habit had carried over all his life, and the only place he'd ever felt really safe, on board Liberator, had not been as safe as all that, either. Yet he'd liked Blake, and respected him, adored Cally from a distance, enjoyed looking at Jenna, found in Gan a true friend, and learned to relish sparring with Avon. Until Gan died and proved to Vila there truly could be no safety...

        Could there be safety here?

        "Let's see him cleaned up first," Girand said. He looked over at Gandalf. "He is breathing steadily enough, although the ash and smoke in the air will have impeded him. I will see a bowl of hot water with athelas placed near their beds. It will help to clear their lungs." He let his hand rest on Frodo's palm. "Too hot. Feverish. And Sam, too. Ah, Vila, there you are. Come, let us see them cleaned up and soothed, and then garbed fresh. Their clothing is beyond redemption, I fear, and perhaps they will not mind if we dispose of it."

        "I doubt they will mind," Gandalf said. "I have offered them what strength I could give them. What think you, Healer?"

        "Why, that they will live, although I fear they have become so spent it will take them time to regain their strength. Perhaps they will sleep for days, for they shall need it."

        Vila set to work because he'd quickly learned the healers expected you to do as instructed without the need of a second urging. They had found him deft and clever with his hands. So be it. He took up a small knife and cut away at Frodo's shirt. How thin he was beneath it. His ribs stood out vividly against his skin and there was a nasty scar in his left shoulder and another mark closer to the middle that looked a bit fresher. The soot from the volcano had gotten right through his clothes. A sonic shower would be a treat, but they didn't have them here, so when he had rid Frodo of his clothes, Vila fetched a bowl and water to bathe him there in the bed. He'd given enough people bed baths here that it was becoming routine. Who'd have thought the Federation's most brilliant and gifted thief would be reduced to this?

        Another orderly, although they didn't call them that here, but apprentices, worked on Sam. You didn't see his ribs protruding. He had been of a rather stout appearance before, apparently, but he didn't look much healthier than Frodo, even if he didn't have those terrible marks on his neck. He was closer to consciousness than Frodo was, because once he stirred and murmured, "Mister Frodo?"

        Gandalf knelt beside the bed and rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "He lives, Samwise. He is here and safe. You may rest."

        Sam shifted and stirred, then winced away from the touch.

        "Ah," said Gandalf. "I am not the one to comfort him. He believes me fallen in Moria. My voice will seem but a dream to him."

        "Then I will speak." Faramir took Gandalf's place at Sam's side, and Gandalf stepped aside to allow him the space. "Master Samwise, I told you gardeners must be held in high honor in your land. It is I, Faramir, telling you that you are safe. You and Frodo are here in Minas Tirith."

        Sam's eyelids fluttered and he squinted up blearily at Faramir. "Captain Faramir?" he muttered doubtfully.

        "Frodo is safe, Sam," Faramir said. "If you will but turn your head, you will see he is being cared for."

        Sam shifted his head just enough to gaze in the direction Faramir indicated. Vila paused in his mopping of Frodo's face so Sam could see.

        "Mister Frodo?" Sam gasped. "What's wrong with him?"

        "Why, he is very tired, as are you," Faramir said. "You faced the great heat of Mount Doom, and the smoke and ash and the hot lava, and you traveled a long and weary road to get there. But now you are safe in Minas Tirith."

        "Boromir's city," Sam muttered, then he caught himself. "I'm that sorry, Captain Faramir."

        "You owe me no apology, Sam." Faramir caught his hand. "If you apologize for your words in Osgiliath, they were words I needed to hear."

        "'Twasn't kind, that," Sam said, but his thoughts were clearly on Frodo.

        "It was not kindness I needed, Sam, but truth," Faramir said. "I have since learned my brother died bravely, protecting Merry and Pippin."

        Sam jerked his attention away from Frodo long enough to ask, "Merry and Pippin? Are they well?"

        Faramir hesitated and darted an anxious glance at Gandalf, who nodded quickly. Relieved, Faramir continued, "Yes, Sam, they are well. They will return soon from the Black Gate of Mordor, where they fought with the army to distract the Enemy from you and Frodo. And now Sauron is fallen, and the world is free."

        Sam shifted uncomfortably, squinted doubtfully at Gandalf as if he had not quite recognized the white hair and beard, and gave an enormous yawn. "I said something distracted his gaze," he said, then he gave his attention back to Frodo. "Oh, Mister Frodo, I hope you wake up soon. It's all right. That nasty Ring is gone, and you saved the Shire like you hoped to." He reached out to Frodo, and touched his arm. "You sleep as much as you need, Mister Frodo, but wake up soon. Please."

        "And so he will," Girand said, stepping forward. "Master Samwise, I am Girand, one of the healers here. Try to rest yourself, and we will care for you and Frodo."

        "I told Gandalf I wouldn't lose him," Sam said doggedly. "I'm glad I went with him all the way to the end." And with a huge sigh, he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.

        Gandalf came up behind Faramir and patted his shoulder. "They will both live, my son," he said. "We will let the healers do their kind work. Come, and I will tell you how the battle fell out. Be assured that Aragorn lives, and also Éomer King, and Legolas and Gimli, as well as your Pippin and his Merry."

        "I will rejoice in their survival, elated that our king lives, and also Éowyn's brother. She has worried for him, and also for Aragorn. And I am very glad of Pippin."

        Gandalf chivvied him toward the door. "I have great hope for Aragorn," he said, "and even for his Arwen, whose fate was bound with that of the Ring. Now it is fallen, we must hope she will recover and come to Aragorn rather than departing to the Undying Lands."

        "He has an elven love?" Faramir asked urgently.

        "That he does, and so the lady Éowyn knows," Gandalf said and patted Faramir's shoulder.

        "Ah, Mithrandir, always you know my mind," Faramir said with a laugh.

        "And, this time, I think I know your heart," Gandalf replied. "Come, I will accompany you to her side so you may reassure her that her brother lives." They went out together, and Vila gave his attention to Frodo, seeing him bathed while the healers worked on his wounds.

        Everything was different now. There would be peace and freedom and all those things Blake had always wanted for his rabble. What would Blake want to do now that the war was won? Had he ever thought of what would happen after the resistance won, if ever they did? What would Vila do? This was necessary, and it was an honor to help with Frodo, who had saved the world. But Vila was a thief. He'd told Kerrill once it wasn't what he was, it was who he was. Would Gondor welcome a thief? Hardly.

        With a sigh, he applied himself to his task. What would become of him when everything settled down? What would become of them all?

*****

        Sam Gamgee stirred restlessly, then opened his eyes. For a moment, he blinked at the ceiling higher overhead that was customary in a hobbit smial. Where was he? What had happened to bring him to this strange place?

        Where was Mister Frodo?

        As the memories of the endless journey across Mordor, up the Mountain of Fire with Frodo draped over his shoulder, and into the place where the Ring had finally been destroyed returned to him, Sam sat up and looked around wildly. A fleeting memory of Captain Faramir reassuring him came to him, telling him Frodo was safe. Yet he needed to see for himself. He looked around wildly. Where was Frodo? Was he dead? Had Captain Faramir just soothed him? Was it a lie?

        No, because there was Frodo, beside him in the very same bed, a man-sized bed well big enough to hold them both. His eyes were closed, but the sores on his face were healing and the galls on his neck had closed over.

        "Mister Frodo?" Sam said very quietly. Frodo's sleep looked deep and true, a real sleep and not the other kind, the kind no one woke from. Did Sam see what he hoped to see?

        Frodo stirred and stretched out a hand, and Sam clasped it, elated when Frodo's fingers curled lightly around his own. "That's right, Mister Frodo, it's your Sam. I'm right here. I won't leave you, never. I promise."

        Frodo gave a contented sound and his clasp eased. He was sleeping, and he needed it. He must be that tired from carrying that terrible Ring all that long, long way. "That's right, Frodo, you sleep. Sleep until you're ready, and I'll watch over you. I told Gandalf I would."

        "And so you kept your word, Samwise Gamgee," said an impossible voice beside the bed.

        Sam jerked around so abruptly Frodo stirred and made a faint, protesting sound, and Sam stilled and looked up more carefully.

        Sitting beside the bed, a pipe in his hand, sat Gandalf, but he was different, clad all in white, even his hair white, and his beard shorter than he had always worn it. Yet he was Gandalf, and there was fondness and amusement in the familiar blue eyes.

        "Yes, it is I," he said. "I have come back, and have struggled to aid Frodo and Middle-earth as always I have done."

        "You're alive?" Sam blurted. "But you fell off that bridge, all that terrible way. How can you be alive?" Maybe it hadn't been a dream, then, that glimpse of a familiar face behind Captain Faramir.

        Gandalf set aside the pipe and took Sam's outstretched hand in both his own, swallowing it up, and squeezed. "My dear Sam, I know it is a shock to you, but I was sent back because my tasks were unfinished. You should have seen the faces of Merry and Pippin when they saw me in Fangorn Forest. And Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. They all know I live, and soon Frodo will know." He smiled with such anticipation that Sam smiled with him. Frodo would be overjoyed. He had wept for Gandalf--they all had. But Frodo had been closer to him than Sam ever had, and had truly mourned his death.

        "Mister Frodo, you'll never believe this, but Gandalf's here. He's alive. When you wake up, you'll see." He looked at Gandalf. "Where are we, Mister Gandalf, sir? I remember Captain Faramir talking to me. Is this...Minas Tirith?"

        "Why, so it is, Sam. I did not know if you would recall that conversation for you were so sleepy and only half awake, but I am glad you did. Faramir did not march with the army because he was wounded before they departed, but he is greatly mended now."

        Sam smiled. "I told him his quality was of the very highest. I'm glad he's well."

        "All are glad you and Frodo are safe and mending, my dear Sam. The army marches home, and Merry and Pippin with them, and we will let Frodo sleep as long as possible while we wait. He is well cared for here. He takes food, and will take it even better from you, if you will accept that task."

        "O' course I will," Sam said. "I'd do anything for Frodo, I would."

        "None will ever doubt that, my most brave and heroic hobbit."

        Sam pushed himself up on his elbows and stared at Gandalf. "Me? I'm just an ordinary hobbit. Frodo's the heroic one. All the great tales that will be written about him..."

        "And about his brave companion Samwise. You went with him all the way to the Cracks of Doom."

        Sam squirmed, and squirmed even more when Gandalf settled a pillow behind him. "You told me to," he said. "But I would have done it anyway." He looked down at the sleeping Frodo. "Will he truly be all right, Gandalf?"

        "He truly will. We kept you here with him even if each of you deserve a magnificent room of your own because it soothed each of you to know the other was near. Now that you have roused we can find you a room."

        "Begging your pardon, sir, but I want to stay with him. If it soothes him, then I need to stay, and that's all there is to it."

        "None will deny you, but you must come out for fresh air during the day, and also to see the city. And to let the people see you, for they are most concerned for the pair of you."

        "What, for me? I'd like to see the city. Boromir told such fond tales of it, and I know it was the Ring that made him act the way he did when he tried to take it from Frodo. It could make a good person do terrible things, it could." He shuddered.

        "Yes, it could, never forget it. And do not harbor resentment for Boromir in your heart, for in dying so boldly for the sake of Merry and Pippin he has redeemed his honor."

        "I'm right glad of that," Sam said. "It will be good for Captain Faramir to know, too." He smiled. So many good things had happened, and now Frodo was safe and he'd be himself again, and laugh again, like he did in the days before the Ring. Gandalf was safe. "Gandalf, what of the others of the Fellowship? Are they alive?"

        "Every one of them, save poor Boromir. And soon they will come here, where Aragorn will be crowned king."

        "To think I'd know a king," Sam said with wonder. Then other thoughts occurred to him. "Gandalf?"

        "Yes, Samwise?"

        "Two things, please, Mister Gandalf. I'm that hungry, I am. Is it time for dinner?"

        "Dinner for you will be as soon as food can be brought to you. An assistant stands waiting to do your bidding. What would you have for your first meal?"

        "Ah, Mister Gandalf, I'd love fish, with nice and crispy chips, I would. Or maybe roast chicken. Frodo and I talked about that in the wild, and it sounded so good. Or stew. Or anything that they fix here. I'm that hungry. I could even eat lembas bread, and I was so tired of it by the end that I thought I'd never want to see it again."

        Gandalf smiled down at him. "It will be done, a magnificent feast. And now, what is the other request you have?"

        "Well, it's just this. Please, Gandalf, where is the privy?"

        With a laugh, Gandalf helped him from the bed and showed him the way.

*****

        Blake smiled to himself. The day was fine, the weather the warmest since he had arrived in Middle-earth, the sun shone brightly overhead, and even over Mordor, where in the distance a faint wisp of smoke drifted over what must be the remains of Mount Doom. Blake had looked across the river valley the night before and seen no baleful red glow. He knew a volcano would not be forever tamed, but this one must be returning to dormancy. As well it be so, taking the Ring with it.

        The army should be returning very soon. Advance riders had come only this morning to say the soldiers would return the following day. All round him, the city prepared for the great celebration to welcome them home. Faramir would meet Aragorn at the ruined gates and surrender Minas Tirith and all Gondor to Aragorn. He had laughed at the thought. "It is a prodigious ceremony," he had explained, "but it has been planned since the disappearance of the last king, Eärnur in the year 2050. Nearly a thousand years since Gondor has had a king. His steward, Mardil, was the first steward to rule, and I, the last, must follow the precedent he set."

        Blake meant to go down to the first level and witness the event. He even had the blessing of the healers to do so. It would be a memorable moment for Gondor, and he would not wait here in the Houses of Healing and miss it.

        This morning, he had brought forth the books he meant to study without the aid of the assistant. The weight of them had pulled his healing muscles, but only awoke a dull ache with no sharper pangs. Yes, he was mending.

        Avon had appeared as he set forth, observed Blake holding the books, and arched an eyebrow, yet he had said nothing, only walked with Blake into the garden. Of late he had begun to appear when Blake left his room. Sometimes he would speak of things he had seen in the city. This morning he told Blake an interesting tale of a blacksmith that had made Blake resolve to travel to the smithy and witness the craft of smithing in action. "To be content with that... I do not understand it, Blake. But to excel in one's craft, that I do comprehend. And to be content with it? Perhaps it is beyond me."

        "You will excel, it seems, in the use of the palantíri," Blake reminded him.

        Avon smiled the sharkish smile he often wore when he received praise he considered no more than his due, then he laughed. "You are a devious man, Blake. Do you mean to tempt me to be glad of this place?"

        "We have no choice but to stay here," Blake had replied. "I doubt you can build a computer to take us home; even if you could create the materials, there is no power source. I spoke to Gandalf; he says it is not within the range of his abilities to return us to our own time."

        "I, also, spoke with him," Avon replied as Blake set his books on the usual stand beside his chair. "It is not that I believe I can build a time machine. It is that I do not trust Servalan to leave us here. We are beyond her reach. She must know we cannot return home on our own, but consider the possibility that she might need to produce us at some point in future."

        "She would never expect us to remain within sight of the place we arrived," Blake argued.

        "Oh, but she would, believing we would wish above all else to return. True, she has only to smash the controls of the device to prevent that, but none but she and mutoids she no doubt had blanked as soon as she returned to the dome know of this."

        "She did not design the time ship herself," Blake pointed out.

        "No, but she would have slain the designer or exiled him on one of the outer worlds. Most likely all who created the vessel are now dead." Then he laughed. "No, perhaps not. She may wish for additional vessels. But I would imagine they are incarcerated in a place she alone knows, where they cannot harm her." He glared at the distant mountains of Mordor, the Ephel Duath. "I resent the fact that she may come for us and expect us to dance to her tune."

        "Would she dare return us, Avon? If she did, the truth might out, that I was programmed on GP, that she orchestrated it, that she is Servalan and not Commissioner Sleer."

        "She might not dare return us, although if she did, she would manipulate the situation with her usual finesse. But kill us? That she would dare." He picked up one of the books and traced his fingers over the Cirth letters. He abandoned the subject of Servalan, although Blake knew he had not put it from his mind. "Do you wonder, Blake, how it is we speak the language and how we can read this alphabet? It is different from that of our time. I hear myself speak, and if the word I mean to use does not exist in Westron, I say it in Standard or in its derivative in Westron. If that was built into the device, then its creator possesses more brilliance than I had imagined possible."

        "I have wondered," Blake admitted. "Faramir and I have discussed it because he not only speaks Westron but Elvish, and even knows a few words in the secret language of the dwarves." He picked up another book. "This is written in Tengwar, and I can't read it."

        Avon studied the elaborate script. "No more can I." He glanced up as Faramir and Éowyn arrived in the garden. Faramir nodded a greeting to them, but led Éowyn to their usual place on the wall where they came daily to look to the north and to talk between themselves. Blake generally left them to it, for Faramir, now that he was almost well, had taken up the reins of government and spent long hours, to the complaints of the healers, seeing to the battered city and laying plans for the future with Gandalf and Húrin, the warden. Avon, once he had assured himself the new arrivals were no threat to him and uninterested in the couple, returned his attention to the book, tracing the unfamiliar alphabet with one finger.

        "The alphabet was developed long ago, and refined, they say, by Fëanor," Blake said with a hint of mischief in his voice.

        Avon's head shot up. "My Fëanor?" he demanded. "The creator of the palantíri and the Silmarils? I begin to doubt he was real, but simply a past figure to assign responsibility for anything beyond modern comprehension."

        "No, he was real. I have read tales of him, and I think you would find them interesting. Evidently he was what I have heard called a Renaissance Man, a term of their future and our past," Blake said with a smile.

        "Is it possible to despise one long dead?" Avon asked and his mouth curled in wry amusement.

        Blake laughed aloud, and the laughter did not evoke the pain it had when he had first awakened in the Houses of Healing. Faramir and Éowyn glanced in his direction at the sound then resumed their conversation.

        "Then here is a challenge for you, Avon. Learn to read Elvish. There are many books here written in the Tengwar. Also there is Quenya, the formal language, as Latin was once a scholar's language even after it fell from common use. The archives here are vast and chaotic. Faramir took me to visit them two days ago. The war has taken all the time and energy of the people. There you will find the local equivalent of computers, endless journals, books, and loose sheets simply waiting to be organized, many ages of knowledge, some that has been long forgotten, some that can aid us greatly in the rebuilding of the world."

        Avon's eyes gleamed. "Knowledge is power," he said, and Blake could tell he was pondering the thought of the city's great library and how what he might learn there would serve him. "I would prefer to understand Westron and Cirth as well as simply knowing them."

        "You might ask Legolas when he returns to start you on Elvish. Faramir speaks it, but he will be too busy for language lessons. We speak it, too, or at least will understand it when spoken. Faramir tested me. It does not come easily like Westron, but it is here." He tapped his head. "Faramir would, I think, love a chance to bring order to the archives, but will need to snatch time apart from his duties as Steward." He smiled suddenly. "And from that." He gestured over.

        There on the wall, in full view of any who chanced to look up and see them, Faramir had taken Éowyn into his arms and kissed her. Blake knew Faramir had wanted to do that from the first time he had seen her, for he had often spoken of her to Blake, remarking on her strength, her courage, her beauty, but Blake had not known Éowyn's feelings. Now, watching the kiss, he saw without doubt that Éowyn returned it full measure.

        "Have you become a voyeur, Blake?" Avon asked. He displayed no interest in the sight, but then Avon had never been interested in other people's romances.

        "No, but I am glad of that. Faramir deserves happiness."

        One eyebrow lifted skeptically. "Ah, do we often get what we deserve?"

        "You tell me, Avon. Here, we are free, and here we can make lives for ourselves without the Federation's domination. What we become depends on each one of us, not on a government that would regulate us and control us."

        Avon scowled at him, yet without malice. "Yes, well, I should have expected to hear of your cause before long."

        "Since you are an intelligent man, of course you would."

        Avon groaned. "Blake, you are hitting your stride. I will need to confess to Tarrant when he returns that I have allowed you to once again get out of hand."

        They laughed together, and contentment blossomed within Blake. This world might offer them chances they would never have dared take at home. It had begun its work on Avon already, mellowing him. Not completely, of course, for he suspected threat everywhere, as always, but more than he had dared risk in their own time.

        Blake looked over at Faramir and Éowyn, who talked softly together, then, hand in hand moved across the garden. As they neared the two, Faramir, face alight, said, "Éowyn is now healed of all shadows. We go to seek her freedom from this place."

        "I do not desire freedom from it," Éowyn said, and leaned comfortably against Faramir's shoulder. "I will remain here and aid the wounded, when the army comes hence, for I now serve life and not death."

        They went on their way, and Blake smiled even more broadly than Faramir had. "That is what I want to do, Avon," he said. "Serve life, not death. I will not be a resistor here, but one who helps in my own small way to guide the world to freedom."

        "Ah yes, in your small way you will now become a leader. I should have foreseen that. One of Faramir's councilors, no doubt."

        "While you become Aragorn's science advisor?" Blake challenged.

        "Well, now," Avon said with a sudden smug look, "who better?"

*****

        "Look, Merry. There it is. Minas Tirith!" Pippin flung out an excited hand to point down the hillside and across the river. They had been following the Anduin most of the day, gradually drawing nearer and nearer, while the army's anticipation grew. The troops sang as they marched, and Aragorn had laughed and sung along with them. When he knew the words of the songs, Pippin sang, too, because he could not help himself. Everything was wonderful. Frodo and Sam were safe, Sauron was gone, and all his friends were alive, save only Boromir. Pippin could hardly wait to get to Minas Tirith and see Frodo and Sam, and then to see Faramir. He had so much to tell Faramir, every detail of the battle because Faramir would surely want to know. And Frodo. It had been so long since Pippin had last seen him.

        Merry rode behind him on the back of Shadowfax. When Gandalf had gone off mounted upon the shoulders of the great Eagle, he had paused long enough to free Shadowfax to go where he would, knowing the Meara would come to him at need. Yet Shadowfax had remained after Gandalf soared away, and when the army meant to start up and Pippin hesitated, wondering if Aragorn would take him up behind him as he had done at Isengard, Shadowfax had come to Pippin and nudged his chest expectantly.

        "You want me to ride you?" Pippin had asked in disbelief and wonder, gazing up at the great white horse. He had not expected that. Shadowfax tossed his head as if to nod, and Pippin, positive his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, found a rock to scramble up on so he could mount. He saw Aragorn looking over at him, and smiling, and Pippin's return smile was so wide he was sure it nearly reached his ears.

        Yet on the return journey, he had not always ridden Shadowfax. Some of the wounded who were well enough to walk would tire toward the end of the day, and Pippin had leaned forward the first time he had noticed. "Shadowfax, would you bear that man, for he looks very worn and sore?"

        Shadowfax had consented, so each day at mid-afternoon, Pippin would offer the great white horse to the soldier they decided needed a ride most. The first time, Pippin had been prepared to walk--he had walked so many leagues across Middle-earth it would not have troubled him. Yet Aragorn guided his mount over and offered Pippin a hand up behind him.

        After that, each day, Pippin would ride behind Aragorn until they camped for the night, trying very hard not to interrupt when Aragorn conferred with Éomer or with his officers, but would laugh and chatter when Legolas and Gimli rode nearby.

        Today, on this final day, when he had offered to mount a wounded soldier, the man had laughed and declined. "It is kind of you, Sir Pippin, but soon we will come home, and I would walk into the White City on my own two feet. Stay mounted, for the folk of the city would expect it, a hero such as you."

        "Me?" Pippin echoed, openmouthed. He had never thought himself a hero, not like Aragorn, not like Frodo venturing into Mordor, not when he had been so foolish so many times, and so often terribly afraid.

        "Why not you, Pippin?" Aragorn asked, directing his mount closer. "You have done much for Gondor, and I would not have my steward if not for you, and perhaps not even the city, for Gandalf told me you climbed to the beacon height to light the fire that summoned Rohan."

        "Because Gandalf told me to," Pippin said. "I wouldn't have known to do it on my own."

        "That does not diminish your bold deed. There are few who would wish to climb so high."

        "Well, high places do not bother me," Pippin said. "At least," he admitted honestly, "not very much."

        Aragorn had laughed. "No matter. Ride Shadowfax into the city, where Gandalf will be waiting and will praise you for your fine care of him."

        Pippin had groomed Shadowfax each night and had fed him. Grooming a horse that towered over him so had required considerable ingenuity. He had sought rocks or fallen logs to stand upon, and once had climbed a small tree and reached down from the branches. Another time, when there was nothing handy, Legolas had strolled past, paused, then offered to hold Pippin up high enough to complete the task. Elves were well strong enough for such duty, and Pippin had accepted it gladly. He was glad that none offered to groom Shadowfax for him, for it was his duty and none other's, and he was proud to do it. He had groomed many a pony back home in the Shire, and found the task comfortable and familiar, except for the white steed's great size.

        This afternoon as they neared Osgiliath, Merry rode behind him, for Aragorn and Éomer meant to confer about future treaties and other such subjects they believed would bore the hobbits. Merry did not object, and he and Merry had laughed and teased each other, and pointed out sights the whole way.

        Now Minas Tirith was visible, and there was Osgiliath, where the bridge would be waiting. Pippin sat as tall as he could, but they were yet too far away to see the city's banners flying. Would the horns ring out for Aragorn? Would Faramir be well enough to come to the gate?

        Aragorn gestured several of his officers to form up beside him, and there was Tarrant, whom Merry had continually befriended, all the way back. Tarrant had been presented with the horse of one of the slain, a gift he had regarded dubiously. "I don't know how to ride, my lord," he had admitted to Aragorn, although Pippin suspected he had been longing to try.

        "No matter. Anyone can sit on a horse when it merely walks. We shall not gallop, for we have the wains bearing our injured and our supplies, and many are on foot." He had smiled. "I suggest you spend some time each day on foot, for one must harden oneself to riding, and you will develop sores in unmentionable places should you spend the whole of each day in the saddle."

        When Tarrant had flinched, no doubt imagining well exactly which places would hurt and how badly, Aragorn had laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "You will know when the time has come to walk, and here is Grimbold, an officer of Rohan. Grimbold, will you take this beginner in hand? There are no finer riders in Middle-earth than the Rohirrim, Tarrant, so you will be well trained."

        Grimbold had looked to Éomer before he accepted the duty, and then, for a time each day, he would ride beside Tarrant, instructing him. Tarrant took the instruction with utmost seriousness, just as he did his sword training, which he did not abandon even now that the war was won.

        As they neared the river, Aragorn gestured ahead to Osgiliath, and Pippin could see men there, working on the stones. No doubt they were toppling unsafe walls and clearing away debris to open clear paths through the city. Would they rebuild it one day? It must have been very fine before it had been ruined.

        "I hope Éowyn will be better," Merry said as they entered Osgiliath.

        "She was mending nicely when we came away," Pippin reminded him. "And so was Faramir. It has been more than two weeks. They are surely better, and Tarrant's friend Blake, too. Do you think Frodo is better now, too, and Sam? I've been so concerned about them."

        "They must be," Merry said, but he, too, sounded worried. Gandalf had sent word with one of the great Eagles, to reassure them that Frodo and Sam had been found alive and were being borne to Minas Tirith. If they had been unhurt, surely Gandalf would have brought them back to the army. But maybe they were just exhausted, and not horribly burned by the lava, and Gandalf had wanted to spare them the long march to Minas Tirith. Pippin wondered and worried, but there had been no further word.

        A clear path had been prepared for the army, and now the soldiers who had remained behind to guard Osgiliath and the workers whose duty it was to clear away the rubble lined the roads and cheered the army, waving their hands and banners, and sometimes even their swords or tools. Aragorn paused to speak to a man here and another there, but did not linger, for he would wish the wounded to be safe in the Houses of Healing. The healers Faramir had sent forth had been of great aid to them, and Pippin had smiled to know Faramir had thought to send them.

        Then they were through Osgiliath--the bridge had been greatly reinforced while they were gone--and advancing across the Pelennor toward Minas Tirith. Now Pippin could see the banners flying, and people lining the walls, and hear their cheers. The great courtyard would be packed with people waiting to see their loved ones come safely home, and to celebrate the great victory. Would Frodo and Sam be waiting for him and Merry? Would Faramir be there? Surely he must be, for it would be his duty to greet Aragorn, and Faramir was not a man to shirk his duty.

        As they neared the city, the clarion call of trumpets rang out to announce the king's arrival. Pippin saw Aragorn sit tall in his saddle and pull his tunic straight in preparation. At their last halt he had tidied himself as best he could, and prepared himself for the event to come. He beckoned the leaders of the troops to ride behind him and Éomer to his side. Legolas and Gimli were close at hand, ready to support him as they always did, but now also as representatives of their people. Legolas was the son of the King of Mirkwood, so he would be counted an ambassador to Gondor from the Woodland Realm, and Gimli was of Durin's line, which was counted very important among the dwarves.

        Then Aragorn beckoned Merry and Pippin closer. "Ride with us," he said, "for you are the sons of leaders of the Shire, and shall be your people's representatives. We go very formally to the gates, which I must not enter until I am bidden in. The custom of the City requires that I be greeted by the steward, who will surrender Gondor to me and ask if the people will accept me as king."

        "They will," Merry said. "They already have, when we were there before. When you saved Faramir, I think you won their hearts."

        "It will take more than one task to rule," Aragorn replied. "I had a part in this victory, but it would never have happened without Frodo. I know not how he mends, for there has been no word, save that he was safely there and under care, and that his wounds were not major. We have won the world, now we must wage peace."

        "None could do it better," Legolas said to him.

        "Aye," agreed Gimli. "Never doubt the people will welcome you, laddie."

        "If your troops are any indication," Éomer said, "you are all but crowned." He offered Aragorn a sympathetic grimace. "Our lives have changed. I had not expected the throne for my cousin was young and strong, and my uncle..." His voice trailed off. "But king I must be. We shall grow into our offices, you and I, as allies."

        "As brothers," Aragorn corrected him, and Pippin smiled to hear him. Gondor and Rohan would be closer now than they had ever been. He was glad. He knew after he and the other hobbits returned to the Shire, that land would still hold distant, even if he and Merry would come forth from time to time to visit. They were bound to Gondor and Rohan, and they would want to return, especially since the world would be safer and their journeys southward might even become routine. They could safely travel through the Gap of Rohan without fearing Saruman and his orcs. Treebeard would see Isengard was safe and new trees grown.

        It would be sad to part with their companions, but he and Merry would travel home with Frodo and Sam, and maybe Gandalf would come with them part of the way. How much safer it would be with no Ringwraiths to chase them. He smiled at the thought of the ale in Bree.

        But first Aragorn must be crowned. How wonderful it would be to witness such a historic moment. Would Pippin wear his livery? Where would he and the other hobbits stand? The Shire was a small, distant land. No doubt important lords would stand near the king, but Pippin was sure they would be near enough to see. He gave a slight bounce of anticipation in his saddle.

        Tarrant rode nearby, watching the White City as they neared the gates. Would his friends have come down to welcome him home? Only Vila had farewelled him, but Blake had not been well enough, and Avon had been given a task by Gandalf. From the look on the tall man's face, Pippin hoped they would all three be waiting.

        Then they arrived before the broken gates, which stood open to reveal great crowds of people inside, and the walls above were lined with cheering folk, waving and calling. Trumped blared to announce their arrival, and Aragorn dismounted and passed his reins to his standard bearer. Legolas bounded down with the grace of the elves and Gimli flung his leg over and slid down, holding the pommel. Legolas caught him and they grinned at each other, then moved to stand in support of Aragorn. Éomer joined them, and the other officers and lords of Gondor fell in behind them. United, they approached the gates.

        Pippin's heart leaped when he saw Faramir, formally garbed in gleaming armor with the White Tree upon his breast. He held his baton of office in one hand, and officers waited behind him. How well he looked, not only mended from his terrible wounds, but eager and happy, a deep contentment in his eyes, and a gladness upon his face to see Aragorn. He stepped out of the gates, and Húrin of the Keys came at his heels. Like Faramir, he wore formal armor.

        Faramir held up his hand, and the cheering people silenced. When Faramir spoke, the only sounds were the rustle of the crowd, the shifting of the horses, and the rustle of the breeze that tugged at Pippin's curls. "The last steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office," Faramir announced in a ringing voice. He thrust out the rod to Aragorn, who accepted it into his hand and then returned it. Faramir's eyes widened as he took it back.

        "That office is not ended," Aragorn told him. "It shall be yours and that of your heirs as long as my line endures."

        Faramir's smile lit an already happy face, and he raised his voice to announce Aragorn's coming to the people. As he named Aragorn's titles, Pippin could feel the folks' growing excitement and delight. "Shall he be king and enter into the city and rule here?" Faramir cried for all to hear.

        "Yea," cried the people in a thunderous voice. Pippin nudged Merry and grinned.

        Aragorn greeted the crowd and bowed to them, and they cheered the louder. He introduced Éomer, and the people roared. Next he gestured forth Legolas and Gimli, and then the two hobbits. Pippin grinned as the crowd cheered the pair of them and waved at a few familiar faces. And then, knowing the soldiers would wish to greet their families, and that their kin would be waiting, Aragorn walked between Faramir and Éomer into his city with the army following.

        Pippin and Merry rode Shadowfax into the city, and there was Gandalf, greeting Aragorn with great delight. The two clasped hands and beamed at each other, and Pippin bounced in delight to see Gandalf again. He looked around for Frodo and Sam, but they were not there. Were they just too small to be seen over the tumultuous crowd? Urgently, Pippin nudged Shadowfax toward the wizard, and he saw them coming, and beamed. "Shadowfax, you have come." He stroked the horse's nose, then looked up. "Ah, and you have brought my hobbits. Welcome home, Merry and Pippin, and fear not for Frodo and Sam, for they recover. Sam is already up and about, although I cannot pry him from Frodo's side."

        Pippin slid down from Shadowfax's back, and Merry followed. "Gandalf, what of Frodo?" Merry cried. "Is he not up and about?"

        "He still sleeps, but it is the sleep of exhaustion, and we have left him to it. He nears rousing, and I feel the arrival of the pair of you and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli will be what is needed." He knelt before them and clasped the shoulder of each. "Fear not, my brave hobbits. He will wake and smile at you, and in no time he will be eager to explore this city. You must be ready to escort him hither and yon, for I fear there will be much to do to prepare for Aragorn's coronation."

        "To think old Strider will be king," Pippin cried. "It's wonderful, Gandalf."

        The wizard's eyes lit. "Yes, it is," he said. "Very wonderful. All I had ever hoped." He squeezed their shoulders. "If you will wait but a few moments, I will take you to Frodo."

        Pippin shook his head. "I must groom Shadowfax first. It is my duty."

        "I will see it done. You have cared for him very well. I see it in his eyes." He caught Pippin's eye and pointed.

        Pippin looked around and there was Faramir, beaming at him. "Faramir," he cried and ran to greet his friend. "How wonderful you look. You are mended. I am so glad."

        "Mended indeed," Faramir agreed and scooped Pippin up in a hug that did not trouble his wounded shoulder. He was laughing; he looked joyous. Seeing his king again would please him, but Pippin had never seen such contentment and peace on his face before, and he was glad of it. He hugged Faramir with fervor and smiled up at him when he was set on his feet.

        "And you are returned from a great battle, intact and well," Faramir continued. "You will see Frodo soon. Every day he looks better. I have spent much time sitting with him, telling him the news. The healers say he may hear us, and I believe it. So must you. Your arrival will rouse him, I am sure."

        "You look so happy," Pippin blurted. "And I don't think you would if Frodo were very bad. It must be wonderful to have a king again."

        "It is," Faramir said. "Always it has been my dream that the king would come again, and that he would be a man worthy of respect and devotion. And it is so." He offered a sudden smile. "And there is another reason for my inner delight, Pippin. You who have saved my life shall be the first to know, although I am certain Gandalf does as well, for he knows all."

        "Yes, he does," Pippin agreed. He believed that fervently. "Tell me your news, then?" He bounced on his toes in eagerness.

        "I am betrothed, Pippin. Not yet formally, for I must ask her brother for her hand, but the Lady Éowyn has pledged herself to me, and I to her."

        "She is very beautiful," Pippin said with a smile. "That is excellent news. I will be very discreet, the way Gandalf always tells me to be, and will reveal it to none until I have your permission." He glanced over at Merry.

        "Éowyn will wish to tell your friend herself," Faramir said, guessing his thoughts. He seemed well able to do that, to see into the hearts of people. How hard it must have been to look at his father and see that disdain Denethor had worn like another cloak. Denethor was fallen now, and would not scorn Faramir again. He would be sad anyway, and grieving for Boromir, but a lady love would give his thoughts a happy direction.

        Pippin smiled as wide as he could. "I will tell no one," he said. "Where will Merry find her, for keeping news from him is not easy, and I fear I will burst?"

        Faramir laughed heartily, which made those within earshot turn their heads and smile at the merry sound. "She serves in the Houses of Healing, Pippin. You will see her when you visit Frodo." He lifted his head at a summons from the King. "I must go now, Pippin, but we will talk again this evening, for there is much to say and much to hear."

        Pippin smiled after him, then his smile broadened still further. There was Tarrant swinging down from his saddle almost like an expert. And there, waiting for him, were Blake, Vila, and Avon, lined up in a row. He looked around, saw them, and jerked to a stop.

        Vila darted forward. "There you are, you great lump," he said. "What did you do, hide in the rear? I don't see a mark on you."

        Tarrant held up his sword hand to reveal the scabs on his knuckles from the fighting. "Will this do, Vila? Should I have cut notches on my sword so you could tell how well I did?" Pippin knew he had a slight sword cut on his arm, but it was probably nearly better by now, and Tarrant didn't mention it.

        "Well enough to be given a horse," said Blake, approaching and urging Avon to come with him.

        Tarrant favored Avon with a very cocky smile. "I am an officer now, here as well as in our time."

        "There will be no living with him now," Avon said sourly.

        "Oh, don't worry, Avon," Tarrant replied. "In ego, I will never match your manner."

        "Nor in any other thing," Avon replied. Then he laughed, a laugh that sounded to Pippin quite genuine. "I'm glad you made it." Before Tarrant could respond, he continued, "but much more boasting will make me regret it."

        "Never fear," Tarrant replied. "For I am your second in boasting as well."

        Vila beamed. "Pay them no mind, Blake. Or the next thing you will hear is how young and dashing and brave Tarrant is, and then Avon will tell him coldly that he talks too much."

        "So he does," Avon said and arched an eyebrow at Vila.

        Blake laughed. "The pair of you will have no matches here in your vanity. But welcome back, Tarrant. I think Avon and Vila quite missed you."

        Avon and Vila exchanged wary glances then pretended utter outrage at the very suggestions, and at the thought that they would share anything, even missing Tarrant.

        Pippin nudged Merry in the ribs and nodded at them, and the two hobbits smiled. Then, leaving Shadowfax with Gandalf as bidden, they hastened toward the ramp to climb to the sixth level of the city, darting in and out amid the crowd. Everywhere soldiers were greeted by their families, and the sounds of cheers and laughter rang out everywhere.

        As they climbed, Pippin looked over his shoulder and saw Faramir standing at Aragorn's side, the two of them talking together earnestly, and he could tell from Aragorn's expression that he liked Faramir and valued him. Éomer King joined them, and there was Faramir's uncle, the Prince of Dol Amroth, standing tall and surveying his nephew with his clear and wise grey eyes, a hand upon his shoulder. Surely Éomer would approve his sister's union. She was a princess and Faramir was Aragorn's second. Love apart, they were well matched, and when you added the love, it was perfect. Pippin smiled. Faramir would do well now. He would marry Éowyn and, as the old tales told, would live happily ever after until the end of his days.

        If only Frodo would be well, then everything would be perfect.

*****

        "It is so good to see you two," Frodo said. He sat in a man-sized chair in his chamber, a blanket across his lap, Sam perched protectively on the armrest, while Merry and Pippin sat upon his bed. How long it had been since the four of them had been together? When he had looked so meaningfully at the concealed pair at Parth Galen and Merry had urged him to run, understanding he meant to set off for Mordor alone, he had gone, trailed by Sam, never knowing if his cousins had survived. Faramir had known naught of them in Ithilien, and the report of Boromir's death had made Frodo fear they had fallen, too. Often as he and Sam continued their weary journey, his thoughts had gone to his young cousins, and he had wondered if they survived. At times, fallen into near despair, he had imagined returning to the Shire and telling Paladin Took and Saradoc Brandybuck that their sons had died to protect him. A painful task, one that had made his heart ache.

        As he and Sam moved deeper into Mordor, though, the Ring had dominated all. Its weight had grown so very heavy he had no thought for anything but the need to put one foot in front of the other. The destruction of the Ring had removed a burden that had been both ominous and familiar, and in a way he still reeled from it. He knew there would be nightmares, that there would be times he would awaken gasping in the middle of the night, believing he still trudged across the Plain of Gorgoroth, made lightheaded by the reek of its fumes, his feet sore from the roughness of the hard, dried lava beneath them, his heart aching.

        But not this day. Now joy filled his heart, joy that his cousins lived, joy that Gandalf had miraculously been reborn. To awaken to the sight of the wizard at the foot of his bed had made Frodo wonder if he were yet dreaming. But the sound of Gandalf's joyous laughter had warmed his heart and then the arrival of the rest of the Fellowship, one by one, had made it beat harder with the joy of each new appearance. Aragorn looked bold and noble; he would be king, and that gladdened Frodo still further. He had fought so hard for Middle-earth. At last, he would come into his birthright.

        But there was a quiet peace and a deep, quiet joy in sitting here, just the four of them, talking in fits and starts. Every now and then, a healer would come in to make certain Frodo was well. They brought him delicious fruit drinks and small cakes, and hovered over him while he ate and drank, and gazed at him with awed eyes, never quite intrusively. It made him uncomfortable to think they would regard him as a hero when he had failed at the end.

        He had confessed it to Merry and Pippin when the others had been shooed away by the healers. Then had listened seriously, then shook their heads. "You carried it all that way, Frodo," Merry had said quite seriously. "I think no one else could have done that. You never faltered. When you stood before the Cracks of Doom, you were in the place of the Ring's greatest strength. I don't think even Aragorn could have withstood it there."

        A new wisdom ran through Merry's voice. He had grown on their great quest.

        "Merry's right," Pippin said earnestly. "No one is perfect, Frodo, but you came all the way. I heard Gandalf telling you in Moria that Gollum still had a part to play and that maybe Bilbo's pity would rule the fate of many. I didn't understand then, but now I think I do. Gandalf knows everything, Frodo. He was right."

        Sam beamed at the pair. "Don't you see, Mister Frodo," he said. "Everyone had a hand in it. You did the most, o' course, but even that nasty Gollum was written into the tale."

        "And I think Sméagol would not have wished to live if the Ring no longer existed," Frodo said. "He did not even cry out as he fell." He closed his eyes for a moment, glad he had not seen Gollum land in the heart of the fires.

        Pippin sat on the chair's other armrest, and put his arm around Frodo's shoulders. "Gandalf told me I should not think about how Lord Denethor perished in flames, but I do sometimes. I'm sure he'll tell you not to think about Gollum." He tightened his grip. "Frodo, if you wish to talk about that, you come to me."

        Pippin, too, had grown. The feckless youth had been replaced by a more mature young hobbit, who had seen much in war and had been tested and not found wanting. Frodo smiled up at him. "I will. Thank you, Pippin. But what is this I am told, that you saved Faramir's life?"

        "So he did, and most bravely, too," said a voice from the doorway, and here came Faramir himself, looking fit and well, a healthy color in his face, his eyes alight with delight to see Frodo.

        Frodo pushed away the blanket and went to meet him, pleased to see him, recalling their farewell, when Faramir had told him to go with the goodwill of all men. Frodo had carried that wish in his heart during the long and arduous journey through Mordor, just as he had recalled the moment when Faramir had freed him, even if it might be at the cost of his own life. It relieved Frodo's heart to see him healed and well.

        Faramir dropped to one knee and held out both hands, and Frodo took them. "When we parted in Osgiliath, I never thought to see you again," he admitted. "I thought we would both fall, and here we are alive."

        "You look well mended, Faramir," said Frodo.

        "He looks very fine," Pippin said with a huge grin.

        "I am mended in every way," Faramir replied, sparing a ready smile for Pippin. "And to see you awake and healing, Frodo, completes the process. Sam and I have spoken many times while we waited for you to awaken, and are at peace with one another."

        "Aye," said Sam, at Frodo's side as always. "He will not tell you how heroic he was." He grinned suddenly. "Faramir, I mean, but you, too, Mister Frodo. I'm thinking great heroes must be modest by nature and not go about bragging and boasting of their great deeds."

        "If they did, the world would soon tire of hearing of them," Faramir said with a chuckle. He squeezed Frodo's hands, but very gently, so he would not put pressure on the healing finger stub. Odd that Frodo still sometimes felt it as if it were there but made invisible forever by the Ring. More than once, he had prodded cautiously to see if it was really gone. "But Frodo, you are not one to boast. The people will love you all the more for that."

        "Will they stare?" Frodo asked in such dismay it must have sounded comical to the others, for they all smiled, and Merry and Pippin chuckled.

        "You are a hero to them, whether you wish it or not," Faramir said. "They will cheer you when they first see you, but if it be known that you do not wish a fuss made, then they will stand aside. They will watch you from a distance and count themselves blessed to have seen you."

        When Frodo groaned, Faramir released Frodo's hands and patted him on the shoulder. "Do not deny them, for they are newly free and full of elation. I have never before seen my people so happy, and I would not deprive them of a moment of it. They cheer me, too, and all I have done to deserve it is to survive when all others fell." His face shadowed.

        "Now none o' that, Captain Faramir," Sam said sturdily, and patted Faramir's arm. "The people are that glad you lived. You rode to battle as boldly as any man, and maybe it was fated for you to survive. We can't know that, but it happened. You will be part of the great tales of these times."

        "I did not ask for that, any more than Frodo did," Faramir replied. "But like Frodo, I will bear it. The world is kind now, and Aragorn will do his all to see it stays that way."

        "And you are happy," Frodo said. "I see it in your eyes, when I did not see it before. Pippin tells me you are to be wed."

        "In Edoras in the summer," Faramir replied. "So I will travel with you on the first portion of your journey home. Pippin will stand at my side, as will my king, when I am trothplighted." He laughed and rose. "But until our king is crowned, you will remain in our city, and I have come to offer to you its amenities. I am told you enjoy reading, Frodo, so when the healers free you, I will take you to our great library and archive and bid the archivists to find for you whatever you would wish. Before that, I will bring you any books you desire or see them brought."

        What a great temptation he offered. Frodo could not but smile. "I will value that."

        "We are kin in this, you and I," Faramir said, "for I have ever had a love of reading and of lore. I learned much from Gandalf, as I am told you did. Gandalf tells me you know some elvish."

        "Not as much as I could wish," Frodo admitted. "But Legolas taught me a bit as we traveled, and I had learned some from Bilbo, who was a great elf-friend, and now must speak Sindarin daily as he dwells in Rivendell."

        "I heard of the adventure of Bilbo Baggins from Gandalf long ago, but never thought I would meet his kin. And did he meet my brother, there in Rivendell?" Faramir asked.

        "He did. I saw them speaking together once, while Bilbo asked him about Minas Tirith. Boromir told him many tales of the White City, and then he asked Bilbo to speak of his adventures, and Bilbo, always glad of a new audience, told his tale of his journey with the dwarves. I think the two quite liked each other. I saw them drinking ale together one night when the elves sang, each marking time with his foot."

        Faramir's smile lit his face. "Ah, that is a good image, and gladly will I remember it." He let his hand fall upon Frodo's shoulder. "I must depart now, for there are many duties that call upon me, often at the same moment, but the king himself bid me come, for he said you had asked after me."

        "I did," Frodo said. "Come when you can stay longer, for I am like Bilbo--I would hear all the tales of Minas Tirith."

        "Gladly will I relate them to you." He bowed to Frodo and Sam, nodded to Merry, and exchanged a smile with Pippin.

        When he had gone, Pippin said, "Isn't he fine, Frodo? He is the finest man I have ever known. I never thought I would have a friend in Minas Tirith."

        "And now you have two, for Aragorn is your friend as well."

        "Good old Strider," Pippin said contentedly. "Yes, he is wonderful, too. I'm glad I swore allegiance to Gondor. Oh, Frodo, they have marvelous taverns here in the city, nearly as fine as the Green Dragon, and there is one on the fifth level where Merry and I went last night. You would like it, for there is excellent ale, and fine singers, and the barmaid is very saucy, and pretty, although very, very tall."

        "I wonder if she is like Rosie," Sam said wistfully. "To think it will be months yet before I can see her again."

        "She will wait for you, Sam," Frodo soothed him and patted him on the back. "I know she will."

        Sam smiled but made no reply, and it was left for Pippin to cry out that he had learned a fine new drinking song, and would teach it to Frodo.

        When Frodo nodded, he sang a delightful rollicking song that had him and Merry capering about the room. As he sang people gathered in the doorway, many wounded soldiers in their bandages, and a share of healers. Seeing them, Pippin beckoned for them to join in and pranced out into the garden, leading those well enough to follow in a merry dance. Frodo and Sam stood in the doorway and watched, and smiled to see Pippin eyeing the injured men and darting here and there to urge those who were not yet steady to sit and sing.

        "For we need a chorus, don't you see? You have a fine voice, sir, and you. And you are an excellent dancer," to a man with a bandaged arm. "Come, let us all be merry, for the Enemy is fallen and the world is new." He launched into a song of the Shire, his mellow voice silencing the soldiers to listen, then beckoning them to join in the chorus.

        "Now there's a fine sight, Mister Frodo," Sam said as they watched the happy throng. "Only Pippin could manage that."

        Frodo saw several healers in the various doorways, monitoring their charges, but they made no attempt to halt the impromptu party, for it was as good for the wounded men as medicine. Frodo knew it drove away the shadows, at least for a space. As he stood there with Sam's arm around his shoulders, he laughed aloud for the sheer joy of living.

*****

        Preparations for the coronation continued apace, and the city took on such a festive air that it was not only Pippin who sang as he went through the days. Impromptu songs would spring up here and there, and even echo from level to level. Strangers would greet each other, and the mood was so excruciatingly cheerful that Avon took to retreating to the archives, where he studied the ancient texts regarding the elves, and the tales of Fëanor. In that brilliant and doomed elf, he sensed a kindred spirit, but hoped he was intelligent enough to avoid the doom that Fëanor had brought down upon himself. It had taken less than a balrog to undo Avon; it had taken a programmed Blake on Gauda Prime saying, "I set all this up. I was waiting for you." Simple words, ominous words, no doubt Servalan's script. He hoped the bitch was dead and regretted he would never know it.

        Blake was healed now, and if he tired more quickly than he had in the old days, the healers assured him he would daily regain strength. With no need here to recruit folk to a cause, for the cause was already won, he met instead with the chancellors and councillors of the land, offering lessons on the Federation and what to avoid in the new government. Avon cringed a bit at the thought of the sort of idealistic realm Blake would try to design for Gondor, but Aragorn was a sensible man, and one who had been in service to a king and a steward in order to learn how such a land should be run. He had also been foster son to Elrond of Rivendell, a great elf who was thousands of years old. Surely any who lived as long as that would have learned patience and wisdom--or was that a foolish thought brought about by being surrounded by idealists? The words of Elrond which Aragorn and Gandalf had spoken implied that he was stern and wise. Maybe it would temper Aragorn's zeal with common sense.

        Yet the new king was not devoid of it. He saw many practical implications that Blake overlooked, partly from Blake's nature and partly from his lack of knowledge of the customs and traditions of the land. Yet it was Blake who thrived here the most.

        Unless it was Tarrant. Now an officer in Gondor's army, steadily improving both his horsemanship and his weaponry skills, he rode out leading bands of men to scout for orcs, and also met with the other officers to devise strategies to protect the kingdom from the Southrons and Easterlings, who would not sit tamely under treaties. Avon was glad the peace would not lead Aragorn to trust them openly. No, he meant to deal with them from a position of strength, which meant strong armies.

        Then there was Vila. Blake attempted to restrain him from thieving, but Avon doubted he would succeed. He daily expected to hear that Vila had stolen the Crown of Eärnur that would soon be placed on Aragorn's head. Failing that, there was a great treasury here. Avon had to admit it even tempted him, but not as much as the seeing stones did.

        The two palantíri were locked away again, which Avon considered foolishness. He firmly believed Sauron's stone had been destroyed in the collapse of the Tower of Barad-dûr, but a portion of his mind wondered. There had been seven stones brought to Middle-earth. One, Gandalf had told him, remained in the Tower Hills, west of the Shire. The others were lost, save two. But things that were lost could be found. Why not use these two to seek them, to set up a communications network across Middle-earth, at least between Gondor and Rohan? He had suggested as much to Gandalf, who had nodded and hemmed and hawed, and smoked his pipe, and there had been no conclusive answer.

        He turned a page in the musty book he read. It spoke of the seeing stones, but gave no information he did not already possess. The people of Gondor had been largely in ignorance of them, and still were, but some of the leaders of the land had known. Avon had learned that the stones had varied in size. He had plotted their original locations on a map he had traced of Middle-earth. If he must remain here, seeking them out would be worth doing. One he must leave unfound, for it had come to Ensor.

        "I thought I might find you here."

        He looked up to see Gandalf, his pipe in the corner of his mouth--it had gone out as it sometimes did, and Avon was glad for he did not relish the habit, or the aroma. Aragorn trailed the wizard, and of course that meant two bodyguards followed at a distance. Avon would not have enjoyed bodyguards, although he would have relished the rank that demanded them.

        "Where but here?" Avon replied. "If we must remain here, I have much to learn."

        "Knowledge is always worthwhile," Gandalf agreed.

        "That is why we have come," Aragorn added. "Among the many tasks that face us is the disposition of the palantíri. We would have you come with us to determine if any other stones have fallen into the possession of those who might use them against us. Most, I fear, have been lost long ago, and you say you believed Sauron's stone destroyed."

        "Certainly so deeply buried in rubble that it cannot be easily found," Avon replied. "My nature is suspicious and I do not accept it is gone because that would be safe. Even if it were found, I should not wish to touch it."

        "No, for it was bent to Sauron's will," Gandalf replied. "Yet there may still be others, for they were not all accounted for."

        "So you would have me gaze into one and see what I can discover?" Avon asked. A part of him wished to demand what concern it was of his, but the other part, the part that had long worked with computers, could not resist the opportunity to handle the stone once again.

        "You and Aragorn," Gandalf replied. "Come, let us see it done."

        Avon closed his book and nodded to the nearest archivist to set it aside for him until the next time. Then he rose and went with king and wizard to the vaults where the stone had remained since Sauron's fall.

        While the bodyguards lit torches to illuminate the chamber, Aragorn crossed to the two wrapped stones and unhesitatingly unwrapped the Orthanc stone. Its inner flame flickered warmly at the touch, and Avon had the fleeting fanciful notion that it recognized him, and perhaps even accepted him as king. Nonsense. This place gave him strange fancies. Or perhaps it was the stone that did.

        Avon concentrated on it with all his force, and as he did, the flame danced oddly as if it sensed another stone--perhaps the one that lay covered beside it. How had Fëanor conceived them? And how had Ensor known to adapt their power? Surely there had only been the one in Avon's time. Had Ensor's great invention been no more than a fluke? There were surely no elves left in the world in Avon's time. What readings might it have given Ensor with his various computing devices?

        Gandalf drew breath sharply as he watched Aragorn and the stone. "If I may?" he said and stretched out his hand. The king granted it to him, and Gandalf held it closely, cupped in both hands. He murmured over it what Avon had come to recognize as words of power, even if they were in the ancient Quenya, of which he had learned no more yet than a word or two.

        The stone flared up more brightly, and in its heart, Avon saw a field of tiny sparks, each one dancing bravely, before they coalesced into the central flame.

        "What does it mean, Gandalf?" Aragorn asked. "That there is another stone that lies shattered? Could it indicate the remnants of Sauron's stone?"

        "No, I think it is not," Gandalf replied, softly and thoughtfully, as he pondered. He had a way of pondering that made it appear his thoughts were full of weight and gravity, and that if he would speak, he would reveal wisdom beyond the ken of mortal men. Avon always resented that tone, yet he could not quite resent Gandalf. "There is no malice to the vision, and I fear Sauron's evil will linger in all he has touched. That is why Mordor must be purged and why you will have Minas Morgul pulled down."

        Aragorn reclaimed the stone and gazed into it, but the myriad tiny flames did not return. What had they been?

        "I would save Minas Morgul and return it to Minas Ithil if I could, yet I believe it shall not be possible," Aragorn replied. "For near a thousand years, evil has permeated its very stones. Perhaps I shall see it searched first for hidden remnants of its former glory, if all are not smashed to rubble. Vila might help us there, for if there should be hidden treasure, he would find it."

        "If you should mention the possibility of hidden treasure, you would find him eager to assist," Avon said with a smile. "Even though volunteering for hazardous duty is scarcely Vila's strong point. May I?" He held out his hand for the stone.

        Aragorn let it fall into his hands, and as always, in the first moments, the inner glow spoke to him far more strongly than computers always had. He would master it, would learn its structure. If so, if he could create more...

        The stone flickered, and there it was again, those tiny dancing lights, no more than pinpricks. Dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. He focused his attention on them. Fragments of a greater stone? Yet why did he feel they were very close at hand, far closer than the ruins of Barad-dûr?

        "Seek a direction," Gandalf urged, and let his hand fall upon Avon's shoulder.

        Instead of glowering at the liberty, Avon let himself receive the strength the wizard's touch offered, for the wizard was not invasive, expected no emotional concessions, and offered his power impartially. Did he do that intentionally, knowing Avon would resent it in any case, but would resent less anything that held no claim of emotion? No matter. The mystery mattered more than reasoning Gandalf's motives.

        "A direction?" He let himself merge with the stone in ways he had not dared when Sauron watched him through it, feeling the compulsion that had always lingered subliminally when he handled computers. Orac had recognized that in him, he suspected, although the little computer had not so stated it. Yet it worked better with Avon than any of the rest of the crew, a fact that had made him smug.

        Tiny fragments of a stone? Or tiny glimmerings of pale copies? It almost felt like the sense of computers he had long had and never fully conceptualized. "Computers," he said in a breathless voice. He revolved slowly until he faced the north and slightly west--odd that even within walls he would know that, when directions had not been part of his life in the domes--then he opened his eyes. "The time ship," he said with certainty.

        "The vessel which brought you here?" Gandalf prompted.

        "Brought us here and vanished," Avon replied. "We reasoned it had not been here physically, but simply opened a portal, and thus, when it closed, the portal was gone. Yet perhaps it exists in both times, blocked from this end, a permanent passage through which Servalan may send forth troops to seek us."

        "Or to threaten Gondor." Aragorn took the stone from Avon's hands and concentrated on it. The tiny sparks of light flickered for him, too. "Can this stone lead us to the portal, even if it be invisible?"

        Avon recalled the feeling of it, the sense of direction. "It can."

        "Then let us go forth, with troops at our back, to determine the danger to Gondor."

        Always it was Gondor these folk considered, never the danger to themselves. Madmen, every one of them. Yet Avon would not wish Gondor imperiled by Servalan. Gondor had accepted the four of them, had mended Blake, had even managed to make Vila work. Tarrant spent his days with the troops, relishing every moment. And Avon? He had a chance to best both Fëanor and Ensor.

        If the portal could be found, they could go home.

        Home?

        He shoved away that ludicrous question. Return to the life of a fugitive, one who no doubt had both Federation and rebellion against him? Although the arrival of a living Blake at Avon's side would certainly alter measures. He smiled his crocodile smile. There was no point in speculation. Let them go to the place of their arrival. Let them go with armed troops. Although what use swords would be against Federation hand blasters Avon could not see. Gondor's troops would be mere cannon fodder if Servalan intended to send through an army. The lights in the palantír suggested an open portal but that did not mean an army came through. Perhaps it meant the time ship, abandoned in the wild where none would find it, retained its ties to this time. They would soon see.

*****

        "What is it?" Vila asked as he hurried to join Avon and the others in the great courtyard on the first level of the city. He had been summoned from the Houses of Healing with scant time to remove his assistant robes, by the king himself. What did Aragorn want with him? Surely he hadn't found out about the bag of gold coins Vila concealed beneath his mattress. Vila would claim ignorance of them. "I don't know how they got there." Aragorn would not believe him, of course, but he could try.

        Tarrant had a strange look on his face, one Vila had never seen before. Was something wrong with him? Was the army fed up with the great lout? He wore his Gondor armor but not the helmet, and his sword hung at his side. And why was Avon scowling so fiercely. He hadn't looked like that since he and Blake had grown easier with each other. As for Blake, his brow was wrinkled, and he frowned, stroking his chin in the way he had when he was thinking hard.

        Faramir was there, too, speaking to Aragorn in an undertone, and Gandalf had come, too, as well as Merry and Pippin, who both wore swords, something they only did when they were on duty. Aragorn and Faramir had swords, too. And now here came Legolas and Gimli, and they were armed as well. Legolas led a white horse, and other horses, already saddled, waited. Were they going riding?

        Vila had seen horses often in the city, and he thought they were too tall, and too skittish. He wanted nothing to do with them. The one time Tarrant had convinced him to try, he had nearly been pitched off, and the soldiers had laughed uproariously. When he tried to make the horse go, it had turned its head and looked at him as if to say, "I don't have to obey you." No, Vila did not care for horses.

        That was when Vila noticed Avon was holding a stone that had lots of little pinpricks of dancing lights inside it. Made him think of Orac, it did, with all those flickering lights. Was that the seeing stone he'd heard of, the one that Avon had claimed was like a giant tarial cell?

        "We are going to the place where the time ship deposited us, Vila," Blake explained. "The stone Avon holds indicates something in the area, and what else can it be?"

        "They've come back for us?" Vila cried. His eyes narrowed. "Servalan? She wants to take us back to the future and kill us."

        "Very probably," said Avon tartly. "Or possibly, the portal remains loosely connected to this time. I do not see Servalan wasting the abilities of such a vessel, but we can't know how she has spent her time since we came here. She may have left it as a contingency plan. Perhaps the time has come. In any case, it presents a risk I do not choose to allow to threaten me."

        "Or Gondor," said Blake quickly.

        Avon eyed him sourly, but Vila wondered if Avon hoped for a chance to return to his own time. Blake might like it here because people actually believed in the things he'd always stood for. Tarrant must enjoy strutting around in armor, the dashing military hero, while the ladies ogled him. But Avon--what would he find here to hold him?

        What did Vila?

        Did he want to go home, if it turned out they could? He was safer here than he'd ever been, now that Sauron was dead. With any luck, there wouldn't be any more wars the rest of his life, and he could settle in and learn what was best to steal. There was nothing waiting for him in his own time. He even had his kit with him, although most of it was meant for electronic locks. Vila had begun to assemble a new kit to meet the needs here.

        With Avon, though, there was no telling.

        Aragorn spoke to Faramir, who relayed the word to Tarrant and another officer, and all the soldiers mounted. Legolas sprang into the saddle and reached down to pull Gimli up behind him. From nowhere came the King of Rohan, and he took Merry up with him. Faramir offered Pippin a hand up. Gandalf meant to ride his magnificent white horse. Vila hesitated.

        An officer appeared, leading three more horses and offered them to Blake, Avon, and Vila. The expression on Avon's face was priceless. He had a way of throwing back his head and nearly snorting when confronted with something he did not approve of, and it was clear to Vila he did not approve of horses.

        "They are gentle creatures, lords," said the soldier, "for I am told you have no experience on horseback. I have designated a man to ride beside each of you, but these horses will travel with the rest, and will not gallop."

        "Unless orcs come, I suppose," Vila muttered wryly.

        The soldier laughed. He had quantities of vivid red hair trailing down from beneath his helmet. "Then all will gallop, and your task will be to hold on and not fall from the saddle."

        "Wonderful," Avon said sourly. He passed the stone up to Gandalf and pulled himself into the saddle with little grace. Blake mounted as if he had watched it done and meant to copy the skill of other riders, and Vila, after three helpless bounces, finally got his leg over the horse's back and seated himself uneasily in the saddle. A soldier made sure his feet were secure in the stirrups. Vila saw another doing the same for Avon, whose resentment flared out.

        Aragorn led the party out, and there was a man with a banner bearing the White Tree riding at his side. Another soldier with a banner rode beside Éomer, and his banner had a horse on it, probably because the people of Rohan were idiotic enough to actually love horses. There was another standard bearer for Faramir. You'd think a simple little ride like this wouldn't call for all that ceremony, but there were two kings and a steward, so maybe they had to.

        The distance was not great, but it was far enough for Vila's muscles to stiffen with the tension of not falling off. They'd never believe this back in the Delta creche, that he was riding a horse with two kings. He beamed at the thought. Lord Vila of Delta, that would be his title when they knighted him. And then no one could fault him when he practiced his thievery.

        Tarrant was comfortable enough now on horseback to ride with a flourish, the way he did everything else. Flashing a many-toothed smile at Vila, he rode on, his head bare. He had confided once that he hated the helmets and would wear them only in battle, and at the Coronation. His had been attached to his saddle where it was handy in case a great nasty band of orcs swooped down on them. Vila would be happy if he never saw another orc in his whole life. Maybe they could turn the remaining orcs loose on Servalan--shove them through the portal into the future, away from here. That would serve her right.

        Vila wouldn't have known the place where the four of them had entered Middle-earth except that the pile of stones where Blake had shammed death was distinctive. Tarrant saw it first and pointed, and soon the band had halted before it while Avon and Tarrant argued on the distance to the invisible vessel. It wasn't here. Vila hadn't really expected it to be here, and it wasn't. That just showed what Avon knew.

        Then Aragorn dismounted and took up the stone from Gandalf. He bent his head over it and concentrated, and all of a sudden it lit up with many sparkles. They moved with a pattern, too. It reminded Vila, somehow, of Orac's lights, and he experienced a pang for the little computer. Never mind he'd once wanted to redesign it as an empty space. Orac had been one of them in its crotchety, annoying way.

        But remembering the past reminded him of Cally, of Dayna, of Soolin. And Gan. Better not to remember. What was it Avon had said about regret being a small part of life, or about not needing to prove he cared? Well, in both cases Avon came across as a softy. If he didn't need to prove it, then he didn't need to deny it. And if regret was even a small part, it existed. Maybe he even regretted the shuttle.

        As if he could sense Vila's thoughts, Avon looked across at him from his place beside Aragorn, and slightly lifted one eyebrow.

        Vila winked.

        Avon hadn't expected that. He jerked his head back again, then, faintly, amusement lit his eyes. Only for a moment, then he sobered and gave his attention to Aragorn and the stone.

        "Lay your hand upon it," Aragorn bade him.

        Avon dismounted stiffly, and then stretched out his palm and let it rest on the stone. The lights intensified. Vila shivered because he could feel something, a faint rumble, not in the ground under his feet, but in the air that surrounded him. The sound built slowly, nearly subliminal, and several horses whinnied and shifted uneasily. Vila scrambled down. He didn't want the horse to panic and run away. He would be sure to fall off.

        The others dismounted, too, and the soldiers drew their swords, even Tarrant. Merry and Pippin didn't, but they took places close to Gandalf. Pippin kept staring at the palantír as if he couldn't tear his eyes from it, and Gandalf must have noticed because he put his hand on Pippin's shoulder, and said, "Be easy, Peregrin Took."

        "I don't want to touch it again, Gandalf, truly. It's just that it looks so different."

        "Different, aye," Gandalf agreed. "Wait. Stand back a bit, for we know not what will happen."

        "But, Gandalf, what will happen?" Pippin cried.

        "That," said Avon, and pointed with his free hand.

        Out of nothing, a door opened and revealed the inside of the time ship, its panels alight, its hard, metal lines different from anything here in Middle-earth. Vila's mouth fell open. He heard some of the soldiers muttering about witchcraft and sorcery. The horses grew even more restless.

        "They were like that at Dunharrow," Merry said in a small voice with a gesture at the shifting horses. "Uneasy because they were near the road that led to the Paths of the Dead. What is that?"

        "It is naught of Middle-earth," Legolas said in a soft, breathless voice. "It is a power beyond the power of the elves."

        "So it is," Gandalf replied. "Avon, this is your world?"

        "A gateway into it," Avon said very tightly. He kept his hand on the stone as if he thought lifting it would close the portal.

        Blake ventured closer, and Tarrant fell in with him. They approached the portal, and Gandalf, with a gesture at Pippin to stay away from the entrance, followed them and peered into the ship over their shoulders.

        "It exists in our time," Blake said. He thrust his hand into the opening. Some of the soldiers gasped, as if they had expected his fingers to vanish. "This is no more than a doorway."

        "If you step through the portal, you will return to your own land?" Faramir asked. He joined Gandalf.

        Vila hung back. The sight of the ship's interior had not made him long for home. Instead, it had made him take a step away. Until that moment, he hadn't known what he wanted. Now he knew. He didn't want to see the Federation ever again.

        Avon looked over at Vila, his face inscrutable. Well, Avon's face was nearly always inscrutable except when it was angry, but Vila had learned to read it over the years. He couldn't read it at all now. So he looked at Blake.

        Blake must have learned how to be inscrutable from Avon, because he looked completely blank. It was left for Tarrant to be suspicious, and to stand with sword in hand, as if he thought Federation Storm Troopers would pile out of the door at any second and start blasting.

        Vila thought they would have come by now, if they were in there. What were the odds of Servalan arriving to retrieve them at the very moment they came here and Avon used the stone to open the gate?

        With the luck Blake's crew had always had, Vila wouldn't have wagered one credit against odds like that.

*****

        Faramir stared into the chamber revealed, and saw in it nothing that was familiar. The walls were made of metal, fitted together with even more accuracy and finesse than the dwarvish working of stone. He could see no discernable pattern in the way the walls meshed, nor any form of joining.

        More disconcerting were the lights without flame, cool lights in whites, reds, greens, and yellows, that blinked in a chamber beyond the entry, and the glow as bright as daylight in the rooms from panels overhead, steady and bright. Wizard light?

        "Gandalf?" he asked.

        "This is like naught I have ever seen," Gandalf admitted. "There is a cold, sterile feel to it, as if no love of craft saw it done."

        "It is filled with malice...and oppression," Legolas said in a voice scarcely above a whisper.

        Blake looked at Faramir finally. "This leads us home," he said, and Faramir could not tell from the tone of his voice if he were glad or sorry. All four men had drawn their feelings deep within and regarded the doorway with such impassive faces that Faramir felt a sudden premonition of evil. Home should offer joy, but this, it seemed offered them none.

        He looked across at Aragorn, who held the stone jointly with Avon. The king saw Faramir's expression and interpreted it. He was a most perceptive man, Aragorn. What did he see when he looked into Avon's face, a face that might have been carved from stone? There beyond the gateway in the cold, metal room with its peculiar lights, must exist the computers Avon had spoken of, devices whose purpose Faramir had not fully grasped, and which he doubted he ever would. Machines that stored knowledge? Impossible to imagine, yet Avon's ability to bend the palantír to his will was a product of his use of such devices. Faramir believed knowledge should come with effort and experience, not in the pushing of a button. What would it avail one to gain knowledge without effort? To learn simple things in time of need, yes, but that was not the way of wisdom. Faramir relished the hours he had spent in the archives, studying the lore of Middle-earth. To have every bit of it available to him instantly might be a wonder, yet would he value it if it came too easily?

        Aragorn did not release his grip on the stone, but he and Avon, as if they had planned it, moved closer to the opening. "What do we see?" the king asked.

        "A corridor leading to the control room," Tarrant replied. "That seat is where the pilot would sit, if this were a conventional ship."

        "How could a ship be so far from land?" Pippin asked. "The river is way down there." He pointed.

        "I think, Pippin, this vessel does not sail upon the seas and rivers of the world," Gandalf replied. "Rather, it sails upon the currents of time, and thus needs no water."

        "Oh," said Pippin with no real comprehension.

        "Can one enter?" Éomer asked.

        As if in response, Tarrant stepped within. Avon gritted out his name in tones of great frustration, but did not loose his grip on the stone. Tarrant returned moments later. "It's empty," he said. "No troops."

        "Did you enter Blake's chamber?" Avon asked.

        "No, I didn't want to risk triggering the time controls." He stepped out again into Middle-earth, and seemed unharmed by the experience.

        "None should enter here who belong not to the future," Gandalf ruled. "We know not how it would affect us."

        Faramir restrained his curiosity with an effort. The cold metal walls beckoned not to him, but his interest in things unknown had been piqued, and a part of him would have wished to see the future. The rest of him opposed such a thought. He would prefer to come to the future naturally, through living. If he could never live long enough to see the future from whence had come these four, he would still be content with his life.

        "No, none must enter," Aragorn decreed. "We know not the result, and I would see none stranded in a world not their own. It is better we learn no more of this place. Yet I have a curiosity about the myriad small cells that may be replicas of the seeing stones."

        Avon nodded. He looked down at his hand on the stone as if to wonder if it were his grip that kept open the panel. "Vila," he said. "Do you have your kit with you? Fetch me some tarial cells."

        "Go in there?" Vila asked, and he shrank into himself as if he could become invisible. "Why don't you go, then?"

        "Because I am maintaining the opening," Avon replied. "You are a thief, as you have long and loudly proclaimed. Steal me some tarial cells."

        "Blake?" Vila asked in a deliberately pathetic voice.

        "I will accompany you, Vila," Blake replied. The very lines of his body bespoke a reluctance to step within, yet he would not send Vila alone. "Tarrant entered and returned safely."

        "Tarrant had a sword," Vila observed.

        "You can carry mine." That was Pippin. He looked up at Gandalf as if to seek approval.

        "He will need no sword," Gandalf replied. "I shall enter with you, Vila. The rest of you must wait here, unless you choose to enter, Blake, for I would not deny you."

        "I will come," Blake said.

        Faramir made an involuntary protesting gesture, unwilling to risk Mithrandir within the cold metal chamber, and Pippin gasped, "Be careful, Gandalf."

        With a smile, Gandalf gripped his shoulder. "Fear not for me, Peregrin Took." He lifted his eyes to Faramir and then to Aragorn, and stepped into the vessel, gathering his robes about him as if to prevent them from touching any surface within.

        Legolas and Gimli joined Aragorn, and the trio, with Avon, stared into the time ship.

        "Take nothing that will interfere with the temporal functioning of the ship," Avon called after Vila.

        "I won't," came Vila's call.

        Tarrant grinned, flashing all those brilliant teeth. "If it vanishes before us, we'll know the reason why."

        "If you find that humorous..." Avon began, "I question your sense. On the other hand, I have always questioned it in any case."

        Tarrant laughed, but Faramir could hear no humor in the tone. He took no offense at Avon's words, though. Perhaps he was simply used to the sardonic tones.

        A gentle wind tugged at Faramir's hair, bearing with it the scent of spring blossoms. A fair day this was, with a sky as blue as Faramir had ever seen. It was said that, in the days before Sauron's power rose, that April and May could be the fairest months in Minas Tirith. Even under Sauron's sway, spring had been Faramir's season. Now he would love it forever more for it was in spring that Éowyn had returned his love. He looked at her brother, soon to be his as well, and Éomer nodded, as if he understood the moment.

        Both men sobered and turned their attention to the portal. Faramir could see Gandalf's back in the room with the flashing lights, and beyond him, Blake's shoulder and the back of his head. Then Blake vanished as if he had abruptly knelt or sat down.

        Gandalf did not react, so he had apparently not vanished into the future.

        Pippin came up beside Faramir and reached up to clasp at his wrist. "Gandalf will be safe," he said, and the way he looked up at Faramir proved he wished for reassurance. In his remote, rustic land, there must be nothing of this nature, either.

        "He will," Faramir agreed.

        The time passed slowly while the three remained within the vessel, but Faramir knew no more than several minutes had passed before they returned, Vila with a tiny cluster of devices in his hand, each one attached to a cord no wider than a thread, yet of a stiffer texture. "Here you go," he told Avon. "Vila the Brave strikes again."

        The corners of Avon's mouth quirked faintly, but he allowed no other reaction. "Removing tarial cells being such an impressive task. No doubt the balladeers here will sing songs of your courage." He tucked the small objects into his pocket.

        "Well, they will, then," Vila said, beaming, and then sang, "What ho for Vila, brave and bold, who eluded the Federation's hold..."

        "Please, Vila, I am a man of taste," Avon retorted.

        "Really?" Tarrant asked with heavy sarcasm.

        Before Avon could reply, Blake approached him. "Avon, I found the self-destruct," he said.

        Those words made the other three freeze. Even Vila grew expressionless. Gandalf displayed no surprise.

        "Self-destruct?" Aragorn repeated. "A means for the ship to destroy itself?"

        "Indeed," Avon replied. "No doubt in case its foray led it into such an impossible time there would be no other option."

        "There are options now," Gandalf said. "You four may use the device to return to your time. You may use it to visit a time not your own, as this time was not when you came. You may choose to turn away and leave the portal open."

        "Not if it means the Federation can find this world," Blake cried. Faramir was not surprised at that. Blake would naturally feel that way.

        "Or we could destroy the vessel and thus the portal between our world and here," Avon said, each word weighing as heavy as a stone.

        "Should you do that," Gandalf said, "you are still presented with two choices."

        "To do it here, or to do it there." Tarrant gazed into the portal. He had been a pilot of the ships that soared the skies like Eärendil the Mariner's ship Vingilot. Would he be content to be a ground-based soldier here? Or would he choose to return to his own time, even if he and his friends faced great danger there?

        "Yes," hissed Avon and he grew very stiff and rigid, his jaw so tightly clenched that its line was harsh. He looked at Blake. "Your rabble awaits you. Must you choose to return?"

        "This is a world without computers," Blake said in reply. They looked at each other as if they were gifted with the ability to see into each other's hearts and minds. Perhaps they were, for there existed a bond between them in spite of the bitterness and betrayal that had nearly brought them to doom. Vila hovered nearby but said nothing, and Tarrant, too, waited, although Faramir was certain he would not take their decision as his own unless he chose it for himself.

        Avon looked down at the seeing stone upon which his palm still rested. It flickered with its strange myriad lights that granted the power to hold open the portal. Did he sense Avon's feelings through the touch? Surely he was not a man who would welcome any to his innermost thoughts.

        "You would stay?" Avon asked after a long bout of staring.

        "You would stay?" Blake countered in identical tones, yet wonder shone in his eyes.

        "Nobody wants to kill us here," Vila said very quickly. "Well, except orcs of course, but they're probably all still running away. I say we blow it up and then Servalan will never find us again."

        "That's what you say, is it, Vila?" Avon asked, and he sounded utterly ominous.

        Vila edged over so that he was standing behind Gandalf, and peered at Avon over Mithrandir's shoulder. "That's what I'd say." His voice was very fast. "You hated it there. All of us did. They tried to kill us all the time, and nobody had any chance to live the way they wanted to. Even if this is different, people treat us with respect, even me, and they smile when they meet us. We're not on the top wanted list, and there's no Servalan here. Sauron's gone, and there's peace, and I like it here. So I'm staying, and I don't care what you great louts choose to do. So there."

        In the silence that followed Vila's astounding pronouncement, a new sound came, one utterly unexpected. Avon threw back his head and roared with laughter.

        At the sound, Blake's face lit in an utterly joyous smile. "Vila is right," he said. "We blow it up. That will keep the Federation from finding this place and exploiting it. I suspect, should we return, Servalan's propaganda would make life even more impossible for us than before."

        "You would surrender your cause?" Avon asked him, and his laughter had faded.

        "I have a new cause, Avon, a whole world to build in strength and freedom. I could never have done that at home, not without more resources than we would ever possess."

        "I confess astonishment to hear you admit it," Avon said.

        Tarrant stood nearby. "If you are believed dead, Blake," he said, "if the viscast of your death was shown to the inner and outer worlds, no matter how Servalan twists the tale, you will be a martyr there. She will strive to avoid such a reaction, but the more she strives, the more the oppressed will seize upon your name. You may yet triumph there, but for that to happen, you would need to stay dead."

        "Sense from Tarrant, and defiance from Vila," Avon murmured. "A strange day indeed. Very well. We set the self-destruct."

        "I did it already," Blake admitted and produced a device from his pocket. "This will trigger it. I merely waited to see what the rest of you would decide. Should you have chosen to return, you could have carried it with you and destroyed it when you left the ship in the wasteland."

        "Arrogant of you, Blake," Avon murmured, but he beckoned Blake over and plucked the small rectangle from Blake's hand to study it. Gandalf looked at it over his shoulder, and Aragorn leaned closer, but must have found it as incomprehensible as Faramir did.

        "Very well," said Avon at last. "There is one other matter."

        "What matter?" Blake asked, retrieving the device.

        "A basic one." He turned to Aragorn. "We high-handedly assume we would be welcome to stay here. We are not of this time. Perhaps they would prefer us to say, 'thank you,' nicely, and return where we came from."

        Vila's mouth dropped open. "They'd make us go home?" he asked in a very small voice.

        "No, I shall not send you there," Aragorn replied. "All of you have done your part for Middle-earth, and for Gondor, and have won the right to remain. The city has taken in many refugees after the battles and orc attacks. Yet you are not refugees. Avon will work with our archives and learn what he can of how to build a better future. Perhaps he can aid us in restoring some of the glory of Númenor. Blake has already offered to work as one of our councillors to aid in developing the peace. From his knowledge of a repressive, cruel government, he will know what to avoid. Tarrant I have made one of my captains, and so will he serve, should he choose it."

        "I have sworn my oath to you," Tarrant said formally.

        "And I have accepted it." He inclined his head to Tarrant, who bowed in return, his cloak swirling in the breeze.

        "As for Vila, who has served in the Houses of Healing, yet who would not choose that for all time, I say to you that I know you are in your heart a thief, and I have need of a thief, as all kings must. If you will serve me, Vila, I will find ways to use your talents, and will say nothing more of the golden coins you have concealed already."

        Vila's mouth dropped open comically. "How do you know about that?" he asked.

        "Vila!" Tarrant reproached.

        "No, fault him not. It is his nature," Aragorn said. "I am king, if not yet crowned, and I have ways of knowing what occurs in my kingdom. Vila, will you spy for me? For even in the peace, we shall have need of information, and that, I think, you can also steal."

        "I should have known," Vila complained bitterly. "It's right back to being in danger."

        Legolas laughed. "Fear not, Vila, for the peril will not be so great as you have known. Aragorn would willingly squander the lives of none, but neither would he squander talent. I have known him longer, I think, than you have lived, and so I swear to you that this is true."

        "Vila may choose his own life," Aragorn said. "But he must not steal from my people, for they have endured great hardship and have had much to bear. I will send you with the army, Vila, to Minas Morgul, and when they have determined no enemies lurk within, you will search it with your great gifts for long-concealed treasure."

        "Treasure?" Vila's face lit. "Gold and jewels?"

        "Precisely. Of which you may have a share as reward."

        "I'll do it," Vila said hastily, but the look he bestowed upon Aragorn was wary, as if he were convinced Aragorn was more perceptive than Avon and would perhaps read his mind.

        "Then all are agreed?" Gandalf asked. "The four of you would stay, and would see the portal closed for all time?"

        "We would," Blake said. "Avon, shall I?"

        "Yes, but the moment you press the button, Aragorn and I must loose our hold on the palantír, or the force of the explosion would affect it."

        "Should we fling it away?" Aragorn asked.

        Pippin and his friend Merry looked warily at the opening, and Gimli muttered under his breath and shifted from one booted foot to the other. The wind tugged at his beard and blew strands of it up into his face, and he brushed them down with a gloved hand.

        "No, but if we kneel, we can leave it on the ground," Avon replied. Together, they knelt to make it easier. Avon removed the tarial cells from his pocket and laid them upon a small stone.

        "Now, Blake," he said.

        Blake pushed the button, and the king and Avon pulled their hands from the stone. At once the portal faded, blurring away as if it would slowly become invisible without the force of the palantír. A second later, a muted rumble shook the ground beneath their feet, scarcely more than a tremor that ceased almost as soon as it had begun. Faramir had heard tell of the great blast of power at Helm's Deep that had driven a massive hole in the wall and offered the Uruk-hai entry. Was this of the same nature?

        The soldiers shifted uneasily, and here and there a horse whinnied. Pippin once again edged closer to Faramir, just as the fading remnant of the portal twisted and contorted, the walls warping and exploding in all directions. Someone shouted.

        Then, with a pop, so small and insignificant as to be absurd, the portal vanished entirely.

        "It's done," said Avon in a voice scarcely above a whisper, and repeated a bit more loudly, "It's done." He snatched up the tarial cells and rose. "Well, Blake, you have truly burned our bridges. No doubt in the years to come, we may all come to hate you for it."

        "Will you, Avon?" Blake asked. "How then does that differ from any time in our past?"

        "You are an annoying man, Blake. But then most people are annoying." He looked around. "I will exclude Gandalf from that description, for he is a wizard, and Merry, of course, is a hobbit." He smiled down upon Merry, one of his very rare smiles. An odd friendship indeed.

        "And of course Legolas and Gimli, as elf and dwarf, need also be excluded," Aragorn said. He had wrapped the palantír in its protective cloth and cradled it on the crook of his arm. "I also wonder if you would so name your king, Avon?"

        "I would not dare," Avon replied, and Faramir was surprised to hear the sudden humor in his voice. "We appear to be stranded here, for better or for worse, and I am not fool enough to alienate a king."

        Aragorn laughed in return. "Then it is well. We have blocked the threat of your Federation, and that makes today another victory for Gondor. Come, let us return to the White City, and may the trumpets ring out to welcome the four of you to your new home."

*****

        "Everybody will be able to see us," Pippin said with great enthusiasm. "I thought I'd be expected to wear my livery, but Aragorn says no. We should dress as hobbits because we are all four ambassadors to Gondor. Very important folk we are, all four of us." He beamed at his three friends as they put the finishing touches on their garb.

        Frodo smiled. Aragorn had come to him and said he had ordered a platform erected where the four hobbits would be able to see the coronation over the heads of the crowd. They were to dress in the garb of the Shire, and the tailors of Minas Tirith had seen they had new clothes, and the laundresses of the city had restored what could be restored of the old. At home, for a formal event, they would wear jackets, but it was a fine sunny day and there was no need of cloaks.

        He had no real wish to stand and be honored by the people, and had told Aragorn as much.

        "Fear not, Frodo, I will not single you out, but will honor all four of you. You would not deny your friends the honor."

        No, Frodo could not do that. Sam would think any honor was silly, and that he'd only done what he had to do. But then, Frodo now knew, that was all any could do. Even the great heroes of Middle-earth had only done what was needed in times of peril. And most of them, Frodo was certain, would rather, as Faramir had once said, have stayed at home in peace. Frodo wished with all his heart that he could have done so. Yet he would never deny his friends the honor; Aragorn was right.

        "Will they cheer us, do you think?" Pippin asked.

        "Do you want them to?" Merry countered.

        "Well...maybe only a little. Others were much braver than me, after all."

        A servant came. "The time draws near. I am to show you to where you will stand, my lord hobbits."

        Merry and Pippin exchanged grins at the title, but Sam only gave a snort and muttered that he was a gardener and not a lord. They set off in the servant's wake.

        It seemed that everyone in Gondor had come to the White City for the great day. Frodo had never seen so many garlands strung on the walls, the heady scent of thousands of flowers permeating the air, nor encountered so many jubilant people. Bouts of singing would break out here and there, the folk too joyful to hold it within. When he knew the words, Pippin would sing, too, prancing along, full of excitement and delight.

        "To think that Strider will be crowned today," Sam murmured. "I know I should call him King Aragorn now, but he still sometimes seems like Strider, even in his fancy robes. The way his eyes twinkle--now, that's Strider."

        "I'm glad Faramir will be a prince now," Pippin cried, elated. "Prince of Ithilien, Aragorn has named him. Wait till you see his fancy armor. He will stand with Éowyn during the coronation. It is a sign to all the folk of the union between Gondor and Rohan." He gave a little bounce. "Lots and lots of Elves have come, too. I think they are from Lothlórien and even Mirkwood, although Legolas's father is not here. So Legolas will wear a crown circlet as Prince of Mirkwood." He hesitated. "Do you think I should wear one? I am the son of the Thain and the Took, after all."

        Merry and Sam scoffed loudly, but Frodo smiled, for he knew Pippin had spoken in jest. "Silly you'd look in a crown," Merry told him. "You will make the folk of Gondor believe Hobbits are vain folk, and that will never do."

        "No, I won't, because they'll only have to look at Frodo to see how modest he is."

        The other three stared at Frodo, who smiled at them and ducked his head. To be constantly pointed out as the Ringbearer, to be ogled by the children, to be summoned by shopkeepers in the various stalls they passed and offered gifts because he had borne the One Ring bothered him. He deserved no great honors, yet he could not graciously refuse. Gandalf had urged him to smile and be pleasant, that soon enough they would return to the Shire, and Frodo longed for that day. To sit on a bench before Bag End and look down at the Party Tree, to see the happy hobbits going about their simple lives, to listen to the wind in the trees and see the fields and streams was a near ache in his heart. When he came home to the Shire, surely he would find peace there, and the dark of his memories would begin to fade.

        "Through here," the servant said, and led them up a narrow flight of stairs. Then it was to the ramp to the Citadel, already thronged with people.

        "Make way for the Ringbearer!" the servant cried out in the voice of a herald, and the crowd parted with eager exclamations to allow them through.

        As they wove their way through the crowd, Frodo saw Avon and Blake, two of the men who had come from the future. He had met them only once, briefly, but Blake had been kind, and full of dreams for the future. Avon had been cooler, harder to know, and Frodo had almost feared him, but when he saw them, they were speaking together in the peaceful way of friends, and his heart eased. Avon's cloak was black and flowing, with patterns of silver thread in its borders. Blake wore green and brown. When he saw the hobbits, Blake bowed to them. From the slight awkwardness of the gesture, Frodo realized that the custom must be unknown in the future.

        Merry darted over to speak to Avon and the other three followed. "You look fine today. Are you glad to be here? Isn't this a wonderful moment?"

        Avon lifted one eyebrow. "It is certainly a crowded one," he said drily. "No fancy garb for you?"

        "We are dressed the way we are at home," Merry explained. "We represent the Shire, and Aragorn said Pippin and I should not wear our livery today."

        "You will do well as you are," Avon said. "If you see Vila among the crowd, mention to him that Aragorn has forbidden him to pick any pockets."

        "Would he do so?" Sam asked, eyes wide.

        "As readily as breathing."

        "He has given his word," Blake said with a twinkle. "Although one can never tell with Vila. He is happy to be here, though."

        "That's good," said Pippin brightly. "I am, too. We will go home to the Shire soon, though, and we're glad." He looked up at the pair with earnest eyes. "I know you chose to be here. I hope it becomes home for you. At least all four of you have stayed. I know how hard it is to be alone, apart from your friends, because I was apart from these three for a space during the times of the war."

        "Shall we console ourselves with the presence of Vila and Tarrant?" Avon asked Blake.

        Blake laughed. "You would be lost without Vila to trail about after you and Tarrant to challenge you."

        "And you to expect great things from me?" Avon asked. "Well, yes, I must then be a most fortunate man."

        Even though he sounded wry and cynical, Frodo saw there was humor in him. Maybe most people would see the cynic, but Frodo saw more within him.

        "So you are," he said.

        Avon looked down at him. "Do you speak as the Ringbearer?" he asked, and there was an almost urgent tone to the question. Had he ever been truly happy? Frodo saw the birthing of happiness in the way he awaited the answer, and the way he seemed almost unconsciously aware of the presence of Blake at his side.

        Frodo had that with Sam, the knowledge that his friend would stand by him even through the most terrible darkness. He beamed at Sam, who gave a ready smile in return. Then Frodo looked up at Avon. "Yes," he said. "I speak as the Ringbearer. Allow yourself to find happiness, Avon, for it is waiting for you."

        The servant urged them on then, and Merry said a hasty goodbye to Avon. Frodo looked over his shoulder and saw the dark man staring after him with a touch of wonder in his eyes.

*****

        And thus it was that on the first day of May in the year 3019 of the Third Age, Aragorn Elessar, of the house of Telcontar, Dúnadan, Isildur's heir, was crowned king of Gondor and of Arnor in the North. Gimli bore the crown and Gandalf set it upon his head. "Now come the days of the King," he cried out for all to hear. How he had longed for this moment. He had spent so many years traveling Middle-earth, working for the downfall of Sauron, and struggling these last years to see Aragorn to this very place. Rich with contentment and fulfilment, Gandalf looked down upon the cheering throng as Aragorn spoke to the people and then sang the very words Elendil had spoken when he came from drowned Númenor.

        Watching Aragorn descend the stairs and go among his people warmed the wizard's heart. There he greeted Faramir and Éowyn. Blessings upon the pair of them. Faramir had long looked to Gandalf as his mentor, and had become as a surrogate son to the wizard, as had Frodo, and even Aragorn himself. To see Faramir and Aragorn content together and developing a friendship, to see Faramir so glad of his king, was another joy on this day of great joys.

        Aragorn acknowledged Éomer King as well. Those two were firm allies now, and that was as it should be, Gondor and Rohan standing side by side as they had done since the days of Cirion and Eorl.

        Legolas came next, and Gandalf beamed down at him and Aragorn as they greeted each other with a hand to the other's shoulder. Through their longstanding friendship, and the ties that bound Aragorn to Rivendell, men and elves would unite in the days remaining before the last of the firstborn of Ilúvatar took the Ships into the West.

        And there came Arwen Undomiel, urged onward by Elrond of Rivendell, to be swept up into Aragorn's arms and into his heart. So it would be that he would know the joy of Arwen at his side during the long years of his kingship. Gandalf smiled into his mustache, and heard a sound of contentment from Gimli, who stood at his side. After all he had risked and endured for the sake of Middle-earth, Aragorn deserved this reward. The joy on the faces of the lovers evoked cheers from the people of the White City.

        Then the hobbits, as Aragorn led Arwen to face them. When they hastily bowed to the king, Aragorn held up his hand. "My friends. You bow to no one," and he and Arwen knelt before the hobbits.

        Ah, it was no more than they deserved. Frodo, no seeker of glory, endured for the sake of his friends, but Gandalf was glad in his heart to see the people value him and the others. There stood Peregrin Took, grinning around, and he even waved to Gandalf over the heads of the crowd. Ah, he was a fine and irreverent one, but with a kind heart and the slow dawn of wisdom. When he became the Thain in the fullness of time, he would serve the Shire well.

        As for Frodo, shadows still hovered over him. His Morgul wound would never heal, but there in the fair green Shire, it might ease, as might his other hurts. Gandalf would watch over him as well as he could in his remaining time in Middle-earth.

        The four men from the future attended the coronation, too. Tarrant, in his gleaming armor, wore the helmet he hated because it was his duty. He would serve well, for he had sworn allegiance, and Gandalf believed he would honor his oath. Vila wore a splendid cloak and preened himself, as well as smiling engagingly at every pretty woman he saw. He had started a rather scruffy beard, but as many of the soldiers did the same, he did not look unnatural with it. Blake, too, had begun a beard, but Avon had chosen to remain clean-shaven.

        Those two, Blake and Avon, were perhaps a puzzle to many, but not so to Gandalf, who saw more of men's hearts than he ever revealed. There they stood, side by side, dreamer and cynic, idealistic and scornful, yet perfectly content to stand together, even if they would often fault each other's views. Perhaps it was only sense that an idealist such as Blake needed someone wary and suspicious at his side to balance him. Here, rid of the threats and mistrusts of the past, their friendship might yet grow into a saga worthy of great tales. Gandalf hoped it would. Their choice to remain here had protected Middle-earth from a threat not even Gandalf had imagined. Had the Valar known of this and sung it into the great song of creation? Was it their will Gandalf stand present at that moment? He knew not, and perhaps it did not even matter.

        No, indeed, it did not. What mattered at this moment was that all who gathered here shared freedom, freedom from the dark threat of Mordor. New darkness would no doubt arise in the future, and the world of men must face it without the protection of this old wizard or of the elves, but Aragorn was strong. His allies were many, and his friends were legion. Gandalf let his eyes travel over those he had singled out in his heart. There went Gimli down the steps to speak to Legolas, who draped an arm around the dwarvish shoulder and proceeded to introduce him proudly to the elves of Mirkwood. Ah, it would be intriguing indeed to hear that conversation, and even more so to hover unseen over both Thranduil and Gloín when Elf King and Dwarf Lord learned their sons had formed a bond of brotherhood unknown until now between the races.

        Gandalf looked at Avon and Blake, who were speaking to the warden of the city and Prince Imrahil, Faramir's uncle. If elf and dwarf could ally, against all that had gone before, then surely even Avon and Blake could find peace.

        Might it be so. Might it be so for all the free peoples of Middle-earth.

        Smiling to himself, Gandalf made his way down the stairs to join the cheering throng.



1 Paraphrased from The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien



Return to Main