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Chance Encounter  by Dreamflower



It was only two days after the coronation, and the streets of Minas Tirith were still filled with the joyous sounds of celebration. On almost any corner could be found a small crowd, listening to minstrels, bards, troubadours and street buskers. This was not including the jugglers, dancers, sleight-of-hand artists, jesters, tumblers, and mimes. All those folk whose livelihood was in making people smile and offering up a bit of joy who had for many years been unwelcome as a distraction, were now pouring into the White City of the returned King.

This made taking a walk with Pippin frustrating, thought Merry, as his cousin constantly was lingering behind every time they passed a group of musicians.

"Pippin! Come on!" Merry tugged at his elbow. "We're going to lose Faramir and Éowyn!"

Pippin came away reluctantly at first, head turned, ears straining to catch the sounds of the music, but then both hobbits had to trot to catch up to their friends.

Faramir and Éowyn had paused when they realized the hobbits were not at their heels. Again. The Steward had an errand with some merchants on the third level. Rather than summon them up to him at the Citadel, he had used it as an excuse to go out into the lovely spring weather, and invite Éowyn to come with him. Since he had found Merry and Pippin in her company, it had seemed only polite to ask them to come along as well. It was a good thing the errand was not an urgent one, he thought with some amusement. The young Knight of Gondor could not be hurried whenever he heard music.

Pippin caught up to his big friend's side, and immediately began to bombard him with questions. "Faramir, did you hear them? What was that instrument, do you know? Do you suppose it's hard to play? It's not at all like a fiddle, for all it's played with a bow--"

"Peace, Pippin!" Faramir laughed. "One question at a time--" and he began to answer Pippin's questions as best he could. He had a certain interest in music himself, but he was not nearly so knowledgeable as the hobbit would have liked.

Éowyn looked down at Merry. "Holdwine, is your cousin always so easily distracted?"

Merry rolled his eyes. "My lady, you've no idea!" He glanced at the street into which they had just turned, and breathed a sigh of relief. No musicians in sight. Maybe they could go more than twenty feet without stopping.

The four friends walked companionably enough, the larger couple strolling, the smaller ones walking briskly to keep up. Faramir and Éowyn mostly listened. They were amused to listen to Pippin's chatter, punctuated by Merry's wry asides. Suddenly Pippin fell silent, ears twitching. "Merry did you hear that?"

Merry's hand shot out as soon as Pippin had tensed, but he was foiled by the fact that Pippin was in livery and had no convenient collar. His hand closed on empty air, as Pippin was off like one of Gandalf's rockets down a side street.

With an apologetic glance at his two remaining companions, Merry darted after his cousin.

Faramir and Éowyn exchanged a wry look, and trotted off in the same direction.

"She hardly believed her fiery eyes
For though it was day to her surprise,
They all went back to bed!"*

As the last notes died away the minstrel took a bow to laughter and applause. He placed his small harp upon the ground next to his hat, where already a few listeners had tossed coins. But he had hardly raised his head when he was propelled backwards by a small body slamming into him, his name called out in joy.



The young hobbit suddenly found himself lifted up and whirled around madly.

The crowd murmured excitedly at this, as Merry, Faramir and Éowyn arrived.

But suddenly the minstrel set him down and knelt before him. "I beg your pardon, Sir Peregrin, for being so familiar."

Pippin's face fell, and a look of distress came into his green eyes.
"Menelcar, please don't do that to me. You are supposed to be my friend!"

The minstrel smiled, though he did not rise. "Very well--Pippin."

Pippin glanced over his friend's shoulder. "Menelcar, you remember my cousin Merry? And this is--"

Menelcar rose with practiced grace, turned and bowed. "My Lord Steward, my Lady of Rohan, it is an honor. Sir Meriadoc, it is good to see you again."

Merry grinned. "If he's Pippin, I'm Merry, and you know it!" He reached over to give the man his own hug.

Faramir smiled. "Master Menelcar, I see we witness the meeting of old friends here. But it seems you have the advantage of us." He glanced at Éowyn's amused face.

Pippin said nothing. There was a speculative look in his eyes.

Merry said, "This is Menelcar the minstrel. Pippin was once almost his apprentice." Merry grinned in anticipation of telling the story.

But Pippin was looking at the musician with an expression of betrayal.
"Menelcar--" he said quietly, "--you've known we were here in the City all along, haven't you?"

Menelcar looked puzzled at the change in Pippin's demeanor, but before he could respond, Faramir said "One moment," and cast a glance at the minstrel's audience, who were staring rather avidly at them.

Putting a bit of steel into his voice, he said, "Good people, the minstrel's fine show has ended. I suggest you all go on about your own business now." He accompanied this with a small smile on his lips and a stony glare in his eyes.

There were folk in the crowd who were quickly minded that this was Denethor's son, and however the King might rule, this was still the Steward. Fairly quickly the watchers were dispersed.

Éowyn was surprised. Faramir was constantly showing her new aspects to his personality. He was so gentle most of the time that she found herself forgetting he was a soldier and a captain, and used to command. She was pleased to see this side of him.

Faramir glanced down at Merry and Pippin. Merry was looking somewhat speculative himself now.

"Perhaps we can find somewhere to sit, have a bit to eat and drink, and talk together." One thing he had soon learned of his small friends was that any suggestion of food and drink would not be taken amiss. His errand could wait another day. King Elessar had made it clear that anything to do with the pheriannath had priority over everything else.

Merry nodded. "There's a place called The Golden Cockerel just a street over from here."

"Yes," said Pippin shaken from his reverie. "Yes, there is. I hear they make a lovely chicken pie."

Faramir chuckled. "So there is. And so they do. How do you know this?"

Pippin grinned. "We asked some of the Men in the Third Company about the best eating places, of course, now that they are once more open! Targon recommended this place highly."

"I should have realized," said the Steward. "Master Menelcar, would you care to accompany us to The Golden Cockerel?"

It was not really a question, and the minstrel knew it. "I should be glad to do so, my lord," he answered. Menelcar gathered up his hat and his harp to follow after the Steward, Pippin and Merry trotting by his side.

The Golden Cockerel had tables outside in the courtyard, and the small party seated themselves at one. It was early for regular custom, but it was about the right time of day for what the hobbits called elevenses. Merry went in and placed their order, and came back to sit next to Éowyn.

"The innkeeper will bring the food and drink out to us in a few moments." He blushed. "He says it is on the house."

Pippin rolled his eyes. "We'll never spend a copper of that nice money we've been gifted by our kings--" he grinned at Faramir “and so forth..” Faramir chuckled at his cheek, for he too had given Pippin a gift of coin for his knighting.

The two hobbits noticed the amusement on the faces of their companions.
"It's embarrassing," said Merry. "No one wants us to pay for anything."

"It started even before we left Ithilien," grumbled Pippin. "Remember that ale tent someone had set up as a sort of tavern? We wanted to buy a round of drinks, and no one would let us."

"And there was that, er, cobbler," Merry hesitated slightly at the unfamiliar term, "who had his stall near the barber, who wanted to give all of us shoes, silly Man. He really offended Sam, though Frodo thought it funny." Merry shook his head. "You'd think they would *want* to make a little money."

Faramir laughed. "They are well recompensed even so, Merry. Do you not know that the innkeeper will be boasting that he had the custom of the two of you? It will bring him far more business than what he loses on one meal."

"I suppose," said Pippin glumly. He looked up at Menelcar. "You knew we were here, obviously. And you've been here long enough to know all about our knightings and everything. So why have you not come to see me?" He looked at the minstrel with hurt in his eyes.

Menelcar shook his head. "It's not that simple, Pippin. You are among the great of the kingdom, of all the Western lands, now, and high in favor with the new King. I could not simply walk up to the Citadel and demand to see you on the strength of our old acquaintance. I would have been laughed out of the City, and never come near you."

Pippin and Merry looked astounded.

Faramir nodded. "It is the other side of the coin to what I was telling you about the innkeeper--speaking of which here is our meal." His own eyes grew wide at the approach of the hostler and a serving maid, each bearing a laden tray. Merry had apparently ordered a *whole* chicken pie for each member of the party, as well as two pitchers of ale. But since two of the party were hobbits, he did not expect there would be any leftovers in spite of that. He waited until the food and drink had been placed before them and they were once more alone before continuing. "There are many who would be glad to take advantage of your renown. We have turned several scoundrels away, who have presented themselves at the Citadel on the pretext of already knowing you, and hoping to make some gain thereby."

He did not see fit to mention the several young ladies who had also done the same, apparently infatuated with the small warriors, or with the Ringbearers. It seemed a bit perverse to the Steward, and he thought his companions would be appalled if they knew.

Éowyn suppressed a grin. She had also been aware of what her betrothed had failed to mention. But knowing Merry, she did not think the hobbits would have been upset--more likely smug would have been the better word.

Menelcar nodded. "So you see, Pippin, why I did not try to look you up. I hoped our paths might cross, but I did not really expect them to, and certainly not so soon after your return. You and your friends are far beyond my station now."

Pippin had just taken a sip of ale, and very nearly spluttered it out again at that statement. "Menelcar, that's just daft! 'beyond your station'!" He shook his head. "So, how did you know it was us?"

"Oh, I knew who it had to be as soon as I heard of the four pheriannath who had come to save us. I was not a bit surprised when I finally heard your names. After all, who else besides Pippin Took would have ventured so far from the Shire? And of course your cousins were with you. I was a bit puzzled at first about the fourth, when I remembered Sam."

Having just taken a bite of the really rather delicious chicken pie, Éowyn took a sip of ale to wash it down, and asked, "What I would really like to know, Master Menelcar, is how you came to know our holbytlan and why Meriadoc says that Peregrin was nearly your apprentice?"

"Ah, my lady, now that is a story. About four years ago, I found myself in the Shire--"


On the fourth level of the City there was a quiet bustle of activity. The shops here belonged to the more affluent merchants of luxury goods. They had been emptied of their stock and boarded up months before, as their owners had taken themselves and their goods out of harm's way. There had been very little damage this high up and now that the King had returned, the craftsmen and shopkeepers were returning as well. Hopes were high that there would now be a demand for silks and jewels and other such fripperies since there was a court with courtiers who wished to impress. Speculation as to that could be heard in some of the conversation audible to passers by.

Legolas shook his head, amused. "These folk are in for a surprise if they think that their new King is going to be impressed by fancy clothing and elaborate jewelry."

Gimli chuckled. "They'll soon learn. But there will be even more of a surprise when they open for business and discover that the merchants one level down can demand higher prices for more useful goods than they can for all their fol-de-rol."

The Elf nodded. "There was more damage done there. But the stores of food, practical clothing and medicines are now far more valuable than silks and gems." He glanced about. "Speaking of 'open for business' are you sure that this instrument maker you were telling me of has opened his doors?"

"Aye. I am certain. He, at least is doing a bit of business. Lord Denethor did not encourage the bards in his day, but now there is quite a demand for them."

"And how do you come to know this?" asked Legolas, as curious as a hobbit.

"Ah, we Dwarves have our ways." Gimli hid a smile under his beard. Indeed he'd been quite lucky to run into an old acquaintance, Girion of Dale, a clockmaker who'd apprenticed among the Dwarves at the Lonely Mountain. Gimli had come upon him as he had returned from his refuge in Lossarnach, and a bit of conversation had served to let the Dwarf know which of the merchant’s neighbors had also returned and begun to open their shops.

He stopped. "Here we are."

There was no sign up as yet, and there were laborers still removing boards from some of the windows, but the door did indeed stand open.

The shop owner was giving direction to one of his assistants, but his eyes went wide as he looked up to see who had entered the shop. An Elf. And a Dwarf. He knew instantly that these were two of the Nine Walkers, high in favor with the new King.

"My lords!" He bowed obsequiously. "How may I serve you?"

Legolas cast an expert eye around the room at the various musical instruments. "I have in mind to make a gift. But the instrument will need to be of a size for a child."
*Taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter IX, “At the Inn of the Prancing Pony”


Faramir sat back after hearing Menelcar's and Pippin's account of how the young hobbit had very nearly run off with Menelcar to become his apprentice.

"If it hadn't been for good old Frodo, I would have made a dreadful mistake, and got poor Menelcar into all sorts of troubles."

"Yes," said Menelcar, "I was very grateful to Master Frodo for sparing me the Thain's wrath. My lord, this devious lad led me to believe he was of age. Of course a good deal of it was my own ignorance of hobbits. I did not realize that they do not come of age until thirty-three."

Merry looked at Pippin. "You know, Pip, you never did tell me how Uncle Paladin reacted after you got home. I expected you to be confined to your room for months."

Pippin shook his head. "By the time I got home from Buckland, his anger had cooled a bit. And I have no idea what Frodo told him, but all he did was have a long talk with me, and explain a few things that I hadn't known before. He did caution me about being so quick to take up with strangers, but that was about all."

Merry looked at him skeptically. "Are we talking about the same Paladin Took--your father, my uncle, my mother's brother? The one with the legendary temper?"

Pippin nodded. "That's so. If you recall, we'd been getting on a good deal better after that than we had since I turned twenty." His face clouded. "I hate to think, though, what he thought of my leaving the Shire the way I did. I'm afraid you and Frodo will get the rough edge of his tongue when we return."

Merry sighed, and the two of them looked a bit wistful. Faramir thought that they might very well be glad of a tongue-lashing, if they could only go home. The Steward looked at the minstrel, who had been listening to the exchange with a good deal of interest.

"Master Menelcar, you said you had been away from the White City for more than twenty years. What brought you to return?"

Menelcar drew out his pipe, and looked a question at his companions. Faramir and Éowyn nodded, and Merry and Pippin grinned and took their own out. They lit up, watched with resignation by the Steward, and fascination by Éowyn. She was intrigued by this smoking business. And there was something about the minstrel that tugged at her memory...

Pipes lit, the bard sent up a puff of smoke as he began to speak. "In a way, I have you to thank, Pippin, for my homecoming. My time with you in the Shire made me think of my own family as I had not in many years. I found myself wishing to see them once more. I had been barely older in Men's reckoning of age than you were by hobbits' when I left them. I was sure they had been glad to be rid of someone so useless as I thought I was then. But after meeting you I began to realize that perhaps my ideas at that age were not so true as I had believed then." He stopped a moment to look at the perfect smoke rings his small companions made. Now *that* was something he'd not yet mastered.

"So, anyway, I slowly made my way South, and glad I am that I did. I arrived not long after the Enemy had retaken Osgiliath, and found that my older brother, a soldier, had perished there. My sister had wed some years before, and removed to Belfalas, and my parents were alone, my father, ill. I was able to take my parents to my sister's home, and I stayed with them there to the end of my father's days." Menelcar's eyes had grown misty. "Excuse me," he said, taking out a handkerchief and blowing his nose. Pippin put a sympathetic hand on his friend's arm.

"They had thought me dead, you see," he continued. "lo, these many years. I was glad to have made them happy by my return. My mother has remained with my sister and her family." He smiled. "I have a bonny niece and a sturdy nephew, who was named after me."

Merry and Pippin exchanged a rueful look. It was quite possible their own families thought them dead. And Pippin missed his little nieces fiercely.

"After the Enemy was overthrown, and I began to hear the tales circulating about the four halflings who had come to Gondor's aid, I knew who they must be. Hearing a friend of mine, another bard, sing to me of 'Frodo of the Nine-Fingers' only confirmed what I suspected, so I came back to the White City in hopes of perhaps encountering you."


"I agree that it is not the kind of quality one would like to see in an instrument, Legolas," said the Dwarf as they exited the shop. "But it was the only child-sized fiddle to be found in his stock."

Legolas shrugged, and shifted the package he carried. "I realize that. I just wish that I'd the time to find something better."

"Why did you not tell the merchant who it was for? Or better yet, why did Pippin not make the purchase himself? The shop owner would have bent himself over backwards to find something better."

"Pippin had two reasons: first of all, he wanted to pay for it. You know that if he had come himself the merchant would have tried to give it to him. And secondly, he does not wish for Sam to find out."

Gimli nodded. "Ah, yes." He grinned.

"And *I* had a reason, most especially, for not saying anything. I am heartily tired of the way these Men take advantage of our small friends' renown under the guise of gratitude." The Elf made a disgusted sound. "Last evening I passed by an eating house on the third level. There were actually people standing in a line to get in, and I overheard some of them talking. Seems word had got out that the Ernil i Pheriannath and his cousin, the Knight of Rohan, had taken their luncheon there."

Gimli chuckled. "You cannot blame a merchant for trying to make a profit. It would be like blaming a fish for swimming or a bird for flying, Master Elf."

Legolas sniffed. "I find it offensive. Our friends have been through enough. They do not need to be used that way. Merry and Pippin seem somewhat oblivious to it--they do not seem to understand the motives behind all the so-called generosity. But I can tell that it truly distresses Frodo and Sam."

Gimli's expression sobered. "A good deal distresses Frodo, especially gestures of gratitude. I am afraid his pain over what occurred at the Mountain is deeper than he would let anyone know."

Legolas just nodded. So far, only the Fellowship *truly* knew all that had happened. And only the King and Gandalf ever spoke to the Ringbearer of it.

King Elessar dismissed the waiting courtiers and councilors. He had spent a good many hours that morning listening to them say as close to nothing as they could, while trying to guess his own mind on the various matters, so that they could agree with him. They had spent decades under Denethor, who brooked no opposition, and had no idea of how to simply speak their minds. He strode from the throne room, giving a dismissive wave to the Guardsmen who waited, and headed for the small room he had outfitted as an informal study. With a sigh, he closed the door and doffed the crown and mantle, placing them on a nearby table, and collapsed into the chair that stood behind the large oak worktable he used as a desk.

"Aragorn? Are you all right?"

Aragorn started. He had not seen Frodo sitting in one of the other chairs near the bookshelves. The hobbit had been completely hidden by its back.

"I must already be losing my abilities as a Ranger," he said ruefully. "I had no idea you were in here, Frodo."

"I'm sorry. You are tired and wish to be alone. I'll leave now." Frodo stood and began to place the book he had been reading carefully back onto the shelf.

"No. No, I am never too tired to visit with my friends, Frodo. It's having to deal with those who are *not* my friends, but would have me think them so, that is so wearying. The Dúnadain of the North are not afraid to speak their minds to their Chief, but these men of the City--they have spent too many years fearing to say what they really believe."

"I have heard stories of the Steward. Pippin had much to say of Denethor, and none of it flattering."

"He was once a wise and noble man," said Aragorn.

"That's what Gandalf said as well. And I am certainly no one to judge anyone else for falling prey to the Enemy's powers."

Aragorn gave him a sharp look. "If not you, then no one," he said flatly.

Frodo flushed, but he did not wish to argue his own shortcomings with his friend, so he merely said mildly, "Then it is no one." He sighed. "I did wish to talk to you, but it seems so trivial now--"

"Nothing you have to say to me is trivial, Frodo."

"The plans for Sam are coming along nicely. I wondered if you were still of a mind to help us with it?"

"Are you certain this is something Samwise will like?"

Frodo grinned. "What he'd like is for no one to take any notice at all. But once he's seen what we've done, he'll enjoy himself."

Aragorn smiled and nodded. This was going to be fun for a change, a break from war and grim duty and boring courtiers.

"Menelcar, you've *got* to come back to the Citadel with us," Pippin said earnestly. "I know Frodo and Sam would love to see you again! And you can meet Gandalf and Strider--I mean, King Elessar--and--" Pippin's enthusiasm scarcely left him time to take a breath.

Merry put his hand on his cousin's arm. "Oi, Pip, slow down. Menelcar might have other plans for the day. Let him get a word in edgewise."

Faramir was watching with a neutral expression on his face that was not lost on the minstrel. Menelcar knew the Steward would be protective of the hobbits, and worried about them being taken advantage of. He was less able to read the expression on Lady Éowyn's face. Still, he was not going to lose his chance to spend some time with his old friends. "That is quite all right, Merry. I had no plans beyond singing on the street corners, and I had made very nearly enough coin to finish for the day."

"Where have you been staying, Master Menelcar?" Faramir asked, leaning forward.

"My parent's old home on the second level is more or less still standing. That is to say, only half of it was destroyed in the siege, and the part that is left has a roof. It is better accommodation than I have had on the road from time to time."

Pippin laughed. "I believe you, Menelcar! But do you know, when we first met, and I asked you about travelling with you, and you told me 'the road is long and the way is hard', I thought you were simply being poetical. I know now what you meant. When I think back on it, I realize I would have made a dreadful apprentice!"

Menelcar grinned at him fondly, and laughed. Oh, how that Took lad had charmed him. "You may have made a dreadful apprentice, but I am still of a mind that you would have made a mighty bard!"

Faramir stood. "If we are to return to the Citadel, perhaps we should do so now. If we stay here much longer, the custom for luncheon will begin to come in, and we may find ourselves the center of attention again."

"But what of your errand, Faramir?" asked Pippin, belatedly realizing that his reunion with his old friend had interrupted the Steward's business.

"It can wait until the morrow." He gave his hand to Éowyn, who gracefully rose. She gave another puzzled glance at the minstrel. Soon she would remember.

The five of them left, after Faramir firmly pressed payment on the reluctant innkeeper. He did not ask him to forego speaking of their presence. It would have been in vain anyway.

He had spoken to the King about the notoriety surrounding the hobbits. Aragorn, however, seemed to see the people of Gondor's reactions as simple gratitude for what the four of them had accomplished, and for the most part that was true. But there were more than a handful who had baser motives. Still, it did not look as though Menelcar were one of those. Pippin and Merry did, indeed, know him from before the hobbits had left the Shire.

He and Éowyn were walking side by side, the backs of their hands barely touching. Glancing at her thoughtful face, he said, "My lady, you are very quiet."

She sent a smile in his direction. "The minstrel. He seems a bit familiar to me."

Faramir's eyebrows arched. That was the last thing he had expected her to say. At his curious look, she shook her head. "No, I do not recall, but I will."

More intrigued than before, he glanced ahead at the minstrel and the two hobbits walking in front of them and talking animatedly. Pippin was limping noticeably. His knee must be bothering him; it was the one injury that seemed to still plague him from time to time when he was tired. Faramir noticed that not only did Merry move a bit closer to his cousin, but that Menelcar gave the young hobbit a distressed look. It was truly the notice of a good friend, and it made Faramir thaw a bit more towards the minstrel.

Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, were filling Menelcar in on the Quest from a hobbit's point of view. Menelcar had laughed at their account of the storming of Isengard. "I find your account easier to believe than what I had previously heard. You realize that one of the songs says that two small wizards cast a spell, causing a huge forest to grow up overnight and overwhelm Saruman's tower, and then they cast another spell that turned him into a tree himself?"

Pippin burst out with a guffaw, and Merry rolled his eyes.

"And then there are a number of songs going around about the Ernil I Pheriannath. Did you hear the one about how the Prince of Halflings lit the beacon?"

Now it was Merry's turn to guffaw at the expression on his cousin's face.

"Thunder!" Pippin swore, and then clapped a hand on his mouth and cast a guilty glance behind them. "People don't really *believe* that, do they? I mean, the beacons were lit long before Gandalf and I even entered the City!"

Menelcar laughed and shrugged. "People will believe whatever makes a good story, Pippin! You know as well as I do that the most entertaining songs are not always the most truthful ones."

Merry nodded. "Even old Cousin Bilbo admitted that he dressed up his stories so they were funnier, and not so scary to tell the children."

Pippin stopped and stared at Merry. "Cousin Bilbo? But--" he shook his head in denial, yet he had to admit to himself that he had already realized his oldest cousin's adventure must not have been so tame as he had always made it sound. He must remember to ask Bilbo about that when he saw him again.

"Well, Samwise Gamgee, what do you think of it?" Gandalf gestured with his head at the courtyard about him.

"This is *your* house, sir?" Sam looked around with interest.

"No, it does not belong to me. But it was set aside for my use during the days of Ecthelion. It is a guesthouse belonging to the King."

Sam looked at the empty planters and the dry fountain. There were a couple of trees, looked like they could use a pruning. His hands itched to get at this small excuse for a garden. He glanced dubiously at the house. It was a good three storeys, of that cold white marble that everything around here seemed to be made of. It was most definitely a house of the Big Folk, and not meant for hobbits.

Gandalf smiled as he saw the thoughts flitting across Sam's broad face. "Do not worry, Sam; neither you nor the other hobbits would be asked to stay in an upstairs chamber. I know that is one of the things that frets you in the Citadel. Here we have set aside a chamber at ground level, and the King and the Steward have ordered the legs on the furniture cut down."

"What's Mr. Frodo have to say about this idea?" Sam asked.

"I showed him the place yesterday evening. He thinks that it is a splendid idea. I do not think he is any happier in the Citadel than you are."

Gandalf led the way across the courtyard to a set of wide double doors set with large windows, and threw them open to show a large chamber. In it were a couple of chests, four chairs with the legs shortened, and a perfectly huge bed, with the legs also cut down.

"Faramir originally ordered four small beds to replace this one, but Aragorn felt that with the difficulties you all are having sleeping, that this might be more comfortable. You can be there to comfort one another without crowding."

"Mr. Gandalf, sir, eight hobbits wouldn't be crowded in that big bed!"

The Wizard smiled. "Probably not, Sam."

Sam followed curiously, as Gandalf led him from the bedchamber. "What's the kitchen like, then?"

They went down a short hallway to the other side of the house. The kitchen was huge, and well appointed, and in addition to the large worktable in the center of the room, there was a table and chairs of hobbit-sized proportions. Frodo had instantly guessed that those had once stood in a noble nursery, Boromir's and Faramir's, in fact, but the thought did not occur to Sam.

"A complete set of cooking tools, pots, pans and dishes made to hobbit-size have been ordered, and I am told, will be ready in just a day or two."

Gandalf looked down at Sam, and was surprised to see him dashing away tears with an angry hand.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I was just minded of my old pots and pans--all gone down a crack in the Black Land, and maybe covered up forever by ashes and fiery rocks--" There was a catch in his voice, and he shook his head sadly.

The Wizard lay a sympathetic hand on Sam's head, but answered him lightly and briskly in hobbit-fashion, "Well, Sam, it is a shame, but I daresay it was necessary."

"Aye, it was needful." He gave a little sniff, and said, "Well, listen at me going on like a ninnyhammer. My old gaffer always said, 'the heart don't grieve on what the mind don't think on' and 'least said, soonest mended'."

Gandalf sighed. Like many a rustic, the Gaffer was a font of pithy sayings, most of them wise, but a good many of them utter nonsense. "Well, Samwise, does this dwelling meet with your approval?"

"You say we're all to come here, 'cept for Strider, who has to stay up there and be King, poor Man. Well, what do the others think?"

"Legolas and Gimli have been down here, and are in agreement on it. Meriadoc and Peregrin are quite content to follow Frodo's wishes in the matter."

Sam glanced up shrewdly. "And you know I am that glad to go along with whatever Mr. Frodo wants, too. So why are you showing me about today?"

"Because Frodo expressly asked for your opinion, Samwise Gamgee." He did not also mention that Frodo had asked him to get Sam out of the way, so that Frodo could make some plans.

"Well, if Mr. Frodo likes the idea, so do I." Sam blushed before continuing. "But I like the idea right fine on my own account, too. It's still a fair way up, here, but it don't feel so. That room up there--" he jerked his head in the general direction of the Citadel "--it's like being perched like a bird. No way for a hobbit to live."

Gandalf laughed. "If you say so, Samwise!"

Sam looked at Gandalf in wonder. The Wizard laughed so much more than he used to, and his laughter now reminded Sam of Elves, the way it lifted the heart to hear.

They approached the Citadel not by way of the Court of the White Tree, but on the side where there was a smaller private entrance. This time of day, only one Guard stood there.

Ignoring the pain in his knee, Pippin darted up the steps ahead of his companions. "Hullo, Borondir!"

The Guard's eyes twinkled at the sight of his small comrade-in-arms, but he was on duty, and so contented himself with a nod and a formal address. "Sir Peregrin." He glanced up as the rest of the party approached. "My Lord Steward, my Lady of Rohan, Sir Meriadoc." He cast a quizzical look at the fifth member of the party.

"Borondir, this is my good friend, Master Menelcar the minstrel. You must let everyone know that if he comes to see me, he should be allowed to come in." Pippin's open face was full of excitement.

Borondir's eyes flew briefly to the Steward's face, and at Faramir's slight nod, he said, "Certainly, Sir Peregrin." He looked at the minstrel carefully, imprinting his description in his mind. "Master Menelcar." He gave another nod of greeting.

Merry spoke up. "Have you seen any of our companions today? The other Walkers, I mean?"

"Yes, Sir Meriadoc. Prince Legolas and Lord Gimli left early this morning, and have yet to return. The Wizard Mithrandir and Lord Samwise went out about an hour or so ago, and they have not returned, either. I was told that the Ringbearer was closeted with the King earlier, but I believe he has now returned to your chambers."

Merry looked at Pippin and grinned. "Sam's out!"

Pippin grinned back. "Good!" He looked up at Menelcar. "Let's go and see Frodo! He's going to be so pleased to see you again!"

Faramir and Éowyn exchanged a glance, and then Faramir said, "If you will all excuse me, I need to speak to the King."

Éowyn smiled. "And I am going to find my brother." She bent down and gave Merry a kiss on top of his head, and brushing her hand against Faramir's, she went into the Citadel. The others went in as well. With a brief farewell, Faramir turned off into a corridor, a thoughtful expression on his face. Merry and Pippin led Menelcar up a nearby staircase, chattering all the way.


The door to the chamber shared by the hobbits was flung open, and Frodo knew without turning around that his cousins had returned and Pippin was first in the door.

Frodo put the quill carefully into the holder. His calligraphy was improving, but it had a long way to go before it was once more as good as it had been before he lost his finger.

"Pippin," he said in a tone of fond exasperation, "can you never simply *open* a door?" He turned to see his two cousins standing in the doorway with broad grins. Obviously, they had what they thought of as good news, and he gave a small smile of anticipation.

Pippin's grin threatened to split his face. "You'll never guess who we found in the City!" He reached to the side and gave a tug. A Man came into view, also grinning.

Frodo's jaw dropped. Then he leaped from his chair, scattering the cushions on which he sat, and dashed to the door where Menelcar knelt down.

"Menelcar!" he cried joyfully, "it's so good to see you!"

Remembering how Pippin had reacted to a show of formality, the minstrel contented himself with returning the hobbit's embrace, saying simply, "Frodo Baggins! I am glad to see you again!" As he held the hobbit briefly, it seemed it had been no time since his visit to the Shire; yet since their last meeting, this small person had defied and thrown down the Dark Lord forever, an incredible feat that great and mighty warriors had never quite managed. His eyes stung briefly, and he blinked. It would not do to begin such a reunion with such serious thoughts, but he knew that he almost certainly owed Frodo Baggins his life, and he would never forget it.

"Well, do come in, Menelcar. Pippin, wherever did you find him?" Frodo went back over to the chair he had abandoned, and offered it to the minstrel; Merry and Pippin had flung themselves onto one of the beds, and Frodo, a bit more decorously did the same.

"He was singing on a street corner on the third level." Pippin shook his head, still a bit amazed himself at the coincidence.

Merry spoke up. "He'd not tried to come see us. Apparently they've been turning away charlatans who claim to know us, and he feared they'd do the same to him."

Frodo looked at Merry sharply. "How do you know this?"

"Faramir told us."

This news disturbed Frodo, but he put it out of his mind, and asked the minstrel to recount how he had come to return to Minas Tirith, and Menelcar asked after the Shire. They were having a quite pleasant visit.

"And how is Master Samwise? I know that he came with you."

"Sam is doing just fine. And that reminds me of something. We don't have a lot of time--" he looked at his cousins. "-- I asked Gandalf to take him down to look at the guesthouse, but we won't have much time for planning now. They've been gone quite a while already. I did not realize that the two of you had gone out when I sent them off. I spent a bit of time with Aragorn while waiting for you."

Merry looked abashed. "I'm sorry, Frodo. But Faramir invited us to go with him on the spur of the moment, and we did not realize you were going to get Sam out of the way this morning."

Menelcar looked puzzled. "Is there something you do not wish to tell Master Samwise?"

The three hobbits laughed. "It's going to be his birthday in less than a week," said Merry. "We missed my birthday altogether, being in Lothlórien and so never having any idea what day it was, and well--Pippin was not in any condition to celebrate his birthday, after the Last Battle--"*

Pippin looked distressed. "I wish I could have given you all something--"

Frodo put an arm around his shoulders. "You did, Pip, you stayed alive, and that was gift enough for all of us." Pippin's green eyes filled, and he brushed a hand roughly across them. Frodo gave his shoulders a squeeze, and Merry reached out and embraced them both briefly.

The serious moment passed, and Merry said, "At any rate we are in the mood for a Shire birthday. And it just so happens that Sam is going to have one."

Pippin grinned. "Do say you'll help us, Menelcar!"

Menelcar smiled. "I would be glad to assist you in giving Master Samwise a party! I am a minstrel after all, and parties are my bread and butter! What is a Shire birthday like?"

"Lots of food and music," said Pippin firmly.

The others laughed. "Not music and food?" Merry teased. Pippin just grinned.

"We want to invite a few of those whom Sam has met and been friendly with since we woke up, and the Fellowship, and Faramir of course, and now you!" said Frodo. "And we will be able to have it in somewhat cozier quarters than the Citadel, as we will soon be moving into a guesthouse that the King has ordered made ready for our use."

"So," said Merry, looking at Frodo, "you've seen this house we're to move into?"

"Yes, I have," answered Frodo. "We will still be able to share a bedchamber, which is on the ground floor of the house."

Merry and Pippin exchanged a look of relief. The hobbits still suffered badly from night terrors. When they had been, the first night, presented separate chambers in the Citadel--something Men thought of as an honor--the problem had become much worse than it had been since they had all been reunited. The previous night the four of them had shared a chamber, and it did help somewhat. When Pippin and Frodo had both woken up, crying out and trembling, the others were right there to offer comfort.

"Sounds lovely," said Pippin. "When do we move?"

"Perhaps as soon as tomorrow," Frodo answered, "so we definitely will be able to hold the party there. Menelcar, you will come, won't you?"

"Of course I will, if you want me--"

Just then there came a loud rap on the door.

Frodo's eyebrows rose; it wouldn't be Sam--Sam would just enter.

Merry hopped down from the bed, and flung open the door. All eyes turned to see Legolas and Gimli standing there.

"Legolas!" cried Pippin, "Did you get it?"

The Elf smiled wordlessly, and held forth a small bundle, and taking Pippin's enthusiasm as an invitation, he and Gimli entered the room, giving the strange Man an inquiring look. Frodo stood up instantly to make introductions.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Menelcar. I have heard of you from Pippin," said Legolas.

"Menelcar--Menelcar?" Gimli drew his brows together in concentration. "Were you not at the Lonely Mountain a few years back?"

"Indeed I was, Master Gimli. I spent several weeks there. It was then I first heard of Bilbo the Burglar, and it was the tales and songs I heard there which sent me in search of the Shire."

Pippin, meanwhile, had pulled the cloth wrapping away from the bundle Legolas had brought, and taken out the small fiddle and bow, which it had been concealing. "Oh, thank you, Legolas. It's splendid to have a fiddle again!"

"I am afraid it is not of the best quality, Pippin," the Elf apologized.

"Oh," said Pippin breezily, "I didn't expect it would be, if you could even find one, as I knew it would just be a practice instrument for a child. But I should have no trouble playing it." He drew the bow experimentally across the strings, and everyone in the room winced at how badly out of tune it was.

"Well, I'll have a bit of work to tune it, but I should be able to play for Sam's party."

There was another rap at the door, and fearing it might be Sam, he thrust it beneath the bed. Merry, who had yet to sit back down, opened it again to see one of the Citadel's many servants standing there.

The servant bowed profoundly, and looked at Frodo. "Ringbearer, the Guard at the side door said you wished to be alerted when Lord Mithrandir and Lord Samwise returned."

"Yes, yes, thank you!" said Frodo. He gave a nod to the others.

Éowyn headed for the wing of the Citadel where the Rohirrim were housed. But when she arrived, she found only one of the men there.

"Where is everyone, Elfhelm?" she asked.

"They've all gone down to the stables, Lady Éowyn."

She nodded. She should have known. None of those from Rohan were happy staying in this great stone City, where horses were seldom seen, and there was so very little green and growing. Her brother, King though he now was, was no exception.

She took herself to the chamber that had been set aside for her use, and changed from the dark blue gown she was wearing to a man's tunic and breeches. She did not see any reason to go to the stables in one of the few dresses she had right now. She had allowed only a small number of dresses to be made for her, for she knew that she would be going home soon, and did not need many, but those she had were too fine to wear while mucking about the stalls.

Tying her hair back, she came back to where Elfhelm still waited. "I am going to the stables myself. I expect to see my brother there, yet should he return, and we have somehow missed one another, please tell him where I have gone." She slipped back out, and headed back down toward the stables.

It was not far, but it was long enough to give her time to think about Faramir. She smiled. It was still strange to think of Faramir in that fashion. Until she had met the Lord Aragorn, she had never thought to love any man in that way. And when he had clearly shown her that his heart was otherwise occupied she had not thought to ever feel that way again.

And in a sense that was true. For what she felt for Faramir was different altogether from what she had felt for Aragorn. Aragorn was a hero out of legends, however real, and for all his kindness, he seemed to loom distant and larger than life. Faramir was a hero as well, yet he seemed so much more approachable. He had a warm heart, and an abiding sorrow that made her wish to comfort and protect him. She knew that grief for his brother and father lay heavily on him, as well as shame for what his father had done, and a long and deeply felt hurt for the way his father had always scorned him. Sometimes she found herself wishing that Denethor yet lived, so that she could have the chance to visit her own scorn upon him, to heap upon his head reproaches for the way he had treated his younger son. The thought of him made her scowl fiercely. She would certainly have told him a thing or two.

She came to the stables. She could hear the laughter and talk of the men, including her brother, and she went to join them.

"Brother," she said, by way of greeting. He was leaning over the stall gate where his own horse was housed, and talking to their cousin Éothain.

"Sister," he said, unsurprised to see her there. For though she spent much time in the company of the Steward who had won her heart, yet she was still a shield-maiden and woman of Rohan, and would miss the horses.

She climbed up, to sit atop the stall's partition. "Éomer, does the name 'Menelcar' mean anything to you? I met today a minstrel of that name, and I am sure that I have seen him sometime before."

Éomer shook his head. "I do not recall the name. I might perhaps know him if I saw his face."

But Éothain laughed. "No, you would not remember, my lord cousin. You were off with my father at the time, riding over the Eastfold, becoming familiar with the country that would come into your charge when you became Marshal. But I am not surprised that *you* remember, Éowyn. We were both in disgrace at the time."

Éowyn's eyes widened. Of course. She had been, just barely, fifteen when it happened…


The summer when she had turned fifteen, she had been quite a hoyden. Her aunt, one of the King's sisters, Éormangilda, was in despair over her increasing reluctance to spend time learning the various "ladylike" skills that would someday be required of her. She had thrown herself into riding and weapons practice, something that was not denied to any high-born girl of the Mark who showed the inclination to become a shield-maiden. But as her uncle was forced often to remind her, it did not mean she was to neglect the more traditional duties of womanhood. 

This was not something she cared to hear. Surely she had spent enough time on stitchery and in the kitchens and in the stillroom. What else could she possibly need to know that was more important than riding or learning how better to use her weapons? She was insolent and sulky by turns, oftentimes flatly refusing the tasks set before her, which of course, only resulted in her losing the privileges for which she was aching. It did not help that her brother thought it was funny, or that for once her indulgent cousin, Théodred, and her usually patient uncle, the King, did not support her.

It had finally resulted in both she and her aunt losing their tempers one day, resulting in a deplorable shouting match, which Théoden had put a stop to personally.

It was decided that when Éomer went to Aldburg to stay with his father's brother Éodred for the summer, Éowyn would accompany him and be put in the charge of her aunt Leofgifu. Éormangilda was quite frankly out of patience with her, and was more than ready to let someone else deal with the stubborn child for a couple of months.

Éowyn was at first subdued and remorseful. She had been a bit shocked to have actually been sent away from Meduseld, and she resolved to turn over a new leaf, and be cooperative. She dutifully attended to the tasks set by her aunt. For her part, Leofgifu wondered what Éormangilda had found to complain of; as far as she could tell, the girl was too quiet and compliant.

It lasted for all of three days.

More embroidery. Éowyn looked at the fabric in her hands, and shook her head. How much embroidery could one person be expected to do? But she had made up her mind to behave properly. It was just that her
brother had ridden out that morning with their uncle, and would not be back for a week to ten days.

"Éowyn," said her aunt.

"Yes, Aunt Leofgifu?"

"I must needs leave you here for a bit. A travelling bard has honored us with his presence this day, and I wish to go and see to having a chamber prepared for him. He is going to honor us with song at the evening meal."

"Yes, Aunt," she replied dutifully. A bard. That would be nice.

Her aunt went out, leaving her there alone. She took about three more stitches, and then impatiently flung the work down and went to the window. From there she could look down into the courtyard. Her cousin Éothain was down there, on horseback, tilting at the quintain. And she was stuck up here *embroidering*. She gave a huff, and then left the room.

"Éothain!" she called out, as she approached the practice yard.

He startled at her cry, and missed. "Now look what you made me do!"
Éowyn laughed. Her cousin was within three months of her age, though she was by that amount the elder. Before her parents' deaths, the two had been playmates, but she had not seen him in several years. And since her return, he had been somewhat arrogant over the fact that he was a boy, not to mention boastful of his own abilities.

He flushed and dismounted. "It's not funny!"

She giggled, which infuriated him the more. "It's not like *you* could do it. You're just a girl!"

She did not say a word. She tied up her skirts in a most unladylike fashion, snatched his spear, and mounted his horse before he could do more than shout "Hoy!" She was slightly shorter than he, yet in spite of the fact that her feet scarcely reached the stirrups, she set herself firmly.

With a grin, she launched herself at the target and gave it a fair stroke, sending it spinning.

She galloped back and dismounted showily, tossing the spear back to her flabbergasted cousin. "I guess I can't," she smirked.

He goggled at her, torn between rage and admiration.

She looked over at the rack of wooden practice swords, and grabbed two. "Let us spar!"

"With you?" he said incredulously.

Her eyes narrowed. "Why not?"

Something about the look on her face made him swallow the words "Because you're a girl" unsaid. Instead he said, "Why not?"

They started out cautiously enough. Her training from the finest weapons master of the King's court and her quickness made up for her slightness and lesser strength. He had a longer reach, and was quite strong, so they made a more or less even match, and soon forgot caution completely as they battered one another happily. Neither of them had bothered with armor, and any strokes that hit home were painful indeed. They were enjoying themselves quite thoroughly when they heard a shrill voice shouting “Enough!"

They faltered, and turned to see that they had gathered an audience. Leofgifu did not look amused.

"Mother!" Éothain cried, his voice breaking into an undignified squeak.

Éowyn flushed. And then said defiantly "We weren't doing anything wrong!"

"Nothing wrong?" Her aunt's eyebrow lifted. "Look at yourself."

Éowyn glanced down at herself. Her skirt had been pulled through her legs and tied about her waist, leaving her legs exposed and bare from just above the knees down. Her shins were skint and bruised. Her dress was soiled and torn. She knew her hair was unkempt and escaping its braids, and that her face was dirty and sweaty.

Among the others standing with Leofgifu was Danhelm, the weapons master. He wore a grim expression. He looked at Éowyn disdainfully. "I do not think much of the weapons master at Edoras if he allows his pupils to spar unarmored." She flushed. Anfrith would have given her an earful if she had dared such a thing at Meduseld. Danhelm turned his flinty gaze on Éothain. "*You* do know better. I cannot think why you would so willfully disregard my teachings and all the rules of safety. I know I have taught you better."
Éothain flushed. He did know better. But he had thought he could disarm a mere girl with only a couple of blows.

The cousins looked sideways at one another, united in their chagrin.

Standing behind Leofgifu was a lanky man, taller than most of the Rohirrim, clean-shaven, with straight, grey-shot ginger hair and humor-filled eyes. He had a harp slung across his back. He caught Éowyn's eyes, and his expression of droll sympathy made her suppress a wholly inappropriate giggle. She was in enough trouble.

Her aunt pinned them both with her glare. "The two of you will go to your chambers. You will remain there the rest of the day and tonight--without dinner. Perhaps hunger will sharpen your wits." She turned to Danhelm.

"Tomorrow you may mete out what punishment you deem needful to your pupil. Éowyn, you will spend tomorrow in the kitchens scrubbing pots. And both of you will take your dinners in your chambers tomorrow, as well."

Éothain, who had up until that point been taking the punishment rather stoically, suddenly objected. "Mother! We will miss hearing the bard!"

"So you will," she said. "Now, to your chambers! March!"

Éowyn had flopped on her bed, overwhelmed with the unfairness of it all.

She had not *meant* to break her resolution to do what she was supposed to; she had not *meant* to end up sparring unarmored with her cousin; she had not *meant* to get them both in trouble. Why did these things always happen to *her*?

She was too angry to cry, but she was not certain who she was angry with--herself, for going down there in the first place? Her cousin, for being so annoying that she just *had* to challenge him? Her aunt, for catching them out--and just when they were having such a splendid workout, too!

Just then, the door opened, and her Aunt Leofgifu came in, followed by a maidservant bearing a basin of water and some towels. Éowyn sat up warily. What now?

"Éowyn, get out of that dress. I want to check you over. I fear that you will be black and blue."

Flushing, she did as she was told, sitting back down in her shift and wincing as she did so.

Leofgifu nodded knowingly, and touched the large purple bruise beginning to form on Éowyn's upper left shoulder.

"Let me have a look at that left leg. I can tell by the way you are sitting that it is paining you."

Sure enough there was also a large bruise nearly two hand spans in size on the outer side of her thigh and hip. Her aunt wet a cloth in the basin that the maidservant was holding, and began to wash the bruised areas, as well as the scrapes on her shins. Éowyn flinched, but did not cry out as her aunt cleaned the sore places. She could smell the witch hazel in the water.

"Now, that's better. It is fortunate indeed that neither of you took head blows!"

Éowyn looked horrified. How stupid did her aunt think she was? "We did not have helms!" she exclaimed.

"I see. Well, I suppose I should be grateful that the two of you had at least that much sense. You know, Éowyn, if you had said something, I would have arranged for you to have some time on the training grounds. You did not have to slip out behind my back like that."


"I will speak to Danhelm. If he is agreeable, you may join my son while you are here. But not until after your punishment is over. And that does not mean you get out of the other tasks that are expected of you."


Her aunt rose to leave. "I suggest you try to rest. It is a long time until breakfast."

Biting her lip, Éowyn nodded. Leofgifu and the maidservant left, and Éowyn lay back down on the bed. This was really unfair. How was she to know that Aunt Leofgifu was so much more reasonable than Aunt Éormangilda? Just then her stomach growled. It was going to be a long time until breakfast.

She had finally fallen asleep, was sleeping rather hard in fact, when she heard a rapping at the door. She sat up blearily, wondering who it could be at this hour.

"Éowyn!" hissed the voice outside her door in a loud whisper.

It was Éothain.

"What do you want?" she hissed back, dragging on a dressing gown quickly and moving toward the door.

"Let me in."

She opened the door, and he came in, carrying a bundle wrapped in what looked like a large napkin.

"I brought you something to eat. I slipped down to the kitchens. I have some bread and some apples."

Éowyn wanted to scorn the gesture, and honorably take her punishment, but her stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly in protest. "Well, come on in then."

He came in and they shut the door. They went over and sat in the window, and he unwrapped the bundle. He looked at her, and flushed. "I am sorry that I got you into trouble," he mumbled.

She giggled, and he looked up sharply, offended. "No, do not be angry, I am not mocking your apology. But I have been thinking all afternoon that I should apologize for getting *you* into trouble."

He grinned. "Well, perhaps it is that we are both at fault. I should not have doubted you."

"And I should not have challenged you." She grinned back. "It was good though, was it not?"

"Yes it was. I have a bruise on my ribs the size of a melon," he boasted with a grin.

"I have some bruises as well."

They ate silently for a few moments, until both bread and fruit were gone.

Éothain sighed. "Danhelm is going to really make me miserable tomorrow. And I am sure you will have great fun scrubbing pots all day. But I really hate that we will miss hearing the bard. We do not get bards here at Aldburg so very often that we can afford to miss hearing them."

Éowyn nodded. "I am sorry. But I know what you mean. We do have a bard in residence at Meduseld, but he is old, and I have heard all his songs so many times." She sighed. "I would not have minded hearing a new one for a change."

Her cousin nodded. "Well, I am going to return to my own chambers now. Mother told me that when our punishment is over, you may train with me some, while you are here. I look forward to sparring *properly* with you."

She smiled. "Thank you, cousin. And thank you for the food."

He got up, peered out the door, and then slipped away.

Éowyn went back to bed. Morning, and all those pots, would be coming all too soon.

The next morning Éowyn woke all on her own, before it was quite light. In spite of the bite of food brought by her cousin, she was ravenous. She put on the oldest of the dresses she had brought with her, and headed down to the kitchens. This would not be much fun, but it was only for a day, and would soon be over. Maybe if she told herself that often enough, she would believe it.

The head cook had been alerted by the mistress to expect this wayward girl, and she gestured for Éowyn to sit down with the servants for breakfast. It consisted of porridge, sausages, bread, jam and fruit juice, and she ate her fill.

As soon as she had finished, she was directed over to the large sink, where there were piled a mountain of dirty dishes and pots. Heaving a sigh, she set to doing the unpleasant work. It was not long before her face was covered in soot, and her hair fallen into her eyes. It seemed that the pile never diminished. For every dish that she washed, it seemed another was added to the pile.

She was working very slowly, for her arm was stiff and painful, as was her leg, where she had been bruised. One more reason to remember why armor was a good idea.

"Good morning, my dears!" said a cheerful and unfamiliar male voice, with a strange accent.

She cast a glance back, and saw that the bard had entered the kitchen.

She turned back around hurriedly. She hoped he would not notice her.

"Master Menelcar!" cried the head cook. "Please have a seat, and I will bring you some breakfast."

"For the price of a song of course?" he laughed.

"Well, we would not say no to a bit of a song if you cared to give us one when you have finished breaking your fast."

Éowyn turned all her attention to the mounting pile of crockery. Perhaps he would not see her there. She listened as the kitchen staff plied him with food, and easy banter. It seemed they *had* forgotten she was there, after all.

After a while, another pile of dishes was placed at her elbow, and she sighed. Then she heard the sound of a harp, and the bard's voice was raised quite pleasantly in song. She found herself working more quickly and easily to the sound of the music.

But all too soon the songs came to an end. The minstrel excused himself and left the kitchen, and Éowyn wished that he would have gone on much longer.

But at least she had had an opportunity to hear the bard after all. Suddenly, she felt a bit guilty. She knew that Éothain had also been looking forward to hearing him, but her cousin would have no chance to do so.

There was a break from the pot scrubbing as luncheon was served. Éowyn sat at the table and ate the bowl of soup and chunk of bread she had been provided. When she rose once more to her task, she was as stiff and sore as she could ever remember being. The afternoon dragged, but finally her aunt entered the kitchen.

Leofgifu spoke to the head cook. "Has she performed her tasks satisfactorily?"

"Aye, Mistress, she has worked hard all day, and without complaint."

Leofgifu smiled then. "Éowyn, you may go to your chamber now. I have had a bath prepared for you, and a tray will be brought up to you with your evening meal. Tomorrow your punishment is ended. I hope that you have learned from this. Next time you have the desire for some swordplay, please tell me."

Éowyn felt tears sting, and she blinked them back. "Thank you, Aunt Leofgifu. I am sorry I caused you so much trouble."

Her aunt gave an indulgent chuckle. "Not you alone, niece. I daresay my son bears some of the responsibility as well. Now off to your chamber; I think that a hot bath will do much for your bruises and sore muscles."

It did. As well as the meal and the cup of willow bark tea brought by a servant.

But Éowyn could not help thinking about her cousin. She had had a chance to hear the bard in the kitchen. Éothain had not; and he had so wanted to hear him. She rose from her bed and cracked the door, listening carefully. The evening meal had begun in the great Hall--she could hear the bustle of servants and the murmurs of conversation. Éothain had brought her food the night before. She should do something nice for him.

Slipping quickly into her clothes, she peered out, and then darted down the passageway to her cousin's chamber, where she tapped softly. He cracked the door open, and looked surprised to see her. "Éothain? Do you want to hear the bard?"

"We will be in even more trouble if we are caught."

Éowyn grinned. "Then we should take care *not* to get caught. It is unfair that you not get to hear him sing. I got to listen to him sing in the kitchen, and he was wonderful. I do wish you could hear him as well."

And so the two of them had slipped out, and carefully keeping out of sight they took the back passages until they came near the Hall. It was crowded, and so they managed to find a vantage point next to a tapestry, out of the line of vision of anyone who might know that they were not supposed to be there.

Except for the bard himself. He saw them soon enough, but except for a small smile twitching at his lips, he made no sign that he had seen. He began to sing, and at once everyone was listening raptly.

Menelcar had begun with a couple of songs familiar to the Rohirrim, stirring songs of battle and valor. But then he began to sing songs new to them, though old perhaps in other places, songs unknown of the Elves and the High Men of lost Westernesse; then, as those listening had begun to feel themselves lost in those far-off times and lands and ancient sorrows, he suddenly changed again, to jolly, merry, rollicking tunes. They were songs of food and drink and good cheer such as the two cousins had never before heard, and they had many toes tapping. He sang a number of those songs without stopping, and then paused, to announce one last song.
There was no doubt he was looking right at the cousins, for he tipped them a wink before he began to sing.

"Let ancient prophesies relate,
Concerning King and Kingdom's fate--"

They had taken that as their signal to slip away. They returned to their chambers, and no one else ever realized that they had been there.

Éomer had listened in bemusement as his sister and their cousin finished the story. "And why did I never know all of this before?" he asked.

Éowyn laughed. "Because, dear brother, by the time you came back it was all old news." She shook her head. "But I don't know why it took me so long to remember Menelcar."

Her cousin grinned. "Well, we never got a chance to actually speak to him. Nor did we ever see him any closer than about ten feet away."

"I wonder did he remember me? But I have changed a good deal since I was fifteen."

Éomer shrugged. "If he does, he will doubtless tell you."

His sister blushed. "I am not too sure I want him to remember me. He did not see me at my best."


*AUTHOR’S NOTE: Marigold suggested that I put a footnote with the dates of “my” hobbits’ birthdays. Frodo’s of course, is canon, and is given as September 22 ( or Mersday, 22 Halimath, in the Shire Calendar). It is hinted in the Tale of Years, but not stated as fact, that Sam’s birthday could have been April 6, but I have chosen to interpret that differently for plot purposes, and make his birthday May 7 ( or Sunday, 7 Thrimidge in the Shire Calendar). My Merry’s birthday is February 14 (or Monday, 14 Solmath in the Shire Calendar) and my Pippin’s birthday is April 1 ( or Sterday, 1 Astron in the Shire Calendar). Those dates were chosen both for symbolic significance and for plot purposes.



The door opened, and Faramir came in. "My Lord King--" he stopped at the *look* he was getting from the King.

"Faramir, do you see anyone else in here?"

"No, Sire." He blushed; he knew what Aragorn meant.

"I do understand the need for formality when we are in the presence of most others. But surely between the two of us, you may simply call me 'Aragorn'."

Faramir gave a wry smile. "I will try. It is just that it is not proper." He was startled by the loud burst of laughter this answer received.

"Now you sound just like Samwise, when Frodo tries to get him to stop saying 'mister'."

Faramir did give a rueful chuckle at that. "I am afraid it is for the same reason--Aragorn--we were both reared with a very strict sense of propriety. A lifetime's habits are not easily cast away."

"Do come in and sit down, Faramir. I just received word that the wains of the more seriously wounded will be arriving in a few days, and so my brothers will be returning to the City." Elladan and Elrohir had returned to check on the status of those wounded who had not yet been recovered enough to make the journey quickly, and to see to their eventual return to the City from a small field hospital that had been organized in Osgiliath. Aragorn gave a smile at the thought of seeing them again soon. He glanced again at Faramir. "I think that you came to tell me something specific?"

Indeed." The Steward went on to recount the meeting with Menelcar in the City. "I have no doubts that he is exactly who Pippin and Merry say he is, and I sense no deception in him. However, Éowyn also seems to somehow know him, though she has yet to remember exactly how. I did think that you should be aware of it. Pippin wished to give him access to the Citadel, and I did not
gainsay him."

Aragorn nodded. "I do believe that once or twice I have heard my small Knight mention this minstrel. I appreciate both your caution and your judgment."

"Thank you. I worry about charlatans and those who would take advantage of
the hobbits' good natures. I would not call them simple, but their
experiences have not prepared them for certain types of people." Faramir
pursed his lips, and shook his head.

"This is true. Hobbits do not tend to think too highly of themselves. Their
humor tends to be self-deprecating, except for the boasts of the young, and
even those tend to be of the jesting sort. The idea that people have
adulation for them is startling to them, and I am afraid that for Frodo, it
is almost offensive. Still, they are shrewd for all that, and they are not
easily taken in by flattery. I do not fear for them in that regard. And any
who *should* attempt to take advantage of them would soon regret it." He
looked grim and determined when he said this, and Faramir was once more
reminded of the fierce protectiveness felt for the hobbits, not only by the
King, but also by the other members of their Fellowship. A brief thought of
his brother Boromir, and his last desperate defense of Merry and Pippin
flashed through his mind with a pang.

Faramir dismissed the sad thought and said, "The word has begun to go around that it is useless to attempt to reach the pheriannath here at the Citadel, as the Guardsmen seem unable to understand the queries." He gave a wry smile.

Aragorn leaned back and chuckled. "And have we had any more of the young
ladies who have been also trying to make their acquaintance?" Faramir shook his head, grinning. "Not since Gimli made the last group remove their shoes. He inspected their feet, and told them that unless they could grow hair on their feet, their cause was hopeless, that thick hairy foot fur was essential to seducing a hobbit. And then he asked if any of them could grow beards."

Aragorn laughed. "I heard about that. He then set them on Legolas as a
distraction. I am sure that it worked, for the poor Elf has been looking
quite harried." He sat forward. "I am hoping that having them move into the
guesthouse will help the situation. We will not let it be generally known
that they are no longer staying here at the Citadel. When we wrote to you
from Cormallen to ask you if you knew of a place, Gandalf and I were very
concerned that the hobbits would find staying in the Citadel uncomfortable.
We were very pleased at your suggestion of the guesthouse. Gandalf told me
he had very nearly forgot about the guesthouse he used to use, but that it
would be most suitable for the hobbits' stay."

"It seemed logical to me. For Mithrandir had often used that house when I
was a child." Faramir was pleased that the King had liked his suggestion. "I should have realized, from what I observed of Merry, that the hobbits did not care for heights."

"No, they do not care for sleeping in upper floors, not even one storey up,
much less as high up as they are here. Pippin tolerates it best, but even he
is somewhat uncomfortable in their present quarters."

Faramir shifted. He had said what he came to say, and had other duties
claiming his attention. He would not leave, however, without being

Aragorn noticed, and smiled. "I know you have much to do. Feel free to go on
about your business. I do thank you for bringing the presence of Menelcar to
my attention. I will look forward to meeting this bard who nearly lured our
young Peregrin away from the Shire."

As Sam approached the chamber where the hobbits stayed, he could have sworn he heard the sound of a harp. That was mighty strange, that was. He did hear a harp!

Puzzled, he stopped before entering. Then when he did open the door, all
eyes turned in his direction. It looked like everyone except Gandalf and
Strider were in there, as well as someone who *was* playing a harp-- "Well!" he exclaimed, "as I live and breathe, if it isn't Mr. Menelcar!"

Frodo pretended to be surprised at Sam's appearance. "Sam! Come in! Look who Pippin found in the City!"

As Sam entered the room, the Man rose and bowed. "Master Samwise. It is good to see you again."

"Well, it is right good to see you again, too, Mr. Menelcar!" He looked at
Pippin. "Wherever did you find him, Mr. Pippin?"

Pippin grinned. "Under a cabbage leaf?" Merry snickered, Frodo shook his
head, and Menelcar looked confused.

The chamber was quite crowded now, with all four hobbits, Elf, Dwarf and
Man, but everyone had found a space to be seated, Menelcar and Legolas on
the floor, the others either on one of the beds or chairs.

"Well, Sam, what do you think of our house?" asked Frodo, just a bit
anxious, for he really liked the idea of moving into the guesthouse.

"Mr. Frodo, it's right nice. I should think it'd be suitable for all of us."
He shook his head. "It's a shame poor Mr. Strider is still going to be stuck
up away here." Merry and Pippin nodded their agreement, but Legolas had to
put a hand to his mouth to hide a grin. He was amused at the hobbits’
opinions of the splendid Citadel, of which Men were so proud, and decided he
would be teasing Aragorn about this later.

"So," said Merry, "when do we move in?"

Frodo sat forward. "If everyone is happy about it, I do not see why we could
not move down there as soon as tomorrow."

"No reason at all," said another voice, from the now open doorway.

"Gandalf! Do come in!"

"No, I thank you, Frodo. It looks as though the room is quite full enough
without my presence. However, I am to convey to you Aragorn's wish that we
all dine with him this evening. He also would request that one Master
Menelcar would perform for him this evening at the meal. He is eager to hear the minstrel of whom we have heard so much!"

Menelcar's eyes widened. Hiding his shock at being asked to sing for the
High King, he answered in his best professional tones, "I will be glad to
sing for so august a Company."

The Fellowship had gathered in the King's apartments in a chamber that was fitted out as a small private dining room. Of those present, only Faramir and Menelcar had not been members of the Company that had set out from Rivendell. Faramir thought perhaps that he had been asked because of Boromir. Menelcar, of course, was there in his professional capacity.

Right after Gandalf had delivered the invitation, the Citadel's chamberlain had taken Menelcar off, to find him a place where he could rest and rehearse, and given him some garments more appropriate to performing for the King. He had also been given an early meal, so that he could perform for the diners. As the Company and the Steward gathered, he sat on a chair in one corner, strumming his harp.

Aragorn entered the room after all the others had assembled. As they rose, or stopped their conversations to pay him homage, he shook his head. "No, not tonight. Tonight I am Strider, and you are all my friends. I wanted one more night together, while you are all still under this roof." Frodo noticed that Aragorn was not wearing any sign of his authority tonight. He smiled to himself. Being King was his friend's destiny and duty, but it certainly wasn't to his liking.

The servants soon brought the meal; food in abundance, and rather simple fare compared to the feasts that had become standard since Frodo and Samwise had awakened. The friends began to eat, enjoying one another's company and conversation, along with Menelcar's gentle harp music playing in the background.

Merry was telling a story of how, one night on the journey through Hollin,
Boromir had missed his footing in the dark, and slid into a bramble bush.

"So, there he was, well and truly caught. Strider was going to try to cut
him free, but it would really have been awkward, and he would have had
scratches all over his face and arms. But Pippin just ambled over and
started untangling him. He had your brother out in no time, Faramir, and
with only a few scratches."*

Faramir could only imagine his brother's consternation at something so
embarrassing. He looked at Pippin, who was grinning at the memory.
"And just how, Pippin, did you know you could get him out so easily?"

Pippin laughed, and Frodo said, "Oh, Pippin has very nimble fingers. As a
young lad, his mother and sisters were forever asking him to untangle their knitting, or untie the knots that no one else could figure out."

"Of course, half the time it was my fault the knitting was tangled in the
first place. I had to learn how to untangle it out of self-defense. And I
was usually responsible for the knots as well."

"Ah." Faramir chuckled. "Why does that not surprise me?"

As the servants brought in the sweet courses, Aragorn stretched back in his chair, and brought out his pipe. "Master Menelcar, we have been enjoying your harp. Please now would you fain sing for us?"

The minstrel nodded. "This song I will sing first, Sire, is in your honor. My old master on a time, was asked to leave the White City, for the singing of this song. Ever after, I have sung it wherever I go, in his memory:

"Let ancient prophecies relate
Concerning King's or Kingdom's fate.
I think myself to be as wise
As he that gazeth on the skies.
My sight goes beyond
The depth of a pond
Or rivers in the greatest rain.
Whereby I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!
Yes, this I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!"

Faramir sat forward as he listened. He had not heard this song since he was a small lad. He'd not realized before this that his father had banned the singing of it in the City, but it did not surprise him. Denethor took pride in the line of Stewards, but he did not look for the return of a King.

"When at last he shall return,
None his rightful claim shall spurn;
Nor refuse for any cause
Justice of those ancient laws.
Deny who would
Elendil's blood,
Naught shall halt the rightful reign.
For all's to no end,
The times will not mend
Till the King enjoys his own again!
Yes, this I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!"

Aragorn smiled. He had heard this song often as Thorongil, and it had
thrilled and humbled him at the same time.

"A thousand years the royal crown
Hath awaited the fair brow;
For is there anyone but he
That of the same should sharer be?
Who better may
The scepter sway,
Than he that hath such right to reign?
Then shall there be peace,
And the wars they will cease,
When the King enjoys his own again!
Yes, this I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!

Though for a time that fair White Tree
Leaf and branch doth withered be,
Bereft beneath a shadowed sky
While seasons long hath passed it by--
Once more shall it bloom
With rare perfume
That falls like sweet rain.
The old renewed shall be,
When the time you see,
That the King enjoys his own again!
Yes, this I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!

Then fears avaunt, upon the hill
My hope shall cast her anchor still.
Until I see some peaceful dove
Bring home the branch I dearly love.
Then will I wait
Till the waters abate
Which now disturb my troubled brain,
Then for ever rejoice,
When I've heard the voice
That the King enjoys his own again!
Yes, this I can tell
That all will be well
When the King enjoys his own again!" (1)

Menelcar followed this stirring and serious song with one of Bilbo Baggins' comic songs, the very song in fact that Frodo had sung upon the table at Bree, and the hobbits and Gandalf were nodding their heads in time to the music. Aragorn laughed as it ended. "You will note, Frodo, that he does *not* punctuate the song by dancing on the table!"

The minstrel sang several more songs, some of them new to the Company, and others like old friends, familiar and homely. Pippin was nodding his head and tapping his feet, and obviously itching to sing once more with his old friend.

Menelcar met his eyes, and nodded. "If you will, Pippin, I would have you
sing the last song with me?"

Pippin glanced at Aragorn, who nodded. He got up with alacrity, and went to Menelcar‘s side. The minstrel played a couple of chords on the harp, and Pippin remembered the song, one he had learned from the bard during his stay in the Shire.

Menelcar began the song in his rich baritone:

"I ask not for ease and riches
Nor earth's jewels for my part;
But I have the best of wishes
For a pure and honest heart."

Pippin added his sweet tenor to the Man's voice as they sang the chorus.

"Oh, pure heart so true and tender
Fairer than the lilies white
The pure heart alone can render
Songs of joy both day and night."

Then the hobbit sang the second verse:

"Should I cherish earthly treasure
It would fly on speedy wings.
The pure heart a plenteous measure
Of true pleasure daily brings."

Then the two of them joined their voices once more, for the rest of the
song. As Pippin sang the last verse, he looked at Frodo, his green eyes
filled with tears. Frodo's was the purest heart he knew, and Pippin felt he
was singing straight to his cousin's soul. If only Frodo could realize it,
if only he could find songs of joy again.

"Oh, pure heart so true and tender
Fairer than the lilies white;
The pure heart alone can render
Songs of joy both day and night.

Eve and morn my prayers ascending
To utmost West on wings of song;
Seek the joy that knows no ending
The pure heart that knows no wrong.

Oh, pure heart so true and tender
Fairer than the lilies white;
The pure heart alone can render
Songs of joy both day and night." (2)

The singers finished, and Menelcar played through the chorus on his harp
only, one last time, before the notes died, and he and Pippin bowed.
There was a silence far more appreciative than applause.

Gimli blew his nose rather loudly, which broke the mood. Aragorn stood.
"Master Menelcar, Pippin, that was wonderful."

This seemed to be the signal to rise from the table, and the rest of the
company did so.

Menelcar saw to putting his harp in its case; there had been no talk ahead
of time of remuneration, but he did not think the King would stint him.

Faramir approached, and handed him a purse, with a smile. He took it
gratefully. Then he turned to find himself face to face with the King.

"Sire," he said, with a slight bow.

"Master Menelcar, I find myself favorably impressed with your choice of
material. I will need a Court Bard. Is that a position you might consider?"

Menelcar stared, stunned.

* Marigold suggested I put a link to it here; “A Thorny Problem”, one of “Dreamflower’s Mathoms”:

(1) Song adapted from a folksong found at:
(2) Song adapted from a folksong found at:


Menelcar drew his cloak more closely around him as he made his way back down to the second circle of the City. It was late, and he had been offered a bed at the Citadel. But he needed to think.

Court Bard.

Bard to the High King, but more than that. As Court Bard, he would also
control the access of *other* minstrels and bards. It was a lot of
responsibility. Did he want that? It would mean being tied to the capital,
and to the Citadel, for the most part--it would mean an end to his wandering days. He would no longer be carefree. He would be constrained to a certain level of formality much of the time--the free and easy ways of a minstrel on the road would not be appropriate to court. And though he certainly knew he could do it--every bard had to be a diplomat to a certain extent--it did not follow he would like it.

But he had to face it, he was no longer so young as he used to be; sleeping
rough and missing meals, sometimes going days without an audience through largely deserted and dangerous lands, alone. Of course, he could take an apprentice to relieve the loneliness, but he had not met anyone else since Pippin whom he felt would be as good a companion.

As Court Bard, he would receive a generous stipend. It would mean he could send money to his mother, and to his sister and her family. It would not make up for all the years he had neglected them in the past, but it could definitely make a difference in their lives in the future.

And he had a chance to see history made. The reign of the new King, the
beginning of a New Age--he could be a part of that, and could chronicle it
in song.

The new King.

He found himself very impressed with their new King. He had heard of course, of the healing hands of the King, and how he had spent himself among the wounded after the Battle of the Pelennor, and again after the Battle of the Black Gate. After meeting him, he now gave much more credence to those tales. A certain air of empathy and deep understanding seemed to radiate from King Elessar--he obviously *cared* about people, as people, and not simply as subjects under his rule.

And he was not relying here on merely his own judgment: the hobbits clearly adored their "Strider"--there must be a tale there worth the telling, how they came to call him by that name--and he found that he trusted their instincts. He also thought of the tales told in the City of how the King had healed the valiant pheriannath, and remembering the conversation between the hobbits this afternoon, he began to think it had been no small mean feat to snatch them back from the brink of death. Truly, he owed his friend's lives to this King.

More and more, he felt, he could like the job. But was he up to it? He cast
his mind back over the evening. The King had not pressed him for an answer, but had told him to think it over for a few days.

Minas Tirith was going to be much different place, without the grimness of the Enemy staring across the River, without Denethor's hard and inflexible hand upon the reins. It might be good for the court to see things through the perspective of one whose whole world had not been enclosed within the walls of the White City.

And now he knew why he had been offered the job. His own experience in
wandering the world would be a reflection of the King's.

Menelcar nodded to himself. He did not need a few days. When he awakened today, he would return to the Citadel and deliver his answer.

This was not an opportunity to pass up.

The hobbits had packed up their belongings: mostly the clothing gifted to them since the end of the War, and servants had arrived to carry it down to the new house. Only Pippin was not present--he was already on duty in the throne room for the morning. Merry would also need to attend Éomer in a little while, but for now he was going down to the guesthouse with the others.

Sam was elated. "Mr. Frodo, I don't mean any offense to these Men, but
hobbits are not meant to live so high up. It will be nice to sleep in a ground floor room again." This house wasn't quite so cozy as a smial, but it was at least a house, and not some high fortress.

Merry nodded emphatically. "I couldn't spend much time at the window. It made me quite giddy to look down." He shuddered. He had done his best on their journey to suppress his fear of heights, but it had never truly left him, and now that more immediate dangers were past, he found it claiming his attention once more.

"I have to agree," said Frodo. "I, too, will be glad to once more sleep in a
ground floor room. And I think the house will be a bit more homelike. It
will be just the Fellowship; not all of these servants and guards about us
all of the time."

Legolas overheard the hobbits' quiet conversation among themselves, as he and Gimli followed after the servants who carried all the gear. He shook his head ruefully. While it was true that Frodo had prevailed in the matter of not having to have servants about the house, there would still be guards. They would not be in the house, and would be stationed unobtrusively, but neither Aragorn nor Faramir had any intention of leaving the hobbits completely unguarded. He smiled. As if there were need for such, with himself, Gimli and Gandalf also sharing the place. And as Merry and Pippin had proven, the hobbits themselves were not without a means of protection.

Gandalf was already there; he awaited them at the gate to the courtyard, and herded them inside. Once there, the servants were to leave the things they had brought and then return to the Citadel.

Of the little group that was involved in the moving only Merry had yet to see the house. Frodo and Sam showed him the chamber they would be sharing. He stared at the bed. "Lawks! You could get half the Shire in that bed!"

Frodo laughed. "Hardly, Cousin. But we should be comfortable enough."

"Well, I've little time to admire our new dwelling just now I am afraid. I
need to change into my armor and livery, and go to attend my King. " And he quickly began to do so.

Frodo watched as Merry prepared to go to his duty, with the mingled feeling of pride and dismay that he felt every time he saw his younger cousins so array themselves. He was prouder of them than he could begin to say, for all they had accomplished, for the way they had acquitted themselves so bravely and staunchly. Yet still, he felt dismayed at the thought that they had needed to learn a warrior's skills, that it had been necessary for them to kill.

Such a thing was against hobbit-nature, and was bound, sooner or later to
take its toll on them. If the nightmares were anything to go by, it already
had. He sighed.

Merry looked at him sharply. "Frodo, are you feeling guilty again because
Pip and I came along?" He could usually tell what Frodo was thinking.

Frodo flushed. "I just wish that you could have stayed home peacefully."

"Peacefully?" Merry shook his head. "What do you think would have happened to us, with the Black Riders already on your tail? I have spent more hours than you can imagine, worrying about poor Fatty." Merry walked over, and put his hands on Frodo's shoulders. "We were *meant* to come along Frodo. We had things to do as well. Not as important as what you did, but still needing to be done."

"Mr. Merry's making sense, Mr. Frodo. Why just think what they've done, and how bad it might have turned out for Strider and the others, without them! Not to mention what a help they was to us, away in the Black Land, by killing that Wraith and distracting the Eye and all!"

Merry was gratified at what Sam said. He'd not thought before of how he and Pippin actually helped Frodo and Sam as well as the others. But Frodo still looked troubled even as the understanding dawned that the scope of his cousins' deeds exceeded even what he had before realized.

"Listen to them, Frodo," came Gandalf's voice from the doorway. "All fell out in the way that it should have. Do not take burdens on yourself that are not yours to take."

Frodo gave a rueful little laugh. "Well, I daresay all of you are right. And
this is too nice an occasion to spoil with gloomy talk. What shall we do,
our first day in this new house?"

"Well," said Sam, "seeing as how I've finally got a proper kitchen, even
though it's a bit too large, I'm going to see about scaring us up some
elevenses! Anybody care to join me?"

This met with general approval from everyone. Only Merry looked a bit
downcast, as he had to leave. He'd missed Sam's cooking.

"Don't worry, Mr. Merry," Sam called after him, cheerfully in his element
once more. "I'll have a proper tea waiting for you and Mr. Pippin when you
get back."

Menelcar had risen early, packed up his few belongings, and returned to the Citadel, to deliver his answer to the King's offer.

He was passed into the Citadel and received by the Chamberlain, a man
by the name of Ondahil, who had served in the White Tower under Denethor's elderly chamberlain, who had borne much, and gratefully sought peaceful retirement upon the return of the King.

"Master Menelcar, welcome. I have been told of the possibility that you
might come to give us the answer to King Elessar's offer. Will you accept
it, and become his Court Bard?"

Menelcar noted the careful politeness of Master Ondahil's phrasing, while his eyes and face carried a studied neutrality. There was neither warmth nor enthusiasm in his greeting, but Menelcar knew that he would have to prove himself to the old retainer.

Most of the staff at the Citadel had been there under Denethor, and were still trying to find their way in the new order of things.

"Yes, Master Ondahil, I have decided to accept His Grace the King's most
generous offer. I would be foolish indeed to pass up the opportunity to
witness firsthand the establishment of his reign." He put into his own voice all the warmth he had found lacking in the other. He did feel privileged, and had very warm feelings towards the new King.

There was a tiny bit of thaw in the Chamberlain's voice, then. "Very well,
Master Menelcar. I have been directed to tell you that you will receive four sets of livery, and we have prepared a chamber for your use, as you will be expected to dwell here. We shall also set aside a more public chamber, for you to use when interviewing other minstrels, bards and gleemen who seek admittance to perform for the court. In addition, you are to receive an annual stipend of fifty silver, and I have been directed to give this to you in advance." A very slight note of disapproval crept into the chamberlain's voice at this last sentence, but Menelcar got the impression it was directed at the policy, and not at him personally.

"That is generous indeed!" he exclaimed.

Ondahil handed him a small, but heavy, purse, and then rang a bell to summon the servant who would show him to his chamber.

"Please come to see me again after you have settled your belongings, and we will see to getting you measured for your livery."

A few hours later, his belongings stowed, and having been measured for new livery, he took his harp and made his way about the more public spaces of the Citadel. He would go down to the chamber granted him to use as an office and interview room later. But right now, he thought, he would make his way to the kitchens.

That had always been a habit of his whenever staying in one of the halls or homes of the great. In the kitchens, one could not only ingratiate oneself with the cooks--always a good idea--but one could pick up gossip and gain a feel for how things were run. It also helped in determining the pace of the day in that particular establishment--in how the meals were scheduled and so forth. And the cooks and other servants were almost always glad to have a minstrel sing for them as they worked, and it made them generous and talkative.

Since he was actually going to be dwelling here, it was going to be a habit he wished to establish early on. They would get used to seeing him there on a regular basis.

As he came around the corner of a corridor, he saw the Steward and the Lady Éowyn approach. Stopping, he made a courteous and graceful bow. "My Lord Steward, my Lady Éowyn! It is good to see you once more."

"Master Menelcar! I am pleased that you accepted the King's offer," said
Faramir, looking at the bard curiously. Éowyn had told him of how she had
finally remembered Menelcar, and Faramir had been both touched by her
confidence, and amused by her account of her youthful follies. But she had been uncertain if the bard had in turn remembered her.

"Thank you, Lord Faramir. I hope that I will prove satisfactory. I have to
say that it will be a change for me. I am not accustomed to staying in one
place overlong."

Éowyn glanced at the minstrel's face. He was looking at her with a humorous glint in his eye. She was almost certain he remembered her.

Almost, but not quite. "And where were you going, Master Menelcar? Have you already found tasks here?"

He grinned a bit cheekily, and decided to put her out of her misery. "I
thought that I would go to the kitchen. The pot-scrubbers, too, often like
to hear a song!"

She laughed delightedly. "So you *do* remember me! I was not sure if you did so. Why did you say nothing?"

"Well, my lady, I was uncertain as to whether you *wished* to be remembered. If I recall correctly, the circumstances were a bit less than ideal."

She laughed once more. "That is a very diplomatic way to put it, Master
Menelcar! I was a mess! And in disgrace!"

Faramir glanced at her, and then said teasingly, "Master Menelcar, have you ever cast into song this tale of the battle between a youthful shield-maiden and her cousin? If not, perhaps I could commission it as a gift for my lady."

"Do not dare think of it, beloved! Master Menelcar, whatever he might
propose to pay you to do such a thing, I promise you it will not be worth it
to raise my ire!"

"Having seen your abilities in battle at the tender age of fifteen, I would
not dare your wrath, now you are a seasoned warrior, Lady Éowyn!" He looked back at Faramir with a look of mock regret. "You see, my Lord Steward, that I am threatened with bodily harm, and should not dream of taking on such a commission."

"I see that such a gift would not be to the liking of my lady," Faramir
responded, also with mock regret, "and instead will have to be content with sweets and flowers."

The expression on Éowyn's face at this declaration was one of astonishment, and then all three of them burst into laughter.

"Well, Master Menelcar," Faramir continued, "we shall leave you to go and
serenade the cooks and pot-scrubbers."

Menelcar bowed, and took his leave. The couple watched after him. This,
thought Faramir, was going to be a pleasant change in the atmosphere he had been used to, growing up in the Citadel. Having a bard in the court, and especially one as quick-witted as Master Menelcar, was going to be most entertaining. He would have a word with Chamberlain Ondahil about the duties the bard would be undertaking in the next few days.

The Fellowship had dined together on Sam's cooking, greatly enjoying their new quarters. Frodo was pleased that a small library was located in the house--when Merry had been convalescing in the Houses of Healing, he had cheered himself up by finding books he thought Frodo would like when his Quest had been completed. Aragorn and Gandalf had also made some additions to the shelves, and Frodo was delighted to see a number of books he had been longing to read.

Legolas had found that there was a stairway leading to the roof, where he could sit and enjoy an unobstructed view of the stars. And he and Sam had already begun to make plans for the poor neglected little garden. Gimli appreciated the house's solid construction and stonework. Merry and Pippin were just glad to be out of the huge Citadel. Even if this place was not so cozy as a hobbit hole, it was definitely more homelike than the White Tower. And for Gandalf, it was very familiar--he had dwelt there before, after all.

The wizard hoped that perhaps this new setting would help the hobbits'
increasing homesickness to abate somewhat. He knew that they wanted desperately to return to the Shire, but there were a number of things that must occur before that happened. He was also in the hopes that the new room, on ground level, and the new bed, large enough for the four of them to find comfort in one another, would help a bit with their night terrors. Only the night before, it had been Sam who first awakened, startling Frodo into panic. Their cries had woken nearly everyone along the corridor. Merry and Pippin had managed to calm Sam enough to get him settled down, though he was filled with remorse at causing his Master distress. Aragorn had needed to dose Frodo before the terrified beating of his heart returned to normal, and he calmed enough to get back to sleep. It was nearly a nightly occurrence, and there had been some nights when all four hobbits had been affected at the same time. Gandalf was sure that eventually these dreams would fade for the three younger hobbits. He was not so certain about Frodo. He would be glad of Elrond's opinion when he arrived in the White City.

That night, after the hobbits had retired, Legolas passed their door. His
sharp Elven ears heard the sound of whimpering. Cautiously, he opened the door and glanced in. It was clear that Merry was in the beginnings of a nightmare: his face was furrowed, and he was twitching uncomfortably.

Legolas glided over and sat by the bed, placing his hand over Merry's brow, and began a soft singing. Soon, it was clear that Merry had relaxed--not only he, but the others as well, seemed to sink into a deeper, more peaceful slumber.

The Elf stayed there, singing, until the dawn began to break and the Sun was making her way over the horizon. Silently, he took his leave. Perhaps the hobbits did not need to suffer in their dreams after all.

The next day or two, Menelcar spent beginning to learn his place in the King's Court. It soon became clear that those who had served there under Denethor were uncertain and uneasy about their place with the new King. This was displayed in different manners toward the new Court Bard: some there were who tried to flatter him and sought him out, as a possible link to the King's favor, while others displayed a thinly veiled disdain for him, this wandering minstrel who had come out of nowhere. And there were others, still, who unsure as to how to treat him, simply avoided him as much as possible. He found all of this highly amusing. Many years ago, he might have taken offense, or been hurt, but all the years on the road had helped him develop a thick skin and a sense of humor.

In the evenings, the King had summoned him to sing and play, once for him
alone, and the second night with his close friends, Mithrandir, Legolas and
Gimli. The hobbits had not yet joined them again. They were too much
enjoying their new dwelling place, and did not yet wish to return to the
heights, save when Pippin and Merry needed to do so for their duty.

The minstrel soon understood that the King really enjoyed hearing him sing the songs that old Bilbo had written, that he had gone to the Shire to learn in the first place. It was clear that the former Ranger had a great fondness for the old hobbit, and that he missed his friend.

A couple of days after the remaining Fellowship had moved into the
guesthouse, Menelcar went to it. He found Frodo, Merry and Pippin in the

"Menelcar!" Pippin jumped up to give him an enthusiastic hug. "Do come join us! How are you liking your new position?"

"Well enough," smiled the Man. "I have yet to take on any of the more
onerous duties, and I am beginning to find my way among the courtiers and staff. But more importantly, the day we were speaking of is nearly upon us. Where is Master Samwise?"

"Sam's in the kitchen," said Frodo, "supposedly making luncheon, but he's
been there for most of the morning already. Even though tomorrow is his
birthday, he thinks we do not know that he is preparing gifts for everyone. Most likely sugar biscuits and gingersnaps. At least, I hope so! I have missed his gingersnaps."

"*He* is preparing gifts?" asked Menelcar, curious.

Merry nodded. "The custom among our people is that the byrding-- that is the person having the birthday-- gives out gifts. I know that Big Folk do it otherwise."

Pippin put in, "Of course, we can give gifts to him, as well, but not after
noon of the day of his birthday." The youngest hobbit laughed delightedly. "But this year, we are following Big Folks' custom, as we are giving him the surprise party. You are still coming, aren't you?"

"Of course I am," said Menelcar. "Should I bring anything?"

"Just your harp."

"Hsst," warned Merry, "here he comes."

Sam announced luncheon, and the hobbits invited Menelcar to join them. He readily agreed. Master Samwise was an excellent cook, as he well remembered. All of them were careful not to comment upon the lingering smells of spices and baking in the air.

Mithrandir--Gandalf, as the hobbits called him, was also there for the meal, as were the Elf and the Dwarf. The Little Folk sat at a smaller table while the Big Folk sat at a larger one in the center of the room. Still they were close enough together for amiable conversation. The hobbits were in a talkative and playful mood.

"I think," said Frodo, "that moving to the house has been good for us. We
have not been plagued with ill dreams since moving in."

Legolas glanced up sharply for an instant, and a small smile quirked his

"Indeed," said Gandalf, "that is most remarkable." He glanced up through
shaggy brows at the Elf. Legolas saw his regard, and steadfastly returned
it. But he felt relief when the Wizard looked away.

"Master Menelcar," said Gimli, "perhaps you could grace us with a song to
finish off this fine meal." The Dwarf took out his pipe, and Gandalf and the hobbits did the same. Legolas resignedly scooted his chair closer to the open window of the large kitchen.

Menelcar strummed his harp slowly for a few moments, and then sped up into a rollicking tune. The hobbits began to grin as they recognized another of Bilbo's songs. Menelcar had scarcely begun to sing, when first Pippin, and then the other hobbits joined in:

"Look there is Fastitocalon!
An island good to land upon,
Although 'tis rather bare.
Come, leave the sea! And let us run,
Or dance, or lie down in the sun!
See gulls are sitting there!
Gulls do not sink."*

As the song drew on to its conclusion, all the company were clapping and
nodding. Menelcar grinned. This was a small audience, but it was the most
important audience of all.

After his luncheon with the hobbits, Menelcar made his way down toward the lower levels. He had a free afternoon, and he missed the bustle of the taverns and street corners.

He saw a couple of acquaintances of his, one playing a lute, the other, a
fiddle, busking on one of the corners. Careful to stay out of their line of
vision, he nevertheless managed to drop a couple of coins in the hat that
lay on the ground nearby. They were of substantially larger denomination
than any of the other coins already there, and he imagined with pleasure
their surprise when they came to count their take later. But he did not want them to know he had been there. He was sure news of his good fortune in being appointed Court Bard had already made the rounds of all the performers in the City, and they were sure to guess who their benefactor was if they caught sight of him.

He stopped at a tavern, The Queen's Cats, and went in to find a table out of the way, where he could sip an ale, and think in peace.

"They're the apple of the King's eye." The voice was a bit oily and

His ears caught the sound of the low conversation taking place behind him. There was something furtive about it, which he did not care for.

"So I hear. Not much he wouldn't do for them, or give them little
creatures." This voice, rough and gravelly.

Menelcar raised his brows. They *had* to be talking about the hobbits.

"They're not staying in the Citadel no more," said a third voice with just a
bit of a lisp.

"This is true," said the first one. "I hear they're staying at one of the
King's guesthouses. But they've got the Wizard, Dwarf and Elf staying there as well. We'll have to get an opportunity to speak to one of them away from the place."

"Do you think it will work?" said the third voice.

"Oh, I think it will. The word is they are as soft-hearted as they come, and so I've no doubt they would likely believe any hard-luck story they might be told."

Menelcar felt a rage building at the obvious plot to take advantage of his
small friends. The hobbits were much shrewder than these villains were
giving them credit for, but if a sad story were plausible enough--well, he
could imagine that Pippin, for one, might be taken in. He did not think that
they would find it so easy to deceive Merry or Frodo. Sam, though, was like Pippin--he, too, might believe such a story, if it were told well enough.

"Do you think we can find one alone? Does it matter which one?" asked the second voice.

"Maybe the youngest one, or the servant would work best. But so long as we can find one of them alone, I am not sure it matters."

There was a bit of rough laughter, and the three plotters got up to go out. Menelcar observed them carefully, and then threw the payment for his ale on the table, and sauntered out as well, trying to keep them in sight without being spotted.

Menelcar followed them down into the second circle and into one of the less reputable parts of the City. When he was certain that they had reached their destination, he fixed it in his mind, and hurried back up to the Citadel. He hoped that the Steward was available.

Luckily, he found Faramir in his outer chamber, looking over some old
contracts that the Steward's office had held with various merchants. They were quite informative, and Faramir could not help but feel admiration for the way his father had made the most advantageous dealings to the benefit of the realm.

"How may I help you, Menelcar?" he asked. He was surprised by the grim look on the minstrel's face. It was not an expression he had ever seen there before.

As Menelcar told his tale, Faramir's expression soon matched his.

"This is insufferable!" Faramir rose. "Let us find the King. He wants to
know anything at all that affects the hobbits."

They had to search a bit, but finally located him as he returned to the
Citadel from the Houses of Healing.

Aragorn took one look at their faces, and led them to his private study.
"Gentlemen, what disturbs you so?"

Once more Menelcar related the conversation he had overheard. As he spoke, he was surprised to hear a low rumbling sound. It took him a moment to understand that the King was actually growling. The sound stopped abruptly, as Aragorn realized what he was doing. There was a brief silence after Menelcar finished his tale. For a long moment, Aragorn closed his eyes and clenched his fists. His knuckles were white. Faramir and Menelcar watched warily, both of them understanding exactly why he was so angry. Both of them were very nearly as angry themselves. Finally, the King blew out a long breath, and when he looked at the two once more, his expression was still grim, but composed.

"Tell me, Menelcar, is it your judgment that these wretches intend to offer any violence to my friends?"

Menelcar thought carefully back to all he had overheard in the tavern, and on the street as he followed. "I do not think so, my Lord King. It seemed to me that the idea was to cozen one or more of the little folk with a sad tale of hardship, with the idea of relieving them of a goodly sum of coin. I think the idea was that the pheriannath would ask it of you, and that you would give them whatsoever they wished."

"I see." Aragorn stuck his tongue in his cheek and looked very thoughtful.
"Well, we do not wish to take the chance that you are wrong about harming them, but I do think that your judgment is probably correct. You are fairly shrewd about people, I have found."

Menelcar blushed briefly at the praise. "Thank you, my Lord King."

The King turned to his Steward. "Faramir, is Pippin on duty this afternoon?"

"Yes, he is. He would have been free today, but he wished to have tomorrow, on account of Sam's birthday."

Aragorn nodded. He looked at Menelcar. "How soon do you think these villains plan to act?"

"I think that the only thing holding them back has been a lack of opportunity to find one of the pheriannath alone."

"I do not wish Sam's birthday to be spoiled. We will have to make sure that the opportunity does not arrive until after that is over." He turned to Faramir. "Send for Pippin. I have an idea."

Pippin stood at his post with his friend Adrahil. They stood to attention,
but managed nevertheless to hold a quiet conversation. He was quite
surprised to be approached by Adrahil's brother Artamir. "Sir Peregrin, the King wishes to see you in his study. I am to take your place here."

Pippin trotted along, worried just a bit that he might have done something
wrong. He was, after all, still new to this Guard business, and now that the War was over, things were a good deal more formal and ceremonial than they had been during the fighting.

He knocked, and entered as he was bid, a little surprised to see Faramir and Menelcar there, but as he was on duty, he knelt to his liege. Aragorn smiled at him. "Rise, Pippin, and come have a seat." There was a chair near the table Aragorn used that had been altered so as to be comfortable for hobbits, though it was a bit of a climb to sit in. Pippin never took his eyes off his King. Something was going on.

The King sat down behind the table and gestured for Faramir and Menelcar to sit as well.

"Menelcar, would you tell Pippin what you overheard today?"

Yet again the bard repeated the tale. He watched Pippin's face, so much older and more mature than the sweet lad he remembered from the Shire, as it grew grim and troubled. Tears stood in the green eyes, but they were tears of anger. Pippin reached up and dashed them away roughly. When the minstrel finished speaking, the hobbit looked back at his King.

"How could they?" he exclaimed. "After what Frodo and Sam *went* through, after they offered their very *lives*? After Merry nearly *died*? And they want to use us to make *money*!" His face had gone dead white, except for two bright red spots on his cheeks.

"Strider, what are you going to do to them?"

Aragorn leaned forward, and placed a hand on Pippin's arm. "We are going to watch them for now; we do not want to spoil Sam's day tomorrow. I must ask you please, not to tell the others about this yet."

Pippin flushed. He knew that was a command of his King, and he would obey. He did not mind not telling Frodo or Sam. It would hurt their feelings dreadfully, he feared, when they found out. But it was going to be hard not to tell Merry. Aragorn could tell what he was thinking.

"You may tell Meriadoc when the time is right, but not yet. And if you agree, this is what we are going to do--"

As Aragorn spoke, the expression on Pippin's face began to clear, and he
began to grin. A gleam came into his eye; this was going to be more fun than the holewarming present he had left for Lobelia and Lotho when Frodo had vacated Bag End.


*Taken from The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien, "Fastitocalon" poem
number 11, in "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil".


His first gift to his friends was going to be a spectacular first breakfast.
But before he started, he thought he would give the first of his gifts.
Climbing the ingenious stepladder that had been placed in the kitchen for
the hobbits--it had wheels to roll about, and a handbrake, so that it would
be safe to climb--he opened the cabinet and selected one of the small sacks he had secreted there the day before.

He took it out, and carefully clambered down. Even this small climb made his heart go pit-a-pat. But he had done this several times since they moved in, and so far it had proven safe; he was beginning to get used to it--more or less.

He padded out to the courtyard where a tree had a small bench beneath it. But the person he sought would not be on the bench. He looked up into the branches.

"Mr. Legolas, sir!" he called softly.

"Yes, Sam. I am here," the Elf replied. There was the very slightest
movement of the branches, and Legolas landed gracefully before him.

"Did you want something?"

Sam blushed. "Erm--not really, that is to say, it's my birthday, and I've a
gift for you. It's not much, but, here--" he held the sack out.

Legolas took it, and gave him a smile. "Why, thank you, Sam! Let me see what I have here--"

He opened the sack and looked within. "Ah, these smell wonderful! What are they called?"

"Those are gingersnaps, Mr. Legolas. And I know you don't usually, but if
you come to breakfast this morning, I'm making griddlecakes and sausage and bacon and eggs and we've some of those lovely orange fruits they grow down here."

"You tempt me, Sam. I may very well join your birthday breakfast feast."

Sam grinned, and returned to the kitchen. The smells soon began to permeate the house, especially after he brewed some coffee. That was bound to even waken Mr. Gimli, who usually slept until elevenses. Merry and Pippin came into the kitchen almost immediately. The smell of food was as good as an alarm clock for Mr. Pippin. They assisted him with some of the breakfast preparations, setting out the dishes and cutting the fruit. Mr. Frodo came in next, looking almost chipper. They had all been sleeping much better since moving into the house.

Gandalf was not much behind Frodo. "Ah, Samwise," he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "you have certainly been making good use of this kitchen."

"It's right nice to have a real kitchen to cook in again, sir. I mean
campfires is all very well, but there's a lot to be said for a real oven."

"Indeed there is."

"Do I smell coffee?" rumbled the voice of the Dwarf, as Gimli also made his way into the kitchen.

Legolas entered through the outside door. "I do think that I shall join you
this fine morning," he said, much to Sam's delight. The Elf almost never
took first breakfast, though he sometimes took second.

Legolas placed a hand in front of his mouth, as if to suppress a yawn.
Gandalf looked at him sharply, and this time the Elf flushed.

"Before we sit down, I have somewhat for you all." Sam started to push the ladder back to the cabinet, but Gandalf forestalled him.

"I will reach it down for you, Sam," he offered, opening the cupboard door.

"Thank you, Mr. Gandalf! It's them little sacks."

Everyone was most appreciative of the gingersnaps. The Wizard looked at Sam. "There are several more sacks here," he said.

"Those is for Strider and some of the others as is up to the Citadel. I plan to take them up there after we eat."

"Then, let us by no means delay this excellent meal any longer."

Pippin's mind was working furiously. Frodo and Merry and he had counted on Sam's errand to deliver his gifts to keep Sam away until nearly noon, when they would have the party preparations finished. They had decided to surprise him right before the stroke of noon, so that technically his gift would still be in order by Shire etiquette--though they were cutting it very fine indeed--but he knew that the King did not want any of the hobbits unaccompanied until after the morrow, when they planned to spring their trap on the scoundrels. He was afraid he might have to somehow confide in one of his companions, when a knocking came at the door.
He leaped up to answer.

It was Bergil.

"Hullo, Bergil," Pippin said in surprise. The lad was on page duty, so he
had not expected him to be paying a visit.

"Sir Pippin," he whispered, "I am supposed to be giving you a message from Targon, but really it's so I can walk back up to the Citadel with Lord Sam. The King thought he might need to go up there this morning, and for some reason he doesn't want him to go alone."

Pippin grinned. Trust Strider to have the problem all figured out already. He gave a glance out of the courtyard gate. There were two of the Tower Guards, but not dressed in livery. Clearly they were there to keep an eye on things. He felt a wash of relief. Out loud he said, "Thanks for the message, Bergil. Join us for a little bit of breakfast before you go back."

Bergil grinned. "That sounds nice, Sir Pippin, thank you!" he said as Pippin
took his hand and led him into the kitchen.

When the breakfast was finished the other hobbits insisted on doing the
washing up. "It's your birthday, Sam! Let us do that much for you! You have gifts to yet deliver," said Frodo emphatically.

"Yes," said Pippin. "Why don't you walk back up to the Citadel with Bergil
and keep him company on the way?" Pippin mentally crossed his fingers.

"Well, if you are sure--" Sam hesitated. Even after all else had happened,
it still didn't feel right to be leaving the washing up to the gentlehobbits.

"We are absolutely sure," said Merry. Would he never leave? They had dozens of things to do to get ready for the party.

"Go." Frodo sounded amused but firm, so Sam finally relented. He took the remaining sacks, and left the guesthouse with Bergil at his side.

"May I help you carry those, Lord Sam?" asked Bergil politely.

Sam rolled his eyes. Bergil ducked his head, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I mean 'Mr.' Sam?" Bergil was still a bit uncertain about the hobbity form of address.

"Well, seeing as one of them's for you, and one is for your dad, I don't see why you shouldn't take those. And I suppose you can handle a couple more as well."

"Oh, thank you!" He gave Sam a questioning look, and Sam nodded, so he
opened one and peeked in. The smell of ginger and cinnamon wafted out.

"It's gingersnaps," said Sam. "How is your father doing, by the way?" The
hobbits, especially Pippin, were very worried about Beregond's possible fate, though they trusted Strider to see the right thing done. Frodo was positive that somehow King Elessar and the Steward Faramir between them would find a good solution.

A cloud passed over Bergil's face briefly, but he said lightly enough, "Oh,
he's all right. He said he trusts Lord Faramir, and Lord Faramir trusts the King. But
I keep thinking I know what the old Steward would have done."

I'm sure you do, thought Sam, though he didn't say it. He'd heard enough from Mr. Pippin that he was not favorably impressed by Denethor. It was probably his father's fault as much as the Ring's that poor old Mr. Boromir had gone off his head like that--probably worrying about letting his father down on top of all the Ring's constant nattering. Out loud he merely said "Well, I'd trust Strider any day to put things right, lad."

Bergil laughed. He always thought it funny when the hobbits called the King "Strider", though he knew they had leave to do so. Sir Pippin had told him of their first encounter with the King, and he had trouble imagining their handsome and majestic King all "scruffy" as he had been described.

The two soon came to the Citadel, and were passed in immediately. Sam had brought gingersnaps for the King, Lord Faramir, Elladan and Elrohir, King Éomer and Lady Éowyn, and Menelcar, as well as for Lord Ondahil, who had done what he could to see to the hobbit's comfort while they were there, and Mistress Firiel, the head cook in the kitchens, who had been kind enough to let Sam fix up a tray or two for his Master. He also had a sack for Mistress Ioreth in the Houses of Healing, for having been so kind to Mr. Merry when he was there and so ill and lonely.

Bergil left Sam at that point, giving him back most of the gifts, for he had to report to Lord Ondahil to see if he had any other errands to run. Sam gave him the gingersnaps for that worthy as well. "You be certain to tell him my thanks now, lad."

"I will, Lor--I mean, Mr., Sam." He gave an engaging grin and headed off.
He also had to let it be known Sam was there, for Frodo's instructions to
the King had been to keep Sam at the Citadel until half past eleven. There
were any number of conspirators about to help in that task.

Sam spoke to one of the Guardsmen, and was told that he might find the King in his private chambers. Since all four of the hobbits had leave to see the King whensoever they wished, Sam headed in that direction. The servant showed him right in.

The King was at breakfast with Faramir, Éomer and Éowyn, as well as Elladan and Elrohir, who had returned the previous afternoon. “Why Sam! It's good to see you! I am sure you have already broken your fast, but if I recall correctly, a hobbit can always use a second one. Please join us!"

Sam looked at the table, surprised as always, with the paucity of the meals Men considered adequate: some kind of sweet roll, coffee, juice made from those orange fruits, and sliced melon. It did look good.

"Well, I don't mind if I do, but first--" he blushed a bit. He was not shy of giving gifts out the way Mr. Pippin was, but it was strange having to explain it. "It's my birthday--"

"Fancy that!" said the King with a straight face. "Is it really?" He did not ever lie straight out, but decades among the Elves had taught him the subtleties of omission. But he was careful not to catch the eye of either of his foster brothers, lest he spoil it by laughing.

"Er, yes, and hobbits give gifts to their friends on their birthdays. It's not much, but--" he brought forward the sacks and passed them out, glad that Mr. Pippin had told him Lord Elrond's sons would be back. "Here Mr. Elladan and Mr. Elrohir. Mr. Pippin said as you would be back in time." He blushed as he handed them their gifts. Elves, except for Legolas, still made him a bit shy.

There were exclamations of appreciation, which gratified Sam no end. Aragorn ordered another place set for the table, and Faramir brought out a thick cushion for the chair.

"This custom of your people is very interesting, Master Samwise," said Éomer. "Meriadoc and I have talked much about some of the things my people and yours seem to have in common. Did you know that among the Rohirrim, very young children always give their mothers a gift of flowers on their birthdays?"

Sam's face lit up in surprise. "Why, that is just how it begins with us hobbits! A little faunt's first birthday gift is flowers for his parents!" He was delighted with this small revelation, and soon was involved in explaining the intricacies of hobbit gift-giving customs, which to his listeners began to sound every bit as complicated as hobbit genealogy.

"--and so it's awful bad luck to take a gift to the wedding. It's said sometimes an ill-wisher will do just that, to get back at the bride and groom, though in all my life I've only heard of it actually happening once, when old Missus Lobelia gave a gift to Mr. Frodo's mum at her wedding, on account of she had once been sweet on Mr. Drogo herself. But that's old gossip, that is. Listen at me natter on! Would you excuse me, Strider? I still have some more gingersnaps to deliver."

At Aragorn's assent, Sam slid off his cushion. Faramir rose. "I have some things to attend to, I will walk out with you."

As arranged, when Faramir and Sam had gone only a short way down the corridor, they encountered Menelcar, who affected great surprise.

"Greetings, my Lord Steward. And Master Samwise, what a pleasant surprise it is to see you! I had no idea you would be here today," he lied. "Where are the others?"

Sam explained his errand to the minstrel, as Faramir took his leave, amused. Menelcar would take it from here.

"I will walk with you down to the kitchens, Sam," said Menelcar. "I usually visit there at least once a day, you know," and he winked at Sam, who grinned.

"Like to stay on the good side of the cook, do you, Mr. Menelcar?" he asked

"Well, that's never a bad idea, as I am sure you know."

Sam laughed. "I think Mr. Pippin would definitely agree with you."

Mistress Firiel was delighted with the gift of gingersnaps, and after trying one, insisted on having the recipe from Sam. She fetched him paper and stylus, and as he wrote it down, she offered him and Menelcar slices of the still warm crumb cake she had just taken from the oven. Since second breakfast among the Men had been so small, Sam did not say 'no'. Menelcar took some as well, though he asked for a very small slice, thinking about
the feast that was sure to come.

After they had finished, Menelcar offered to sing for the kitchen staff, something he had made a habit of doing most days since coming to the Citadel.

He sang a pleasant and rather jolly song about the courtship of a frog and a bumblebee. It was a silly song, often relegated to the nursery in Gondor, but Sam had never heard it before, and found it thoroughly delightful. He hummed along, trying to remember the words.

When he had finished singing, Menelcar looked askance at Sam. "Perhaps I should have asked for you as my apprentice, when I could not get Pippin."

Sam blushed. "I don't think as I'm cut out for that kind of life, Mr. Menelcar. But I thank you kindly for the thought--I'm not nearly the singer Mr. Pippin is, and I don't play nothing."

"You underestimate yourself, Samwise," replied the minstrel. All of the hobbits tended to do that, but Sam was particularly self-effacing.

"Well, Mr. Menelcar, I need to get to the Houses of Healing before I go back to the house and see to fixing lunch."

"I will come with you, Sam. I've no pressing duties elsewhere, if you would not mind waiting while I fetch my harp."

Sam agreed, and while he waited for Menelcar to return, he accepted another piece of crumb cake and a cup of tea from Mistress Firiel. Just before they left the kitchens, Menelcar whispered to the cook: "Let them know we've left."

She nodded and winked.

At the Houses of Healing, Sam had no trouble finding Mistress Ioreth. He had only met her once, but he knew from what Mr. Pippin had said how kind she had been to poor Mr. Merry when he'd been left here all alone. And that made her a friend in Sam's eyes.

She was voluble in her thanks, eating two of the gingersnaps immediately, and praising them to the skies. Talking a mile a minute, she walked along with them. "Master Menelcar, I know that you are the Court Bard, and thus very important, but it would cheer some of the patients no end to have a bit of song."

Menelcar agreed readily, and once more Sam found himself standing by, this time as the Man sang to a roomful of still recovering patients. Most of them had been injured either on the Pelennor or before the Black Gates, and it wrung Sam's heart to see them so. How lucky Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin were to be hobbits and to have had that stuff from the Ents; according to Strider that's all that enabled them to heal so well as they had. It had been a near thing for the both of them, by all accounts. And they had all their limbs, too. He saw one poor young fellow who had no legs at all. After Menelcar sang, Sam was persuaded to give them a bit of comic verse, so he recited that one of Mr. Bilbo's about the cat. He did not think any of these poor lads would find either trolls or oliphaunts funny right now. He remembered Mr. Pippin saying he couldn't find "Perry-the-Winkle" at all amusing anymore, now he knew the truth about trolls.

Afterwards he glanced out a window. "Why, Mr. Menelcar! The Sun's made her way and it's very nearly noon! I must hurry if I'm to get lunch ready on time!"

So Man and hobbit hurried in the direction of the guesthouse, one not noticing and the other paying no mind to the two Guardsmen dressed in everyday clothing who trailed behind them.

The two figures who had been surreptitiously watching the guesthouse drew back. "Min," said a whiny voice, "today's not going to work. There's been a steady stream of folk going in there—including the King himself and the Steward."

"I think you're right," said Min. "We'll try again tomorrow to see if we can talk to one of them alone.

They crept off, also failing to notice they were being followed.

If Sam was surprised that Menelcar wanted to come down to the guesthouse with him, he did not say so. They walked in companionable silence, and Sam led him through the courtyard to the front door. He went in--

"SURPRISE!" The clamor of voices nearly made Sam jump out of his skin. He looked about wide-eyed. There was Mr. Frodo, and Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, grinning at him like no tomorrow. And there were Gandalf and Legolas and Gimli--and Strider, and Faramir, and the King of Rohan and his sister, and Beregond and Bergil, and Elladan and Elrohir and several of the soldiers from Pippin's company, and a few of the Riders of the Rohirrim that he knew by face if not all by name. His jaw dropped. He tried to say something, but no words would come out. He thought for a moment as though he might swoon.

But Frodo and Merry took him laughingly by each arm and pulled him into the room, and Pippin slid a hobbit-sized stool behind his knees. He sat down, and finally said, "Glory and trumpets, Mr. Frodo! Why did you do it?"

Frodo grinned. "Because we all love you, Sam, you goose, and because we thought it was time for a hobbit-style party!"

Sam looked at his master with tears of joy in his eyes. "Oh, Mr. Frodo!" was all he could manage.

He was completely flummoxed. This was the *last* thing he had expected. He knew he ought to be saying, "You shouldn't've," because the Gaffer would never have thought it proper to have the gentlehobbits, and especially Mr. Frodo, attending on him and throwing him a party, but he just couldn't. It felt so good to see everyone in such good spirits, and to see how much they cared.

And there sat the King--Strider, grinning at him like the cat that's got into the cream. And the King of Rohan and his sister, who would probably be leaving tomorrow or the next day to get things ready for their uncle's funeral, poor things. How could he grudge them anything that would put a smile on their faces? Gandalf was chuckling at him, as if he knew just what was passing through his head--and he probably did, not even from being a Wizard, but just from knowing hobbits so well as he did. All of them and the others as well were regarding him with amusement. He supposed he ought to be saying *something*. He wished he had Mr. Bilbo's gift for speechifying.

Mr. Frodo was standing there, with his hand on Sam's shoulder. Sam looked back and up at him.

Frodo chortled. "Sam, don't you dare say 'you shouldn't have'; we've had entirely too much fun planning this. Since it seems it will be a while until we see home, we thought a Shire style party would be welcome."

Sam nodded, eyes shining. Seemed he wouldn't have to say anything yet after all.

He looked up to see Merry, Pippin and Gimli bringing in the low table from
the kitchen, with a lovely cake on it. Another table nearby was laden with
other treats, and--was that a beer keg in the corner?

Menelcar took his harp and went to stand on the stair landing, and started to play a Shire air. Pippin--why where in the world had Mr. Pippin got a fiddle? went to join him. And one of the Rohirrim added a flute --and good heavens! Strider took a drum, a tall thing with a slight hourglass shape to it, and went and sat alongside them, keeping the time with his fingers. Sam's jaw dropped, and some of the others looked surprised as well to see that.

Gandalf smiled. "That is a drum such as the Easterlings use. It is something
he picked up on his many travels in his youth."

By now, toes were tapping. The musicians had begun to play the air known as
Southfarthing Brawl, a dance done in a circle that didn't need partners. Merry and Frodo grabbed Sam and pulled him up, and they began to show the others how it was done. First Gandalf, and then Legolas, and then Éowyn and Faramir came to join in, and soon everyone did, as the music grew faster and faster.

Everyone was puffing hard when it finished.

The musicians played several more toe-tapping Shire melodies, and then Menelcar and Pippin sang. They sang some old Shire songs and some of Mr. Bilbo's songs, and Sam found himself missing old Mr. Bilbo something fierce. Oh, wouldn't he love to hear about this!

Menelcar and Pippin finished the song about "Princess Mee" and then Pippin
spoke up.

"Sam, Merry and I have a song we made just for the party. Merry made up most of the words, and it is set to the tune of 'Down the Green Hills'."

He played just a bit of that sentimental air, a favorite in the Shire with fiddlers and pipers alike, and then he stopped and began to sing, his voice so clear and sweet.

"The Road has brought us ever on
A long and winding way,
And step by step it led us on
Through fire and flood and dark and dawn
Further from home each day.

Of the world's beauty and sorrow
There is much we can tell,
And through darkness and through shadow,
We have fought to find tomorrow,
And hoped all would be well.

No matter how far we would roam,
Together or apart,
When we struggled on all alone,
Our dreams were always of home,
For there we kept our heart.

Where the Brandywine meanders
Down through the rushes green,
In rills and ripples wanders
On past all the gentle splendors
Of every rustic scene.

Where the scent of summer clover
So sweetly fills the air,
And the bees through fields of heather
Over open blossoms hover
On warm mornings so fair.

Oh, there is much we can admire
Here in this world of Men,
But we will find our heart's desire
On down the Green Hills of the Shire;
We will be home again."

Pippin's green eyes glistened when he finished, and Sam found himself sniffling. Oh, he did so want to go home soon. He missed his Gaffer and his sisters and his dearest Rosie. He felt a hand tighten on his shoulder, and looked up to see that tears were running down Mr. Frodo's cheeks. And Mr. Merry was impatiently dashing away tears as well. But as he looked about the room, he realized even the Big Folk seemed to have been affected by the
song. The hobbits were not the only ones with tears in their eyes.

Menelcar waited for a moment, and then to lighten the mood, began another song, a comic song about a young Man trying to court a farmer's daughter, while all along the lass saucily denied him. Soon there were chuckles and tapping toes once more.

Sam was glad. Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin's song was beautiful, and he was glad
to have heard it, but there was still a lot more party to go.

While the musicians took a break, Legolas took out his shepherd's pipes, that he had made in the Golden Wood, and began to play a lovely Elven melody.

The twins went up to the landing, and one took over Strider's drum, and the other borrowed Menelcar's harp. Pippin put his fiddle aside, and came down to get
some refreshment.

He came over to Sam. "Happy birthday, Sam! Were you surprised?"

Sam chuckled ruefully. "I can't think when I've been more surprised, Mr. Pippin! And that was a right pretty song you and Mr. Merry made."

"Thank you, Sam. Merry wrote the words, I just helped him fit his words to the tune." He glanced over at the table where the cake stood. Frodo was standing nearby talking to Merry, and Sam could just see the thought passing through the youngster’s head. The lad was wondering what his chances were of getting two pieces with both of his elder cousins there.

Sam laughed. "Mr. Pippin, I'm the byrding! You just tell Mr. Frodo and Mr. Merry I said you can have two pieces--two mind you, not three!"

Pippin grinned delightedly. "Sam, you are a capital fellow!" He leaned over and put a very noisy kiss on Sam's forehead, making the gardener blush furiously, and went over to claim his bounty.

Near the ale cask, Gimli stood with Éomer and Éowyn. "This is a lively gathering," said the King of Rohan.

Gimli chuckled. "Hobbits really know how to throw a party! Even when taken unawares, they are first-rate hosts, and when they have time to plan, they excel at it. Old Bilbo was famous for his parties." *

Legolas started in on a lively Shire tune that Pippin had taught him, and the twins followed his lead. Laughing, Merry pulled Sam into the Tangle Dance. Pippin grabbed Faramir, and Frodo grabbed Strider. Soon they had most of the folk in the room joining in. Sam was glad to see Mr. Pippin's knee didn't seem to be bothering him today, though he hoped he wouldn't overdo it. He glanced past Lady Éowyn on his right, and down the circle. Frodo dropped Strider's hand with a laugh. Oh, joy! Mr. Frodo was going to lead the tangle! Mr. Merry looked across at Sam from between Gandalf and one of the Rohirrim, and tipped him a wink.

Everyone was breathless when the Tangle broke apart, and there was a general movement towards the ale table, amid much laughter.

All too soon, it seemed, the guests began to take their leave. The Rohirrim were the first to go, for as Sam had thought, they would begin their solemn journey to Edoras on the morrow. Faramir also left, for he wished to spend a bit of time with Éowyn before she departed. Lord Elrond's sons came over and gave Sam a courteous bow before they left. They would be leaving along with the party from Rohan.

The others stayed a bit longer, but eventually, only Strider was left, and then he, too, reluctantly took his leave, giving Sam a fond embrace as he did so.

"Now, Sam," said Pippin, "you just hie yourself off and take your ease. This was your Party, and you are not to do any of the cleaning up."

So Sam went off to the little room that was used for a study, and attempted to write a letter to Rosie. He never seemed to get anywhere with one, but it made him feel closer to her to try.

Legolas, Gimli and even Gandalf helped the other three hobbits with the
washing up, and then the happy, weary hobbits made their way to bed.

About an hour after they had retired, Legolas crept down to the ground floor room the hobbits shared. He put his hand to the doorknob.


He turned. "Mithrandir. How is it that I did not hear you?"

"I can be astonishingly quiet when I wish to be, Master Elf. And what are you doing?" But it was very clear from his tone of voice that he knew quite well already.

"They are resting quietly these nights. If I am there, I can stave off the ill dreams."

"And do they *know* you are doing this for them?"

He flushed. "No. I did not wish them to feel under obligation or to thank me."

"I thought as much. It is one thing to give them occasional respite--*with* their permission. It is quite another to be doing this night after night, every night."

Legolas shrugged. "I would do it for them the rest of their lives if necessary to spare their suffering." He looked up with a glint of defiance. "They have suffered enough already, I think."

"It is not so simple a matter as that, Master Greenleaf," the wizard said, shaking his head. "Go you on your way and rest this eve. *I* will watch over them tonight; but on the morrow, we will be having a talk with Frodo and the others. I think you may find that meaning well does not always provide a solution."

Legolas sighed, but one did not argue with this White Wizard. Gandalf watched Legolas go and then quietly entered the hobbits' chamber.

* Gimli attended one of Bilbo’s parties himself, in Rivendell. “A Convivial Evening” Marigold suggested I put in a link:


As the morning sun slanted in through the wide windowed doors to the
courtyard, it glinted off the four curly heads peeking out from the
coverlet. The wizard sat by the large bed, thinking how some things never
changed, and yet that some changes were inevitable.

In the way hobbits had, they slept huddled together. Although at home in the Shire they would have beds to themselves, Gandalf knew that for hobbits, sleeping alone was a relatively recent development, and in any time of stress hobbits naturally reverted to the older behavior.

They slept with the most vulnerable on the inside, the protectors on the
outside. But whereas in the early days of their journeying, that had meant
Frodo and Pippin on the inside, with Merry on the outside next to Pippin,
and Sam on the other side of Frodo, now Sam was on the inside, and young
Pippin was one of the protectors.

Gandalf smiled, thinking of how very well his little "fool of a Took" had
grown. It was the nature of Tooks ever to be inquisitive, impulsive and
impatient, and that was unlikely to change, but those qualities in Pippin
had now been calmed to a certain extent by experience, wisdom and
understanding. And Gandalf was pleased and relieved to see that in spite of
all the darkness the lad had encountered, his heart remained as generous and compassionate as it had always been. But now his tender-heartedness was tempered by the realization that he could protect the helpless, and a fierce righteous anger would make itself felt with bullies and villains. It was a quality that would stand him in good stead today, as he played out his part
in Aragorn's plan.

That last was a quality Merry had always had. From the first time he had met the young Brandybuck, a sturdy seven-year-old, and Frodo's devoted shadow, he had seen that in him. Merry's love was deep and fierce, with the
tenaciousness that was a part of his Brandybuck heritage. Pippin needed to
have anger awakened in him--his temper was slow to rise; Merry was quick to
anger, but his anger was always aimed at any who would try to hurt or harm
those he loved. Yet Merry had also had a brightness to him; he lived up to
his name, with a sunny, easy nature. He rarely cried or had tantrums as a
child, and he loved to laugh. He had been so good for Frodo, who had needed
some sunshine in his life.

But this quest had been hard on Merry. Gandalf could see that the Shadow had not been wholly dissipated by Aragorn's skill. It lurked about him still,
especially at night. In fact, last night it was Merry whose dreams had been
disturbed, and only Gandalf's presence had managed to overcome them. But
last night it was understandable. Merry was feeling a bit sad, with the
duties that would call him away this morning: saying a private farewell to
Éomer and Éowyn, who would be departing for Edoras to set in motion the
plans for Théoden's funeral. He then would accompany them as far as the edge of the Pelennor, and return with a few others of the Rohirrim to be a part of the honor guard standing over the fallen king's bier. Not a pleasant task at all, yet he would face it without stinting, for he had loved Théoden dearly. Still it was no wonder he would have been plagued with nightmares the night before, had Gandalf not been there.

Sam stirred briefly, and then subsided. The wizard looked at him fondly.
This was one hobbit who, in spite of all the pain and hardship he had
endured, had truly benefited from their journey. He had finally acknowledged to himself that he was friend and equal to these other three, though he would stubbornly refuse to admit it out loud, and he had gained a confidence and boldness that he never would have found had he not gone with his master from the Shire. Of these four hobbits, Sam was the most typically hobbity, with a narrow view of the world, and even now that he had seen more of the world than most hobbits would ever imagine even existed, his opinions were still grounded in what he called "hobbit-sense"--and rightfully so.

Frodo. The wizard looked at him sadly. That hint of transparency, first
discernable to him in Rivendell, as Frodo recovered from the Morgul-wound,
was not only still there, but it had increased greatly. There was a brilliance to Frodo's being that rivaled that of Elves now, and yet woven within that light was more than a hint of darkness, clinging to the Ringbearer like a parasite. His dreams too, had seemed headed for trouble last night--but that was nearly a nightly occurrence until they had moved in here, and Legolas had begun his clandestine vigil. Gandalf was beginning to understand where Frodo's fate was leading him; yet still, it was his nature to hope that he might be wrong.

The brief stirrings as the four reached towards wakefulness increased. He
knew who would waken first. Merry opened his eyes, and seeing Gandalf, felt
alarmed. Before he could say anything, Gandalf winked to reassure him, and
put a finger to his mouth to enjoin silence. Almost at the same moment Sam
awakened, followed immediately by Pippin and then Frodo.

Frodo sat up apprehensively. "Gandalf? Is something wrong?"

"No, Frodo, nothing is wrong. But I do not believe you can attribute your
pleasant sleep recently to the new surroundings. We need to talk."

"Whatever do you mean, Gandalf?" Frodo asked, irritation and perplexity on
his face.

Merry sat up. "Yes, please do explain, Gandalf. I have a lot to do today,
and my liege is expecting me right after first breakfast." There was a sharp
edge to Merry's voice. He was clearly dreading the day.

The wizard sighed. "I know that the four of you thought that your pleasant
dreams recently were because of the change in your surroundings. Yet it is
not so. Legolas has been secretly entering your room each night to watch
over you. When he saw signs that a nightmare threatened, he sang it away."

Four pairs of astonished eyes locked onto the wizard's face.

More or less simultaneously, Frodo said, "I should have known it was too
good to be true." Merry said, "But you're here *now*," and Pippin asked,
"Why?" Sam was just shaking his head in amazement.

"As to that, Frodo, I am afraid you are right. And Meriadoc, you are also
correct--I turned Legolas away last night, and came in his stead. But I feel
that you have the right to know what he has been doing for you. Peregrin, I
am sure you know the answer to your question, do you not?"

Pippin nodded. "I suppose he meant well."

"He did, and he does. He has told me that the offer stands to continue doing
this for you."

Merry gave a snort of laughter. "What--indefinitely?"

Gandalf smiled. "No, but for the rest of your lives if you will so have it."

Now any lingering hint of anger the hobbits might have had over Legolas'
secret watch was erased by laughter.

"Any future wives we might have might have something to say about that,"
chuckled Merry. Sam blushed, and Pippin elbowed him. Sam was the only one with a sweetheart at home.

Frodo shook his head, amused. "It does paint an odd picture in the mind. Did he propose to come live with us in the Shire?"

Gandalf smiled. He had not been certain whether amusement or anger would be the reaction. He was glad for Legolas' sake that amusement had won out. "He really does mean it, you know. He would have gladly watched over the four of you for the next sixty or seventy years of your lives, and thought it time well spent--it's a brief enough while for an Elf anyway. He is very fond of you, and it tears his heart to see you suffer."

Frodo sobered. "I understand, and his intentions were good. It's actually
quite heartwarming that he made the effort. But we can hardly get on with
our lives that way. Shall you tell him that we are grateful for the offer,
but 'no, thank you,' or shall we?"

"I think perhaps, that it might do well to come from you directly, that he
might see that you hold no grudge for his invasion of your privacy."

"Well, that's settled, then," said Pippin briskly. "Gandalf, I hope you don't
think us rude, but Merry and I both must get dressed and ready to go to our
duties this morning." He flung aside the coverlet, and swung his
legs over the side of the bed.

The wizard rose, and gave them a fond nod. "Very well, then. I shall take my leave, my friends. A good morning to you." And he left the room chuckling into his beard. Hobbits really were irrepressible.

After the door shut behind him, the four scrambled from the bed and began to get dressed for the day. They were still chuckling, until Merry said, "Well, I suppose tonight we will go back to having those lovely nightmares again."

"We've had a nice respite," said Frodo, "and perhaps we shall be lucky, and
they won't come back so soon. Do you really want to spend the rest of your
life with an Elf staring at you all night long?"

Merry shook his head ruefully. "No, but I'm almost sorry Gandalf told us."

"Well, I'm not. It would have been very embarrassing to wake up and catch
him at it some night," said Pippin firmly.

Sam shook his head. "I can't get over he'd offer to watch us the rest of our

Frodo smiled. "Well, he's very fond of us, to be sure, but we can't allow
something like that."

"Of course not!" Sam exclaimed.

Merry gave a yawn and began to collect his armor. "I don't have time to discuss this now. I must meet my King at the stables right after first breakfast." The others looked at one another. They knew only too well the reasons for his brusqueness.

Pippin looked at Merry's shadowed face. "I'm sorry I cannot come with you,
Merry. I have my own duty to attend to." Pippin was eager to carry on with
the plans for teaching a lesson to those scoundrels who thought to take
advantage of hobbits' good nature, but he did wish that he could stay at
Merry's side today.

"Would you like Sam and I to come along, Merry?" asked Frodo, concerned. He knew that this particular duty was going to be a very sad one for his

Merry shook his head. "No, this is my duty as a Knight of Rohan, and as
Théoden's esquire." He spoke matter-of-factly enough, but the pain in the
grey eyes was there to see.

 There were no ponies in Minas Tirith. Merry would ride with Éomer as they left the City. On his return he would walk back with the Riders who were remaining as part of the honor guard. Éowyn smiled at him from her seat on Windfola, riding alongside her brother.

"Very different from your ride here with 'Dernhelm', is it not, Merry?"

"Very different indeed, my lady." Merry blushed. He still found it embarrassing that he had not realized who "Dernhelm" was, though apparently most of the other Riders in their vicinity *had* guessed.

Soon they were all in formation and ready to ride out. The sons of Lord Elrond, who were leaving with them, rode at the front, just behind the banner bearer.

Only the members of Éomer's personal éored had been staying with him in the City. Between the losses on the Pelennor and the Morannon due to injury and death, those who had been reassigned to replace lost commanders among the other Riders, and those who had already been sent back to Rohan, that number had dwindled to four-score and eight, plus one hobbit. There had also been a great loss of horses, and Merry was not the only one riding pillion to the place where they would meet the remaining Riders outside the Gate. He and five other Riders would be returning on foot to the Citadel The six of them would be taking it in turns, along with six Citadel Guards, two at a time, standing each day around the clock as a guard of honor by Théoden's bier.

Merry was proud of being chosen for the honor, but the part of him that was most hobbity dreaded the duty. Standing by a body from dawn to dusk every third day was bound to engender gloomy thoughts. Thank goodness that Gandalf, in a rare display of magic, had placed an enchantment of preservation upon Théoden's remains, that he not suffer the indignities of decay until he was well and truly buried at his home.

Merry sighed and tried to sit straighter, and fight the urge to lean into Éomer. He was very conscious of his dignity riding with his liege, but a glance across to Éowyn's pale and sad face made him wish he were riding with his sword-sister. They could have been of some comfort to one another.

Comfort. He shook his head at the thought of Gandalf's revelation that morning. Legolas had been trying to comfort them. Part of him was furious at the invasion of their privacy, part of him loved Legolas even more for the effort, and a good large part of him was greatly disappointed that their respite had been temporary. It was simply one more reminder that however dearly they loved them--Legolas, Gimli, Strider, even Gandalf--were not hobbits. But they *were* family.

He glanced over again at Éowyn, and she gave him a sad smile. She and Éomer were his family too, now, by oath and by the shared experience of battle. Théoden, too; he wished that the old King could have met his da. They would have got on well. The thought really made him tear up, and he blinked angrily. He was *not* going to cry and disgrace his King. He gave a mighty sniff.

"Holdwine?" Éomer's concerned voice was soft.

Merry looked up to see the young King gazing back at him, tears flowing freely.

"Oh!" he exclaimed softly. He leaned forward to lend what comfort he could. Something he sometimes forgot: his King was very young, younger even, than his Pippin.

Even as he gently patted the large back in front of him, he wondered briefly at the mysterious last minute business which prevented King Elessar and the Steward from riding with them to say farewell as had been planned, and kept his cousin by their side.

Pippin had gone directly to the room King Elessar used as an office. The Guardsman at the door admitted him at once, as he was expected. Faramir was there, and Menelcar, and Legolas and Gimli, and two Men whom Pippin thought looked vaguely familiar. Gandalf sat in a corner, an unreadable glitter in his dark eyes. In the seat behind the table, however, was no sign of the majestic King Elessar; instead, there sat a Ranger, looking as disreputable as ever he had at the Inn in Bree.

"Strider!" Pippin grinned cheekily.

"Mr. Took." Strider grinned back just as cheekily. He then sobered. "Pippin,
are you sure you want to do this?"

Pippin sobered as well. "I do. It's not right for someone to be taking
advantage of people like that."

Aragorn nodded. "Very well. Peregrin, I'd like you to meet Eldacar and Tarondor. They are the two Guardsmen who have been keeping watch over the miscreants for us."

The two men stepped forward, and bowed slightly to Pippin. He blushed. He just could not get used to that.

"Please, gentlemen, tell us what you have overheard and observed over the past day or so.

The one called Eldacar spoke first. "The three rascals are called 'Arv,' 'Tel' and 'Min'. Min appears to be their leader. He seems somewhat more intelligent than the other two. I have overheard them speaking of some of their past 'scams' as they call them, boasting of the way in which they have cozened people of their money. They have heard about the four of you, and how high you are in the favor of the King, moreover, the way in which you and Sir Meriadoc distributed alms the day of the coronation caught their attention. It made them think of you pheriannath as very soft-hearted. They have been observing all of you as much as they could, ever since."

Then the one called Tarondor spoke. "Yesterday I was able to overhear them talking in a tavern. They are hoping to be able to accost either you, Sir Peregrin, or Lord Samwise. They seem to be a bit afraid of Sir Meriadoc--his feat of taking on the Lord of the Ringwraiths is well-attested, and they are also a bit in awe of the Ringbearer--they do not seem to think he will be deceived by them. They do not really believe that you slew a troll, and they know that you are the youngest of the four, and think your position in the Guard simply ceremonial; Lord Samwise they believe to be merely a servant. They feel that the two of you will be the easiest to deceive."

Pippin flushed, but all he said was, "Well, they are right about Frodo, anyway--he's never been an easy one to tell a falsehood to, and they are also right to be afraid of Merry. He's nobody's fool, and would be fairly angry with anyone trying to make him out one. But I hope to convince them in the end that Sam and I would not be such easy prey, either."

"Their plan," said Eldacar, "is to accost either you or Lord Samwise as soon as you are found alone, with a tale of woe so pitiful that you will freely offer coin. They are hoping to get a goodly sum from you, and perhaps also to get you to ask the King for more."

Now Aragorn spoke up. "In order to draw them into acting upon you, Legolas and Gimli are going to take Sam and Frodo out into the City with them. You will then return to the guesthouse, as if you are off duty, and change out of your livery. Go back out, as if you are planning to spend the day sightseeing on your own. They will be watching you; and several of us will be watching them." He held out a pouch, a rather heavy one. "Use this coin today. When the villains have taken it in hand, we will take them."

Pippin nodded solemnly.

"Now go to the buttery, and have your luncheon early. Return to the house from there."

"I will." He had a very determined look on his face.

The others began to file out of the small room.

As Pippin turned to leave, he felt Gandalf's hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up.

Gandalf looked down at him, and smiled. "You will do. And be careful, my lad."

"Thank you, Gandalf. I will."


Hands in his pockets, Pippin strolled through the streets. He was in the third circle, where there were many merchants of the slightly less prosperous sort. It felt very strange. This was the first time that he had been abroad like this in the City: alone, without anyone, and apparently with no errand, not dressed in his livery. He had, of course, several times had errands to run in the course of his duties, but then he was dressed in livery and hurried from the Citadel to wherever he was needed to go and back again straightaway. The only occasions he had been in regular clothing, he had been with others--his cousins, his friends, and they also had most often some specific destination in mind. But today he had been told to simply amble along as though he had no particular reason for being out. He felt himself wishing it could be true, though of course it would be nicer with Merry along.

He was keeping his eyes open though, with the description of the scoundrels clear in his mind. Just as he turned a corner, he thought he saw Strider out of the corner of his eye. They must be near, he thought, and he felt his heart race a bit. This was a slightly different sort of excitement and fear than that engendered by battle. It reminded him a little of the pleasurable thrill he and Merry would get when embarked on a particularly hazardous prank, or intent on a raid on Maggot's mushrooms--yet there was a thread of
serious purpose beneath it as well.

The street was fairly deserted. A shabby and disreputable looking figure leaned against a wall, seemingly lost in thought. Across the street and not too far away, two Men were talking. As Pippin approached their voices rose so that he could not help but hear.

"I am very sorry," said the shorter of the two figures, in a whiny sort of voice. "But if you wish to have the employment, you must start right away. I need workers I can depend on--not someone who will take off at the drop of a hat."

"But it is just for a brief while, sir. My poor children need to be brought home." The other person, slightly taller, sounded pitiful.

"You will be there, or I'll find someone else to do the job." The first figure walked away.

Pippin stopped briefly, wondering. They fit the description, but there had only been two of them. As he pondered, pretending to look in the window of a shop selling cloth, another Man, this one rather a large fellow, approached the Man who remained.

"Well, Minastir, have you the money?" he asked roughly.

"Not all of it, I am afraid. And I am not certain if I can accompany you to Lossarnach. My new employer is reluctant to give me leave."

The new Man sneered. "Well," he said loudly, "you need all the money I asked for, and then some, if you want me to bring your family back without you along. I have told you I am no nursemaid, and I'll have to hire one if I do this for you." This he declaimed in a rather wooden voice, and Pippin was no longer the least bit uncertain. The first two had been rather good actors, but not this one.

"I am leaving in two days time. You will let me know before then if you have the coin." He walked off with a swagger. He came in Pippin's direction, and as he passed the hobbit, he glanced at him briefly. There was an unpleasant smile on his face, and then he was gone.

Now the taller Man was standing alone, the very picture of dejection. He brought his hands up to his face and began to weep. He staggered along, and also came in Pippin's direction, bumping into him.

Pippin had been prepared for something like this and carefully schooled his expression before turning around.

"I'm sorry, child!" he exclaimed, "I didn't see you."

"That's all right, sir," Pippin replied politely, putting out a hand as if to steady him.

The Man looked at him and feigned amazement. "Why, you are no young boy! You are one of the pheriannath!"

Pippin nodded. "Peregrin Took at your service and your family's", he replied.

"Sir Peregrin? The Ernil i Pheriannath?"

"The very same. And you are?"

"Minastir, son of Castamir," he replied sadly, "the unhappiest of Men."

"Why, whatever is the matter?" Pippin asked curiously. He really was curious
to see what sort of story this Man had concocted.

"Alas, it is a long and sad tale," was the woebegone reply.

"Please tell me. Perhaps I can help." Pippin found himself feeling as though he really did want to help this unhappy person. This Minastir was a very good actor indeed. He was going to have to brush up his toes, and remember that this really was a scoundrel he was speaking with.

"I am a carpenter, not a warrior, but when the City was threatened, I thought I should remain to be of what help I could. I sent my four little children, and my wife, who was expecting our fifth, in the wains of refugees to Lossarnach, where they could stay with my widowed sister and her own little ones. I miss them very much, but was expecting word any day now that they were returning. My former employer was slain in the siege, and so I
sought a new place, and was just two days ago engaged. I am to start tomorrow.

”But only yesterday, I received word that my poor wife died delivering our new little daughter, and my sister cannot keep the children much longer, as she has mouths of her own to feed. I wished to go and fetch them, and a travelling merchant was willing to take me there with him for a fee. But now my new employer says I *must* start work or lose my position. And if I do not go myself, the merchant will increase the fee, as he says he is not a nursemaid. I have only a very little money, and I simply do not know what to do. If I do not take the job I am offered, I will have no way to keep the children when I get them here. Alas, my poor little ones! I do not know what is to become of them."

Pippin shook his head, his face sad and sympathetic. Knowing what he knew, he could tell there were a number of holes in the story. The King had delegated people to see to the return of refugees, for one thing. For another, the timing of the messages did not sound right. Yet, if he had not been warned, he might very well have felt sorry enough for this wretch to be taken in. Out loud, he said, "I am so sorry to hear of this, Minastir. But
perhaps I can be of help, if it is only a matter of coin. How much do you think you might need?"

The Man looked at him, with an expression of dawning hope. "Why, originally, I was to pay fifty silver pennies. But now the merchant has doubled that."

Pippin smiled. "Why, as to that, the King gave me a hundred pence when I was knighted. I have it right here, as no one ever seems to take my money for anything." This was disingenuous, as Aragorn had actually given him more than that; however, this was not his own money but the money that was given him this morning for "bait" as he thought of it. And it was quite true that no one seemed to take the hobbits' money, and so he never carried much of his own anyway. But if there were any doubt at all in Pippin's mind, he would have known by the sheer amount of money the Man was asking for that it could not be right. One hundred silver pennies was an enormous sum. "I would be happy to know that I could help your poor children be with you again. There is nothing worse than children with no family to look after them." He gave a quite genuine shudder at the thought. Among hobbits such a thing was utterly unthinkable, and even now he felt moved to tears at the thought of the many orphans in Gondor, left alone by the War. It hardened his determination to take down this villain, who would *use* that horrific fact to garner money.

"You are certain then," he continued, "that this money will enable you to bring your children home to you?"

"Oh, Sir Peregrin! They will bless your name forever!"

"Because, you know, I could ask the King for more."

The Man's eyes glittered briefly, before he schooled himself to a more somber expression.

"Well," he said slowly, "for the same amount again, I could also send for my widowed sister and her family. Then my poor motherless babes would have someone to care for them as I worked." He looked at Pippin out of the corner of his eye.

Pippin nodded. "That's true," he said sympathetically, while privately marveling at the Man’s cunning. He brightened. "I've an idea!" he said chirpily. "Why don't I just ask the King to send for your family? Then it would not cost you a thing!"

Pippin had the satisfaction of seeing him look briefly alarmed.

"No, no, that's not necessary. I would not wish to trouble him so far. I am sure that the money is adequate. I do not like to think the King himself would be troubled by my little family."

"So then, do you think you might need anything more?"

Minastir gave him a sharp look, and narrowed his eyes.

Pippin schooled his face into its sweetest and most innocent expression, the one that had convinced the cooks that he could not possibly know anything about missing pies. He added an engaging and charming smile, and saw the brief suspicion fade.

"I am sure that will be enough to take care of everything, my lord." The Man sounded humble and sincere.

"Well," Pippin said, holding out the pouch and showing him the silver, "here is this. Give it to the merchant, and tomorrow I will bring the same amount again, for your poor sister. And you can tell me then if there is anything else you might need."

The Man could not resist looking at all that money. He felt uncommonly lucky, for they had not expected the halfling to be carrying that amount around with him, and had thought it would be necessary to wait for it, as well as what the halfling would get from the King.

Perhaps he could think of something else before tomorrow. "My thanks, Sir Peregrin! The reunion with my family will be quite a sight!"

"Yes, it would," said another voice, "especially, Minastir son of Castamir, as you have neither chick nor child, nor even wife nor sister in Lossarnach or anywhere else."

Startled, he turned to see the Steward approaching, and behind him several Guardsmen, Tel and Arv in their midst, bound and gagged. As he stared, the shabby figure leaning against the wall across the street threw back his hood and straightened up.

"I do not wonder that you did not wish to trouble the King. It is a shame you thought to trouble his friends."

In a fury, the Man glanced down to see Pippin grinning up at him. "Not quite such a fool as I look."

Suddenly, with a snarl and a curse, he snatched Pippin off the ground, and holding him up before him as a shield, he drew forth a long, glittering knife.

Everyone froze, staring in horror, as the Man glared. "You will not stop me-"

But he got no further. The pherian in his grasp gave a mighty wriggle, sinking his teeth into Minastir's arm, while at the same time aiming a furious kick to his groin. With a yell, the Man dropped both halfling and knife. Pippin landed nimbly and snatching up the fallen knife, bent over the writhing Man and held it to his throat. Minastir suddenly went still.

"Sire," said Pippin, without taking his eyes off the fallen Man's, "could you please take charge of this wretch who thought hobbits were simple and helpless?"

Aragorn crossed the street in a few quick strides and hauled the still groaning villain to his feet. As he did so, he spoke softly into his ear, "You are quite lucky that my young knight did not have his sword. Trollsbane is its name, and Sir Peregrin Troll Slayer its wielder." Minastir stared in horror at Pippin, blanching. Faramir signaled the Guardsmen who came forward to take charge of the prisoner.

"Well done, Pippin," said Aragorn. "I am sorry that you had to do that."

"Boromir would have been proud," said Faramir.

Pippin blushed at the praise. "Boromir always said a hard enough kick there could cripple the largest of foes. I am glad to find it worked."

He stood next to the King, as they watched the three swindlers being led off. Then he looked up at Aragorn, troubled. "I'm sorry to say, Strider, but if I'd not been warned, I think I might have believed his sad story. I suppose I am rather a fool."

"Nay, Pippin. A sympathetic and large heart is never foolish. Rather the fool is one who would value gain over all else."

"What will happen to them?"

Aragorn sighed. "His two confederates will probably serve a term of hard labor for the City, but Minastir laid violent hands upon you. His life is forfeit."

Pippin shook his head firmly. "Frodo wouldn't like that. No more do I." There was a brief moment of silence.

"Very well, Pippin, your mercy has purchased his life." And that was not at all surprising either; when it came to forgiveness, Pippin was very much like his Baggins cousin.


Gimli clambered atop the pile of rubble that still marked a portion of the
wall on the second level, and gestured to Frodo and Sam, who stood with
Legolas below.

"We'll soon be rebuilding this section even better than before," he said,
rubbing his hands in anticipation.

"I'm sure you will, Mr. Gimli," said Sam politely. This little trek around
the City was getting tiring. He glanced at Frodo, wondering if he was all
right. Frodo and Legolas were quietly talking.

"I do apologize, Frodo, for intruding on your privacy and that of the
others." He flushed briefly. "I am afraid I did not think of that aspect of
it until Mithrandir pointed it out to me. I simply could not bear to see all
of you suffering night after night."

"I understand your motives, Legolas. And it may be, that from time to time,
one or more of us might like to have your help. But we cannot live our lives
with you hovering over us all night every night. Even if you do not find it
inconvenient to do so, I am afraid that we would."

The Elf gave a rueful chuckle. "I did not think of inconvenience either,
mellon nin."

Frodo smiled at him. "I know that very well. And I know that you were only
moved by friendship. What I wonder now is what is compelling you and Gimli
to keep us wandering about the streets today. I do not believe for a moment
that another surprise party is in the works."

Sam and Gimli rejoined them, just in time to hear Frodo's last remark.

"What are you saying, Mr. Frodo?" asked Sam.

"That I do not think this pointless little tour of the City is really so
very pointless. It's *not* another surprise party, am I right?"

Legolas and Gimli exchanged a dismayed look, obviously at a loss as to how
they should answer.

"Is it an order from Aragorn? What is going on, that he wants Sam and I out
of the way?"

Gimli shrugged. "You are too perceptive, Master Hobbit. Our King had a task for your youngest cousin today, and he did not wish for any interference."

Legolas was appalled. "Gimli!" he exclaimed.

The Dwarf gave the Elf a shake of the head. "I am sure the task is accomplished by now, my friend. And I cannot see lying to a direct question, can you?"

The Elf sighed.

Frodo and Sam were both looking very alarmed, and Frodo more than a touch angry. "What has he put Pippin up to? Is it dangerous?"

No immediate answer forthcoming, he gave them an icy glare. "It *is* dangerous, whatever it is, isn't it?"

This time it was Legolas who answered. "I do not think that it will be, but yes, the possibility of danger does exist, however remotely. And Pippin *did* offer to do it. He will be watched and guarded on every side, by Guardsmen and by Aragorn himself."

Frodo's face grew white, with two red spots on his cheeks, and his blue eyes were glacial.

"And he chooses a time when Merry is unable to be with Pippin, and then conveniently orders the two of you to get Sam and I out of the way. I think I need to have a word with my King."

He turned and started back towards the upper levels, Sam at his heels.

"You had better tell me what is going on," he said, without even looking to see if Legolas and Gimli were following.

Reluctantly they recounted the tale of the swindlers, and Pippin's proposed role in trapping them. As the story unfolded, Frodo continued to move resolutely forward in stony silence, growing more and more appalled.

So it was that they came upon the scene shortly after it happened, watching from a distance as Guardsmen led away their captives, and Aragorn and Pippin stood talking.

And it was with a sinking feeling that Pippin heard a familiar voice:

"Peregrin Took, just *what* did you think you were doing?"

"Frodo!" he squeaked, more frightened at the tone of his senior cousin's voice than he ever had been in the grip of the criminal.

Frodo marched up to Aragorn. "I cannot believe that you allowed my
young cousin to endanger himself again!"

Taken aback, Aragorn cast a reproachful look at Legolas and Gimli, who merely shook their heads. He looked at Frodo, and started to answer apologetically "Frodo, I--"

Frodo was about to interrupt angrily, when Pippin found his voice.

"Frodo Baggins!" he said sharply.

Surprised at a tone of voice he had never before heard directed towards himself by Pippin, Frodo turned.

"Frodo, you are my oldest cousin here. But I am not *just* your baby cousin anymore! Here in the White City I am a Knight of Gondor, I am a soldier and a Guard of the Citadel. I have *responsibilities*! And I have a King who trusts me to carry them out! Those Men were planning on taking advantage of us just because they thought we were small and innocent. There is no way I was going to allow that!" Pippin drew himself up proudly, and even though he was not in livery, he looked every inch the Knight. "Strider asked me especially if I was *sure* I wanted to do this. He did not order me to. But if he had, I still would have done it gladly. He is my King and liege--and yours too, I might add."

Frodo gaped. He had never in his life been spoken to that way by Pippin, who usually wilted whenever his elder cousin showed him scorn. He stared for a moment at the resolute face of the young hobbit who stood so proudly before him.

"Oh, Pip!" he said finally, "I'm sorry. But I did hope that you and Merry were all through having to be in danger now that the Enemy is gone."

Aragorn finally spoke, having wisely kept out of it as long as it was family business. "The Enemy is gone, but wickedness lives on without him, Frodo, and the wicked cannot be allowed to prey on the good, or soon we will have another Enemy to deal with."

Sam had moved up, and placed an arm around Frodo's shoulders. "Mr. Frodo, Mr. Pippin is right, you know. He's done well by himself, and I have to say, I'm right proud of him."

Frodo looked at Pippin, tears gathering in the blue eyes, and he reached out to give him a hug. "I'm proud of you, too, Pippin Took." He drew back and gave a little laugh. "You know, don't you, that you will get this same lecture from Merry, only worse, when he finds out."

Pippin's green eyes grew wide. "Perish forbid!" he said.

Merry was indeed livid at first, giving voice to his opinion in some rather intemperate language, some of it in Rohirric. But Pippin stood firm. He was used to Merry's protectiveness, and the anger was not directed towards him, but towards Aragorn. When Merry finally paused for breath, Pippin chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Merry glared at him.

"I think this is pretty rich coming from someone who would not stay behind in safety even when he was ordered to."

"That was different!"

"Merry, you know that if Éomer--or Aragorn--asked you to undertake a dangerous task, you'd do it without a second thought. Do you think my knighthood or my duty, means any less than yours just because I'm younger?"

"No! Pippin, that's not what I meant at all!"

Pippin shook his head. "That's true; all you meant was that I'm your little Pip to look after and protect. Don't you think we've gone beyond that now?"

Merry drew a deep breath and let it out. "I doubt me that I will *ever* get beyond looking out for you and trying to protect you, Pip. I'm afraid I can't be sorry for it either. And I came so close to losing you. But I will try not to interfere with what you see as your duty. You are right, we are both knights, and must do what we can. I am so very proud of you."

And Pippin grinned. "So, do you want to hear all the details? I don't think
I ever heard a sadder or more pitiful tale in my life."



Aragorn had seen Frodo, Sam and Pippin return safely to the guesthouse, still somewhat amazed at the turn of events. He had been certain that Pippin could handle the task, but it had been quite a sight to see him take down an armed foe twice his size. And Frodo's anger afterwards had distressed him--that he had not expected at all. But he knew that soon the hobbits would need to return to their home. Today's events had shown him that only too clearly. Men were still far too ready to take advantage of those who were smaller than they, and the hobbits clearly presented a tempting target to scoundrels who little understood their great deeds. Yet there was still much to happen before he could allow them to leave. He stood on one of the Citadel's parapets, overlooking the City, and the Courtyard of the White Tree below. He straightened as he felt Gandalf join him.

"Somehow, I suppose that I thought that overcoming the Shadow, defeating the Enemy, would bring it back to life. Foolish of me, I see now." Aragorn shook his head. "Yet I must see the White Tree in flower ere I can be certain that all I have worked for will come to pass."

"You have foreseen it." Gandalf spoke calmly and with certainty.

"Aye, I *have* foreseen it, but I have not foreseen when or how. It could be *years* ere the Tree is once more in bloom. I wish to have done with waiting, Gandalf. Is that so wrong of me?"

"There is nothing wrong about it. It is the way of mortals to grow impatient when the goal begins to come in sight. It is part of being of the Secondborn, after all."

"I thought the goal *was* in sight. I am King now, of both kingdoms, the Ring is destroyed, the Enemy is defeated. Why is the sign yet denied me?" Unspoken, the name of Arwen hung in the air between them. Gandalf knew only too well what this mood was borne of.

"Be patient, my friend, yet a little longer. I cannot say more than that."

Aragorn sighed, and his posture drooped. "I have been guided by you in all this task; I will continue to wait."

Gandalf placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Let us hope that your wait will not be so long as you fear."

Menelcar rapped lightly on the door to the Steward's room.


Faramir sat in the window, looking out over the City. "May I help you, Menelcar?"

The minstrel nodded. "I take it that young Pippin's task was accomplished, but I've not been told what happened. Is it permitted to ask?"

"Of course it is! Menelcar, he was superb! I am constantly amazed at the talents the hobbits continue to display. I am afraid that the swindler sadly deceived himself when he began to think of hobbits as innocent marks." Faramir moved from the window to a chair, and gestured to another chair nearby. Menelcar sat down, and the Steward began to relate the tale.

"--And then the silly wretch had the gall to grab me and pull a knife. I was forced to bite him and then kick him in a most indelicate yet delicate place. I am afraid he may never father children." Pippin chortled and shook his head.

"Pippin! He pulled a *knife* on you?"

"I took care of it, I told you. Remember what Boromir always said?"

Merry shook his head angrily. "What are they going to do with the scoundrel?"

Pippin flicked his gaze away, and his light tone grew serious. "Strider said his life was forfeit because he laid hands on me. But I made him promise not--not to--do *that*" He broke off. "Well, the King did promise. So the villain will probably end up doing hard labor for years and years."

Merry sighed. "Well, I am glad they are not going to execute the rogue. But I am also glad that they thought he deserved it for trying to hurt you."

Pippin gaped at his cousin. "Merry, sometimes you say the strangest things!"

Merry shook his head. "I daresay he learned, though, that hobbits are tougher prey than he expected. So, you said Boromir was right about that particular move, hmm?"

Frodo was enjoying the sunshine in the small courtyard of the guesthouse, as he watched Sam gently tending some of the young flowers he and Legolas had planted.

"So, Mr. Frodo, you're not still angry at Strider, are you?"

Frodo shook his head. "No, he was doing as he thought best to catch those people as quickly as possible, and Pippin was able to help him. It just is so hard for me to realize that Pippin is all grown up now."

"Well, begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but he's not quite yet. Once we get home, he won't be of age for a few years to come."

Frodo chuckled. "You know what I mean. For all practical purposes, he *is* all grown up." He stopped and sighed. "Once we are home. Doesn’t that sound wonderful, Sam? It seems like we have been away forever. I sometimes can't believe that we will be able to go home. For so long I had thought never to see the Shire again."

"Well, we've done what we set out to do, Mr. Frodo. And I think it's high time we headed back. I've not been easy in my mind about things ever since I looked in the Lady's mirror."
"You're right, Sam. We *have* done what we set out to do. I will speak to Aragorn the first chance I get. It is time to go home."

Merry and Pippin had joined Sam and Frodo in the courtyard, and it was there that Bergil found them.

"Hullo, Bergil!" said Pippin in cheery greeting. "Are you here to visit, or do you have an errand?"

The lad gave a polite little half bow. The hobbits got upset if he *really* bowed to them. "I have a message from King Elessar for all of you." He held out the little sealed note.

Frodo took it, favoring Bergil with a sweet smile, and causing the child to blush furiously. He was comfortable in the company of Pippin and Merry, and Sam did not discomfit him much, but the Ringbearer he still held very much in awe. Even seeing the familiar way he was treated by his cousins did not do much towards dispelling that for the boy.

"We are all invited to dine in the Citadel with the King tonight! It seems he would like to celebrate your valorous role in catching those swindlers, Pip."

Now it was Pippin who was blushing. And he wondered how Frodo would take learning the whole story of what had happened. Frodo still did not know that Minastir had been violent or drawn a knife. It had been bad enough telling Merry.

Frodo was nodding. "This is good. I was hoping to get a chance to speak to Aragorn soon." He looked at his cousins; "I was just telling Sam that it's time we go home, and I think this will be a good chance to ask the King about it."

Home? Merry and Pippin gave whoops of joy, and enfolded Frodo in a fierce embrace. To go home, home to the Shire, and their families; home where things were their proper size; home where they could root themselves in good Shire soil instead of being surrounded by cold white stone--home at last!

They feasted once more in the King's private apartments, with only Faramir in attendance besides the Fellowship, and with Menelcar there in his role as court bard. Menelcar strummed his harp gently in the background while they ate; after the main courses had been finished, and they were served with the sweet course--a lavish concoction of chilled fruit and cream, the bard stepped forth, and began to proclaim in a droll voice the Adventure of Sir Peregrin and the Foolish Fraud. The King had advised him that if he did not wish to embarrass the subject of the story completely, or distress his subject's kin unduly, that it would be best if he treated the tale humorously.

This had delighted Menelcar, who loved to tell comical stories and jokes, but rarely had the chance, as most people seemed to prefer the tragic or the dramatic. But, as he recalled from his days in the Shire, hobbits were always eager for a story that would make them laugh.

He took full advantage of the chance, as he exaggerated in whiny tones the pitiful story the swindler had concocted, alternating with dry asides of Pippin's probable thoughts as he listened to it, and he soon had his audience laughing so hard they were wiping their eyes. By the time he got to the part where the villain grabbed the hero, Frodo scarcely had time to be alarmed as he concluded:

"…and then, our valiant Sir Peregrin, seeing that the wretch had no honor in taking advantage of such a small adversary, decided to fight dirty as well. He let fly his formidable and furry foot right into that most precious and most vulnerable bit of anatomy that all of us cherish so well. With a screech like a girl, Minastir let go and cried mercy, and so, like a good Guardsman Sir Peregrin turned him over to the mercy of the King's justice!"

He finished up with an extravagant gesture and an exaggerated bow.

Frodo gave Pippin a mild glare. "Is that actually how it happened?"

Pippin was still chortling, and barely noted the look. "More or less. Actually it sounds much better the way Menelcar tells it." He wiped his eyes, and giggled. "It really was very funny. I was never in any real danger, and the poor fellow never truly stood a chance with me surrounded by Guards and watched over by Strider."


Pippin interrupted what might turn into a reproach by looking at the King, and asking, "By the way, what *did* you do with him?"

Aragorn smiled at Pippin's obvious effort to distract Frodo, and said, "Tonight all of them are guests in the finest cell in the deepest part of the Citadel.” He gave a brief chuckle. “I have already heard their case--not much in question when I myself witnessed the whole thing--and they are sentenced to begin work tomorrow in the task of restoring the Rammas Echor. I also made it crystal clear to Minastir that the *only* reason he was not decorating the end of a rope was due to your mercy alone, Pippin. He will spend the rest of his life at hard labor, however, which will do him some good, I think--at least he will be serving a useful purpose. He has made a long habit of using the good natures of others to enrich himself, and you are not the first person on whom he used such tales of woe. You are, however, the first one to turn the tables on him." And he favored his small knight with such a look of pride that Frodo could not help but feel his annoyance fade and he felt a glow of pride in his cousin himself.

Merry still chuckling himself, said, "Give over, Frodo. Our little chick has grown up into a chicken-hawk."

As Pippin aimed the obligatory cousinly swat at Merry, who easily ducked it, Frodo laughed. "I think perhaps he has, at that."

As this little tableau played itself out, Menelcar thought it prudent to begin a song, and in honor of Pippin, he started with the first song he had ever heard Pippin sing, a hobbity ditty called "Nob O' the Lea". This thoroughly delighted all four of the hobbits, who soon were singing along. After a few more light-hearted tunes, he gradually changed to more serious fare. And then he concluded the evening with a composition of his own, which he had completed only that very day:

He played the notes of a melody, soft and haunting, and then began to sing:

"We hearken to the harp and hear
of deeds of Elves and Men;
of Silmarils, Thangorodrim,
and fallen Gondolin;

of Beren and of Lúthien;
of Eärendil the Star;
of Hurin who was sadly cursed,
and Turin Turambar.

We sing of fallen Númenor,
and faithful Elendil,
who of his folk a remnant saved,
to do the Valar's will.

We tell of mighty Gil-galad,
who led against the foe
an army vast of Elves and Men
to lay the Shadow low.

And by such things our hearts are stirred,
to know these tales of yore;
the dire deeds done and victories won
by those who went before.

So we see then in our mind's eye
these heroes brave and tall
with faces fell and mighty arms
who answered to the call.

In such a way we measure them
whose deeds we may admire,
by strength of hand and height from ground,
to such we may aspire.

There is a land so fair and green
far to the north and west,
where dwell a folk but half Men's height,
in peace and plenty blest.

They plow the ground, they till the earth,
a simple folk, we find,
who laugh and weep and live and love;
with open hearts, and kind.

Yet even there did Evil reach
far to the west and north.
Against the Shadow's fearsome clutch
were four who ventured forth.

Although in height but half as high
full twice as large their hearts.
When darkness threatened all they loved,
they sought to do their parts.

Into a world grown grim and cold,
where perils oft await,
they wandered in their innocence
toward an uncertain fate.

And two there were, who carried off
by fell and fearsome foes,
yet by their wits and strength of will
they both struck mighty blows.

And two there were who went alone
into the Shadow's lair;
where nothing good may there be found,
and all is bleak despair.

Betrayed and beaten, whipped and cursed,
they managed to endure.
they struggled on through pain and thirst,
where only death was sure,

and into malice Mercy cast,
and Love and Grace prevailed.
So Power and Pride did tremble then,
And thus the Darkness failed.

Perhaps it was to humble us
when Chance or Purpose called--
and into smallest hands did give
the greatest deed of all."

When he finished, there was silence, as the hobbits blushed furiously, and several of the others found themselves wiping a tear from their eyes. At this point, Menelcar withdrew, to allow the friends a chance to talk privately.

The party broke up into groups, Sam talking to Legolas and Gimli, and Merry
and Pippin having a word with Faramir and Gandalf, as Frodo took the
opportunity to draw the King aside.
As the three other hobbits saw Frodo approaching Aragorn, they looked at one another expectantly, and moved together as one.

"Aragorn, I wondered if I might have a word with you."

"At any time, Frodo, you know that."

"I think," Frodo said, "that we have lingered long enough. Do you not think the time has come for the four of us to go home? We miss the Shire, and our families." He waited confidently for the King's assent. His confidence faded, though, at the long silence and Aragorn's troubled expression. "I know you'll miss us," he went on, "but really, we need to get back. And I am sure there will be visits." His voice trailed off as the King's expression remained grave.

"I would ask, you, Frodo," he finally responded, "to wait just a few weeks longer."

Frodo looked at him incredulously, and then a bit angrily. "And if we don't wish to wait, my Lord King," he said, coldly and formally, "would you command us to?"

Aragorn winced. "Frodo, you know that I would command nothing of you or of Sam. And though I have the right to do so, I would not even lay such a command on Peregrin if he decided to go with you. However, he and Meriadoc yet have duties to discharge. And only Éomer has the right to release Merry from his duties, and he is in Rohan. Would you make them choose between their fealty and their kin?" The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he wished to recall them. It was the worst thing he could have said. But he had not been prepared for Frodo's request, and unfortunately it was the first thing that came to mind.

Frodo stared at him in shock, that he would dare to use Merry and Pippin in that way. "*Why* do you wish us to remain longer?"

"That is something that will make itself known in the fullness of time. Please trust me, Frodo." Aragorn gave him a pleading look. It distressed him to upset Frodo, but his own hopes were so fragile right now that he could not bear to speak of them even yet, lest he dash them altogether.

"Since you wish it, my lord, I will treat it as a command." Frodo turned away coldly, his face white except for two red spots on his cheeks.

Aragorn felt as though he had been slapped. He wished with all his heart that Frodo had not brought this up yet, and that he could have thought of some better answer.

Frodo walked over to where the other hobbits stood, and as they saw him coming, they looked at him with expressions of joy that slowly faded as they saw his face.

"He said 'No'." Frodo did not repeat the conversation; it would only hurt Merry and Pippin to realize that Aragorn had held their oaths of fealty over his head.

" 'No'!" Merry exclaimed incredulously. "Why?"

Frodo shrugged, his own implacable expression not fading.

Gandalf had observed the exchange and was distressed. He moved closer to them. He, too, wished that the hobbits had waited just a bit longer to bring this up. And he knew, as well, why Aragorn had not confided in Frodo.

He alone was aware of what the King was waiting for. The Wizard put a calming hand on Frodo's shoulder.

"Come with me, Frodo." He led Frodo out onto the balcony overlooking the City. The others watched them go, and then broke out into angry speculation as to why they weren't to be allowed to leave.

The Wizard leaned over the parapet, and Frodo stood with his back against it.

Gandalf let the silence stretch for a few moments, allowing Frodo time to calm.

Finally, Frodo looked up at him. "What did you wish to say to me? For I can see no excuse for his behavior."

"That does not mean one does not exist. I am not free to tell you of his hopes; but he waits now for a sign, a sign that has been promised him. I do not think that sign will be long in coming, and I ask you to be patient a little longer. He is your friend, you know he is; you have trusted him from the start; do not begin to doubt him now."

Frodo let out a deep breath, and tears sprang to his eyes. "I'm just so tired of everything, Gandalf. I want to go home."

"I know that you do, my friend. And I know how weary your spirit is. But do not cast aside a valuable friendship out of sudden anger, and do not treat your friend coldly. True, he is your King as well, but I think you know in your heart that he is your friend first and foremost."

Frodo stood silently a while longer, the breezes playing through his dark locks, before he finally said, "You are right. I have trusted him, even before I knew I had reason to; now that he has proven himself, I should trust him the more. I'll apologize for my anger. But I hope that this sign he awaits is not too much longer in coming, for now that the Enemy is cast down and the world at peace again, we hobbits begin to wilt away from our Shire."

Gandalf chuckled and patted Frodo's shoulder. "You hobbits did not wilt in adversity, you shall not wilt now that all is well." The Wizard kept any doubts he had on that score out of his voice. He still hoped, despite what he suspected.

"Thank you, I think," said Frodo wryly.

Gandalf chuckled once more, and gave him a tiny little shove in the direction of the room they had just left.

Frodo waved aside the other three hobbits as they clustered around him.

"Gandalf, speak to them. I'll go make my peace with Strider." Gandalf smiled, knowing that Frodo's use of the old familiar nickname was a sign that he truly had forgiven Aragorn.

Aragorn stood alone, with a troubled face, but looked up hopefully as Frodo approached.

"I apologize for my anger," he said.

"And I apologize for my clumsiness in answering you. I would not for the world have you think I would coerce you and the others into staying. I confess I was unprepared for your request to come so soon, and I have grown quite fond of having you all around me."

"Well, we shall wait a little longer. But, mind you, not indefinitely!"

Aragorn chuckled in relief. "It is my fond hope that for which I wait will occur by midsummer at the latest. But I have as yet no assurance of that, so let us keep that part to ourselves. I do not wish to raise false hopes for the others."

Frodo favored him with a smile. "Very well, that doesn't sound so bad. And I will join my fervent hopes to yours." For now that his anger had abated, and he had time to think, he began to have a hunch as to what the sign might be. He wondered how long the journey from Rivendell would take if not interrupted by blizzards, evil wizards, wargs, Balrogs and Orcs, and what the Lady Arwen might think of the White City.

The end of "Chance Encounter". For more of the hobbits' stay in Minas
Tirith, although without the presence of Menelcar, see my earlier story "A Different Kind of Quest", to which this one is a sort of prequel.

 I would just like to thank our Marigold, beta extraordinaire, who helped me turn a raw and disjointed bunny chase into an actual story.

Thank you again, dear.

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