Hidden Paths

Sheila Paulson

 

 


Author's Clarification: This crossover story is set in the movie Lord of the Rings universe rather than in the book universe. It is also set in the Planet of the Apes TV universe, not the movies.

 

            HIDDEN PATHS

 

Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or secret gate,

And though we pass them by today,

Tomorrow we may come this way

And take the hidden paths that run

Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

 

J.R.R. Tolkien

 

"Is it a computer?" Eyes wide with wonder, Galen tilted his head to stare at the wall of blinking lights that rose before him. "It's different from the one we saw before." The ape's mouth hung open as he regarded the unexpected sight.

When the two astronauts and the chimpanzee had entered the concealed room, the lights on the huge wall panel had activated automatically, humming with power, and revealed a vast chamber, dusty with age, yet still alive, still functioning. The entire wall had been given over to technology. It didn't look familiar to Pete Burke, either, but a lot more futuristic than even he, as an astronaut, was accustomed to, as if it had been taken from a science fiction movie. Except that it was brighter, the chamber vaguely reminded him of the room in the Death Star where the controls had been set to destroy the planet Alderaan in Star Wars. Instead of a black background, the walls were composed of a clear, translucent substance from which its multitude of lights glowed and flickered in reds and greens and chased elusive patterns up and down the walls. In the center of the wall stood a transparent door that opened into a small chamber about twice the size of a phone booth. He could see the three of them reflected, ghost-like, in the chamber door: himself skinny with a tousled mop of dark hair that hadn't been cut in far too long, Alan, fair and more solidly built, and Galen, a chimpanzee as tall as a man in spite of his hunched-forward gait, garbed in green in the style of his world. A panel beside door that reflected the fugitives had a dial set into it, with numbers on it. The numbers read: 00 00 0000, each set of zeroes had smaller dials beside it. Next to them was a lever. Nowhere on the panel's face could Pete see anything that remotely resembled a drive to insert a disk.

Virdon's hand went automatically to the pouch where he carried the small magnetic disk, the input record of the flight that had brought Alan and Pete into the future. Alan would hope to use it here, hoping it would allow them to reverse the process and find a way back to the Twentieth Century--if he could find a drive in which to insert it. His endless quest for computers and technology, for a way home, had never faltered in the year since the two astronauts' space mission had gone wrong and they had found themselves stranded more than more than two thousand years in their own future, in a society dominated by apes. No matter how often Pete had called the quest for a way home a pipe dream and counseled Alan against hope, Alan had never given up on the chance. Maybe it had been a forlorn hope. From the look of this place, deep in a Forbidden Zone that had made Galen very uneasy, it might regard Alan's disk as an unworkable antique.

"I think it must be a computer," Pete replied to Galen, when Alan stared wordlessly, his eyes as wide as the chimpanzee's. "It isn't like the ones we're used to or the one we saw in the ruins of Oakland, but I think this one had to come a lot of years, even centuries, after our time. We never saw anything this advanced before our flight, except in sci-fi movies."

Galen had heard them speak of movies before and didn't question that. "Will it enable you to return to your own time?" His sad and wistful voice made the two astronauts stare at him in sudden realization. For them to find a way home would present him with a conundrum. He would not feel he could go with them, for, once there, he would be a curiosity, a freak, the only sentient ape in the entire world. Did he fear Alan and Pete stayed with him simply to have a protector in the ape-dominated culture of 3085? He ought to know how strongly friendship bound them. How much of that would change when the circumstances did? Galen would be just as much a fish out of water in the 1980s as Alan and Pete were here. Would it matter to the folks back home that he was decent and honorable, willing to risk him his life for a friend? Or would the brass or one of the covert agencies with alphabet names, learning how apes ruled the future, take him into custody to study him in hopes of preventing that fate? Pete had a very bad feeling about Galen in the Twentieth Century. But to leave him here? Urko and his gorilla band had trailed them all the way to the Forbidden Zone. The gorilla general's solution to any problems involving humans was to shoot first and not even worry about asking questions later. They might arrive at any minute, rifles in hand.

Of course the trio could be jumping the gun. This computer might not offer them a way home, even if they could figure out how to access its programming. It might be one more mystery, one that had obviously been constructed years after they had been thrust forward in time. From the book they had seen with the picture of a New York some five hundred years into their future, they knew their society had continued that long before it fell. Who knew what scientific breakthroughs scientists had made in those long years? Even in the ten years before the astronauts' flight, technological advances had come so fast that even a year away from home might leave Pete and Alan out of date. Given several hundred years, the two of them might be dinosaurs.

"I don't know, Galen." Pete hoped he sounded reassuring, but doubted Galen would take it that way. "It's more high tech than anything we're used to. Maybe we can figure how to use it if we check it out, but maybe not."

"What do you think it could be?" the chimp asked. Even the thought of a way home for his two human friends that might leave him here alone could not squelch his abundant curiosity.

"It is the doorway into history."

The sudden voice made all three fugitives whirl and bunch protectively together, fearing the arrival of the pursuing Urko, whom they had eluded just beyond the borders of the Forbidden Zone. Instead, the speaker was human, a slender, aesthetic-looking man in kind of science-fiction-y robe that looked like it might have evolved from a toga--or a Star Trek episode. Not too different from the projection they had seen in the science building in ruined Oakland. Why did future guys always seem to emulate ancient Rome? It made Pete and Alan's rough homespun garb seem incredibly primitive. But was the toga-ed newcomer really human? How could he be? He was almost transparent.

Galen blurted out a surprised sound. "He is--I can see shapes through him like the figure we saw in Oakland, but he is more solid. Is it magic?" He edged uneasily closer to Alan and Pete, darting nervous glances at the mysterious figure. "Is it a spirit?"

Alan patted the ape's shoulder reassuringly. "No, Galen, he must be a hologram. The one we saw before was only a projected image, but this one--he's three-dimensional," he explained, his eyes nearly as wide as Galen's. "I never saw one before, at least nothing this real looking, but that's what he has to be."

"Never before has an ape dared enter the Annuate Chamber," the transparent man said. He studied the two humans. "I know much of the world as it has become. Has he enslaved you?"

"Enslaved us?" Pete echoed. "Are you kidding? Galen's our friend. We'd never have made it without him. We don't play the master/slave game. He knows humans aren't inferior to apes."

"You are out of time," the hologram said, looking right at Pete. He would have taken it as an ominous statement of intent, but there was no trace of threat in his words. "Misplaced in time," he clarified. "Are you not?"

Alan exchanged a doubtful glance with Pete, who shrugged. They didn't know how to work the strange equipment, and to start pushing buttons when there were so many to push might not cut it. If this guy had answers, they might as well play along. The blond astronaut read the purpose in Pete's face. "We are. We're stranded in our future, trying to get home. I don't know what you are, but is there anything you can do to help?"

"I am the simulacrum of the final Guardian of Time," the hologram replied. "When he knew he was the last, that the humans beyond the walls of our enclave grew progressively primitive, that the world as we knew it had fallen, and apes had begun a rise to power, he created me and programmed me with his knowledge, his memories, his values, to be activated at his death. I maintain the Annuate, the Hall of Years. I can help you indeed, for the chamber is designed to set itself should any who are out of time enter it, just as it programs the traveler with what languages might be needed for a sojourn in the past. None have come since my awakening, but now you are here. My long solitude has served its purpose."

"You can send them home?" Galen asked, and his voice faltered. His shoulders hunched and he seemed smaller as if his clothes had suddenly grown too big for him.

"I can easily return them to their own time. When they step into the booth, the machine will read them and set itself, and I can then adjust the geographic location to their specifications. I am programmed with knowledge of the world in all past times, even those before history as you know it was recorded, for the Annuate has long served as a teaching tool. You think history goes back to the Pharaohs and a bit beyond, young out-of-timers? Oh, no, far beyond that. Far, far beyond." He saw Galen's eyes widen, and said, "That interests you, young chimpanzee?"

"It frightens me," Galen confessed frankly. "All that history. Human history. I would like to learn of it, but it is still frightening."

"Apes are recent, for I study the world today as well. People once believed humans evolved from apes, but it is a parallel evolution. Apes merely took longer, hard as that is for you to believe, who was conditioned to believe apes have always dominated the world." He turned back to Alan and Pete. "Will you step into the chamber? Toward the end, most who lingered here, learning their world was failing, chose to venture forth, to live in history, going into periods of which they had the greatest knowledge where they would live carefully in hopes of altering nothing."

"Our going home won't hurt the timeline," Alan insisted. "We belong there, not here. I've got a wife and son waiting for me back in 1980. I thought I'd never see them again." He faced Galen and put his hands on the ape's shoulders. "Galen, I have to go. You know that. I have to go back to my wife and son."

"I do, Alan. I know you do. I've always known you would go if the chance came." Yet he looked so lost and demoralized, his eyes frightened, his shoulders slumping beneath Alan's grip. His future must seem empty and without hope.

Pete shook his head, stirred with pity for his friend even now that the hope of home blazed before him. How could they leave Galen alone here when Urko lurked just beyond the border of the Zone, waiting for a chance at the fugitives? What would happen to Galen if he were captured with no one to stand for him? "Come with us, Galen," Pete urged. "There's nothing left for you here. You're a fugitive. I don't know what Urko would do to you if he caught you, but it wouldn't be good."

Galen backed up a step. "I can't go. In your time I would be a freak. I wouldn't belong. I have friends here, relatives. Some of them begin to understand, like Kira and even Leander. I can hide, and there are those who would shelter me. I can find them. You have to go. It isn't safe for you here. Urko would kill you if he caught you. You know that. He's tried before."

Pete's stomach knotted. "Oh, man, Galen. I hate this. I never thought...." He suddenly lunged at the chimpanzee and hugged him. "I won't miss this world, even if there are good people in it, both ape and human. But I'll miss you."

Galen hugged him back. "Take care, Pete, Alan."

It seemed so wrong to just take off and leave Galen to his own devices. He exchanged a doubtful glance with Alan. His friend's certainty shone on his face. He had always remained resolved in his course to find a way home. Lately Pete had taken each day as it came, drifting through life, dealing with each crisis, but now the thought of home pulled him so hard he ached with it. Yet Galen had become a brother. How could they leave him like this, with Urko waiting to pounce?

As if he sensed Pete's disquiet, the Guardian looked at Galen. "I will shelter you here, if you would wish it. There are ways to monitor the world beyond. If there is danger, we can find it and guide your path away from it." Pete let out a relieved breath.

"See, Galen, you'll be safe." Alan pressed Galen's hand, then he drew a deep, urgent breath and stepped into the chamber the Guardian had opened. As Pete watched, the dials that had read at 00 00 0000 began to move. He watched them in awe as they automatically set. The last four digits read 1981. Was that because they had been here long enough for a year to pass back home? It dawned on Pete that they would have a lot of explaining to do when they suddenly materialized. What would they find when they got back? Would the world consider their disappearance and return a hoax, a publicity stunt? Would they face countless trouble of their own? From the look on Alan's face, he was prepared to weather any such storm as long as it took him back to Sally and Chris.

"Which part of the world would you go to?" the Guardian asked. His hand hovered over another control. "It is presently set for the area that was once called England, for the last to use this had a fascination for the War of the Roses."

"A war was fought over flowers?" blurted Galen. He gazed at them, his face full of sorrow, his muzzle wrinkled in distress. Pete felt like a king-sized jerk for leaving him. "Humans have fought over many strange things, but flowers...."

"Roses were symbols, young ape, for the two warring houses of Lancaster and York," the hologram replied. "When your friends have departed, I will teach you of history. We will speak together. You may remain with me as long as you wish, for I would learn of the present as well as the past."

Galen stretched out his fingers to touch the hologram's arm. When they passed through it he yanked them back. "What are you?" he asked. "I don't understand what a hollow gram is."

"I will explain all to you when we have done here," the Guardian promised. He gestured to Pete to enter the chamber. "Come, tell me where you would go in the world. If you know the name of a city, that will suffice, for the chamber will match it to the correct latitude and longitude for the year 1981."

"Califor--" Pete began when shouting and the sound of booted feet running intruded into his consciousness.

"Urko," cried Galen, and looked around wildly for a place to hide.

"Come on," Pete yelled. Grabbing Galen's arm, he dragged him into the chamber. "We don't have any choice. We can't leave you to Urko."

The guardian sealed the door with the three of them inside--he must be able to become solid enough to do that--and Pete felt the hiss of air as the pressure equalized. Before the hologram could set the device for California or make any further adjustments, a squad of angry gorillas burst into the room, rifles at ready. A quick shot passed right through the Guardian, who looked down at his belly in astonishment. Unfortunately, the bullet went into the device directly above the date controls.

As Pete stared in horror, the days, months, and years spun backward, faster and faster. Nineteen hundred, 1700, 1400, 800, down into the B.C. years, time spinning so fast it blurred before his eyes. The Guardian had never set the location, and Pete wasn't sure how he could, if he wasn't solid. The same way he had sealed them in? What would happen to them? Would Urko rush over and yank open the door to kill or enslave them? The gorillas charged the hologram and tried to grab him, but their hands passed through him. Shouting and gasping in superstitious terror, they jerked back, poking at him with their rifles. Urko snorted in disgust at their fear and lunged for the handle of the door, to pull the fugitives out.

The Guardian looked at them as they huddled together, each astronaut protectively clutching one of Galen's arms. Galen stood rigid, gasping for breath, his eyes wide and afraid. Then the hologram smiled regretfully. His hand shimmered into greater solidity and pulled down the lever.

The Annuate Chamber vanished with a whoosh and spit the two humans and the ape out onto a green hillside under a turbulent grey sky that churned with almost living malice off to their left. To the right, over a range of mountains, the sky was still blue, but it looked like a severe storm was about to hit. They had been thrust into a strange time, with no idea where they were, how far into the past they had come--or how they would ever get home.

            *****

"Is this your world?" Galen asked in a very doubtful voice as he sat up, rubbing the back of his head. "I thought it would be full of computers and machines--and humans."

Pete looked around warily. There was dew on the grass; it must be morning, although there was no trace of the sun That must mean the direction where the clouds seethed had to be east. The air was crisp and chilly, but not quite cold enough for Pete to be able to see his breath. "Did you see the time counter? The bullet hit it. It went wild. It kept going back and back, waaaay back so far into the past I don't think the numbers were working right anymore."

"Into the distant past?" Galen asked. "Not your time? Why?" He wouldn't have understood the controls enough to watch them.

"The bullet must have damaged the controls," explained Pete. He glanced at Alan, who sat up slowly, then drew up his knees, folded his arms over them, and slowly lowered his forehead to hide his face in his arms.

"I'll never get home," Alan groaned in a voice so hollow and desolate that Pete and Galen exchanged a look aching with sympathy. There would be no computers in the distant past. No machines at all, not even the doorway to the one that had sent them here. Did it work like the transporter on Star Trek that had beamed the Enterprise crew down to planets? They could be beamed up again, but how could the machine find them through time? The Guardian had said it would remember where it was last set. England, he'd said. Someone had gone back to the War of the Roses. The 1400s, wasn't it? But the dials had gone back so many thousands of years before that. Was this still England? How could it be with that vivid mountain range stretching away to his right or the dark and jagged range to his left across the river. England didn't have stark mountains like that.

At least it hadn't in the Twentieth Century.

Pete frowned. Something else was weird, although he wasn't sure what it was. He understood everything they said--but it wasn't English, except for words like 'computers'. They were speaking a different language entirely, just like the hologram had told them the machine could do. He was even thinking in another language. Heck of a machine, to send them here and prepare them at the same time. He hoped it hadn't been screwed up by the bullet. What if it was another language but not the right one for wherever they had landed? He decided not to mention that possibility to the others. They had enough to worry about already.

"There are buildings," Galen said, pointing. Still brooding on this impossible turn of fate, Alan didn't look up, but Pete followed the chimpanzee's outstretched hand. On this side of the river, backed up against the first mountain in the great range, rose a great white stone fortress, rising in narrowing circles, each level smaller than the next, like a ziggurat but with a more medieval look. Apart from a vast thrust of rock like the prow of a ship that jutted out through all its levels, the fortress vaguely reminded Pete of Mont Saint Michel in France. He had backpacked through France and Spain in the early '70s, with a couple of buddies from college. From its ramparts they had watched the tide surge in across the tidal flats, inexorably swallowing the land that surrounded the great fortress. This one was different, but it was definitely a fortress with a great barricading wall protecting the lowest and largest level. No tidal flow would crash against these walls, but something might, because he could see soldiers standing on the ramparts, distant small figures in what looked like pointed metal helmets, on guard against threat.

Another city had been built to straddle the river, but it lay in ruins, many of its towers stark and broken. Faintly on the morning air Pete could hear the clash of metal against metal--swords striking?--and shouting down there. A road ran across a vast field from the fortress to the ruined river city, but no one traveled on it. Uneasy shivers chased themselves up and down Pete's spine, making him glad they were partially concealed by a clump of bushes. Was a battle being fought in the ruined city?

"Where the hell are we?" he blurted.

Galen gave a doubtful sound. He looked so stunned by the sudden turn of events that he could only stare around him, his eyes huge, his mouth gaping open. The very lines of his body suggested panic.

What the hell did they do now? Had they really been thrust into the distant past with no computers, no hope for Alan? He'd held on all this time, clutching his disk like a talisman, a hope for the future, believing it would bear him miraculously back to Sally and Chris. Now that hope was gone. How would he handle it? What would he do, convinced he would never see his wife and son again?

What would Pete do? Could the machine reclaim them? The gorillas couldn't hurt a hologram, but they could sure as hell wreck the machine. After being cheated of the fugitives they were bound to. They would fire endless rounds into it or smash it into rubble with their rifle butts and then burn the place to the ground. Urko would be sure to order it out of spite and frustration, and in superstitious fear of the machine. No way home. No hope of recall. They could sit here and wait, hoping the Guardian could overcome Urko's patrol--but how could he? Holograms weren't solid. The Annuate Chamber might have its own defenses--lasers or something, he thought vaguely--but they couldn't count on that, not when a chance bullet had damaged the machine.

"I don't know," Galen said softly, then his voice sharpened into alarm. "But I've never seen anything like that before." He thrust out his hand to point at the ruined city on the river, and edged nervously closer to Pete.

Over the river city creatures soared, three huge leathery-winged beasts--dinosaurs? dragons?--each bearing a spooky black-robed figure on its back that resembled Ebenezer Scrooge's Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They swooped and dove into the city and sometimes came up carrying men in their claws only to fling them down to smash against the unforgiving ground. The thrum of air as their wings beat sounded even here.

"Alan, get down!" Pete yelled and tugged him into the inadequate shelter of the bushes.

The urgency in his voice cut through Alan's despair, and he looked in the direction Pete and Galen had stared in such horror. "What the hell are those things?"

"Flying reptiles? Giant lizards?" Galen's voice shook. "We have nothing like that. Those creatures are alive, not flying machines. They must be enemies."

"The way they're flinging those guys around, they have to be." Pete wasn't sure who the good guys were in the battle, but he didn't like the look of the dragons, with their spooky black riders, who had it in for the humans. Well, at least from this distance, the poor soldiers being battered looked human.

"We need to get to cover." Faced with threat, Alan snapped into military command mode. "If we can work our way around to the fortress, maybe they'll take us in."

"And maybe not," Pete said. "They'll be jumpy because they're at war."

"War?" echoed Galen, his voice filled with horror. "Humans have had many wars."

"Oh, yeah, and maybe you'd like to side with the flying lizards?" Pete asked sourly. He felt bad about snapping at Galen after what they'd all just gone through, but from the look of the valley before them staying here and waiting was sure to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

"Well...no," Galen admitted. "But they won't have any apes here. If they're at war, they'll be jumpy. Humans are always jumpy when it comes to fighting--at least in my world. They might attack first and wonder who we are after we're dead."

"We'll stand for you," Alan said. "Wish we could find a cloak or something to cover you with so we could get into the city. Have you got one in your backpack?"

Galen shook his head. "No, only a blanket, but it isn't big enough to cover me."

"What about going around to the back, up the mountain?" Pete suggested, pointing. "Look, there's some kind of bridge going across from the top level over to some buildings on the side of the mountain. If we could climb up there, we might be able to get in that way."

"And have them shoot us as spies?" Alan frowned. "Look, there's a big fire on the mountain." He pointed up and north. "And another one, there high above the city on that platform. Maybe it's some kind of signal beacon."

"Sending for reinforcements?" Pete frowned down at the ruin. "This is bad, Alan. We've arrived at the worst possible time. The last thing they're gonna do is put out the welcome mat." He grasped Galen by the shoulders. "I don't know much about ancient times, Galen, but I do know one thing. People are usually afraid of what they don't know and don't understand. When times are bad, they're ten times as afraid as they are when things are good--and ten times more likely to shoot first and ask questions later."

Alan cocked his head to listen to the distant clash of arms and cries of those in battle, then he studied the great white city. "We've got two choices," he decided. "We can hide out here and hope for the best. I don't think that's a good choice. Look." He thrust out his hand to the river winding through the ruin where many boats moved through the dissipating morning fog, boats full of armed men. No, not men, Pete through, squinting for a better look. Or else the ugliest guys he'd ever seen, even from such a distance. The armored guys on the city's ramparts looked like men. "See that?" Alan said. "There's thousands of those guys coming. I think the dragon guys are with them, not the men. So the other choice is to go down openly to the city, show 'em we're not armed, and see if they'll take us in. The city's probably full of refugees from the outlying lands. We'd be just three more."

"Alan, you and Pete might look like refugees," Galen said, his voice full of distress. He hunched his shoulders miserably. "But I don't. They might take me for one of the enemy."

"If we stay out here, we'll be taken by the enemy," Alan insisted. "I don't think we've got any choice. It won't be long before that ruin is overrun and the guys defending it will have to retreat to the fortress or be killed. Come on. We'll stay in the brush as long as we can, then we'll come out and walk openly up to the gate."

Pete didn't know how smart that was, but Alan looked so grim and determined he didn't want to argue, and Alan was his commanding officer anyway. He must still be in shock from the realization that the odds against his ever going home had just become a thousand times greater than before--and they'd really sucked in Galen's world. All Alan had left was the two of them, and Pete could see he meant to protect them, even if it he had to lead them into uncertainty to do so.

"We're not armed," Alan concluded. "No swords or bows or whatever they use here. Your knife won't be much use against flying lizards, Pete. I think it's our only chance. If the invaders in the boats overrun the area, we'll be doomed out here."

"We might be doomed in there," Pete argued.

"Maybe. But at least we'd be with people."

The lost, wistful note beneath Alan's determination sliced through Pete's uneasy resistance, and he nodded. "But we stand up for Galen," he insisted. "He walks between us."

Alan nodded in surprise that such a matter should ever have been in doubt. "We stand up for Galen," he agreed. "What do you say, Galen? Are you with us?"

"Well...I don't see that I have a choice," Galen replied. He looked every bit as stunned as Alan, just as certain he would never see home again. At least before, even in exile, he had been in his own world, a world he understood, a world he could explain to the two astronauts, a world where he still had friends and kin. Now he was in one so strange he could not begin to comprehend it.

Pete didn't comprehend it either, but he'd pretty much given up believing he had any control over his fate, except in the small things. It had been the only way to get by, to survive in an ape-dominated society. Not a long-term answer, but the option was to sit down and die, and he no quitter. No, they'd go down to the city, and if Galen was too exotic for them to take in and they had to run, then they'd do it, away from the river and those weird boat guys and the dragon men.

"We're with you," Pete told Alan, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Come on," Alan urged. "Let's move."

They stayed in the scanty cover of the brush most of the way, hoping none of the three black characters on the dragons would spot them and fly over to snatch them up into the air. But the lizards seemed pretty well occupied shredding the guys in the ruined city. When the three fugitives came closer to the walled fortress, they had to emerge from cover, and they strode out boldly, Galen protectively between the two humans. Pete could sense the ape's fear, but then his own must be pretty blatant, too. He looked over at Alan, who gave him a grim nod. They started walking.

They were seen almost immediately, and the men on the walls stared down at them, shouting, as they made for the huge recessed gate, passing along the walls of the city to reach it. Pete looked up, glad to see the armored guys above him really did look human, most of whom had long hair like hippies that hung out from beneath their helmets, and he spread his hands to show he carried no arms. Every one of them had an arrow in his bow, ready to shoot them.

Alan stopped and gazed upward. "We seek shelter," he called. "We mean no harm. We're not enemies."

The soldiers aimed their arrows at Galen. "What is that with you?" called a man who must be an officer.

"Me?" Galen shifted unhappily from one foot to the other. "I am a chimpanzee. I am peaceful. I would never harm anyone."

"It talks," gasped one of the men.

"Some kind of hairy orc," called another. "That's what it is."

"Doesn't look like an orc to me," a man disagreed. "They're not hairy like that."

"I saw a beast like that when we came up against the Haradrim once," another shouted. "It was smaller and more hunched over, and it couldn't speak. It was a pet in a jeweled collar, and its owner tossed nuts to it to eat. There are such beasts in southern lands, they say. Apes, they are called, but I have seen only one. They did not speak, nor have the ability to do so."

Primitive apes? Pete shivered at the horrified expression on Galen's face. "Galen is not our pet, he's our friend," he said. "We come from...another land far away, but we aren't your enemies." He gestured out toward the ruined port city. "We saw those flying things and just want to get away from them."

"The Steward will wish to question you," the officer said. "Go around to the gate, and if you bear weapons, you will lay them down there. We'll be watching you, so try nothing." He gestured to the row of archers on the wall, every one with an arrow nocked to his bow. As they walked, Pete could hear the word being passed from man to man.

Under the eyes--and weapons--of the armored soldiers, the three walked along the length of the wall to the great recessed gates. Galen's eyes opened very wide at the sight of them for they had elaborate carvings of great figures of men set into panels upon them, and they were probably thick enough to withstand battering rams. Pete had no idea where the three of them had landed in history--he hadn't expected anything like this from the numbers that had been spinning on the dials back in the Annuate Chamber.

Sudden cries made the trio turn in time to see soldiers on horseback break from the ruined city. They must have been overrun and decided to cut their losses. Shouting filled the air, and the distant thunder of hoofbeats marked the soldiers' retreat. Worse, the lizards followed them and started swooping through them, grabbing up men and horses and flinging them down from a great height. Pete's stomach lurched, sickened at the sight.

With a great creak of sound the gate opened a narrow gap. A huge and beautiful white horse emerged, bearing an old man all in white, his white hair long and flowing free, carrying a great white staff, with a little kid riding before him. No, he looked older than a kid. A midget? A member of a different--and shorter--race of people?

The guy in white looked down at the trio, and Pete shivered, for he had never in his life been subject to such an intense, penetrating scrutiny. "Go into the city," he commanded the trio. "All three of you. Soldiers will guard you, and I will see to you after I do what I must." He galloped out to meet the retreating troops, and guards who stood near the gate grasped the three of them by the arms and pulled them in. At once they were thrust to one side, and the gate slammed shut. Soldiers held drawn swords as they gestured them not to try anything. Pete wondered why a city that had all these soldiers would only send out one old man and a little guy to help the retreat.

"Oh, Pete, Alan, he was...." Galen's voice trailed off as he sought for words. "He was...powerful. I never saw a human like that. I...don't think he is human."

"Of course he's human, Galen," Alan insisted. He looked around, assessing the situation, summing up the numbers of the troops, making a military evaluation.

Pete shook his head, halfway prepared to disagree with Alan's ready dismissal of Galen's words. There had been something in the man's gaze he'd never come up against before. He didn't have a clue what it was, but, strangely enough, it didn't make him uneasy--well, at least no more uneasy than he already was. Oddly enough, he felt reassured.

"He is a great wizard, is Mithrandir," one of the soldiers explained. "If he said for you to come in, then come in you must. What is your companion? He is no orc, for I have never seen an orc with such hair on his body." His sword tip hovered a few inches from Galen's chest, causing the chimpanzee to shrink back with a moan of protest. Pete stretched out a protective arm in front of Galen and planted his feet, unwilling to yield.

"Galen's an ape," Alan said. He still looked hollow and empty but his eyes had sharpened to alertness and he looked around with measuring interest. "He's an intelligent being. He's also peaceful and harmless. I think your Mithrandir saw that, or he would never have said to bring us in."

"What can he do against those flying things?" Pete asked.

Shouts from the wall proved something was going on. Unable to see, Pete looked up anyway. The daylight seemed suddenly brighter. Excited cries rang out on the ramparts, and a soldier called down, "He is driving the Nazgûl away." Cheers rose from the soldiers who lined the walls.

Presently, the thunder of hooves drew near, and the gates opened to admit the retreating cavalry. Pete stared at the amazing system of pulleys and counterweights needed to open the gates. Then the escaping soldiers poured into the city, most on horseback, with a few stragglers on foot. There was Mithrandir on his white horse--Pete had never seen a finer one--with his small passenger whose pallor suggested he was still catching his breath from the terrifying experience. Unlike the soldiers with their flowing hair, his wasn't much longer than Pete's, and it was curly. Neither he nor the wizard wore armor.

As they watched the troops gather in the great courtyard under a huge statue of a mounted rider, one of the riders called out, "Mithrandir!" and guided his horse through the throng to the wizard. Wizard? Pete would have to think about that one. The mounted soldier's sweat-matted hair had a reddish blond cast, and he looked dead beat, but the air of responsibility about him suggested he must be the commanding officer. A substance that might have been blood if it wasn't a dark bluish grey color had spattered his leather garb. Orc blood? "They broke through our defenses," he reported breathlessly. "They've taken the bridge and the west bank. Battalions of orcs are crossing the river."

A soldier on foot cried out, "It is as the Lord Denethor predicted. Long has he foreseen this doom!"

Pete considered that a pretty stupid thing to say. If the Lord Denethor, whoever he was, had known this was coming, why the hell hadn't he done anything to defend against it?

"Foreseen and done nothing," Mithrandir challenged. Good for him. He wheeled his horse around, granting the man on horseback his first view of the little guy. The commander stared, shock and astonishment filling his face. Embarrassed to find himself the focus of such an intense scrutiny, the little fellow ducked his head.

The wizard sharpened to urgent attention. "Faramir? This is not the first halfling to have crossed your path?" he asked as if there was a much greater significance to his words than they alone would indicate.

Still shaken, Faramir replied, "No," very softly. What was going on? Pete didn't have a clue, but he could tell it was important. He was conscious of Alan and Galen staring up at the three.

Suddenly the little guy raised his hed, an expression of blinding hope on his face. "You've seen Frodo and Sam?"

Faramir nodded. Pete didn't know who Frodo and Sam were, but that didn't matter.

Mithrandir's face warmed, just like the little guy's. "Where? When?" he demanded.

"In Ithilien, not two days ago." Faramir was still catching his breath from the battle and retreat. As the little guy smiled up at Mithrandir, he continued urgently, "Gandalf, they've taken the road to the Morgul Vale."

Gandalf? Mithrandir? The guy must have two names. His smile vanished and he stared at Faramir in dismay. "And then the Pass of Cirith Ungol?"

Faramir nodded. The halfling picked up on the problem, whatever it was. Maybe that was the most dangerous way to go. "What does that mean? What's wrong?" He craned his neck to stare up at the white-haired wizard.

"Faramir, tell me everything," Mithrandir demanded. "Tell me all you know."

The guards crowded more closely around the three from the future, but Pete still heard Faramir's succinct tale, that he had encountered Frodo and Sam, whoever they were, in Ithilien--from the way he gestured, it must be the name of the country across the river--and had suspected them of being spies of the Enemy. He mentioned the death of someone called Boromir, which made his whole face blaze with grief, and told how he had brought Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath--the ruined city--where he had realized he must free Frodo to complete his task. He had warned them against the Pass of Cirith Ungol. "Mithrandir, the creature Gollum traveled with them."

"Gollum!" cried the little guy. "But he wants to steal the Ring."

"Hush, Peregrin Took," Mithrandir said with sudden, urgent purpose, and he fell silent, but only for a moment.

"But Gandalf, Frodo must be in danger."

"He ventures into Mordor. Of course he is in danger," Mithrandir replied. He smiled upon Faramir. "I am glad you saw it in your heart to free him, although I fear you have placed yourself in jeopardy by such an action."

"If my life is forfeit, so be it," Faramir said, his head held high and proud. Exhausted, filthy, sweaty, he still exuded a sense of great honor. Pete felt a surge of respect for Faramir.

"I will intercede for you, if need be," Mithrandir vowed. "Although the lord Denethor will not welcome my counsel."

"I must see to my men and then report to my father." Faramir swung down from the saddle, the very lines of his body screaming fatigue.

"Captain Faramir," called one of the soldiers who had guarded the trio. "We have captives here I would have you see before you go to the Steward."

"Captives?" Mithrandir asked, and Pete realized he had suddenly remembered the three of them, if he had ever forgotten. "Faramir, come, we shall see them together. If your father must wait a bit longer, so be it, for I sense a strangeness in this." He dismounted with the ease of a man far younger than his apparent years, and Peregrin Took slid down and fell in beside him. Pete realized with surprise that, unlike the soldiers' mounts, the white horse wore neither saddle nor bridle.

Faramir turned in the direction Gandalf gestured and saw Galen for the first time. He stiffened, his hand going automatically for his sword, then he stayed the motion and strode past the guardian soldiers. "I am Faramir, Captain of the Ithilien Rangers and son of the Steward. I have never seen your like before, yet your companions are men. Speak. Explain this riddle. Serve you the Dark Lord Sauron?"

Galen swallowed hard. "No," he said quickly. "I am a stranger here and we came to this great fortress for safety. We never saw anything like those terrible flying beasts before." He looked at Pete and Alan, then back to Faramir. "My name is Galen, and my friends are Pete Burke and Alan Virdon."

"The soldiers on the wall wondered if he were some kind of orc," Alan said quickly. "But we never heard of orcs before we came here, and he isn't. He's a chimpanzee, and he's peaceful."

"How can one be peaceful in such times?" Faramir asked, a combination of suspicion and curiosity filling his face.

"Why, so it can be, for those fortunate enough to live in safe lands," Mithrandir said as he joined Faramir. "Our brave hobbits have known naught but peace before need brought fourth four of them to involve themselves in this great war." He rested his hand on Peregrin Took's shoulder. Hobbit? Was that what he was? Halfling, Mithrandir had said earlier. Peregrin Took stared up at Galen with wide, uneasy eyes. With a sudden shock, Pete realized his ears were pointed just like Mister Spock's. He studied the hobbit. His feet were bare and the tops were very hairy.

"This is the first halfling you have seen," said Mithrandir to the trio. "Perhaps he is as strange to you as Galen is to us. Yet I sense no malice in the three of you."

"Is he a bear, Gandalf?" Peregrin Took asked. "One of the Beornings, like Bilbo Baggins used to tell stories of?"

Faramir struggled not to smile, but Gandalf could not hold back his own. "No, Pippin," he said, his voice full of amusement. "He is no bear. I have yet to see a bear who wears clothing and carries a pack upon his back."

Pete bridled at the bear comment, but thought he better not say anything. These guys didn't have a clue about Galen. They were trying to compare him to what they knew, and falling miles short.

"We have no bears in the Shire," Pippin admitted. "But I thought they had big paws with long claws, and he has hands, even if they are hairy on the backs," he said. He made sure he stayed just half a step behind Mithrandir, clearly not sure what to think of Galen, but his eyes sparkled with curiosity.

"Not that much hairier than your feet, little guy," Alan said. He smiled at Pippin, but it was a sad, wistful smile. Even though Pippin was so short--probably about the height of Alan's son Chris--he was not a child. Still, looking down at someone who gazed back with such wondering eyes had to remind him of his son, whom he would never see again. Pete shifted closer to Alan in a silent gesture of support.

Galen, seeing the motion, looked down at Pippin and then at Alan, and murmured a soft, "Oh."

"All must envy the fine hairy feet of hobbits," Pippin said with a huge smile. That made Faramir smile, too, and as if he sensed it, Pippin looked up and shared the smile with him. After one quick doubtful glance at Galen, he went up to Faramir and bowed before him, an awkward, yet formal bow as if he wasn't used to bowing but really meant it. "I have offered my allegiance to Gondor and I must swear my formal oath to your father today. But I..." He hesitated, then looked up doubtfully at Gandalf.

The wizard's eyes seemed knowledgeable, as if he understood. He nodded.

At once Pippin dropped to one knee before Faramir, who stared down in astonishment, his eyes widening when Pippin caught his hand. "Captain Faramir, I knew your brother," he said. "Merry and I loved Boromir, for he befriended us and was very kind to us on the road. He was so brave and heroic, and...and...."

"If you hesitate to speak of his death, Master Took, you need not, for I know that he fell, yet not how. It took more than his severed horn to convince me he had gone, for I felt it in my heart. Know you how my brother died?"

Pippin's eyes filled with tears, and he gave a small nod. "I...he fought so many orcs to save my cousin Merry and me. Even with...with arrows in his body, he would rise again and fight to defend us. We fought, too, but there were so many, and they captured us and carried us away." A lone tear trailed down his cheek. At Pete's side, Galen made a distressed, sympathetic sound that Faramir noted, even in the heart of his sorrow. "We found out later that Aragorn came and was with him when he died, and Legolas and Gimli, too, so he did not die alone and unhonored. But..." He caught his breath. "He was such a noble man, to die for us. It wasn't right. I'm so sorry."

Faramir looked down at him and everyone within earshot listened in silence. Pete could see the bitter grief in Faramir's face as he heard the story of his brother's fate. Alan swallowed hard. Maybe he was thinking that at least Sally and Chris were alive, back in 1980, even if he could never see them again. Faramir's brother was dead, and death was final.

Faramir knelt before Pippin, and clasped the halfling's shoulders. "My brother would never have held back from defending those who needed him. There is no blame attached to you. I am glad you and your cousin were spared."

Pippin looked up and swallowed hard. For a moment, he could not speak, and Mithrandir took a step closer and let his hand rest upon the hobbit's back. Finally, Pippin found his voice. "I never met anyone as brave as your brother," he said. "When I go home, I will see my family honors his name."

"I thank you," Faramir replied hoarsely. He squeezed Pippin's shoulders. "Gondor is glad of your service, Peregrin Took. And I am glad you recall my brother with such kindness. We will speak again later, you and I." He stood up and looked around. Pete was sure he wanted to take longer with Pippin, but there was so much going on he couldn't spare the time. He beckoned to one of his officers. "Garst, see to the troops. Have the wounded conveyed to the Houses of Healing. I must report to my father." He beckoned another soldier closer. "Beregond, I do not believe these three are enemies of Gondor, yet I dare not risk the city on my assumption."

"And mine," Gandalf said. "Beregond, I will accompany you to see to them. I would not have them locked away in cells, but instead taken to a place of shelter, where they may be fed and clothed more comfortably. I must then discover what strange fate brought them here." He considered the three, and must have decided Alan was the leader, for he bowed his head to him. "Object you to questions?"

"No," Alan said. "You're at war. You'd be nuts to take us on faith. We'll answer your questions, but I don't think you'll buy our answers, or like them any more than we do." He hesitated. "We don't serve the Dark Lord, though. The way those lizard things were dropping people out of the sky, well, that's not our way. We don't know anything about this war of yours, but on the strength of that, if we have to pick sides, we'd pick yours."

Faramir hesitated. "On the strength of that, I would say welcome, but your companion Galen is strange to us, so we must be cautious. Many duties require my attention now, but Beregond is a good officer and a good man. He will see you are not mistreated--but he will also protect Minas Tirith." A gesture at the walls around them indicated that was the name of the fortress.

He spoke to Mithrandir. "Gandalf, learn what you can of them. I will not yet speak of them to my father. The news I bear him will distress him and anger him enough as it is."

"You sent Boromir's horn to him," Gandalf said, "for he held it during our audience with him yesterday. He is grieving, but he is also angry, not at you in particular, but at fate itself. You will not be granted an easy encounter."

Faramir's face tightened. "No encounter with my father in recent years has been easy. I have grown accustomed. But when he learns I freed Frodo, his anger will achieve unmatched levels. I must gather a report on the number of slain and make myself presentable before I go to the Hall of the Kings." He gestured vaguely at his leather armor. "I will find you after, given opportunity, and learn what you have discovered about our three guests." He circled the equestrian statue and strode away across the courtyard, his shoulders squared.

"His father ought to see his worth. All else do," Beregond muttered under his breath, so softly it went no further than Gandalf, Pippin, and the three who had journeyed from the future. His grimace suggested he regretted the unguarded utterance, and looked to Mithrandir, who merely inclined his head in agreement.

A man who wasn't in armor but wearing some kind of robes came up to them. "Your pardon, Mithrandir, but Lord Denethor requests the halfling come to him soon to swear his allegiance." He looked at Pippin. "You must garb yourself in the livery provided, Master Halfling. Come."

"Go with him, Pippin," Gandalf said. "And see you remember the words of your oath, as I taught you last night."

"I will," Pippin promised, and the man led him away.

Gandalf considered the three. "I can spare you half an hour," he said, "for events have been set in motion in many places that will soon come to a head. Yet your presence here intrigues me. It may be there is purpose to your unexpected arrival." He nodded to the soldier. "Beregond, I think we would serve the city best if we cloak Galen to travel through the streets." He bowed to Galen. "Your pardon, Master Galen, but these are perilous times, and such a great threat hovers over this city that I would not create a panic, nor would I subject you to abuse out of ignorance."

Pete's mouth tightened. He was so accustomed to intolerance from the apes of Galen's world that he had come to resent it fiercely, all the more so because to rail against it would have endangered their lives. He didn't see prejudice in Mithrandir, but the thought that Galen had to be covered up to be acceptable pissed him off.

"Fear not, Pete Burke," Mithrandir said. "I do not discriminate against your friend. I merely protect him. You are of the race of men. You understand it is the nature of men to react harshly in troubled times, and to fear what they do not understand."

"He's got you there, Pete," Alan said. "Bad times bring out the worst in people--but they can bring out the best, too."

Gandalf smiled. "That they can, Alan Virdon. That they can. I have often seen it. I am sure I will see it again many times. You do not know Frodo yet, no more than his name, but know his incredible courage may yet save all Middle-earth."

"Middle-earth?" Galen asked as Beregond passed him a soldier's cloak. "Is that what your land is called?" He draped the green fabric around his shoulders--the shade clashed with the green of his own clothing--and it was long enough to brush the ground. Pete helped him settle the hood in place.

"That is the name of the world," Gandalf replied. "Come you not from Middle-earth?"

Alan looked around at the listening folk and lowered his voice. "You probably won't believe us, Mithrandir, but we come from the future. Two different times in the future, Galen further in the future than us. An accident trapped us in his time, and when we found a means to go home, it was damaged and sent us far into our past."

"Indeed?" Mithrandir didn't appear to disbelieve, but neither did he show anything but gentle surprise. "Let us go and speak of this," he said. "For I find it intriguing, and beyond my knowledge."

"But you know everything, Mithrandir," Beregond said.

The wizard gave him a gentle smile. "No," he said wryly. "There are many thing I know not, things I wish I knew. We will speak of the journeying through time, if you will find us a secure location."

The secure location proved to be very high. The soldier Beregond led them higher and higher, up ramps and staircases, not all the way to the top of the vast fortress, but one level below. Pete estimated the top level must be 700 feet above the plain below. He noted each new level had a gate, and that they all faced in different directions, probably to make sure invading armies didn't have a straight path all the way to the top.

On the main roadway they passed litter-bearers carrying the wounded from Faramir's retreat higher and higher as well as the people of the city going about their business. Some folks stopped to stare at Mithrandir, and others to gape at Pete and Alan's unusual clothing and shorter hair, and to squint at Galen in his enveloping cloak. "The wounded are carried to the Houses of Healing on the sixth level," Beregond replied when Galen asked. "The healers will treat them. They are very skilled. They cared for me when I received an arrow wound to the side."

Galen shivered. "Your world is violent. Arrows? Swords? Do none use rifles?"

"What is a rifle?" Beregond asked. "If it is a terrible weapon, I hope the orcs will not use it."

"It...uh, casts pellets of metal very fast," Alan replied. He seemed to have given himself up to the situation, his face almost blank as he walked. Pete could sympathize. After a while, a guy had to grow numb or lose it.

"The orcs have no such weapons," Gandalf reassured the soldier. "Come, we must hurry, for there will soon be more demands on my time than I can safely manage."

Pete caught Alan's eye. They'd arrived here at the worst possible moment. Poor Galen, all shrouded in his cloak, was probably terrified. At least the two astronauts had been given nearly a year to get used to being in the wrong time--if one could ever become accustomed to such a fate. Here, in a world with no apes, at least with only primitive ones in a southern land, he must feel as alone and lost as Pete and Alan did.

Pete heaved a sigh and resolved to do whatever he could for his friends.

            *****

Gandalf drew a deep breath as they entered the private room to which Beregond had led them. It was near the Houses of Healing on the sixth level, a quiet place with arched windows that looked to the south, sparing them the perilous view of Mordor. "I will stand guard," Beregond volunteered, and gestured them in.

So many threats hung over the city, and Gandalf had immediately realized he could not rely on Denethor to do what he must to defend Minas Tirith. He had complained to Pippin that the steward even used his grief as a cloak. He had not readied his armies, but they fought their hopeless battles thanks to the skill and dedication of their military leaders. Faramir was a gifted warrior, but he was one man, one man who had long been out of his father's favor, and for no fair reason Gandalf could see. Soon, he would be even more out of favor, when he confessed he had let the One Ring go into Mordor to be destroyed. Chancy it was that Frodo would succeed, but such was Middle-earth's only hope. Should Sauron gain control of the Ring, all hope would be lost. Denethor would see it not, and would no doubt blame Faramir, upon whom his vengeance would break like a great wave. Gandalf would be needed for intervention. Would Denethor even bestir himself to defend his city or would he sit brooding upon the Steward's Seat and do nothing? If so, Gandalf saw his own responsibility as an inescapable burden. To him would fall the task of rallying the troops, and defending the city would prove a massive undertaking. Rohan would come in answer to the beacon fires Gandalf had bade Pippin light. Théoden King would bring his troops, as many as he could gather, with Aragorn there to spur him on, but Aragorn had his own tasks to fulfill and must see to the corsair ships that would also threaten the city. The great test of the Paths of the Dead awaited him, and Gandalf feared for him, yet he knew Aragorn's prodigious strength. He would rise to the challenge, as he had done at Helm's Deep. There was a greatness in Aragorn, that revealed itself more with each passing day.

So many pieces needed to move upon the great board. Each had his task, and each must fulfill it. The fate of Middle-earth weighted down the wizard's shoulders. Yet here before him was an unexpected chance, a rogue piece in the great game. What did it mean? Could he use this astonishing arrival from a distant future to aid Middle-earth? Or would the presence of two men and a...chimpanzee topple the balance in Sauron's favor?

He would not permit that to happen.

Alan Virdon dropped into a chair as if his muscles and sinews had ceased working, and Pete Burke patted his shoulder consolingly, his face tight with worry. Once the door closed with Beregond on the outside, Galen flung off the cloak. His eyes were wide and wild, although Gandalf had no skill at reading his expression. Pete Burke looked no happier than the other two, but he firmed his shoulders and faced Gandalf.

"I don't care if you believe it or not, but we really are from the future," he said with the kind of defiance men displayed when they stood with their backs against the wall.

"I do not doubt it is your belief," Gandalf said. "And I suspect it may indeed be true. How came you here?"

Pete Burke looked at his companions, and when neither seemed inclined to speak, he plunged into a complex and disjointed tale in strangely idiomatic speech about pursuing gorillas--evidently a different type of ape from Galen--and an area called a Forbidden Zone where lost remnants of a high human culture remained. A great machine whose purpose was to send people into history to study it had been the means of their journey. Hearing how the gorillas' attack had damaged the device, Gandalf realized they had no understanding of its workings nor hope it would recover them. He also suspected the society in which Virdon and Burke had lived had fallen after they had been thrust into their future and Galen's present. That journey seemed even more astonishing than the device, for they spoke of a great ship that would travel so high into the sky it would move among the stars. It had malfunctioned and thrust them into a world where apes had developed into thinking creatures and ruled over primitive humans, who served as servants or slaves. Gandalf's mouth tightened. That part of the story must never be revealed to the people of Gondor. Although so many years in the future there would be no counting them, it would dishearten all who heard it, as they struggled now for their very survival.

"Your tale is harrowing," he said. "I would have none here learn the fate of humans in your time, Galen."

"You think it would make them want to give up?" Virdon lifted his head and studied Gandalf.

"I fear it."

The blond human's face held great pain. "The loss of hope is a terrible thing," he said as if he had lost his own. "If I'm asked, I'll just say that apes and humans live together in the future."

Galen gazed at Virdon in distress. "You have always felt this way?" he said in a soft, sympathetic voice. "Despairing that your society fell? I didn't realize. I'm so sorry, Alan."

"It's not your fault, Galen. I guess I always hoped that if I held onto the disk and found a way home I could...change it."

Burke gave a jerk of surprise. "I never thought of that," he admitted.

"Bad enough I had to. Mithrandir--or is it Gandalf?"

"Gandalf is my name. The people of Minas Tirith have called me Mithrandir time out of mind. It means 'the grey pilgrim', for I was once Gandalf the Grey. I am now Gandalf the White, which you will not understand, but I have become the head of my order in Middle-earth." He smiled wryly. "Indeed there are but two of us wizards remaining, for Saruman has fallen, he who was the head of my order until he succumbed to Sauron's mastery." He looked at the three of them. "What am I to do with you? From what you say and do not say, the device which thrust you into the past was damaged by the gorillas' weapons, and you fear they will smash it into rubble in their fury that you have eluded them. Even if not, there is no device at this end of history to summon you, and you cannot sit on a hillside in the midst of the great orc invasion on the very minuscule chance retrieval might be possible."

Virdon's face twisted. "We'll never get home," he groaned. He reached into the pouch that hung at his side and pulled forth a small silver circular medallion. With a cry of fury, he flung it away from him, then his body sagged and he buried his face in his hands. The medallion rolled into a corner where it circled around and around on its edges until it lay flat. Gandalf stooped to retrieve it, but he understood neither its design nor function.

Virdon's two companions consoled him, yet how could consolation be possible? He had lost a wife and child; he would never see them again. The other two had lost their homes and families, but perhaps neither had been wed. Gandalf observed them as Galen made soothing sounds and Burke sat next to his friend and put an arm around his shoulders.

Yet after a few moments, Virdon stiffened. He pushed himself up away from the solace and faced Gandalf. "If we can't go home, we're stuck here. You're in the middle of a war. Is there anybody who can give us a score card?"

"Score card?" Gandalf echoed. He knew the words but not their usage here.

"Humans of their time had many unusual expressions," Galen offered. "I still don't know them all. He means, can someone tell us of your history and the nature of the battle you are fighting, and who the orcs are?"

"I will see it done," Gandalf agreed. "I cannot spare you time now to explain in detail, for the ruler of this city verges on the brink of madness and has failed to order its protection as he should. I was forced to circumvent him to summon the Rohirrim--the people of Rohan, the next kingdom--to come to Gondor's aid. Minas Tirith is the capital city of Gondor. Our enemy, Sauron dwells across the river in the land of Mordor, where he long ago forged a Ring of Power to control the rings of men, elves and dwarves, pouring into it his evil and malice--and they were great. With the Ring he enslaved nine great lords of men--the black riders you saw on the fell beasts soaring over Osgiliath are several of those men, now dwellers in the shadows between life and death. The dwarves had seven rings, but they are destroyed or taken by Sauron, and only the three rings of the elves remain uncorrupted and free. But Sauron's Ring was lost at the end of the Second Age, more than three thousand years ago. It has recently been found and must be destroyed or the world will fall, for if he regains it, a great darkness will cover all the earth."

"This Frodo Pippin mentioned has it," Burke said, and looked surprised at himself. "That's what his task is, to make sure it's destroyed, right?" Galen stared at him, but Virdon nodded as if he had also put together the clues.

"That is his task indeed."

"But he's a little guy like Pippin, isn't he?" Burke objected. "How can he stand up against this Sauron character and all those orcs?"

"He must go in secret, of course," Gandalf replied, but his voice was abstracted, for his fear for Frodo was so great he could not allow it free rein or it would dominate him. "I am sorry I cannot now explain more, but I will see food and clothing are brought to you." He hesitated. "This city will soon fall under siege, and I know not when the Rohirrim will come. It may not be in time, although the beacon fires have been lit. They will gather at Dunharrow, their rallying point, and ride to us in a great body. Would that they not come too late." He frowned. "Know any of you the sword?"

Virdon nodded. "I took a fencing class once. We used epées, a kind of rapier, not swords like I've seen here, and it takes a different type of skill. Pete and I used to fence for exercise when we were in astronaut training. It kept us light on our feet and was good for our reflexes." He hesitated. "You think the city will be overrun, don't you?"

Galen gave a squeak of distress. "I don't know how to use a sword," he admitted. "The gorillas in our society use rifles, but I...I was never trained as a fighter. I know bow and arrows a little, because when I was growing up, my friends and I would have contests firing at a target, but not with the huge bows I saw as we came along the city wall. I don't think I could ever draw one that big."

"A smaller hunting bow might serve if you have a good eye," Gandalf said. "Yet I would put you into battle only as a last resort, for our people would see your difference and attack before they realized, at least in the heat of battle."

"Oh." Galen shuddered and his unusual face registered what would, in a human, be distress. "I do not think I could kill anyone."

"Such an attitude speaks highly of your moral values," Gandalf replied. "Yet when the choice is to fight or die, I think you would fight."

"I would defend my friends," Galen admitted. "I have done so more than once."

"It may not come to that. We will see. It will take time for the orcs to lay siege upon the city, and we will wait and not foray forth, for each moment battle is delayed is a moment in which the brave Rohirrim draw nearer to the city. Wait here for now, and when you have eaten and clothed yourselves in the style of the city, I will see that someone comes to you. I am sorry, but you must be guarded. I do not believe you to be Sauron's spies, but the world is perilous, and I dare take no chances. Faramir will wish to question you, once he has reported to his father." He looked at the three of them. "You feel lost and hopeless, and we can spare no time to ease you into our world. Yet I feel your coming here is not without purpose, although I understand not what that purpose is. Beregond will guard the door for now, and I will see he protects you, and that only those he trusts replace him should his duty call him away. I will return when I can, but I must see to the fortifications, and converse with the captains on the ramparts, and with Faramir when he is released from his father's presence."

He bowed to the three and left them, conscious of them drawing involuntarily closer together behind him.

The soldiers at the foot of the ramp that led to the Citadel informed him Faramir had not yet come down. Gandalf would have wished to stand with him in his difficult interview, yet he knew his presence would only infuriate Denethor and make the encounter more difficult for Faramir. He also felt for Peregrin Took, who, having sworn his oath, would be forced to observe the confrontation between father and son in silence. Gandalf had made it plain to the hobbit that Denethor would expect a sworn esquire to speak only when bidden. "I know it violates your nature, young Peregrin, yet this you must do. Remember, you represent the Shire; think before you burst forth with some unguarded utterance." He had stared very hard at Pippin, who had dropped his gaze and nodded. "I will do my best, Gandalf," he had vowed.

Now Gandalf must abandon him to his fate, a fate he would never have chosen, for Denethor, in his bitter thrall to what Gandalf suspected was the palantír of Minas Tirith, would not use Pippin kindly. Through the seeing stone, had Sauron corrupted Gondor's steward? The best Gandalf could hope was that he would find Pippin amusing or would ignore him, yet he might in his heart blame Pippin for Boromir's fall and find subtle ways to punish him, and some that were not so subtle. Gandalf could not protect him, either.

Instead, Gandalf hurried to the ramparts where he met with the officers of the watch, gazing out toward Osgiliath. It was too far distant to make out the orcs, except as faint distant blurs no bigger than ants, yet there would be a great many of them. Battalions of orcs are crossing the river....

"The troops from Osgiliath claim their numbers are overwhelming, and more come constantly," the nearest soldier reported to him as if he were Gondor's captain general. "They will not wait long to march upon the city but will regroup and advance upon us soon." He waved his hand at the distant shape of a Nazgûl's fell beast, perched on a high rampart of the fallen city. "They will come upon us in a great wave, and we will have no hope."

Gandalf stared out at Osgiliath. It was too soon to expect the riders of Rohan. Time was passing, each second moving inexorably closer to the downfall of the world of men.

"What of Théoden's riders?" the captain asked. "Will Rohan's army come?" And when Gandalf hesitated, he persisted, "Mithrandir?"

Gandalf gathered himself, for what hope could he give these brave men? "Courage is the best defense you have now." It was no answer at all, but it was true, for the courage of these soldiers would have to sustain the White City until fate brought the riders of Rohan to the city's aid, or until the end of all things.

Frodo could not yet be near Mount Doom; to enter Mordor, to risk the great peril of the Pass of Cirith Ungol and cross the terrible dark land of Mordor, a land boiling with orcs, would take many days, if it could be done at all. An image of the laughing, carefree Frodo in the Shire in the days before the Ring had come his way flitted across Gandalf's mind, only to be wiped away by his last image of Frodo in the Mines of Moria, screaming Gandalf's name as the wizard hung over the abyss before he fell after the Balrog. Shadows had already surrounded Frodo by the time they reached Moria. I wish the Ring had never come to me, he had said, yet come it had, and come by Gandalf's intervention.

Ah, Frodo, I am so sorry. Yet there was naught else that could be done. If any can do this, you are the one. If I could clear your path and walk at your side, I would do it, but that is not my fate.

With a sigh, he looked at the men who grouped around him. "I will stand with you when battle comes," he vowed, "And, if I must, help to direct the fighting on these ramparts at Faramir's side."

He heard a buzz of relieved whispers pass among the men, and knew he had committed himself to the defense of the city.

So be it. Gandalf began his circuit of the ramparts, hoping to judge the troops' readiness. He examined the great trebuchets, made certain they were manned and ready, and offered what encouragement he could to the grim-faced soldiers. He spoke with the archers over the great gate, determined that they were skilled and ready and that they had enough arrows to carry them to defend against any battering rams the orcs would bring forth.

There he was when word reached him, a hasty runner with a horrified and desperate look upon his face. "Mithrandir! Lord Denethor has ordered Faramir to retake Osgiliath."

Gandalf's heart lurched, and he saw in the eyes of the runner that he understood what Gandalf immediately realized, that such was a suicide mission, that there was no hope of success, and that the odds were great that none who rode forth would survive. Was this Denethor's punishment to Faramir for freeing Frodo to bear the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom? A desperate gamble to delay the main attack? A hopeless act on the part of a madman?

As he hurried through the city looking for Faramir, he saw the word had spread. Already folks lined the roadway down to the great gate, and soldiers stood watch along the way. The faces of the women who would see their men ride out and come again no more broke Gandalf's heart. They had brought flowers to strew in the path of the doomed rangers. Every one of the waiting folk was silent, pain in their faces, yet they stood stoic, enduring what must be endured, even the children. Gandalf ached for them.

Here came Faramir, riding at the head of his pitifully small band. He sat tall in his saddle, but his face was full of agony. Yet the grim determination that spurred him on could not be denied.

Gandalf could see no sane purpose in this mission. It might gain a small amount of time before the siege began; yet he could not imagine that had been Denethor's intent. No, Denethor had struck out at his son for freeing Frodo. He had not been a bad steward once. He had to know this was a pointless attack, a fool's gamble.

Gandalf could hold himself back no longer. "Faramir!" He pushed through the crowd, past the soldiers who lined the road. "Faramir!" When Faramir looked down at him, such pain in his eyes, Gandalf spoke. "Your father's will has turned to madness. Do not throw away your life so rashly!"

Faramir hesitated, then he spoke. "Where does my allegiance lie, if not here?" He continued grimly. "This is the city of the Men of Númenor. I will gladly give my life to defend her beauty, her memory, her wisdom." He rode on, his head held high, desperate, patient suffering in his posture, prepared to die because he could in honor do naught else.

Ah, Faramir, my son. Gandalf called after him, "Your father loves you, Faramir." Surely there lingered in Denethor's cold heart one spark of warmth for the son he so cruelly condemned to death. He had not always been so. But Faramir simply rode on, his shoulders tight. Several nearby people shifted unhappily, and Gandalf saw one woman the age of Faramir's long-dead mother silently weeping. He spoke softly, too softly for the words to reach Faramir. "He will remember it before the end." Yet that would be too late for Faramir, and for Denethor himself, should he repent of his madness.

Gandalf wished he could go off alone and weep, but he possessed not that luxury. Instead, he returned to the ramparts, his heart shattered. Faramir had been his eager pupil when he was a boy, delighted to learn of the city's history, the chronicles and lore of Middle-earth. He had been quick to grasp the elvish language, and they had often conversed in that tongue. Two there had been, in latter years, whom Gandalf had come to love so, and now the other, Frodo ventured into Mordor, where Gandalf himself had sent him, and that great purpose had led to this moment.

I have condemned them both to death.

He went to the ramparts because he could not hold back from watching. Faramir deserved for Gandalf to stand with him in the only way he could. With horror, the wizard watched as the riders lined up--so few of them, so pitifully few--and gained speed as they galloped across the Pelennor Field to their doom. The defense of the city had fallen upon Gandalf's shoulders, for Lord Denethor would crouch upon his throne and do nothing. Gandalf could not ride out to defend the riders. He could only watch in agony as they rode so bravely forth to give their lives for Gondor.

Then the arrows came, such an unending rain of them. Gandalf could not distinguish Faramir from so far away, but he saw man after man fall, saw horses stagger and pitch riders to the ground. And still the arrows flew until the entire army lay sprawled and broken on the field. A few horses wandered aimlessly among the dead, and the orcs did not bother with them, but Gandalf turned away. He could not even offer the city's defenders hope, for his own hope was so faint and flickering as to be nearly extinguished. Instead he went away from the walls and sat in a deserted place while overhead the city's great bell tolled once for the fallen.

"Ride, Théoden," he said under his breath to the king of Rohan. "Ride as you have never ridden before, or you will arrive to find Minas Tirith a city of the dead."

            *****

Beregond had seen not only to food and clothing for the three fugitives, but he had ordered baths for them, so that they were clean and tidy in their unfamiliar garb. Submersing himself in water was not Galen's way, but he, too, had groomed himself. Beregond had poked his head in a few minutes earlier to say something was happening and that he'd sent for another guard to watch them. "Eat now, and I will return when I can. I heeded you and saw no meat was brought for Galen. I hope you will like it." But he had looked agonized when he hurried away.

"Something's wrong," Pete said the minute the door closed.

Alan frowned. "What do you expect? They're about to come under siege. Gandalf wasn't asking us if we knew about weapons for the fun of it. He thinks we'll have to help defend the city. If he's desperate enough to think the three of us can make any kind of difference, then it must be pretty grim. Know anything about medieval warfare, Pete?"

"Not much. Just what everybody learns at school. But this is one heck of a fortress. Did you notice the gate in each level faced a different direction? The orcs can't just pour in and keep going straight up to the top. They have to circle around. And it's stone, so at least the foundations will resist burning. And they've got...what do you call those things? Trebuchets? The catapult devices. The soldiers' armor looks pretty decent, too, from what I could see. Depends on what they're up against." It was a lot easier to think about things like that, even about an overpowering attack, than it was to consider this was where they'd have to live out the rest of their lives. If the attack was fierce enough, the rest of their lives might be counted in days.

"More war," Galen said, his voice soft and weary. "Someone chasing us, shooting at us, trying to kill us. I don't think I'll ever get used to it."

"We couldn't leave you there, Galen," Pete said. "Those gorillas were gonna shoot first and ask questions later. We thought we were going to our time and we could have stood up for you there. I'm sorry. Urko wouldn't have been very forgiving."

"I know that, Pete. You couldn't have done anything else. But...there are no apes here at all. I don't know what will happen to me," he concluded desolately.

"Nobody's gonna get at you," Pete insisted. "They'll have to come through us to try. Besides, look at Gandalf. He was interested, but he wasn't holding it against you that you're an ape."

"He is a very wise human, if he really is one." Galen said, then his muzzle puckered. "I still think he is something different, something greater. What is a wizard? You both seemed surprised when you heard that."

"We used to read about wizards in fairy tales," Pete said. "You know, the kind of kids' stories we told you about, the ones that were never real. Merlin, in the King Arthur legend, was a wizard. I don't know if they were people who just had magical powers or were a different race entirely. In our time, they were just fictional."

"He is not fictional," Galen insisted. "There is something about him, something I feel but don't understand. A kind of...power.... A greatness."

Alan nodded. "Yeah, I got that feeling, too. We can trust him, I think. But defending this city is gonna fall to him, because it sounds like there's something wrong with this Denethor guy."

"Like his elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor?" Pete said. Weird. The word 'elevator' came out in English. Every now and then, he found himself startled by the language thing. Would they stay here so long he would forget his own language?

Galen blinked at the unfamiliar idiom--he hadn't noticed what Pete had--but then his face cleared. "You mean he is mad?" He might not know what an elevator was, but he'd grown pretty damn good at making sense of twentieth-century parlance.

"I just got the feeling something's not right there," Alan agreed." Unless they've fought so much that they're down to just a small army, there ought to be more troops here. There ought to be a show of strength. I get the feeling the city's pretty desperate. They had to send for these Rohirrim guys to bail them out. I think we're in deep shit."

Pete nodded. "Yeah, no lie. That Faramir; he looked like the kind of man his troops would follow." A man I would follow. "Gandalf was worried about him."

"I thought so, too," Alan agreed. "And about little Pippin. I thought he was a kid at first, but he's not."

"No. He's pretty young, I think, for his people, but he's not a kid." He glanced doubtfully at Alan. This was not a good time to bring up Chris. "Come on, let's eat before it gets cold."

The food was different than they would have had back in the 1980s, but for a change, meat was plentiful, something vaguely like beef, but with unfamiliar seasoning. Maybe it really was beef. They didn't get enough meat in Galen's world. Poultry and fish mostly, a rabbit from time to time, if they were lucky. Too many opers until he was sick of them. Something you peeled like a banana but that tasted like an orange had taken some getting used to, and had provided grounds for speculation that it had grown at the latitude it had. Seeds and berries. Who could live on that. It was a wonder they weren't terminally malnourished with a year of such a hit-and-miss diet. Here they had meat and actual fried potatoes, although they must have been fried in something different from lard or butter, and some greens that weren't quite like green beans, yet were very good. The glass Pete had held ale, with a great kick to it. And there was a juicy red apple for dessert. Galen had the greens, some little red things that looked like cherry tomatoes, and some potatoes, and several apples, plus some thick, crusty bread, which they all had. The spread was not quite like butter back home, but served the same purpose. Pete put his meat between two slices and enjoyed the first decent sandwich he'd had in ages. There was water, too, and a fruit juice for Galen. They ate in silence, concentrating, for the moment, on the delicious flavors of the foods. Pretty damn good for a city in wartime.

When they were done, Pete went over and opened the door. At once the soldier there stiffened to attention. His name was Bern, Beregond had said.

"We finished eating," Pete said. "Is there anything we should do now? Has Gandalf come back?"

"Mithrandir is busy," Berg replied. He looked grim.

"What's wrong? Has the war started?"

The young soldier stared at Pete, his eyes huge with distress. "Lord Denethor sent Captain Faramir out to retake Osgiliath."

"What?!" Alan crowded up behind Pete in the doorway. "That's crazy. He'd need a huge army to pull that off, a lot more than you've got on the walls."

"So I know," the young man said. He had removed his helmet, and his hair, yellow as corn, poked up in all directions and straggled down onto his shoulders. "They rode out and the orcs were waiting and cut them down with arrows." He gulped. "I think they're all dead. And now the orcs will come and besiege us and batter down our walls."

"All dead?" Pete echoed. "Not Faramir?" His stomach knotted unhappily.

A tear slipped down the man's face. He gave one quick nod before he dashed it away. "I served under him last year in Ithilien. He was...he was a good commander. We all loved him."

"Oh, man, I'm sorry." Pete patted the soldier's armor-clad shoulder. "We only met him once, but I liked him, respected him."

"What can we do?" Alan asked. "Pete and I know how to use swords a little."

"There's nothing to do now," Berg said. "Just wait and see what Mithrandir chooses. Berg says you aren't prisoners, but I don't think it would be safe to wander around." He looked past them to Galen. "Your friend might cause a panic, and we are far too close to panic already."

Another two soldiers marched up. "These are the strangers? Lord Denethor has sent for them." He looked at the three. "The strange one must be cloaked. Hurry. We dare not keep the Steward waiting."

            *****

Peregrin Took wanted to go off alone and howl out his grief, his panic, his despair, but he could do none of that. He was bidden to obey Denethor. What service can a hobbit offer a great lord of men? Faramir had insisted his pledge to Gondor was a generous deed, but Pippin only felt despair. Boromir had died for him and Merry, and Denethor had been so grieved--but the way he had treated Faramir.... No father should use a son like that. To come right out and say he wished Faramir had died--and then to send him out to make certain of it....

From the minute Pippin had seen Faramir, had realized Faramir had encountered Frodo and Sam, he had liked the man. Remembering the fond stories Boromir had told of his younger brother as the Fellowship journeyed south from Rivendell, Pippin had wanted to meet him and had looked forward to the chance. When he and Gandalf had ridden to Minas Tirith he had hoped he would be able to meet Faramir, but to encounter him the way he had, driven from Osgiliath, and to learn he had met Frodo and then had sent him on his way.... Well, Pippin realized quickly how much he admired Boromir's younger brother. They had talked together, and he had been thrilled to realize he wore Faramir's boyhood livery. They had laughed together. From the way Faramir had spoken of Boromir, he didn't blame Pippin for his brother's death.

And now, Faramir was dead, too, for a soldier had come in and reported to Denethor that the attack on Osgiliath had failed. Pippin had known it would, even as he sang at the Steward's command, an old song of the Shire, one he remembered his grandfather Aldagrim Took singing when he was just a lad. He had known Faramir would die, Faramir who had stood so brave and heartbroken before his father. Yet Denethor had sat calmly eating while his son rode to his death, and made Pippin sing. At least it was only the one song, and he had not looked up to witness Pippin's fierce struggle afterward to hold back his tears. Instead he had gestured his servants to clear away the remains of his meal, and sat staring stonily into space, sipping from his goblet. Pippin managed to control himself and waited obediently, forcing himself to remember the Shire and every good thing he could, but it wasn't enough.

Then Denethor beckoned over one of the guards and sent him off with a whispered command. Only then did Denethor turn his gaze upon Pippin. "What know you of the three strangers who entered the city, two men and a beast?" When Pippin gaped at him, the steward barked, "Speak!"

"I...not much, my lord. Only he wasn't a beast. He could talk and he wore clothes. They said he was a...a chimpanzee, I think, only I don't know what that is. I never heard of such a race of beings. I only saw them for a few minutes."

"Why was this news concealed from me?" Denethor barked.

"I...don't know, my lord." Pippin stared up at Denethor. "I think they would have told you soon. Or...or Faramir would have told you before he went away, but he didn't get the chance, and now he's dead." He bit his bottom lip, and then he lost control. Gandalf would chide him, but he couldn't help it. "He was your son and he loved you very much. How could you send him to die and not even say one kind word? Don't you love him at all?" One of the courtiers standing a distance away gasped audibly at the question.

Denethor glared at Pippin so ferociously he almost lost his nerve, but the tears in Faramir's voice when he had said, "Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will do what I can in his stead," gave him the courage to stand his ground. How icy the great marble floor felt beneath his feet.

"Silence!" snapped Lord Denethor. "Ever he disappointed me." His voice grew vague and strange, and Pippin shivered. The mail shirt he wore under his tunic pressed heavily upon his shoulders. Denethor collected himself. "You will stand aside until I require you," he commanded glacially, and took up the goblet again, although he did not drink from it. Pippin couldn't tell what he was thinking, but he was sure it was nothing good.

Pippin retreated a few steps, backing away rather than risking turning his back on Denethor. He thought longingly of Merry and Frodo and Sam, and of Gandalf, who might possibly come and free him from this torment, and tried very hard to imagine himself invisible. Several of the courtiers frowned at him, but one of them gave him an approving smile when he was certain Denethor wasn't looking.

It took forever for the three strangers to appear, and when they did, Galen wore a voluminous cloak that covered him from head to toe, and Alan and Pete were now dressed like the citizens of Gondor instead of the rough homespun shirts and pants they had worn before. Except for their shorter hair, Pippin would not have picked them out as different if he had passed them in the White City. Two soldiers escorted them, marching them forth in a very military fashion, and halted them a little distance from Denethor. None of them had swords or any weapons that Pippin could see, but Denethor sat behind the table and gazed at them with a cold, imperious eye.

"The strangers, my lord Denethor," said one of the soldiers and bowed to Denethor.

"Guard them," he commanded with a curt gesture, then turned to the three. "You have entered my city in a time of war," he said. "I would be within my rights to have you executed out of hand."

The three stiffened, and Galen's face emerged from the cloak like a tortoise poking his head from his shell to stare at Denethor in horror, causing the steward to stiffen in astonishment. At once he masked his reaction with a cold, impassive glare.

Pete Burke opened his mouth to speak furiously in their defense, but Alan Virdon grabbed his arm to restrain him, then took half a step closer. He bowed stiffly as if he wasn't any more accustomed to bowing than Pippin was. "Lord Denethor, we did not invade your land, and we're not spies," he said. "We're refugees, seeking shelter."

"For which I should accept your word?" Denethor asked haughtily.

Again Pete opened his mouth, but Alan stepped on his foot to silence him. Pippin wished there had been someone to step on his foot earlier before he had flung his accusing words at Denethor. "We are no spies," Alan said. "Lock us away if you must, but we came here to avoid the orcs and the Nazgûl. We didn't even know what they were until we were told."

"That is a lie." The Steward stared at them. "Who is there in Middle-earth who knows not the Nazgûl and the orcs?"

"We didn't know about the Nazgûl until we left the Shire," Pippin volunteered in a tiny voice. "We had heard of orcs, though, because they tried to invade the Shire long ago."

"I ordered you to silence," Denethor snarled without so much as a glance in Pippin's direction. He gulped and managed not to respond, not even with an apology.

"He only tried to help," Galen said in a soft voice. He bowed, too, and it was clear the way he was built wasn't made for bowing, even though he walked slightly bent forward from the hips. "Lord Denethor, my name is Galen, and I am an ape."

"My esquire called you a chimpanzee," Denethor snapped, and Pippin could see his suspicion deepen.

"Yes, I am. There are three types of apes: chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans."

"You are in the company of two humans. How came this to be?"

"Well, they were stranded in my world, and I befriended them."

"Your world? Is not Middle-earth your world?"

The three of them exchanged glances, then Alan took another half step closer, spreading his hands to prove he meant no threat. "We come from the future, my lord," he said. "We were thrust too far backward in time and arrived outside your great city. We are unarmed."

"One had a small knife only, like a poor kitchen knife, my lord," the soldier said. "He yielded it willingly. The others carried no weapons."

Denethor rose and walked toward them, his long black robe swinging loose, causing the soldiers to pace on either side of him to protect him. He approached Galen and stared at him in a way that would, in the Shire, be considered extremely rude. "You resemble not an orc," he said. "Your head is shaped differently, your nose and mouth set further forward, and you have excessive hair. Shed your cloak so I may examine you."

Pete and Alan frowned at the command, but Galen said quickly, "It's all right," and let the cloak fall. Pippin saw that, like the other two, he wore clothing now that matched that worn by the people of Minas Tirith. His arms with their thick black fur protruded oddly from the sleeves, but Pippin tried hard not to stare the way Denethor had. He looked, but he didn't mean to be obvious about it. He hoped he would find out much more about apes. Galen was interesting.

Denethor caught up Galen's wrist and examined his hand. It had five fingers like the hands of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits.

"You don't have to treat him like he was on the block at a slave auction," Pete exploded. Alan nudged him very hard with his elbow to silence him.

"It's all right, Pete," Galen said. "He is just curious about me. And apes did the same to you a time or two. Let him see I mean no harm." He turned his attention to Lord Denethor. "I do not eat meat, my lord. I am not violent, and I am unskilled with weapons except a small bow."

"Galen is the best ape we ever knew," Pete persisted. "He defended us and risked his life for us many times."

"They have risked theirs for me," Galen said at once. "They are my brothers."

Pippin stared. The feeling of loyalty and unity he sensed between the three of them reminded him, in a way, of the Fellowship. They were friends in spite of their differences, just as he was friends with Legolas and Gimli, and with Aragorn, and had been with poor brave Boromir. And Gandalf.

"You are of different races, yet you defend each other?" Denethor frowned, but Pippin couldn't tell what he thought of that. He frowned at Pete. "You, who are rudely outspoken in the presence of the steward, what know you of weapons?"

"I know how to use a sword a little," Pete admitted, "and other weapons from my own time, which I don't have."

"And you?" to Alan.

"The sword, more than Pete, but I'm no expert. And also weapons of my time."

Denethor frowned horribly. Pippin shivered. He half expected the steward to order them executed immediately. "There can be no trust between us," the steward said at last. He folded his arms into the furred cuffs of his sleeves. "Your arrival comes at a time when I cannot but suspect you to be a ploy of the Enemy. War marches upon Gondor, and all must fall. If it comes to that, I will send you onto the ramparts, where you will meet your fate honorably in battle. Lock them away," he commanded the soldiers.

"No!" cried Pete, but the soldiers beckoned to the guards at the doorway.

Just then the outer guards thrust it open and a runner thudded into the room, his eyes wild, his hair flying in all directions. "My lord Denethor, Faramir has returned," he cried, gasping to catch his breath. He must have run all the way from the first level.

Pippin's heart leaped in his chest. Could he possibly be alive? At the cry, Denethor froze into utter rigidity and all color left his face. "Why does he not report to me?" he asked the panting young man in a voice so frigid Pippin shivered. The three strangers stared at him, Galen with his mouth agape.

The runner hesitated, gulped, and bowed his head as if afraid to speak. "My lord, he is fallen. His horse dragged him back to the gate, his foot caught in the stirrup. He is being borne here now."

Denethor lost all interest in the three strangers beyond a curt, "Guard them," as he set off for the great doors so fast he was almost running, his furred robe billowing out behind him, his long hair flying. The courtiers and guards ran with him, and Pippin gulped miserably and followed.

They burst out onto the steps to see Faramir borne toward them on a litter. Even from where he trailed behind Lord Denethor, Pippin could see that two broken-off arrows protruded from his body. He lay utterly still on the litter and Pippin could not tell if he breathed or not. Could there be any hope he survived?

"Faramir!" Denethor cried in a stricken voice and ran across the courtyard toward him. The litter bearers set him down beside the White Tree. "Say not that he has fallen!" Denethor cried.

Pippin's heart lurched. How could he sound so horrified and grieved when it was he who had sent Faramir to his fate?

"They were outnumbered," the officer said. "None survived."

None? Oh, Faramir.... Pippin's heart ached for him. He had been so brave.

Distant cries came from below, but Pippin scarcely heard them. Denethor staggered up from Faramir and blundered away a step or two. "My sons are spent."

Pippin ran to Faramir and fell to his knees beside him, one hand upon his forehead. It was hot with fever that Pippin could feel even through his glove. As he knelt there he heard Faramir draw a ragged breath.

"My line has ended," Denethor cried.

"He's alive!" Pippin shouted.

Oblivious to Pippin's words, Denethor groaned, "The House of Stewards has failed!"

"He needs medicine, my lord!" Listen to me! Stop wailing about your own pain and think of his.

"My line has ended." Denethor staggered toward the parapet, and for a horrified instant Pippin thought the steward meant to fling himself over it. He continued to stroke Faramir's brow. The wounds in shoulder and side had bled. He lay so very still.

"My lord!" Still no response.

A murmur went through the men around him, and Pippin looked up to see what had caused it. Denethor froze, gazing down upon the Pelennor. The way he stood sent horror rippling through Pippin's body. He was certain what he would see if he went over there. Thousands of orcs marching on the city.

Denethor was speaking, but softly, and Pippin could not make out the words. He was trying to pull the armor away from the shoulder wound to see how bad it was when Denethor suddenly cried in a great voice, "Abandon your posts. Flee! Flee in fear for your lives."

Had he gone completely mad to give such an order? The soldiers nearby shifted uneasily, but Pippin could not look up. The wound still bled. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was carefully pressing it into place around the jutting arrow shaft when the men gave startled cries, and Pippin glanced up to see Gandalf bring Denethor to the ground with several sharp blows with his staff. It was all Pippin could do to refrain from cheering.

Gandalf called out loudly, "Prepare for battle," then he strode hastily to them, his face tight with his concern. "Faramir?"

"He lives," Pippin cried. "But Lord Denethor would not believe it."

Gandalf let his hand fall upon Pippin's shoulder, but he spoke to the men around him. "Have him borne to the Houses of Healing. I must go to direct the battle." Then, to Pippin in a softer voice, "You have done well."

As the soldiers lifted the litter, Pippin looked up quickly. "He means to lock away the three strangers."

"Then they must be locked away for now, for I have not time for them. I will see to them later." Gandalf squeezed Pippin's shoulder then let go. A moment later, he was hurrying away.

Pippin sighed, then he struggled to his feet. "What must I do now?" he said to the soldier who had brought Faramir to the Citadel.

The man looked down at him. "You must prepare to fight when the Citadel Guards are summoned forth," he said and went away.

Pippin stared at him, his mouth hanging open in horror as he remembered what Gandalf had told him once he had offered Denethor his service. You're in the service of the Steward now. You're going to have to do as you're told.

He straightened his shoulders, then he ventured timidly to gaze over the parapet.

All the orcs in the world lined up there in orderly ranks, while huge trolls pushed great machines of war toward the ramparts. He could hear Gandalf shouting, "Hurry, men! To the wall! Defend the wall.... Return to your posts." Soldiers ran to obey.

And then the battle started.

Pippin had told Gandalf he did not wish to be in a battle, but that waiting on the edge of one he couldn't escape was even worse.

He had been wrong.

            ****

"We have to lock you up. The Steward ordered it," the soldier Bern told the three fugitives. His yellow hair mostly concealed by his helmet, he looked grim and miserable. The soldiers had brought them back to the room they had been in before. "Mithrandir liked you. So I'll lock you here. There are windows, but they are high on the wall, and if you tried to climb down the orcs would see you. Will you stay here, guarded?"

"We'll fight if we have to," Alan said. "If the enemy breaks through. But for now we'll stay."

"I will find swords for the two of you and a small bow for Galen, but they will be held outside in readiness." He bowed his head and withdrew. The sound of the lock echoed loudly in a moment of silence.

There were few such moments. The orcs employed catapults that sent their deadly missiles crashing into the city and striking lower walls. The three had seen them on the way to their prison, seen the men of Minas Tirith responding with huge chunks of stone flung from their trebuchets. At each impact, Galen flinched. He had thrown off the cloak the moment they entered the room and now he gazing out the window. From where they were situated, it wasn't possible to see more than a narrow slice of the conflict, but they could tell there must be an incredible number of attacking orcs.

Pete paced. He was too restless to sit, not when such a massive battle raged below. Every now and then he heard terrible screeching cries that were too big to come from people, and once he ducked when one of the great winged beasts bearing a Nazgûl soared past the window.

"Oh, please stand back from there, Pete," Galen urged uneasily.

"No, I need to see." He turned away from the restricted angle of battle granted to him. "That Denethor is a world-class jerk. He didn't even try to figure out whether we were a threat to him or not. He just decided we were. And the way he treated you, Galen! It was all I could do not to punch him out."

"That would have helped," Alan snapped. "It would have helped get us all killed out of hand. I don't know about you but if my city was about to be attacked by such a superior force, I wouldn't trust anybody unexpected either. This Sauron guy sounds really bad. Worse than Hitler."

"I don't think he is human," Galen said.

"That's what you said about Gandalf." Pete halted his pacing and stared at Galen. "What makes you think that?"

"Gandalf said the Ring was lost at the end of the Second Age. That sounded like it was a very long time ago. Three thousand years, he said. A human might live how long? Sixty years at best?"

"More than that in our time, but not many ever got to a hundred," Alan said. "You're right, it did sound like the Ring was lost thousands of years ago. So what is Sauron? That other wizard fell to his dominion, Gandalf said, so Sauron must be more powerful than a wizard."

"But, Alan, how powerful is a wizard?" Galen asked.

Alan shrugged. "We haven't seen him do anything yet. I don't know."

"He drove away those Nazgûl," Pete said from the window. "With that bright light, somehow." He ducked back as the shadow of one of them passed the window. "I wonder why he isn't driving them back now?"

"Because he's taken over the fighting, like a commanding general," Alan replied. "He has to direct everything. He might have to fight one-on-one if the orcs break through or come over the walls with their siege towers."

Galen tilted his head. "What is a siege tower?"

"Did you see those towers that were being pushed toward the city? When they get right up against the walls, the orcs in them can just cross over onto the main wall, and then there'll be hand-to-hand combat. Unless the Rohirrim get here pretty soon, the city will be overrun."

"Oh," said Galen in a very small voice. He joined Pete at the window and stared down. Only one siege tower showed in Pete's limited view, but it was nearing the city. "Those...those creatures pushing it. They're so big. What are they?"

"They're trolls," said Berg from the doorway. "The enemy controls them with his will. Trolls used to turn to stone in daylight, and orcs used to shun it, but now, the clouds roil overhead and Sauron's will drives orcs and trolls forth. There will be fighting on the ramparts soon." He shuddered.

Galen stared at him. "What will happen?" he asked in a very faint voice as if he couldn't bear to hear the answer. Pete surely could not.

"Unless Rohan comes, the city will fall. It will not be quick; there will be fighting in the streets, higher and higher. We will defend each level, but in the end...we will die."

Instinctively the three fugitives moved closer together.

Berg frowned. "They have not breached our powerful gates. Their battering ram has no impact. Until they can run through our gates, we will endure."

The man's courage moved Pete. "You guys have been fighting Sauron for a long time," he said.

"For many years. Gondor has held fast against his might, for we dwell in the very shadow of Mordor. They say Sauron is not a being as we know it, but instead a great lidless eye, mounted high atop his tower of Barad-dûr, where he watches the land of Mordor, and his spies spread throughout Middle-earth."

Pete shuddered. Mordor, that's where little Frodo had to go, through a land where Sauron watched everywhere. There must be more orcs there, unless all of them had come to besiege Minas Tirith. No, Sauron would never leave his land unprotected.

"A lidless eye...." Galen echoed. "How can that be?" When Berg opened his mouth to explain, Galen raised both his hands. "No. I don't want to know."

Pete didn't blame him. He didn't want to know either.

"Have you fought in wars before?" Berg asked.

"Not like this," Pete replied. He glanced out the window, then turned back. "Never so personal." How could he explain the Air Force and combat flights to someone in a non-technological society? Galen had never understood 'flying machines'. Berg would surely associate it with the Nazgûl as they soared over the city.

Berg stared. "War is personal," he said. "Each man finds the courage within himself to fight, and strives hard to learn the skills necessary to survive. Such is the way of a soldier."

"Oh!" Galen nodded, his eyes full of realization. "I understand. Life changes when one must live each moment as if danger will strike. It is a whole new way of life, to stand ready for attack at any given moment."

Pete and Alan again exchanged looks. That Galen, who had always been a peaceable ape, had come to understand such a concept was thanks to the two of them. It had been Galen's choice to align with them, once he accepted that apes were not superior to humans, but he could never have known he would render himself outcast, to be pursued by Urko's gorillas, his life in constant danger. None of them could have expected this. It might even have been safer to leave Galen in the Annuate. He might have been taken back to Central City for trial, but he wouldn't have been executed, surely. Here, they were likely going to die.

Berg nodded at Galen's words. "It is like that. Yet you know not the weapons of battle."

"We tended to elude our enemies; there were only three of us, too few for battles," Alan said. He drew a deep breath. "Can we help?"

"Gandalf sent word that it would not be wise to risk Galen on the ramparts. He fears the men of Gondor have enough to endure without needing to stop and determine if they face Galen or an enemy. It is to protect you, Master Galen."

Pete couldn't tell if Galen were grateful for the protection or not. Pete knew exactly how it felt to think everyone was staring, that he was perceived either as a threat, an annoyance, or little better than a slave, that any ape who should kill him would never be punished for it. But he'd always had Alan with him. Galen was the only ape here.

"Have you come to take Pete and Alan to fight?" Galen asked. He looked like he wanted to grab each of them and hold him here, but 'here' wasn't that much safer than out there, except that it was high and would take the orcs longer to reach it.

Berg nodded. "I am to give them armor and to test them with the sword. Lord Denethor is elsewhere--he does not attend to the city, and none have seen him. I fear his mind is broken, now that the final battle has come. I think he sits with Faramir and broods."

Pete hadn't been impressed with Denethor, but surely with the city in such peril he ought to take control of its defense. Still, he'd lost his other son, Faramir's brother, and now he probably was afraid Faramir would die, too. He'd been afraid to believe Faramir was alive, that's what the soldiers had said. Pete hoped he believed it now.

"But surely Faramir is recovering," Alan said. "They took him to--what's it called?--the Houses of Healing, didn't they?"

"They did, but Denethor had him removed from there. His private healer will tend to him, I think."

"What about little Pippin?" Alan persisted. "Is he safe?"

"He is a member of the Citadel guard. They have been ordered forth to fight."

"What?" Galen cried. "But he's no bigger than a child. How can he fight in a battle?"

"He is brave-hearted and he knows well the use of the sword. It is said he learned from Boromir, who was Gondor's greatest swordsman."

"If he can fight, we can fight," Alan insisted, his mouth tight. "I don't know if Rohan will come in time or not, but there's a chance they might. If they don't, then I'd rather go down fighting than sitting here waiting to die. If we can find Pippin, we can help defend him."

So he was still thinking of home, of his son. Pippin was surely adult, and didn't look a thing like Chris other than in his height, but Al had been drawn to him. If he couldn't go home--and Pete was 99.99 percent sure they were stranded here forever--Alan would manage better if he had something important to do. Pete would rather fight than sit waiting, even though he was sure fighting would be pretty damn terrible, beyond anything he could imagine. Worse than the trenches of World War I that he'd studied in his military history classes. Worse than being a grunt in Vietnam, down there in the steamy heat of the jungle. Face to face with your enemy, kill or be killed, blood and body parts, and the cries of the dying.

Pete wanted to go off and be sick, but the soldiers on the ramparts didn't have that luxury. They were defending their families and their homes, and that gave them urgent purpose, but it still had to be beyond anything Pete could imagine.

"Oh, Pete, you and Alan will go to fight?" Galen cried.

"We have to, Galen." Pete gripped Galen's shoulders and stared into his eyes. "I know two men won't make much difference, but I can't sit here in good conscience when brave men are fighting and dying, not after what happened to Faramir."

"Neither can I," Alan agreed. "This might not be our war, but they're good people. All the ones we've met have been good people. Well, maybe not Denethor, but we didn't exactly catch him at his best." He patted Galen on the back. "Just like we met good humans and good apes in your time--and none better than you."

Galen's face warmed, which reminded Pete that when they'd first met Galen, they'd found it difficult to read his expression, or even, right at first, to tell him from other apes. Now he knew what Galen was thinking.

"I agree with Alan," he said quickly. "Galen, this is one battle we can't fight together. I wish we could--no I don't, not if it means risking you on the city wall. They've got their families to fight for, and we've got you. I know it'll be terrible to wait. Berg, is there somewhere he can wait where he won't have to be alone?"

"I will come back and wait with him, as I am bidden to guard him. Master Galen, we will wait together." He gestured Pete and Alan to the door.

As they went to get their armor, they came face to face with Pippin, who, solitary and weary, was putting one hairy foot in front of the other as he climbed higher, his head bowed, his breathing harsh. He held his sword in his hand as if he had forgotten it, the blade stained with a blue-grey substance that could only be orc blood because it looked the same color as the smears that had been on Faramir's leathers when he and his men came back from Osgiliath the first time. When the hobbit realized someone blocked his path, he looked up, and then he smiled at them. If Pete had ever seen an automatic response, that smile was it.

"You've been in the fighting?" Pete asked.

"They called us out to fight, but it was so big." He shivered. "Walls fell and people ran about in panic, and orcs came over the wall. One of them would have killed me if Gandalf hadn't fought it."

"But you must have killed at least one, Master Halfling," Berg said. "Your sword...."

"One ran up behind Gandalf," Pippin admitted. "I thought he would be killed." He hesitated. "I've killed orcs before. I've fought before. This is just so much bigger."

"Where are you going now?" Alan asked him.

"Gandalf said it was no place for a hobbit and ordered me back to the Citadel." He smiled suddenly, a quick blaze of warmth that faded quickly. "I think he was proud of me."

"And so he should be." Alan patted him on the head. "Pippin, will you do me a favor, if you are to wait up here?"

"If I can," Pippin agreed. "What is it, Alan?"

"You are ordered to the Citadel. But if you would stop from time to time and visit Galen, we'd be glad. They won't let him fight, and that's just as well, because he doesn't know how, and even if he did, among those orcs, he'd be a target for everybody."

"He doesn't look like an orc," Pippin said. "They're grey and ugly and most of them don't have much hair."

"He will look strange and unfamiliar to the soldiers," Berg reminded them. "He will be safer waiting."

Safer, yes, but for how long? He would worry about them, one more worry piled on top the other one, that he would never go home, that he would spend the rest of his life here and never see another ape again. Alan had to face the thought of never seeing Sally and Chris again; he'd flung away the computer disk that he'd held so long, despairing. The only good thing about fighting for Alan was that it would give him something to do.

"I'll visit him when I can," Pippin promised. "But I have to obey and stay at the Citadel. Gandalf won't mind if I visit him but I think he wants me up there to protect me." He shivered. "I hope I don't see Lord Denethor again."

Berg hesitated. "Master Halfling, Lord Denethor is with Faramir now; he removed him from the Houses of Healing. Watch for him, if you will."

"He'll be all right, won't he?" Pippin said hopefully, but fear flared in his eyes.

"We must all see to that."

Pippin squared his weary shoulders. "I'm only small," he said, "but I'll do what I can."

Pete was positive he'd spend most of his time up there on the ramparts, watching the battle, ducking out of sight of the Nazgûl, and fearing the outcome. He could understand why Gandalf had sent the hobbit out of the battle, but waiting up there would be as tough for him as waiting in a locked room would be for Galen.

"Come," Berg urged. "I must see you prepared for battle."

They said their farewells to Pippin, who trudged wearily on, all but numb to what went on around him. Alan looked after him, then came along with Pete and Berg to get their armor.

            *****

The battle had raged long and hard, and Gandalf felt every bit of it in his creaky joints. To dwell in Middle-earth meant he must live as a human, with all the ailments men were prone to, and after fighting on the ramparts so long, he was certain his joints and ligaments would never forgive him. Yet still the orcs came. For every siege tower the archers halted by slaying the trolls that pushed it into place, another one came. Orcs flowed over the wall in an unending river, and the brave men of Gondor battled them with desperate fury, each of them knowing in his heart that hope was almost gone. Rohan had not yet come, although Gandalf knew Théoden would drive his Rohirrim, and their great horses, bred for speed, endurance, and stamina on the battlefield, would carry them as fast as possible. Let it not be too late.

At least he had removed young Pippin from the worst of the fighting. There could be no guarantee that he had ensured Pippin's safety, for the sight of the great battering ram of the orcs had sent a pang through his heart. A hundred feet long it was, suspended on chains, and it took the strength of trolls to draw it back to swing forward to impact the city gates. The sound of the orcs' chanted, "Grond! Grond! Grond!" as they moved it into position proved they believed it would finally defeat the city's great gates. The vast pile of dead orcs before the gate gave tribute to the skill and persistence of the Gondorian archers who guarded the entrance to the city. Orcs fell, and new orcs replaced them, and still the arrows flew. Yet when the great Grond struck its first blow against the gates, Gandalf imagined he could feel the force of its impact, traveling along the walls of the city in an ominous vibration.

It was shortly after Grond began its attack on the gates that a soldier brought the two men of the future to Gandalf. Clad in Gondorian armor, each of them bore a sword. "Mithrandir," the soldier reported, "they have some little skill with the sword. They will fight as needed, for they are determined and willing." He wheeled and marched away.

Gandalf surveyed them. "I have no right to ask you to fight for Gondor," he said. "But we wait for reinforcements, and even minutes may count. I tell myself Faramir's futile charge on Osgiliath gained us time, although at an appalling cost."

Virdon nodded. He looked almost unfamiliar in the pointed helmet. "We tried the swords. They're a little heavier than we're used to, but we'll manage. Berg said they were meant to be used one-handed." He looked past Gandalf. "God, are those orcs?" Horror filled his face at his first close-up view as a flood of them poured over the wall. Soldiers ran to challenge them and the fighting was thick and heavy. Sword in one hand, staff in the other, Gandalf leaped to meet the challenge, conscious of the two future men rushing into battle. They slashed awkwardly with their Gondorian blades, as if their training had been long ago, but neither hesitated or drew back. Gandalf could spare no time to watch them, but when the worst of the orc rush abated and he was free to look around, he saw that both of them had survived it. Burke's mouth twisted as he looked at the orc blood on his sword, and Virdon was grim but alert, watching for more orcs, his stance suggesting he was ready to move in whatever direction was needed. They might not be skilled swordsmen, but in such close in-fighting, determination and heart might matter more than great ability, although the skill of the warriors of Gondor would see many more orcs dispatched.

"You did well," Gandalf praised the two.

Burke grimaced. "I'd like to go somewhere and be sick." He gestured down at himself, at the orc blood that had stained his armor. "I knew what it would be like in theory. I just didn't know it would...." His voice trailed off.

"In the thick of the fighting, there is no time to think," Gandalf explained. "Moments of respite are the most difficult."

Virdon craned his neck. "That's one heck of a huge battering ram. Think it'll take down the gate?"

"Not for some time yet," Gandalf said. "The light is fading. It will fall during the night."

"You sound so calm about it," Burke exploded.

"Calm? No, I am not calm. I cannot prevent it, but can see that we are waiting when the time comes, with bows and spears and then the sword. The orcs are preparing to send fireballs into the city; they will set alight what they can."

"But it's stone," Burke insisted.

"The foundations will resist, but there is much that will burn, and I fear it will be more important to defend against the onslaught than to quench the fires." He drew a deep breath.

The two looked at him, then at each other. He realized they were beginning to understand the vast burden that lay upon his shoulders, the gravity of the threat. That they had agreed to fight said much for their character.

"The purpose of the orcs is to destroy the world of Men," Gandalf explained.

"Well, in a way we're used to that," Burke said. "That was what we were up against last time. Although the apes pretty much just wanted to dominate humans, not destroy them."

"We'll do what we can," Virdon vowed.

More orcs surged over the wall, and the fight continued. In the battle, Gandalf was separated from the two men of the future and could not look for them, for there was too much to do. As he battled he wondered how they did, and also how Peregrin Took managed. Had he reached the Citadel safely? Did Faramir begin to mend? Might the Valar grant it be so. No time there was to speculate. The battle raged around him, and still the Rohirrim did not come.

As darkness fell upon the city and the catapults launched their flaming death to soar on high and crash down upon the lower levels of Minas Tirith, Gandalf drew urgent breath and sent a request to the Valar that they could survive the night.

            *****

Watching the battle from on high was almost worse than being in it. At least no orcs lunged at him, and the coming darkness made it harder for the Nazgûl to see the men on the ramparts and snatch them up. One had nearly snatched Pippin shortly after he had come here, but he had flung himself flat against the parapet and the fell beast's talon had barely brushed his mail sleeve. For a long time after it had flown on, he had lain huddled and shivering until a soldier hurried over to see if he were hurt. Then he made himself jump up and resume his watchful position.

Night came and the flaming stones crashed into the city below. The catapults could not fling them as high as the Citadel, but the fires burning in the city below made him shiver. Once or twice, he thought he saw Gandalf on the wall, and one time he was positive he'd seen him riding Shadowfax along the line, but those were only glimpses, scarcely enough to reassure himself that his only friend in the city still lived. There was Faramir, but Pippin didn't dare let himself hope that Faramir would survive.

Across the river, the sky over Mordor glowed with fire from Mount Doom, invisible behind the high peaks that surrounded the dark land. Was Frodo in Mordor now? All these orcs were here. Did that mean none remained to guard the way to Mount Doom? Pippin ached with worry for Frodo, afraid his cousin would die there in Mordor and never see the Shire again, he and Sam. At least Frodo had Sam at his side, his best friend. Pippin's best friend was still in Edoras, unless he rode with the Rohirrim. Surely they would not let Merry ride to battle, although he would insist. If Théoden King allowed it, he might be on his way into danger. As much as Pippin longed to see his cousin again, he hoped Merry had remained behind in the high city of Edoras where he would be safe.

Remembering his promise to Pete and Alan, Pippin looked around to make sure there was nothing he could do here on high, then he slipped down one level and found the room where the chimpanzee was guarded. The soldier at the door was one Pippin did not recognize, but he smiled and unlocked it. "I was told you might come, Master Hobbit. I will send for food for you and the ape, for I wager you are hungry."

Pippin couldn't remember when he had eaten last, but not even the thought of food could raise his spirits. He nodded to be polite, though, and the guard opened the door--it wasn't locked, Pippin noticed--and called, "You have company, Master Galen."

"Company? Oh...." The room was lit with lanterns, candles in a candelabra on the table, and a torch in a wall sconce, and it should have looked cozy, but the horrible sounds of bombardment rose this high and the window revealed the red glow from the fire below. The smell of burning rose as high as this, and Pippin imagined he could smell the blood and sweat from battle, although he knew he couldn't.

"Come in, come in," Galen urged as he turned away from the window. "It is so terrible down there, I hate to be alone."

"I know. I was sent to the Citadel, and there's nothing to do there except stay out of sight of the Nazgûl and watch what's happening." He collapsed into a chair, then jumped up again. "May I sit?"

Galen smiled at him. "So you, too, were raised to be polite, as ape children are?"

"My mother insisted on it," Pippin said with a smile. "My father is the Thain and the Took, you see, and that's important in the Shire, where I come from. One day, I will hold his office, even if it is only a ceremonial office, but not for years yet, only when he's dead." He sighed. "At least if we survive this night, I will have it."

"You think we will all die," Galen said, and it did not sound like a question. Funny, but here in the flickering yellow light, the ape did not seem so strange and alien as he had before. Taught to be polite? Hobbits did that with their children. If Galen's kind did the same, maybe they were not as different from hobbits as Pippin had feared. On the Fellowship's journey south from Rivendell Pippin had learned to enjoy the company of men, an elf and a dwarf, and he had always admired Gandalf. Now that he knew him better, he thought maybe Gandalf even liked him a little and had forgiven him for all his foolish mistakes on the journey, maybe even for looking into the palantír of Saruman.

"Gandalf is a great wizard," Pippin said hastily. "If any can save us, he can. I don't know Théoden, the king of Rohan, but I have seen him and he is a very brave man. And Aragorn was there when we left Edoras, Gandalf and I, so he can make sure the Rohirrim will come."

"Who is Aragorn?" Galen scrunched up his face as if he were trying to remember where he had heard that name before.

"We thought at first he was just a ranger," Pippin explained. "But we found out in Rivendell--that's one of the elf cities, and we were there for a great council to decide what must be done with the Ring--that Aragorn is the heir to the kingdom of Gondor. If we should win and Sauron falls, he will come to Minas Tirith and be king. I hope he comes very soon, because he's wonderful, so brave and heroic. I saw him fight five Nazgûl single-handed with only a sword and a torch and drive them away."

"Why is he not here, then, fighting for Gondor?" Galen asked.

"I don't think he ever lived in Gondor. I think he's a lost heir. He's of the race of Númenor, men who lived in Middle-earth long ago, but the Númenorian kingdom fell, oh, thousands of years ago. So Aragorn will fight for all of Middle-earth. When he comes, you'll see. I hope help comes soon because I have sworn my allegiance to Gondor."

"But you are not from Gondor, are you? I don't understand it all."

"No, I'm from the Shire, far in the North, where the hobbits live. Frodo's uncle Bilbo used to have great adventures and he found the Ring on one of them. You know about the Ring, don't you?"

"Gandalf told us that it was evil and had to be destroyed."

"Yes, in Mordor." Pippin's face darkened. "Mordor is a terrible place. I have never been there, but I have heard about it."

A knock on the door heralded the arrival of a page with a tray that he set on the table. "I am sorry it isn't more," he said with a bob of his head. "But there is no hot food to be had."

"This will do," Pippin said hastily, and the page bowed once more and retreated.

One plate held bread, cheese, and an apple, the other had an apple, bread and some of the little red tomatoes like the ones Denethor had eaten when Faramir had rode out to Osgiliath. The red juice had run down his chin like blood. Pippin stared at them in horror, then he turned away.

"What's wrong?" Galen asked. "Is something the matter with the food?"

Pippin turned back. "Those little tomatoes reminded me of something bad, that's all. I can't eat them."

"They are for me, because they know I don't eat meat," Galen explained. "I will take them over there, if that will help." He nodded across the room.

"I'm not hungry anyway," Pippin said, but he picked up the slab of cheese and nibbled at it. Next he tried the nearest glass; it was only water. That was all right.

"You must eat. Both of us must," Galen instructed. "We shall need our strength." He popped one of the tomatoes into his mouth whole. When he had swallowed it, he looked up, and Pippin was glad he'd eaten it so neatly. "Oh, Pippin, I'm so worried for my friends."

Pippin nodded. "So am I."

They stared at each other, hobbit and ape, and in that moment, a kindred feeling grew. It didn't matter that one was from the far-distant Shire and another was from an even farther distant world, distant in years not miles or leagues. The world they inhabited now was dire and perilous, and their friends faced great risks. Pippin made himself eat his makeshift meal. "You eat, too," he said. "Because you're right. We will need our strength, you and I."

"Oh," said Galen in horrified realization and cocked his head. "They will break through and climb higher and kill us all."

"Rohan will come," Pippin insisted, even though he was not sure he could believe it. Yes, Rohan would come. Aragorn would see to it. But would the Rohirrim arrive in time?

When he had finished eating, he parted from Galen rather sadly. It had been good to have companionship. But he was bidden to the Citadel, and that was where he must stay. "I don't know if I'll be able to come back," he said. "But I will if I can," and thrust out his hand.

Galen reached out and clasped it. His palm felt dry, and the hair on the back of it tickled Pippin's fingers, but Pippin felt no urge to pull away. People came in all sizes and shapes, he'd learned. It wasn't the way they looked that made them valuable. It was what they carried in their hearts.

He trudged wearily up the ramp to the seventh level to the accompaniment of the continual bombardment and the cries of battle. One small hobbit, all alone in the great world....

He wasn't sure how long he stood there--it felt like years--when he heard a sound and whirled to see Denethor leading a troop of soldiers bearing Faramir on a pallet. Where were they taking him? Pippin didn't trust Denethor at all. Worried, he hurried cautiously forward to investigate.

            *****

Pete Burke had discovered amazing new levels of fatigue, fear, and despair during the endless night. He had thought it rough to have Urko and his gorilla patrols chasing the three of them through the ape-dominated land of Galen's world, made worse by the distance from home and the odds against ever going back. This was far worse than that. This time he knew, utterly and completely, that home was an impossible dream. Alan had given up; the moment when he'd thrown away his computer disk proved that. Pete had ached for his friend, but there had been no comfort to offer, not when he couldn't force words of false hope from his mouth. There was Galen, too, overwhelmed and terrified, set aside from the people in Middle-earth. Pete couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to find himself in a world where he was the only human. Galen faced that now. Even if many of the people they met had been kind, it would never make up for the loss of everything. How could it?

The battle had raged through the night. Many times Pete had believed his strength was spent and he lacked the strength to raise his sword, but then an orc would run at him, and he would find the endurance after all. He had a few mild scrapes and cuts from near misses and bruising all down his left side from the battle at the gate when the battering ram had finally slammed through to admit three trolls and an unending horde of orcs. One of the trolls had thrust out a mighty arm and caught Pete a glancing blow that spun him away to crash against a wall. Alan had been there instantly, helping him up, but there had been no time to fuss over mere bruises. Archers killed two of the trolls and Gandalf rode through the battle on his big white horse and took out the other one, but the orcs remained.

"We won't hold this level," Alan had said grimly as he passed his sword to his left hand long enough to flex his fingers.

"Yeah," Pete agreed. "I know." He cocked an eye at the sky. "It's nearly dawn."

Civilians ran past them, some screaming in panic, some utterly silent. Why the heck hadn't they gone earlier? Pete gestured them to safety and tripped over a dead orc. He lunged to his feet and stuck an orc in the stomach. Alan attacked another.

Over the sounds of battle, Gandalf's voice rang out. "Retreat! The city is breached. Fall back! To the second level! Get the women and children out! Get them out."

The troops struggled to obey, and the orcs, hearing Gandalf's cry, roared with triumph.

"Fight!" Gandalf called, encouraging the soldiers, even when there could be no hope. "Fight! Fight to the last man! Fight for your lives!"

Pete's stomach twisted. He caught Alan's eye, expecting to die at any moment.

Over the sounds of battle came a desperate cry. "Gandalf! Gandalf!" Pete looked around and saw little Pippin rushing through the battle, oblivious to the threat of orcs. "Gandalf," he cried as he raced up to the wizard upon his great white horse. "Denethor has lost his mind! He's burning Faramir alive!"

Burning him alive? The guy had seemed almost deranged when they had met with him, a wild look in his eyes, but this? To burn his own son? Pete and Alan exchanged appalled glances, knowing there was nothing they could do. How long had it taken Pippin to find Gandalf in the middle of the battle? Faramir might already be dead.

Gandalf jerked in his saddle, then he reached a hand down to the hobbit. "Come, quickly!" He pulled Pippin up onto the great horse's back behind him and they rode away.

"Come on," Alan cried, as if he'd sensed what Pete suddenly did, that Gandalf's departure would dishearten the men. "We can take them," he shouted. "Rear guard action. Who's with me?!"

It didn't matter that the soldiers didn't know Alan from Adam. In their armor and helmets, everyone was pretty anonymous anyway. A dozen soldiers fell in with him and Pete and they guarded the narrow passage to allow the desperate civilians to struggle toward the second level.

It was a fierce battle, nasty and bloody, and soon a little pile of orc bodies lay before them, but several of the men of Gondor lay dead, too. That was when the world changed. Over the clash of battle came the sudden clamor of horns. At once the orcs stiffened and turned their heads to listen, and dismay filled their ugly faces.

"Rohan!" exulted the man next to Pete. "Rohan has come."

"Rohan won't save you," snarled an orc and thrust his wicked blade at the man. Pete tried to block the thrust, but a second orc shouted and lunged. Seeing the motion out of the corner of his eye, Pete whirled.

The sword caught him in the side.

For the first moment, there was no pain, only a sense of pressure, then the orc yanked his blade free, and agony hit. Pete pressed his hand to the wound, feeling the hot, wet gush of blood, and stared down at himself in disbelief. Heat and cold rushed over him in waves and he felt the strength leave his body and pitch him down on his knees.

The last thing he remembered before the darkness took him was the distant clamor of horns and the frantic sound of Alan screaming his name.

            *****

The sound of faraway horns roused Galen from an uneasy sleep and he went over to the door and opened it. No soldiers guarded it, so he retrieved his cloak, wrapped himself in it, and stepped cautiously out to investigate. The fighting had not reached so high while he slept. Uneasily he ventured to the ramparts and squinted down. Dawn had come after the endless night, and gave him a view of the Pelennor Field below, and beyond it.

There, from a rise to the north, an endless wave of mounted men galloped down on the vast orc army. The Rohirrim? It must be. A surge of hope ran through the ape. Could it be enough? There were far more orcs than there were horsemen, but Galen had lived his entire life in a world where small bands of gorillas on horseback could cut a swathe through hundreds of humans. In battle, the horse gave the rider a huge advantage. Would it be enough to make up for the fact that the brave men of Rohan were so greatly outnumbered?

As he stared, the riders reached the line of orcs, and then just rode through them as if they were scarcely there, the soldiers slashing with swords and thrusting with spears. The orcs fell back before the riders' fury, and Galen bounced and called out encouraging cheers to them, and waved his hands as if he were striking out at the orcs. He hated bloodshed, but the orcs endangered his friends. He had no way of knowing if Pete and Alan had survived the night, but if they had, the arrival of the Rohirrim could keep them alive. "Oh, Pete, Alan, be alive. Please be alive."

The tide turned immediately. It was not long before the orcs broke and ran toward the great river. Galen cheered. From far below came a distant shout borne faintly on the crisp morning air. "Drive them to the river!" Another voice called, "Make safe the city!"

From Galen's aerie on the sixth level, he saw the new threat before anyone on the ground could, and he stared in horror at the sight, something he had never imagined or wished to. Enormous beasts advanced from the river in a long row, beasts big enough to carry platforms on their backs, platforms full of men. The beasts had long tusks that jutted out before them, and they had tremendously long snouts that swung free, and great flapping ears. Were they beasts of burden? War animals? Monsters? Did they devour people? Would they drive themselves against the walls of the city and knock it to rubble? "Oh, my," he muttered, and knew the words to be horribly inadequate.

The brave horsemen formed a line to confront the huge beasts. A horn blew and they charged--but they were so small to stand against the great tusked monsters. As Galen stared, he saw one of the beasts bring a massive foot down on a horse and rider and crush them utterly. "Oh, no." Galen flung his hands over his eyes. Yet a moment later, he lowered them. He had to see, to know what happened. Where were Pete and Alan? Down there battling against the giant creatures? Fighting inside the gates of the city? Lying dead in the streets? They weren't apes, but they were still his brothers. How could he bear it here if they had fallen? "Be safe," he whispered. "Please. Be safe."

Sounds behind him made him whirl, expecting one of the terrible Nazgûl, but it was just two humans carrying another one with a terrible, bloody wound in his belly. With a gasp, Galen averted his eyes. They bore him to the healing place, and Galen realized more of them came, so many more. Sometimes the ones who carried the injured were hurt themselves, but Galen noticed that if a man could walk, he returned to the fight. One man with a blood-stained bandage around his head staggered unsteadily down the ramp. Another man returned from the Houses of Healing with an arm in a splint, a sword in his other hand. Awed by their courage, Galen wished there was something he could do to help. Pete and Alan were risking their lives for the humans of this city, while Galen waited up here, safe from all but the Nazgûl.

Galen turned back to the battle. To his astonishment, at least two of the huge beasts had fallen. As he watched open-mouthed, a rider guided his horse beneath another one and when he emerged beyond it, the beast collapsed to the ground. How was that possible? Had the rider hamstrung it? How very sharp their swords must be. Even from so high, Galen could tell the creatures' wrinkled grey skin must be very thick.

A soldier joined him. Galen looked up, and his hood fell back to expose his face. Expecting horror to fill the human's expression, he was surprised when the man simply nodded. "You are the ape. I have heard of you from Beregond."

"This is a terrible battle," Galen said quietly with a gesture at the Pelennor Field so far below. "There's nothing I can do to help, but my friends went to fight." He peered over the rampart, hoping for a glimpse of them. No way to distinguish his friends from such a distance, but he saw Gandalf and Pippin, two levels below. In his white robes with his long hair the wizard was easily recognizable, and Pippin was much smaller than the soldiers. The orcs had mounted nearly that high. Galen pointed. "There is Gandalf," he said.

"I must go to defend him." The soldier looked at him. "Come, I will see you protected as well. You may wait near him. But keep your cloak drawn tight around you, for the danger draws near and people are most uneasy."

"Thank you," Galen replied and tugged at the hood to conceal his face. He didn't feel safe at all, even with the great courage of the Rohirrim. Too many orcs filled the city, fighting their way steadily higher. But he went with the soldier and presently found himself in a small courtyard, a little distance from Gandalf and Pippin. Overhead, Nazgûl still soared, and soldiers guarded a gate. From the other side came the sound of orcs, and someone beat against the barred gates with something that made a great deal of noise. The doors shuddered with each blow.

Into the silence between the hammering on the gate, Galen heard Pippin's voice, soft and sad. "I didn't think it would end this way," he said. He hadn't noticed Galen, who sat huddled in his cloak nearby and listened without announcing himself. The soldier had gone at once to join those who defended the gate, where he took up a spear.

Gandalf looked at Pippin in surprise. "End?" he asked mildly. "No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take."

Galen swallowed. He wasn't ready to take that path, not here, not so very far from home, certainly not alone, not without seeing Pete and Alan one last time.

The wizard continued, his voice soothing, almost hypnotic. "The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it."

Pippin stared up at Gandalf, hope and wonder in his eyes. His face was dirty. "What? Gandalf? See what?" he asked, and Galen was glad Pippin had posed the question, because he had no idea what the wizard meant.

Gandalf's face was warm and understanding. "White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."

As he spoke, Galen could almost see it, tranquil, beautiful, and serene. Was death truly like that? Or was that only for humans? Apes had no such beliefs of distant green shores. Yet the certainty in Gandalf's words eased Galen's heart.

"Well," said Pippin in a soft, small voice, "that isn't so bad."

"No," Gandalf said. "No it isn't," and drew a contented breath. They smiled at each other, and Galen smiled, too, strangely comforted. He would have to tell Pete and Alan about the far green country when he saw them again and ask them if they had heard of it before.

If he ever saw them again....

There came another crash against the door, and unable to bear it, Galen ventured over to the wall to watch once more. He had a slightly different view from this angle, and he was closer now, able to see more detail.

Several more of the great grey beasts had fallen, and then out of the sky swooped another of the Nazgûl on his great lizard. The fell beast snatched up a horse and rider in his mouth and flung them down. At once a wave of horror ran through the riders, but there was nothing they could do. One of the Rohirrim ran to stand between the downed human and the beast, and when it lunged, he cut off its head in two fierce slices with the sword. Galen gasped.

"I couldn't have seen that," Galen whispered.

As the beast writhed in its death throes, the black-robed enemy emerged from between its shuddering wings, swinging a device that looked like a flail, except that Galen had never seen one so massive before. The poor rider shuddered, then ducked as the Nazgûl swung the flail at him again and again. Conscious of the pounding on the sealed gates behind him, Galen still couldn't take his eyes from that fight.

He was scarcely aware of it when he felt a presence beside him, and looked up to see Gandalf standing there, Pippin at his side.

"Corsairs!" a soldier behind him shouted, his voice full of despair. "See, their ships come."

Galen looked toward the river and saw ships with slanting sails approaching the ruined city. More enemies? His heart twisted. There could be no hope. Too many enemies to count already surrounded the city, and the monsters stomped their way through the riders. Now a new threat came up the river. Galen's heart thumped miserably.

"Ah," Gandalf said, and his voice held great satisfaction.

"Gandalf?" Pippin asked in astonishment.

"I told Aragorn he must look to the black ships," Gandalf said. "Doubt him not, young Peregrin."

"You mean it's Aragorn in the boats?" Pippin stood as tall as he could. "Yes, I know it is." His voice sang with certainty. Aragorn? The lost king? A faint stirring of hope touched Galen.

"We shall soon see." But Gandalf's voice held great confidence.

Shifting uneasily from one foot to another, Galen turned his attention to the brave rider who confronted the Nazgûl. He was down, collapsed back against the horse, his shield shattered.

"Oh, no," Galen breathed. There was nothing he could do but watch.

Then from nowhere a small figure hurried up behind the Nazgûl. Not Pippin, but it must be another hobbit, for he was that size. He made a stabbing motion--the knife blade flashed in the light as it jammed into the Nazgûl's leg. The huge black figure collapsed to its knees.

"Merry!" shrieked Pippin. "Gandalf, Merry's down there. See!" he pointed. Behind the trio, the gate resounded from the force of another blow.

"Yes, I see him," Gandalf said. "He must have ridden with the Rohirrim. But brave Théoden has fallen." He bent his head, speaking words in a language Galen did not understand as if to give a final blessing. How could that be? The strange device that had sent them here had given them this language; that's what the Guardian had said. Should they not know all tongues of this land? Galen shrugged and dismissed the question as unimportant.

The fallen rider rose and pulled off his helmet. Long fair hair spilled forth. A female! Galen gasped as she drove her sword right into the Nazgûl's face. As it collapsed in death, Galen jumped up and down, cheering.

"Éowyn," Gandalf gasped, his shock vivid. "What mischance brings you to this place?"

The soldier who had guided Galen here joined them. "What find you to cheer about?" he snapped.

"That female down there, one of the Rohirrim. She just killed a Nazgûl," Galen explained. "See, there she is." He pointed.

"And yet," Gandalf said, contentment warring with concern, "it is fitting. For it was said no man could slay the Witch King."

"Women ride with the Rohirrim?" the soldier cried in wonder. "But what will even that avail us, for the Mûmakil resist our arrows, and the corsairs come."

He and Galen looked at ruined Osgiliath, then both cried out. Flowing up from the docks came an army, but it was like no army Galen had ever imagined, even when he had tried to picture human battles. These could not be human, although they bore human form, for they were glowing green, transparent. "Spirits!" Galen gasped and stumbled a few superstitious steps back.

"Look!" The soldier's astonished cry halted Galen's retreat, and he advanced uneasily. It was clear to him what had surprised the soldier, for the ghostly army attacked the enemy, charging at orcs and slaying them, pulling down the great beasts and swarming over them to kill them. Their swords must be solid enough to kill. For the first time since he had emerged from his prison, a faint flutter of hope touched Galen.

"What are they?" he asked. "I have never seen anything like that before."

"Nor I," the man admitted.

Pippin nodded, his eyes enormous.

Gandalf spoke in a remembering voice. "Long ago, the men of the mountain violated their oaths to aid Isildur, and fled when times were perilous. Isildur cursed them to a shadow existence without rest until they fulfilled their oaths. Only the heir of Isildur could summon them forth to fight and end their terrible exile."

"Aragorn?" Galen asked, remembering Pippin's words. "The lost king of Gondor?"

"So you have learned such already?" Gandalf smiled upon the ape. "Yes, it is true. Aragorn has brought them to save us."

Save them, yes, but how many would fall before that could happen? Peering down at the battle below them Galen shivered at the sounds at the gate. The Nazgûl that had soared overhead had vanished. Fleeing the ghostly army? Yet orcs still worked their way higher. Trolls marched with them, huge beasts that towered over the humans and the orcs. Where were Pete and Alan in the midst of all this? Were they even alive?

Galen spoke suddenly. "Pippin? How is Captain Faramir?"

Pippin shivered, and Gandalf at once put his hand upon Pippin's shoulder. Wishing the question unasked, Galen opened his mouth to speak, but Gandalf held up a hand to halt him. "He is with the healers," he said, "although gravely hurt. In his madness, his father meant to burn them together on a pyre, but Peregrin Took ran to me through the battle to summon my aid. We rode to his rescue, and Pippin jumped onto the flaming pyre to roll Faramir free." He beamed down at Pippin.

"I had to," Pippin said uncomfortably, squirming at the warmth in Gandalf's voice. "I couldn't let them burn him. I couldn't."

"No, you couldn't," Gandalf said fondly. "But he is safe now. Aragorn has come in time, and the orcs will advance no higher. I only hope...." His voice trailed away.

Pippin threw him an alarmed look. Being with the healers might not be enough for Faramir. Such a terrible experience could cause a setback, and his wounds had been severe. Galen wondered how the healers compared to Kira, the physician he had once loved. These healers would know how to mend humans, but they were not so advanced as the people of Pete and Alan's time.

"I do hope he will be all right," Galen said.

"I will see to him, once this battle ends," Gandalf announced.

"Listen," Pippin said suddenly. "They've stopped." He pointed at the soldiers guarding the gate, spears and pikes at ready in case the battering of the gate should resume. "Gandalf, Merry's down there. I have to find him."

"And so you shall, Peregrin Took. But not yet. Allow Aragorn to rid us of the threat, and then we will go down to the field together. See, the oathbreakers come to the city."

"The orcs are fleeing," Galen cried, pointing. He shuddered to look at them; they were grotesque, huge and filthy, with irregular armor, a greyish cast to their pocked skin. To come face to face with one of them would be ghastly.

But the oathbreakers advanced in a fast green wave, sweeping over all, cutting down the orcs with swift strikes of their blades.

After that, everything happened very fast. Between the oathbreakers, the Rohirrim and the brave soldiers of Gondor, many orcs died, and some ran only to be cut down by the spirits. Soon Gandalf took Pippin's shoulder. "Come, my lad, it will now be safe for us to venture lower. I must seek Aragorn, and there will be wounded to rescue."

"I have to find Merry. Did you see him, Gandalf? Did you see him, Galen? He was so brave. I hope he's all right. I was sure he was safe in Edoras, where I didn't have to worry about him." Then he shook his head. "No, I should have expected him to come. He wouldn't stay behind when his friends were in danger." Pride and worry fought for dominance in his expression.

"What should I do?" Galen asked.

"I would have you go to the Houses of Healing," Gandalf said. "The healers will need help, even untrained help. If I see Pete and Alan, I will send them to you there. When I last saw them, dawn had come, and they were as yet unhurt."

Galen's heart bounced. "Thank you. I will help if I can."

The wizard guided Pippin away as the soldiers risked opening the gates and made certain the orcs were truly gone, then the two of them hurried off, leaving Galen standing alone. "The Houses of Healing," he muttered. "Maybe they will let me help there as Gandalf says. I need to do something."

In the wake of the battle, the healers didn't care that Galen was an ape and a stranger. They would have accepted any help they could get. After a first startled look, a man with vivid red hair listened to Galen's explanation of why he had come, then he loaded Galen's arms with bandages and instructed him to take them to any who called for them.

"I will," Galen promised, and set to work. At last, here was a task he could do, not a great and noble one, not a heroic one, but no less important. He quickly distributed his load of dressings and went back for more.

It was as he labored amid such ghastly sights as he had never imagined, so many hurt, so many dying, so many already dead and being carried out to make room for those who could still be saved, that he found a battered and weary Alan Virdon, sitting back against a wall to be out of the way, a bloodstained cloth pressed against his forehead, his face full of desolation.

"Alan!" Galen cried, and ran to him. Even then, his stomach roiling with anxiety, he took a moment to pass his bandages to one of the helpers, "For I must see to my friend."

At the shout, Alan lifted his head and saw Galen. Relief showed on his face for a moment, but it faded instantly.

"Oh, Alan, is it Pete?" Galen ventured, afraid to speak the words, certain the answer would be terrible. He sat down beside Alan and patted his shoulder.

"He's bad, Galen. Very bad. They don't know if he's going to live." He drew a shuddering breath. "They sent me out to have room to work." he gave a weary gesture in the direction of the treatment rooms. "There are so many in there, horribly wounded. They can't give Pete special attention. They've done what they can for him, and say it's up to him now, but I don't know.... Their medicine is so primitive compared to home. And no books to coach them along like Dr. Kira used when I was shot. Oh, God, Galen, what am I going to do?"

"We'll do it together," Galen said. "When Gandalf comes back, we can ask him. I think he knows everything." He leaned against Alan, shivering. After a moment, Alan put his arm around Galen's shoulders and they sat there together like two pieces of flotsam after a flood that had been cast ashore with nowhere else to go.

            *****

Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Dúnadan, ranger from the north, future king of Gondor and Arnor, stood in the Houses of Healing, fatigue weighting him down like a pile of metal blankets pressing against his shoulders. He would give much for a chance to sleep if only for ten minutes, but such was not to be. The battle was won, although Mordor still loomed as a dire threat, a threat that could all too easily endanger Frodo and all they hoped for. His own Arwen depended on the final outcome, too, for Lord Elrond had claimed she was dying, her fate tied with that of the Ring. As he labored here to ease the injured, Aragorn knew what he must do was for far more than Frodo and Arwen. Passing here and there among the wounded, his heart ached for his people, who had fought and suffered for Gondor, for Rohan, for the hope of peace in the West. Théoden King had fallen, and brave Éowyn had suffered grievous hurts defending his fallen form. She would live now, as would Faramir. Healing them had drained him so greatly he had not believed he had energy left for more, but then Pippin had rushed up to him, Gandalf in his wake bearing a dazed and groggy Merry, and Aragorn had dug into an inner well of strength to make certain Merry, too, lived.

After that, the healers pounced on him, desperate to have his assistance for the most gravely wounded, the ones they had feared would not live without intervention. A frantic search through the city had found very so little of the athelas plant, and he had needed much of its miraculous healing power for Faramir, who had come so very close to death that at first Aragorn had doubted he could save him. The struggle to summon him back had been fierce. Then at last, when he had all but given up hope, Faramir had opened his eyes and looked up at Aragorn and known him as the king.

"My lord king, you called me. I come," he had said, his voice no more than a breath, yet his eyes warmed at the very sight of Aragorn. "What does the king command?" His very words were a sworn vow of fealty, and Aragorn's heart lifted at the earnest pledge. He had come too late at Amon Hen to save Boromir, but he had saved Boromir's beloved younger brother, and saw in him hope, of the future, of the strength of Gondor.

"Walk no more in the shadows, but awake," Aragorn instructed him gently. "You are weary. Rest awhile and take food, and be ready when I return."

"I will, lord," Faramir replied. "For who would lie idle when the king has returned." He managed a weary smile, and in spite of the shadows that lurked in his eyes, the smile had been exultant.

Aragorn clasped Faramir's sound shoulder, and gazed down at him. This man would stand beside him in the years to come, as Gondor grew once more to strength and greatness. He could not but be glad of him.

There had been no time to linger, and Faramir must rest, so Aragorn had hurried next to Éowyn, and worked over her while her brother sat watching urgently, his face full of strain and misery. When she finally opened her eyes, the worst of Éomer's grief had fallen away and he had bowed to Aragorn, such a debt of gratitude in his eyes, before he embraced his sister, the two blond heads close together. Yet there was no debt, for without Rohan, without Éowyn herself, Minas Tirith would have fallen to darkness. Éomer and Aragorn would stand together, two new kings, as Rohan and Gondor allied themselves with each other.

Merry was not so bad as Faramir or Éowyn, and he would do well. Aragorn left him with Pippin hovering so protectively it would no doubt take five healers--or one white wizard--to pry him away.

Legolas and Gimli had volunteered to assist in the Houses of Healing, as did many. Those two friends had been at Aragorn's side ever since Rivendell, and he knew their great worth. Aragorn could only smile to see a wounded ranger opening his eyes to the astonishing sight of an elf sponging his brow. Legolas looked not fatigued, for elves had uncounted wells of inner strength. Even his flowing hair was unmatted with sweat. As for Gimli, the dwarf was everywhere, assisting the healers, speaking encouragement to the wounded. For all his gruff demeanor, he proved unexpectedly gentle and tender with the injured. He looked exhausted, but he was far too stubborn to yield when tasks needed doing.

It was Gimli, too, who provided Aragorn with one of the greatest surprises of the day. "Aragorn!" he called and beckoned him over to the bedside of a wounded man, who lay hot and flushed, his side heavily bandaged, as he moaned and muttered in the grip of fever. A fair-haired man with a raw scrape across his forehead sat beside him, and he looked much as Éomer had as he hovered over his sister, filled with the same desperate worry, the same bitter despair. He gripped his unconscious friend's hand, and he looked up at Aragorn with no hope in his face. He had empty eyes, as if he expected nothing good to come of life. Both he and the injured man wore their hair shorter than normal. The wounded in nearby beds either slept or watched Aragorn's arrival with the idle curiosity of those who could do naught but wonder, yet none seemed as gravely hurt as this man did.

"I think this poor lad needs you," Gimli said. "His friend came to me for aid. This is Galen."

Aragorn turned to Galen and then stopped, staring, for Galen was a creature the likes of which he had never before seen. Dressed as a citizen of Gondor, he had thick black fur like a beast, and his hairless face had a protruding muzzle. Not an orc, for they were not shaped such, nor were they so hairy. Aragorn knew of no such race in Middle-earth, and had met none remotely comparable in all his travels, yet had heard of apes in southern lands somewhat like Galen in appearance. Not even in the house of Elrond had he heard tales that any such possessed the ability to speak. In spite of his unlikely appearance, Galen's eyes were intelligent, and full of fear for the injured man. How the other patients stared at him, and Aragorn did not wonder, for he was far more exotic than either Legolas or Gimli, who had won their share of curious gazes since they entered the White City?

The unusual being reached out his hands--they were extremely hairy on their backs, but he had four fingers and a thumb like all the races of the west. "Please, Sir Aragorn, ignore my strange appearance, and help my friend," he begged.

"He is no orc," Gimli insisted. "He tells me he is an ape, and he comes from the distant future." His voice rang with skepticism of such a claim.

"Yes, yes, I will tell you of my kind and how I came here later," Galen said in an impatient voice. "Pete is dying. I have heard the healer female Ioreth claim the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and Pippin says you are to be the king, so please, will you help Pete?"

Aragorn tried to recall the vague stories of ape creatures in southern lands, yet he thought them no more than pets or wild beasts. Galen, however, was an intelligent being, one whose fear for his friend was grave. It spoke well for him and his kind that he would care so deeply for a friend, especially a friend so different from himself. Even Legolas and Gimli were not so dissimilar to each other as Galen was. "I will do what I can," he said, and moved to the bed.

The blond man stared at him. "Can you help Pete?" he asked, but grimly, as if he dared not allow himself the perilous risk of hope.

"I will try. Will someone see if there is any athelas left? I know there has been little of it and it nearly gone, but I think I will need it for this man. I will manage with one small sprig, if it can be found."

When a healer had hurried obediently away, Aragorn sat on a stool beside the man Pete's bed, and rested one hand upon his forehead and another upon his chest. He was hot with fever, and very weak. "How does the wound?" Aragorn asked.

The blond man spoke. "It didn't penetrate the abdominal cavity, they say. But he lost a lot of blood before I could see to him, and then I had to bring him all this way up from the first level. They said the orc blade might have been dirty, so I don't know what kind of infection is in there, even though they cleaned it."

Aragorn stared. Infection. Poison in the wound. The common folk mostly said 'poison', not 'infection', and they didn't talk of abdomens either, being more inclined to say 'gut' or 'belly'. This must be an educated man. Aragorn had seen such situations before, men dying from such wounds because the orc blades were filthy or bore poison. Not all orcs bothered with poison, but they were not likely to clean their blades, either, especially in the midst of battle.

"Expose the wound," Aragorn instructed, and a second healer unfastened the dressings. At the sight of the injury, Galen gasped, and the blond man's face tightened. Although it had stopped bleeding, it was deep, but it ran along his side. The ribs had deflected the worst of it, yet it had drive in at the point where his armor would have fastened, a vulnerable area. If the blade had gone in at an angle toward the center of the body there would have been no hope for him. Either the man had faced the orc head on or turned at the last second. Aragorn lay his hand upon the injury. Heat rose from the damaged flesh.

"This is all that remains of the athalas, sire," the heater said as he hastened to the bed. He passed a very small sprig of it to Aragorn, who put the leaves into his mouth to chew it into a paste. "We have sent word through the city that a search be made for more, and even directed searchers out onto the mountainside to hunt for it now that we understand its healing abilities."

"What are you doing?" cried the blond man. "If it's medicine, he needs it, not you."

"He prepares it," the healer explained reproachfully. "We did not know the value of kingsfoil, but our king has shown us the way. He has saved several lives today with it, including the life of our beloved steward."

"Faramir?" Galen asked with interest, although he did not turn to the healer. "He will be well?"

"He will, laddie," Gimli said. "He is weak yet, but he is mending. Trust Aragorn, for if any deserves your trust it is he."

The blond man didn't even glance up at him at the question and answer. He watched Aragorn take the paste and apply it gently to the wound. At the touch of it, the injured man flinched and cried out, although he did not awaken. His friend tightened his grip, his eyes upon Aragorn, a bitter threat filling them. He would hold Aragorn accountable for his friend's life.

Aragorn held himself accountable for many.

How would the blond man see him? Not as Gondor's king but merely a battered ranger, tired and dirty, weariness weighing his shoulders, his dark hair matted and hanging in disarray. The green stone in his ring flashed in the torchlight as he worked, and his battered knuckles ached.

Pete shivered and twisted against the bed coverings, a faint moan escaping his parted lips. The healer brought a dampened cloth and mopped his forehead.

Aragorn let one hand again rest on Pete's chest, the other lightly pressed over the wound. Exerting his will, he sought to summon the injured man's spirit from the darkness where it dwelt. At first he felt only the dazed wanderings of one who is lost in shadow, then a faint awareness responded to him. Smiling, Aragorn drew the man from the darkness, slowly, slowly. After an timeless interval, he roused enough to look up at Aragorn, eyes clouded with confusion yet beginning to clear. They studied each other, Aragorn with some surprise, for he sensed a difference in this man as he had in his friend, and Pete with incurious acceptance.

Pete blinked at him. "I don't know what you did, but if you could patent it, you'd be rich," he said in a faint, breathless voice. The words meant little to Aragorn, but he was not surprised he spoke confusedly after such an ordeal.

"Pete!" His friends, human and ape, fussed over him. He glanced up to acknowledge them, then back to Aragorn. "Thanks," he said, his voice no more than a thread. "I owe you my life."

"You owe me naught, for you fought valiantly for Gondor," Aragorn assured him. "Gondor is indebted to you."

Pete hesitated, ventured a smile. "Alan? Galen? You guys okay?"

"We're fine." Alan didn't look fine. He looked exhausted, sore, and still hopeless. Aragorn would have to see to that later. "Just as long as Pete is. You scared me," he said to his friend. "There aren't any secret books on human anatomy here."

Secret books? Aragorn would question him later about such. He was certain the healers had many such books, yet they would have learned well their craft and not require them except in very unique circumstances.

He made room for the two to see to their friend in the cramped space beside the bed. "You must allow him to rest, for he will be weak. Stay for a few moments and reassure yourselves, and I will make certain he is well cared for, and see he is given nourishing broth. He must take some food and water, and then sleep. Later, I would speak with you, Galen, but there is much to do now. The city is safe."

I promise you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail, he had pledged to the dying Boromir, and he had arrived in time to see to its deliverance. Repairs would be needed, although none could repair the great loss of life, and the threat of Mordor was not ended in spite of this victory. How could he ask two weary armies to march upon Mordor to continue the fight? Yet it was what he realized he must do. He would take council with Gandalf, and with Éomer of Rohan, to plan their next step, but that would be for the morrow.

The burden of his responsibility weighed as much as Minas Tirith.

"Aragorn, you must rest," Legolas insisted at his side. "You have drained yourself with healing, and the remainder of the injured must be tended by those skilled at the craft. You will not serve Gondor if you kill yourself in your exertions." He grasped Aragorn's arm with gentle determination. "Come. Gimli and I will make you rest, should you resist us."

"Aye, that we will," Gimli said and folded his arms, his face so stubborn Aragorn knew the pair of them would see him carried to a bed if he did not yield.

"We must hold council in the morning, for I have plans. No later than that. And I must find Gandalf before I rest, and confer with Éomer."

"I will find them and bring them to you," Legolas promised. "You will sleep this night in the Steward's chambers, for the chambers of the king are not ready, merely empty rooms, awaiting your coming. They will be prepared, but there is not time tonight."

"Let them wait," Aragorn said. "The people must be seen to. It matters not where I sleep, even if it be upon the floor, for I will not draw any from the task of succoring the people."

"I told you he'd say that," Gimli said to Legolas.

"Nor did I doubt. Come, Aragorn. You must rest. Or need I carry you?"

Ignoring the question, he turned once more to the two who fussed over the wounded Pete. Already Pete looked half asleep, a true sleep rather than unconsciousness. He might be sleeping before food could be brought to him, but perhaps sleep would be best. Galen and his friend bid reluctant farewells to Pete, and allowed themselves to be steered to the door.

Aragorn hesitated. "Legolas, Gimli, one moment." He gestured to the ape. "Galen, you are strange to us, yet your caring and concern are apparent. It is my hope that none of my people would mistreat you out of doubt and fear. Be it known that you have the king's favor, and I will see it announced to all in the city." He smiled suddenly. "In truth, I am not yet crowned, and am dependent on the goodwill of the people and of my steward, who is now sleeping and cannot add his voice to my own. But I will see the word is spread."

"Oh." Galen stared at him in delight. "Thank you. That is very kind. I never met a king before. Should I bow?"

Aragorn laughed. "No, I would not have it, for you are your people's representative, even if they are far distant. Visiting dignitaries do not bow except at first meeting in formal chambers."

His friend Alan stood with Galen. "I've been afraid the people wouldn't know how to take Galen, but he's a good person. He's been helping the healers, doing what he could, until he found me and realized Pete was hurt. If your order will make him safe in the city, I'm glad of it. Thank you, your majesty." He gave a wry laugh although it held but little amusement. "Galen's not the only one who has never talked to a king before."

"Galen is mistaken," said a new voice and Éomer of Rohan joined them. He looked nearly as weary as Aragorn, his broad shoulders bowed, his fair hair in disarray. "I have been sitting with my sister between visits to my injured men, and Galen and I have encountered each other three times as he helped to care for the wounded."

"Galen, you have not been formally introduced," Aragorn said with a mischievous smile. "This is Éomer, now King of Rohan. Alas, I am but the second king you have met."

"King in such sorrowful circumstances," Éomer said, lines of pain and grief aging his face. "I thank you, Aragorn, for seeing my uncle's body borne forth in honor."

"The woman who slew the Nazgûl was your sister?" Galen stared. "I saw it from the ramparts, and thought how valiant she was. And how brave the little hobbit was to help her."

"He is in the service of Rohan," Éomer said. "And gravely did I undervalue him, fearing he would flee from the horrors of battle. Yet my men who saw him fight said he battled with great courage and never hesitated, no matter the size of his foe. They knew he had sworn allegiance to my uncle, and had not realized he had been bidden to remain behind, so I did not know he had come until Gandalf bore him hither. I give thanks to the Valar he did not heed my uncle's restriction, for I fear my sister would lie dead if not for his intervention."

"Hobbits are brave folk," Galen agreed. "Did you know Pippin jumped onto a burning pyre to save Faramir? And Frodo.... I do not know much of Frodo, just what Pippin and Gandalf have said, but he must be the bravest person in Middle-earth, to do what he must do."

Aragorn feared for Frodo. How long would it take to prepare the armies to march to his aid? "Frodo has good Sam with him," Aragorn said. "He will defend him with all his strength. Lucky is a man who has loyal friends to stand at his side." He smiled fondly at Legolas and then down at Gimli.

Galen looked at Alan, who gave him a weary smile and a clap on the shoulder, then back to Pete's room. "Yes, he is," he agreed, and Alan nodded.

"Come," Legolas repeated. "You need sleep, Aragorn. You must hold speech with Gandalf in the morning, for I fear you would sleep before you could do more than greet each other."

"We all need sleep," he agreed, and allowed Legolas and Gimli to bear him off to bed.

            *****

Once the elf and dwarf had led Aragorn away and Éomer had followed them, Alan and Galen returned to Pete's bedside. A healer bent over him, offering him water, and Pete sipped a bit of it without seeming fully aware of what he was doing. Undaunted, the healer spooned a bit of broth into him, but no more than five spoonfuls before he muttered fretfully and turned his head aside.

"At least he took a bit," the healer said. "Sit with him if you like, but quietly, for he must sleep and regain his strength."

Galen perched as lightly as possible on the foot of the narrow bed, and Alan reclaimed his stool. They sat without speaking watching Pete breathe. The healer had applied a fresh dressing, and Pete lay, bare to the waist, the bandages white against his skin. Alan drew up a blanket and covered him, for the night grew chill.

After Pete was fully asleep, Alan and Galen remained with him awhile longer, then a healer approached, a grey-haired man with a lined face. He examined Pete, nodded in satisfaction, then turned to the chimpanzee. "Master Galen, your friend begins to mend. We could use your help if you are willing."

Galen looked at Alan, who nodded. So many had been wounded in the terrible battle. He ought to volunteer, too, but he could not bring himself to stir from Pete's side. If there should be a relapse and he not here.... But Galen had helped before, and he looked willing in spite of his fatigue. "If you need me here, I'll stay, but these humans need me, too, even though I'm unskilled."

"You have a generous heart, Master Galen, and have spoken kindly to our poor wounded," the healer said. "Many who aid us this night lack training, but they are willing and understand directions. You are intelligent and quick, and we are all coming to see how worthy you are, in spite of your unfamiliar appearance." He gave a weary smile. "The elf and the dwarf have greatly aided us, too, although their kind have come but rarely to Minas Tirith in latter years. I have heard the new king himself say all races must live in harmony, and that he will strive toward such a goal."

"Oh." Galen cocked his head, considering that. "I will help. Even before I came here I had an abrupt collision with the truth, that different species may be equal, not lacking in intelligence or heart, no matter how different they appear. I like your new king's words." He squeezed Alan's shoulder reassuringly. "Send for me if you need me. But I have to help. You and Pete fought, and I couldn't, but I can do this."

"Go, Galen," Alan encouraged him. "I...have to stay here."

Galen's grip tightened. "I know," he said. He bent to touch Pete's arm, then he followed the healer.

"You should have heard him, Pete," Alan said under his breath so that the men in the nearby beds wouldn't overhear. They had been unable to tear their eyes from Galen, even when the elf and dwarf had come. Most of them, like Pete, were sleeping now, but Alan, who knew with so many wounded there could be no such luxury as a private room, was wide awake. "The people here have never seen an ape before, but Galen has pitched in to help out, and they're coming to appreciate him." He sighed. "I wish we hadn't brought him to this, but what else could we have done?"

Pete didn't respond, of course. He slept his healing sleep, and Alan wouldn't disturb him, not even for the reassurance that Pete would awaken if he called his name. Already he could tell that Pete had started bouncing back. He wasn't sure if the strange plant was a miracle cure or if the king had mystic powers to call people back from death. He had heard whispered conversations about the way he had saved Faramir. Galen had heard such talk, too, and he had found someone to bring the king to Pete's aid. Way to go, Galen!

Yet Alan's relief was tempered with despair. It wasn't even the word that had spread among the injured, that in spite of the great victory the war was not yet won, that thousands more orcs remained in the land of Mordor, that Frodo faced such danger there that his quest might be impossible, which filled him with hopelessness. It was the certain knowledge he would never go home.

Even in Galen's ape-dominated world, remnants of his own time lingered, the computer beneath the train station in the ruins of Oakland, other such computers here and there in the world that they might one day find. With his disk from the ship, he had hopes of recreating the process that had brought him and Pete into the future, and reversing it. Would it be possible to do so with the technological machines left behind by advanced humans without the need of a ship? He had desperately believed such was possible--and indeed it had been, for the Annuate Chamber had been exactly what he had sought.

Yet the chamber had been damaged and had thrust them into a past so remote he couldn't remember reading about it in his history classes. No chapters on Gondor or Mordor had existed in any such book. Was this even his own earth? The machine had been damaged by the gorillas' bullets. Could the machine have thrust them into a parallel world as in a science fiction tale? Or was it as the Guardian had said, that history went back much further than he had believed possible? With such an amazing machine, the curious would have been driven to test its limits.

Someone from the time of the Annuate must have journeyed this far back, for the machine had known to gift them with the language of Gondor. More than once Alan had realized when a word hesitated just outside the range of his thoughts that he was speaking a foreign tongue, that all three of them were. When he uttered a word of his own time, such as 'television', Pete understood him, Galen would nod in recognition because he had heard so much of the world of 1980, but other people's faces would wrinkle with confusion. For words without a Gondorian equivalent, the English word came out. If Alan concentrated, he could speak in English, but then he would revert automatically to the language spoken here. Amazing the machine could do that. A kind of sleep-teaching process? The Guardian had not explained, simply mentioned the language process as an afterthought. What great strides the human race had made before it had fallen. Had they pushed so far beyond sane limits that they had driven themselves to their own doom? How could a race with the power to build the Annuate device succumb to the bitterness of war? Yet war had always existed--a failing of human nature? Here in this distant past, war existed, yet it was war against a clear and present evil, and the nations of the land, the races of the land, united against it.

Such conjecture could only distract him from their situation for so long. They were trapped in a distant past, their only hope of retrieval, slim as it had ever been, no doubt destroyed by the gorillas. Even if the machine could be repaired, how could a hologram do that? Yes, he had solidified his hand to activate the machine, but Alan had the feeling such was the limit of his programming, that the hologram had been designed for that one task. Even if he could repair the time machine, the three of them had moved away from the place they had landed. How could the machine find them here? And how could they have avoided moving with the orc army ready to attack? To remain out there would have been to die, and death ended hope more surely than the destruction of the great machine.

Home was lost to him. He would never see Sally again, never hear that delightful gurgle of her laughter, see her eyes light up when she saw him, or feel her arms around him. Chris would grow to manhood without a father to watch him play little league ball, get his driver's license, go on his first date, graduate from high school.

The hope of home had been all that enabled him to endure being stranded in the far future. He had Pete with him, his friend, now grown even closer after all they had endured together. Through shared peril Galen had become a friend, too, one so close that to abandon him to the wrath of Urko's gorillas had been unthinkable.

Now the three of them had been stranded so far in the past there remained no hope at all. Alan had thrown away his disk in the blackness of despair, and had gone to fight in a war that was not his own in resignation borne of hopelessness. In his heart he realized that he had gone to fight because he had believed there might be peace in death. But he had not died. Instead, Pete had fallen, and for a time Alan had believed Pete would die and leave him here alone.

Not alone, though. With Galen, whose situation was worse than Alan's. At least Alan had Pete, and the world was full of humans, very good humans from what he had seen, as well as elves and dwarves, and a mysterious wizard. Certainly they were brave and kind. The little hobbit Pippin was a great guy. As much out of his depth as Galen was, he had roused to the occasion and done what was needed without hesitation. He'd been the one to climb the great height to light the signal beacon when Denethor had refused to order it done. He'd saved Faramir's life at great peril to his own.

The elf and the dwarf ought to be characters out of fairy tales, stick figures, unbelievable. At the first sight of Legolas's pointed ears, Alan had pinched himself, convinced it had all been a dream, just as he had when he had first seen Pippin's. Yet this was no dream. Legolas was real, an elf, a being who would live forever if battle did not end him. All the others around him seemed both awed and uneasy to see an elf. The man in the bed next to Pete had admitted that, for a long time, elves had not come to Minas Tirith, that many people feared them. Alan didn't fear Legolas, for he had been kind, and his friendship for the king had shone in his face.

Alan liked Gimli, the dwarf with the thick, elaborate beard that even had braids in it. He was gruff and hearty but sympathetic, clearly a great friend of the elf and also of the king. He had brought Aragorn at Galen's request to aid Pete, and had watched, concern in his face, concern for a stranger, and had smiled and slapped the elf on the back in delight when Pete had roused. The two of them had dragged Aragorn off to get some rest, leaving all those who were conscious staring after them. Once they were gone and the new king of Rohan in their wake, a buzz of excited conversation had filled the ward, enough to inform Alan that elves and dwarves were not usually such friends, that Legolas had single-handedly brought down one of the great mûmakil, the giant elephants, that Éomer's uncle had died bravely in the battle, that Théoden King had been a great hero.

Alan had listened without much concentration, since his every thought had been focused on Pete, but he had heard enough to know the sister of the king of Rohan had fallen on the battlefield, that Aragorn had brought her back, as he had Faramir--and Pete. That Pippin's friend, another small hobbit, had fought with the Rohirrim and now lay recovering in a nearby chamber.

What was next? A new battle? In Mordor itself? Alan shuddered. There was still Frodo and his need to see the Ring destroyed, and from what Alan had heard, Aragorn would do all he could to assist him. Would he challenge Mordor to save Frodo? If so, would Alan need to fight? He never wanted to endure another battle, yet a part of him insisted he must. They would not dare risk Galen, he who had never touched a serious weapon before meeting Pete and Alan, and Pete would not be well enough to fight, for such a military goal could not wait. Gondor had taken them in, and their new king had saved Pete's life. So Alan knew if the army marched to Mordor, he would have to go, leaving behind the two from his old life, his last link with home.

Although it was late, Alan could not sleep. His thoughts chased each other around and round in his mind, and presented him with endless images of Sally, of Chris, of home. He closed his eyes and saw against the back of his eyelids the look on Sally's face when he had proposed, Chris's first baby steps, the face of his commanding officer when he had been assigned to the mission with Pete and Jonesy, poor Jonesy. How proud Alan had been, how excited. Sally had encouraged him, concealed the fear she had felt each time he had a new mission, and stood with him, so proud of him, during interviews with the press.

One of the healers went around the room dimming most of the lamps to allow the patients to sleep. He came over to Alan, rested his hand on Pete's forehead, and said, "He's sleeping normally. I doubt he will stir before morning. You may safely leave him and go to your bed."

Alan hesitated. It wasn't the fact that he had no bed to go to that kept him here. "No, I'll stay," he said. "I'm not in anyone's way, am I?"

"No, not in your corner, but you will need your strength, for one victory is not a war. I will see a pallet is brought for you, to sleep on the floor at his side." He studied Alan thoughtfully. "You are one of the two men who came from the future with Galen. I should not have urged you away, for I am sure none has thought to arrange a bed chamber for you. Remain here with my good will."

He seemed so calm about an invasion from the future, as if such things were commonplace, but Alan knew that wasn't it. The vast number of wounded had driven all other concerns from his mind and it must be easier for him to simply accept what he was told and set it aside to wonder at later. With an encouraging smile at Alan, he bustled away, and five minutes later a teenager who was probably the local equivalent of an orderly arrived and spread out a pallet in the narrow gap between Pete's bed and the wall. He was skinny and blond, his long hair loosely bound back to keep it out of his eyes, and he looked like he had just begun to grow a beard, for he sported only a faint fuzz on his chin. At once Alan imagined his son reaching the point where he would start to shave, without a father to instruct him in the art, and his heart constricted.

The boy offered a tentative smile. "There's not much room, good sir," he said, "but try to sleep. You must be strong for your friend. I've been a healer's apprentice for a year now, and I know when warriors start to recover, they can be very crotchety and difficult, trying to be up long before it's sensible. Is your friend like that?"

Alan smiled, the first smile of the night. "Yeah, that's Pete. I wouldn't say crotchety exactly, but stubborn and determined to overdo."

"My brother is in the next room. He took a sword slice in his arm, but he's mending quickly and says he'll stand with the army if they have to fight again." The boy grimaced. "He will, too, for there are already rumors in the city that this will be a good time to attack Mordor, when all those orcs have fallen." He smiled at the thought. "If they take the fight to Sauron, it will surely require several days to arrange all that is needed, and time to march to Mordor, and Marnir will insist that will give him time to heal, especially since it is not his sword arm that was hurt. Your friend will need to stay behind, though, for he took a more grievous wound. I heard healer Girand say so. He will be better, but not well enough to march to battle."

"Girand? The healer with the bushy red hair? He told me Pete wouldn't be well enough for fighting for at least three weeks. I have to say I'm glad of that."

"But you will go with the army if so the king commands?"

Alan nodded. "I'll go. I've been thinking that might happen, and it sounds like gossip has already spread. Galen will have to stay, but I think he's glad to help in the Houses of Healing."

"He is very good with the wounded," the boy said. "They already forget he is so different, and I hear them call for him to come to them when they have need." The boy smiled. He looked about sixteen. "I talked to him," he admitted, excited that he had done so. "He is kind and wise, and very gentle with the wounded."

"He would be. Once, back in his land, he knew a healer very well. I think he learned a lot from her." Alan remembered Doctor Kira, and how she had agreed to help when he had been hurt. "Where is he now?" Alan asked.

"Healer Girand told him he had to sleep, and I found him a pallet in the room with the halflings because he knows Pippin, who is in service to Gondor. He said he would wake through the night and would look in on his friend Pete but he wouldn't sleep here because there isn't room."

That was true. The space where Alan's pallet lay filled the narrow gap between Pete's bed and the wall, and on the other side, was an even narrower strip, just room for a healer to fit as he examined Pete or the man in the next bed. No, there would have been no room for Galen here.

"Thank you for the pallet," Alan said.

"You must use it. You will need your strength," the boy reminded him. Responsibility brought a frown to his face. He looked nothing like Chris. So why did the very sight of him make Alan miss his son?

When the boy had departed, Alan sighed. "Pete? I'm gonna catch a few, uh....zzz's." The last came out in English, as there seemed to be no way to say it in whatever the language was called here. Alan sighed. "I'll be right here, though, if you need me."

Pete muttered something vague and shifted against his pillow, but he didn't rouse.

With a sigh, Alan stretched out on the pallet. It was hard and uncomfortable, and the stresses of the day made Alan's mind alive with stress, but the fatigue of battle sucked him into sleep in spite of it.

            *****

"It feels good to just sit and have nowhere to rush to, at least for the moment," Meriadoc Brandybuck said with a smile. Released from the Houses of Healing, he felt almost normal again and was told that in a day or two he would be returned to full strength. He and Pippin had shared a huge breakfast with the creature Galen, who had regaled them with a description of the foods he ate in his own land, including a strange thing called an oper. He had no objection to porridge, though, or toasted bread thick with jam, but he had declined sausages and bacon, although he had accepted eggs, scrambled with exotic Gondor spices, that were so good Merry had eaten two helpings. Pippin ate enthusiastically, relishing every bite, but enjoying even more the sight of Merry's appetite.

"I'm so glad you're hungry, Merry. That proves you're all right."

"He looks very well," Galen offered, tilting his head as he considered Merry.

"It takes a lot to dampen a hobbit's appetite," Merry proclaimed. He flexed his arm to show it was better. No pain at all, and the frightening numbness had vanished. This morning he felt none of the strange pins-and-needles feeling he'd experienced last night before he fell asleep.

"How is Pete today?" Pippin asked Galen. "I'll take you to meet him later, Merry. I'm sure Alan is with him now."

The ape nodded. "He was still sleeping when I left, but they said he would wake up soon. Alan slept beside his bed, and he was having breakfast when I was there. He sent me out to eat and said he'd call me when Pete woke up. At least Alan was eating. I was afraid he'd be too worried to have an appetite."

"Hobbits can always eat," Pippin said with a smile. "We eat six or seven meals a day when we can get them. The world of men is different; they mostly only have three, or at most four, if they have tea. On the road, we ate only morning and night, and then if we could eat while walking, we would snatch a bite, and I thought I would surely waste away."

"So abused as you were," Merry teased. "We had enough. We couldn't eat huge meals, not if we had to journey every day. It feels good to be here in one place. I wonder how long we'll stay here." That reminded him of his main cause for worry, and he sobered. "I wonder where Frodo is right now."

"Nowhere good." Pippin frowned, and Merry didn't press him to continue, but the two of them were quieter than usual for a bit, thinking of Frodo.

Galen sensed their distress. "It's very good to have friends," he said. "But it gives us such cause to worry."

Once dinner was over, Pippin showed impatience to be gone. "Merry, there's something I need to do," he said. "I have to visit Faramir and see how he is mending. They wouldn't let me see him last night because he was very weak and Aragorn said he needed to rest. But I hope I can see him this morning. I just need to know he will be all right."

He looked so solemn and anxious. "I'll come, too," Merry volunteered. "I want to see the lady Éowyn. I'm sure they'll let me visit her."

Galen hesitated. "May I walk with you? I want to see Pete again, and maybe they'll let me help again today. Aragorn sent word through the city that I am to be treated kindly, and the humans here have been polite, but they stare so. I think I would be happier there, at least until everyone becomes accustomed to me."

Pippin nodded. "They stare at me, too, although they are growing used to me. Still, they will greet me, and when they go away I hear them telling their friends, 'The halfling spoke to me,' as if I were some strange freak. So come with us and they can stare at three of us all at once."

Merry smiled at Pippin. He had such a knack for understanding when people were sad or anxious or upset. "After I have seen Éowyn, I would like to meet your friends, Galen. I know Pete is getting better, but you must still wish to see him."

"I do, Merry. I hate it when my friends are hurt." He pushed his plate away. Merry still found himself staring at the unlikely creature, and made himself stop. From what he had seen, the ape's nature was kind and friendly, and he had asked nearly as many questions as Pippin did. "There are a lot of folks I wish to visit, too, in the Houses of Healing, men I tended yesterday. Healer Girand said I could help again today if I liked." He hesitated, and Merry realized he was becoming able to read Galen's expression, for such a look in a hobbit would indicate distress. "So many humans were hurt in the terrible battle. It took them so long to bring them in and then to bring in...the dead. I haven't wanted to look out over the walls today because they are burning the orc bodies."

"That's why we ate back here," Pippin said with a grimace. "The wind's in the other direction, thank goodness, but who wants to smell the pyres when he's eating." He winced, and Merry realized he was remembering another pyre, the one he had leaped upon to rescue Faramir. Denethor had run from the conflagration in flames. Had Pippin been sniffing his breakfast so energetically to make sure that other smell was out of his nostrils?

Galen offered up a soft understanding, "Oh. Come," he urged briskly. "Let's hurry. Alan will wonder where I am, and he has too much to worry about already." He hesitated. "Please, if you would, be kind to Alan. He has a wife and small son in his own time, and he is so hopeless now because he is certain he will never see them again."

"Ohhhh," Pippin breathed, his eyes huge. "I'm sorry, Galen. There's been so much to think of here I never realized how terribly you must be missing your homes. I know how awfully I miss the Shire, but when this is over I can go home." The unspoken, if we win, hung in the air, but Pippin swallowed hard and didn't say it. "I won't mention his wife and son. But I will be kind to him."

"Pippin is good that way," Merry said fondly, and Pippin made a face at him and then bounced to his feet. "Come on. I want to see Faramir." But he chattered to Galen on the way, pointing out features of the city that he knew better than either Merry or Galen did, and Merry realized he was careful to mention nothing that would evoke dark memories, although Pippin was sure to have them after living through the siege and bombardment of the city.

"Gandalf and I rode through here when we first came, all the way up to the very top, riding higher and higher," he said. "Gandalf would call out for people to make way, and they jumped aside so quickly. You'll have to come and see Shadowfax later, Merry," he said, forgetting Merry had watched him and Gandalf ride out of Edoras to come here. "He's the most amazing horse in the whole world, and I think he likes me a little. No one can ride him unless he allows it. Gandalf asked him if he would bear me, and he agreed."

"How can a horse agree?" Galen asked doubtfully. "After I met Pete and Alan, I realized humans were as intelligent as apes. In my culture it was thought different, but I learned that was wrong. Now you are telling me I must expand my thinking to include horses. Can he truly agree, Pippin?"

"Oh, he can. He's one of the Mearas; they're amazing horses, and Gandalf says he is the lord of them all. He can understand human speech, even though he can't talk." He saw his two companions staring at him, and he smiled. "You think I'm the biggest liar in Middle-earth, but it's true. We'll go see Shadowfax later, and I will take him an apple, because he loves them, and he will take it out of my hand." He smiled. "Come. Here's the Houses of Healing."

            *****

Faramir was brooding. Should a healer have asked, he would have claimed he was thinking, but in his heart he knew he was brooding. Grieving, too, of course, for he had learned how his father had died, and his fleeting memories at the pyre when the pain of falling from the flaming platform had jarred him awake to find Pippin beating out the flames in his clothing. His vague memories of that time included one terrible image of his father, wreathed in flames, screaming, before the darkness had mercifully swallowed Faramir. Yet surely there had been one moment when his father had gazed down at him and his face softened, allowing Faramir to see his terrible regret for the years of harsh treatment. There had been no hope for Denethor, but at least Faramir had been granted that one look. He would have to trust that, in the time to come, the memory of his father's eyes in that shared moment would overcome the recall of flames and agony.

Boromir, too, was fallen, and Sam Gamgee's dire words in Osgiliath, that the Ring had driven Boromir mad, that he had tried to take it from Frodo, that he had tried to kill the hobbit, still echoed in Faramir's mind. Yet Pippin had insisted Boromir had fought with great valor and had died in an attempt to save him and his friend. Surely there was honor in that, honor enough for redemption.

Faramir's wounds throbbed, but he turned his mind from the pain. When a servant brought him breakfast, a very thin porridge and a glass of fruit juice, he had not enjoyed a great appetite, but his need to recover was so great he forced himself to finish it all. The servant helped him, holding the glass for him, and even spooning up the porridge, which Faramir permitted because he knew he lacked the strength to manage the entire breakfast. But he had asked the servant to prop pillows behind him to allow him to sit a bit.

Two healers bustled in, fussed over him as if he were but five years old, opened the dressings to study his wounds, and made clucking sounds, although old Ioreth smiled at him encouragingly. "You mend well, my lord," she said, elation in her voice. "To think the athelas plant we have long considered naught but a weed should be so potent. The king healed you. The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, so it was long said. And so it proved. You just lie here and rest this morning, and this afternoon we will see if you can stand, but only briefly."

"With support," the other healer, Girand, insisted. "I am glad you ate your whole breakfast. If you do so well at luncheon, we will definitely see you out of bed, my lord Steward."

"Steward?" Faramir echoed, startled. "How can I be steward? The king has come...."

"Indeed he has, and well pleased we are with him," Ioreth said. She rested a gnarled hand upon Faramir's forehead. "He will be a great king, I am thinking."

"Yet he has not taken up his office, so you rule Gondor until that day," Girand said. "You will serve as his steward once he is crowned, for even in the days of the king, the office of steward existed. And last night the lord Aragorn said to me, 'You must see that my steward is well cared for.' He knows we of the city hold you in high esteem, and he also said that he was well fond of your brother, and honors you in Boromir's name as well as for your own sake."

Faramir blinked hard, for to know Aragorn had valued his brother warmed his heart and brought ready tears to his eyes. He tried to avoid their gazes, but Ioreth smiled maternally and patted his shoulder. "'Tis all right, lad, I mean my lord," she said. "You are recovering. Tears come easy at such times, and none would fault you grieving for your fine brother. The whole city grieves with you."

He noticed she spoke not of his father, but thought it wiser not to mention him. Instead, he took the cloth she offered him and mopped his eyes while they soothed his wounds with gentle medicines, and renewed the dressings. The treatment exhausted him, and they left him half dozing against his pillows.

He was not certain how much time had passed when a small voice beside his bed said, "I will go away if you are sleeping."

He opened his eyes, and cried delightedly, "Pippin."

The hobbit crept closer, a smile blazing out. "Oh, Faramir, you look much better. I am so glad." He gently took Faramir's hand in both his own. "They wouldn't let me come to see you last night, but I saw the healers and they said it would be all right for me to come now as long as I didn't tire you. It won't tire you to see me, will it?" he asked hopefully.

Faramir let the flow of chatter wash over him like a blessing. "No, Pippin, it will hearten me. Besides, I have wished to thank you for your heroic rescue."

The hobbit's face reddened. "Oh. That. I had to. No one would heed me, even though I kept shouting that you were alive. So I ran for Gandalf. Gandalf can do anything."

"He can indeed. I have known Mithrandir all my life, and he has ever had a kindness for me."

"I think he likes me a little," Pippin admitted. "But I have been so foolish as we traveled together and exasperated him so often that he calls me 'fool of a Took.'"

"I shall never call you that, my friend," Faramir said with a smile. "For you have supported me in time of trouble when you scarce knew me, and that is not the mark of a fool."

Pippin's face reddened still further. "I loved your brother," he said. "Oh, I'm sorry. I did not mean to remind you, if it pains you too much. But he was such a great hero, and so brave. I have never imagined anyone as brave as he."

"Brave he was," Faramir said. "And a true son of Gondor, yet I fear his need to protect his land drove him to unwisdom."

Pippin frowned. "No," he said. "It made him...vulnerable to the Ring's power, that's what it did. Because his need was so great, I think. I knew it pulled at him. I saw what it did to Frodo--oh, Faramir, Frodo used to be so jolly; he would laugh with such delight, but he was grown so sober by the time we parted at Amon Hen it was almost as if he had become a stranger. It was not Boromir at fault, so much as the Ring's terrible power." He took a long, shuddering breath, like a great sigh. "I'm so afraid for Frodo."

"I, too, fear for him," Faramir said. "I could see his torment, but I have hope for him."

Pippin looked up quickly. "Do you? How, when he is going into Mordor?"

"Because I have seen the fierce and determined strength of Samwise Gamgee. He spoke against me on Frodo's behalf, and I know he will stand at his side in Mordor, even if he needs to pick Frodo up and carry him to Mount Doom. He told me he was just a gardener but, like Frodo, he has the heart of a great hero." He smiled suddenly. "All hobbits must, for my very survival is proof of your courage, and I have heard tell of your friend Merry, whom I have not yet met, who helped the White Lady of Rohan to slay the Witch King."

"Yes, Merry was very brave," said Pippin, who looked terribly proud of his friend. "Oh, Faramir, I searched the battlefield for hours, looking for him, and was afraid I would find him dead. But he woke up and knew me, and then Aragorn healed him, like he did you."

"The king is a great man," Faramir said. "I knew him at once, that he was the king who was to come. I have long hoped he would come in my lifetime, but never dreamed it would be my privilege to serve him."

"Boromir would have served him, too," Pippin said quickly. "Legolas told me he had called Aragorn his king as he lay dying. Oh. I shouldn't have said...."

"Yes, Pippin, it is all right. I am glad my brother did not die alone. So I had feared."

"I know. That's what Merry and I feared, too, but Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were there." He cast about for a means of changing the subject, for he must guess such remembrances were painful. "I would know you were Boromir's brother. You have a look of him, and you also have...have honor, and that is a fine thing. Very important." He shook his head. "I am still learning things all the time, and I never really thought about honor before, but now I know it when I see it. Faramir, there is a thing I must do."

"What thing, my friend?" He shifted surreptitiously against his pillows, hoping Pippin would not notice, for he would rather have the companionship than solitude to rest, in spite of the pain.

"You are steward now, they tell me, and you will serve Aragorn once he is crowned, but he isn't crowned yet. So you rule Gondor."

"Nominally," Faramir replied. He knew he was exhausted, for his strength would take time to return. His shoulder throbbed with each beat of his heart, but he forced his thoughts away from it. "I will hold the city for Aragorn, need he continue the fight against Mordor, which I think he will do, although we have not yet discussed it."

"I think he might, too," Pippin agreed. "I heard him saying something to Gandalf about it, that they would meet this morning and decide, and Éomer King would be there, too." He gazed at Faramir, concern in his eyes. "I can see how tired you are. I won't stay much longer, but before I go I have one thing to do. Please, may I do it?"

"Yes, Pippin, but you do not tire me. It is just that my strength has limits yet."

"I know," Pippin said. He squeezed Faramir's hand, then let go and dropped to his knees on the floor. "I said my oath to your father, and you witnessed it. There are none to witness this, but your father released me before he cast me from the House of the Stewards. So I must renew my oath. Here do I, Peregrin, son of Paladin, swear fealty and service to Gondor, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me. There. I remembered it all, and I mean it. I'll swear to Aragorn, too, when I have the chance. And you don't have a ring for me to kiss, do you?" he jumped up and kissed Faramir's hand instead.

Faramir stared at him, so overwhelmed he could barely find words. Treacherously, his eyes filled. "Gladly do I accept your fealty, Peregrin, son of Paladin," he said. "And vow I shall do naught to make you regret your kind allegiance. In Gondor's name I thank you." They smiled at each other.

With a huge sigh of relief, Pippin leaned down and hugged Faramir very gently so as not to press against his wounds. "There," he said. "That's done. And now, I will go find a healer to come and ease your pain. Try to sleep, if you can. Someone will come soon."

"Indeed they shall," said a well-loved voice from the doorway, Mithrandir, accompanied by a healer. He gestured the man into the chamber and smiled warmly at Faramir. "I shall return when you are rested, my son," he said. "Come, Peregrin Took."

Pippin joined Gandalf, who rested a hand upon his shoulder. As the wizard turned, steering Pippin away, Faramir heard him say, "That was well done of you, Pippin. I am proud of you."

"Really? Of me?" Pippin cried, and their voices faded in the distance.

"Now, my lord," said the healer, "let us see about making you more comfortable."

            *****

Pete Burke rolled over, then his breath hissed out at the sudden flare of pain in his side. Perplexed, he shifted away from it, only to feel the same stab of agony at the new motion.

"Easy, lord, easy," came an unfamiliar voice, but over it Alan cried, "Pete!"

Pete didn't have a clue who the lord was. Not him, that was for sure. He opened his eyes and saw Alan hovering over him, his face grim and lined with fatigue and worry. When Pete's eyes opened, relief flashed across his face. "Hey, Pete," he said.

"Alan? What happened? Where's Galen?"

"Galen assists the healers, my lord," said the man next to Alan. "Lie easy, and I will examine your wound. It heals, but your sudden movement jarred it, and you feel the pain. If it grows too severe, I will send to the king."

"King?" Pete echoed. A hundred thoughts crowded each other in his brain. Time machine, orcs, battle, Gondor. There hadn't been a king, had there? Only Denethor, who was a steward--and nutty as a fruitcake. "What king? I think I lost my scorecard somewhere."

Alan sat down on a stool that barely fit into the space between Pete's bed and the next one. Looking past Alan, Pete saw at least a dozen other patients in the ward. A primitive hospital, with no trace of the familiar medical equipment of home. He struggled to remember what had happened, and suddenly it came back to him. The siege. The orcs breaking into the city. A sword driving into his side. "I'm not dead," he said.

"No, but you gave Galen and me one hell of a scare," Alan replied. "Just lie back and let the healer check you out."

"Your wound mends well, my lord," the healer said, and did something painful to Pete's wound. He craned his neck and discovered a bandage all around his middle that the healer worked to undo. Not good. When the healer unfastened it and revealed a heck of a big hole in his side, Pete grimaced. The medicine here had to be pretty primitive. Bad enough when Alan had been shot and they'd had to steal a book on human anatomy so Dr. Kira could save his life, but there wouldn't be any books like that here. Did they know about blood transfusions? Pete doubted it. They'd tried it in Galen's world without a clue about compatible donors. From the look Pete had past Alan, he didn't see an IV in the whole room.

"You're sure about that?" he asked the healer. "Alan? They know anything about IV's or transfusions?"

"I know no such things. Are they used by healers in your time?" the healer asked.

"Yeah," Alan replied. "Don't worry, Pete, they've got a miracle cure here, a plant that can do amazing things. The king used it on you last night. Until then, Galen and I were pretty sure you were gonna...." His voice trailed off.

"Nay," said the healer. "You were gravely hurt, lord Pete, but you might have lived even without the king's intervention. Now we know you will do so. The wound will pain you, but it will ease, and the king has said he will come again this day to examine you."

"It's Aragorn," Alan said, taking pity on Pete's confusion. "You know, we heard of him from Pippin. Galen said Aragorn was heir to some long-ago king called Isildur. He showed up in time to help win the battle."

"The battle?" Pete blinked. "Oh, man, I'm not thinking yet. It's over? The city is safe?"

"Safe indeed," the healer agreed with a blazing smile. "Now, lie still, my lord, so I may treat this. It heals very nicely. Very nicely indeed. Glad I am to learn of the remarkable properties of the athelas plant. We have sent out folk to seek for it, and they have brought some back. We shall cultivate it, here in the gardens of the Houses of Healing." He turned away a minute, and when he turned back, he held out a sprig of the plant. Plucking off two leaves, he crushed them in his palms. "The king did this last night. I am not a king, but I am a healer. Breathe deep, my lord."

Pete did. How could two little leaves send such a fresh aroma through the room? The man on the next bed drew in a rapturous breath and muttered to himself, "It smells like springtime."

"So it does," the healer said with a reverent smile. "So it does. Breathe deeply, my lord."

Pete did, and the pounding pain eased. "That's great," he enthused. "I never felt anything like it."

Alan smiled at him. "I can feel it, too. It sort of goes right through you, in a very good way."

A strange tone to his words made Pete look at him sharply. Stress and worry had etched new lines in Alan's face, but despair had added to them, the knowledge that he would never go home, never see Sally and Chris again. Pete had never really believed in the hope of the disk from the ship and had tried to discourage Alan because he never expected a chance to find a working computer, and even if they did, how could they hope to recreate their ship? He'd pretty much let himself take each day as it came in the time of the apes, and the hope of the machine had startled him into realization of how fiercely he had longed for home. It hadn't worked, though. Having sudden hope snatched away hurt like hell, filling him with a momentary despair. But the overwhelming crisis here in Gondor had caught him up and allowed him to drift once more.

Alan had never been able to let it go like that, partly because he was in command, and partly because of his longing for his family. How much worse it would be for him to have hope offered, the answer to his fierce purpose, only to lose it all over again. Pete had realized even before the battle that it had left him beyond despair. Yet as Alan breathed in the air scented with the athelas plant, his expression lightened. His melancholy didn't entirely fade, but it eased slightly.

Pete thrust at the healer's hand, pushing the plant slightly closer to Alan, who breathed in its freshness. Good. He was feeling it. A remarkable plant if it could cure the wounds of the heart.

Yet it couldn't, not completely, because Pete could still see the remains of desolation in his friend's eyes. But it was no more than it had been when they had been stranded in Galen's time. The plant could not give the one thing Alan needed; hope of home. But maybe it could make the pain endurable.

"Enough?" asked the healer, but he caught Pete's eye as if he had understood, and waved the crushed leaves past Alan before he offered it to every man in the room. "I will return to replenish your dressing in a moment," he said. "Try not to move until then." He edged past Alan and out.

"Galen's safe?" Pete asked quickly before Alan could speak. "Are they treating him all right?"

"Aragorn himself issued an edict to the city that Galen was welcome here and that all were to treat him kindly. The king's got a hundred things going on that he needs to do and he still took time to make sure Galen would be safe."

"Sounds like a great guy," Pete greed. "I only halfway remember him, but I was kind of out of it. Did I thank him?"

"You did, and Galen and I did, too. Hey, stay flat. The healer needs to redo your dressing. You're gonna be okay." His grip tightened on Pete's hand.

"Sure I am," Pete said. "I don't think I'll be running any races for a few days, but I'll be up before you know it." He turned his head on the pillow to see the healer returning. "Is everything okay in the city? How's Faramir?"

"He is mending," the healer said as he resumed his place. "And we are very grateful of it. He took his breakfast this morning. As soon as I bandage you, I will see you are fed."

"I'm not very hungry," Pete admitted.

"You're gonna eat," Alan insisted fiercely. "And drink plenty of water because you lost a lot of blood. I've been giving you water off and on all through the night."

"Wise it is to understand that need," the healer agreed. "We do that when one loses much blood. Your friend Alan saw to you in the night and also to Garith here." He gestured to the man in the next bed, who nodded.

Alan flushed. "Galen was all over the place last night helping. I didn't want to leave you, but it was the least I could do. I was right here anyway."

"You sat up all night with me?" Pete asked.

"They made me sleep. Gave me a pallet, and I caught a few cat naps. I'm okay."

"You don't look okay. You should see your forehead." He glanced down at the doctor as he put a clean pad over the wound, then back at Alan. "What happened there?"

"Just a graze. It didn't even need a bandage."

"Yeah, but that's a nasty bruise around it. You should see yourself, the one, the one, the only multicolored Alan Virdon."

"We examined him," the healer said without looking up from his bandaging. "Shift to the left a tiny bit, lord Pete. Yes, we watched him. Each time one of us came into the room we would study his eyes to make certain they were clear. The pupils of the eye will be unequal in a severe head wound, but we saw none of that, and he understood the purpose of our tests and allowed them. He is merely sore and scraped, yet so are many. Fear not for him."

Well, Pete couldn't promise that. They were still in a war zone, and hope for home had vanished entirely. If more battles followed, Alan would be sure to fight in them--at best, it would distract his mind from his situation, and at worst....well, Pete didn't want to think about the worst, that Alan would go to battle resigned to death. He'd been afraid Alan had accepted the thought of battle yesterday because it might offer him a way out of a life that had become intolerable, yet Alan had sat with him all night and hovered now, worried about him. At least he had something to live for. Pete hoped it would be enough.

            *****

Galen had spent the morning helping in the Houses of Healing, trailing one of the healers, passing him bandages, as dressings were renewed. The sight of so many terrible wounds made his soul ache, but to know these brave humans were getting better gave him hope. Seeing the healers at work reminded him of Kira, of their time together, of their last encounter, when Alan had needed her help. This time, it was Pete who had been hurt, but he was mending very well.

Around noon, healer Girand passed Galen in the passage and stopped to mutter, "Your friend Pete is very annoying."

"Won't he stay in bed?" Galen understood all too well, both from his knowledge of Pete Burke and his experience of a number of patients who had desired to be up to fight again.

"Your friend Alan keeps him there. Evidently his rank is higher than Pete's, and he has issued orders. The king visited him and reinforced Alan's command."

Galen smiled. If Pete was stubbornly fighting to be up, that meant he was healing. He would be all right.

"Yes, yes, such news deserves a smile. He will mend well. But now, I look at you. You have labored all the morning. Go out from here into the garden--no, stop not at Pete's bedside for he is sleeping now and must rest for a space. But go you and breathe the fresh midday air." He smiled suddenly. "You are a healer's assistant and I a healer, so my rank is higher than yours."

Galen laughed. To be accepted as an assistant here warmed his heart when he was so strange to the people that eyes followed his every movement. "I am a little tired," he admitted. "All right, I'll go."

The gardens of the Houses of Healing consisted of several rooms, exposed to the outer air, with plants in beds and in pots. Galen ventured out obediently, pausing to examine the various plants, to see if any were familiar to him, but most were different. That was not strange to him, for the climate was different here; the strange device of the Guardian had brought them to another section of the world. Even the trees grew differently, and the air was much crisper, but maybe that was because the month was March. Of course it also reeked of burning, for the pyres of orc bodies on the Pelennor still smoldered and would for days, but the wind came out of the west, down the mountainside, and drove the smoke toward the river, leaving an acrid tang behind that caught at the back of his throat when the wind eased or a current swirled the smoke around.

Avoiding the eastern view that would reveal the battlefield, the river, and the mountains of Mordor, Galen crossed the garden to an archway that led to a small alcove. He would sit there in silence and rest his body and spirit. But when he entered, he realized he was not the first, for Legolas and Gimli sat there, faces grave and worried.

"Oh," Galen gasped. "I didn't mean to intrude. Is...is something wrong?"

"Wrong?" Gimli exploded. Galen had quickly realized the dwarf would never hesitate to speak his mind. "Dangerous, I call it. Foolhardy to take such a risk."

"Yes, it is a risk," Legolas told him. "Yet you know its purpose." He looked at Galen. "Know you the army will march to the Black Gate of Mordor as soon as the armies can be readied and supplies prepared?"

"I heard the men talking about it in the Houses of Healing," Galen replied. "Many of the injured want to go, but not all will be well enough. But many are eager to carry the battle to Sauron, following their victory. I've heard them talking about it." He shivered at the very thought.

"It is a diversion, to draw the orcs to the Black Gate, to enable Frodo clear passage," Legolas admitted, and Galen realized he was trusted to be told that, although he had heard it spoken already that morning. Speculation and gossip were as common among humans as they were among apes.

He had a doubt, though, and he looked at the elf. "But won't Sauron guess that? From what I've heard, he knows a hobbit has the Ring."

"He won't imagine Frodo would dare enter Mordor, or ever that he would destroy the Ring," Gimli replied. "But even here there are spies, and word might reach him. Gandalf said Sauron might suspect it was a trick and would go after Frodo anyway."

Galen's breath caught. "But then what will happen? Isn't there any hope?"

"Aragorn means to draw his attention to the army, to him," Legolas replied, and his face held grim concern. "He has the palantír of Saruman."

Galen stared blankly. "I don't know what that is."

"Saruman was a wizard like Gandalf, once his superior, but he fell to Sauron's will and turned traitor," Legolas explained. "He is dead now, but the palantír is a seeing stone, one of seven that were brought from over the sea in the time of Númenor. It came to us when Saruman fell, and Aragorn now means to master it and show himself to Sauron through it. Long has Sauron sought Isildur's heir, in hopes of slaughtering him and removing the threat of him from Middle-earth. To know Aragorn gathers an army and comes bearing the Sword that was Broken will draw all Sauron's attention to him, and Frodo may well slip safely past the orcs of Mordor and reach Mount Doom."

Galen understood the strategy, if he did not understand what a seeing stone was. "How will he master it?" he asked.

"He will confront Sauron through it," Legolas replied. "Sauron is strong and powerful, once a servant of Morgoth, and learned much from him. He is not mortal as we know it, yet he can fall, for he did long ago, at the end of the Second Age of the world."

"But this is the Third Age," Galen said. "I have heard that this is the year 3019 of the Third Age. How could Sauron be so old?"

"The lady Galadriel of Lothlórien, she who is fairest in all of Middle-earth, is many thousands of years old," Gimli said, his eyes glowing with admiration. "She is an elf, of course, and they are not mortal like men and dwarves."

Galen blinked at them. How difficult it was to imagine anyone living so long. He stared at Legolas. "Are you also many thousands of years old?" he asked, awed.

Legolas smiled gently. "Nay, I have not lived so long as the Lady of Lothlórien."

"He is old, though, compared to dwarves," Gimli said. "If he were a dwarf, he would have a beard so long he would trip over it when he walked."

Legolas grimaced. "Spare me such dreadful thoughts, Gimli." He stroked his smooth chin. Perhaps elves grew no hair upon their bodies, only on their heads. Galen had watched Alan and Pete struggle to remain clean-shaven even when it would have been easier to grow beards. The hair upon their bodies was scant in comparison with that of an ape. Gimli had a great deal of hair, very long, with a remarkable beard. He always wore gloves so Galen could not tell if his hands were hairy, too.

"Dreadful indeed to imagine elves with elegant beards," Gimli retorted, and Galen recognized such speech as the type of banter Alan and Pete often exchanged.

"I have often felt pity for poor humans with so little hair," Galen joined in. "But Pete would always say he was cooler in hot weather."

"And colder in winter," Gimli said. "My fine beard has helped warm me even in the snows of Caradhras."

"Yes, as you waded through drifts that rose to your neck." Legolas smiled. "While I walked, lightfooted, atop the snow."

"Elves," said Gimli to Galen, "are very vain."

"What, Gimli? Surely we cannot match the vanity of the dwarves."

"You are very good friends," Galen said approvingly.

They stared at him, both pretending horror at the idea, and Galen laughed in delight. But he cut his laughter short. "I meant no offense," he said. "I see good in this. You are very different from each other, but you're still like brothers. Alan and Pete are my brothers, although we are different races. If that happens here, too, then I have hope."

Legolas put his hands on Galen's shoulders. "If you cannot return to your future world, know that those who have the ability to think and feel will see your worth. I have heard the healers speaking of you with great approval for your tireless assistance. You learn very quickly, they say, and your curiosity will help you to find your way." He released Galen and stepped back.

"I have always been curious," Galen admitted, warmed by the elf's words. "My father used to say it would lead me into trouble." He looked around the garden as if seeing it for the first time. "It seems he was right."

That made Gimli laugh. "Every one of our Fellowship has a touch of that curiosity, I'm thinking. Pippin the most, perhaps, because I cannot count the questions he asked me about dwarves, not offensive questions, either, but because he genuinely wished to know."

"He questioned me, too," Legolas said. "Cautiously at first, but then as he grew to know me, he asked more. He will ask you about your people, too, Galen, when he has a chance. He claims most hobbits are not as curious as he, but I have seen Merry looking around himself with great interest, and Frodo had a love of learning that drove him to question. Sam, I think, is more typical of hobbits. When he asked questions, they were practical, and he wished answers to do what must be done."

"Aye," Gimli said with a smile. "He would ask me what dwarves like to eat and then would prepare it when it was his turn to cook. He asked what plants we grew, because he is a gardener back home in the Shire."

"A gardener, and now he's going into Mordor?" Galen asked, astonished.

"None of our hobbits were warriors when they set out," Legolas explained. "Merry and Pippin are the sons of leaders, but leaders in the Shire are not warriors. None had held a sword before they left their homes. Boromir instructed them on the journey. He was truly Gondor's greatest warrior, and so Merry and Pippin learned well, and used their swords to defend themselves against orcs."

"Aye." Gimli bobbed his head in agreement. "Our hobbits are fine folk. And to think I had never seen one before I came to Rivendell. Well," he corrected, "I saw Bilbo Baggins once from a distance, long ago, but I was a lad then and didn't know him. My father was his friend, as was my cousin Balin, who fell in Moria."

"My father met Bilbo Baggins, long ago, at the time of the Battle of the Five Armies," Legolas said. "But I had spoken to no hobbits before I came to Rivendell."

"Pippin was no doubt the first hobbit you encountered?" Gimli asked Galen.

"Yes, and I've talked with him several times. I like him very much." Galen smiled. "He didn't ask me that many questions, but there was so much going that he didn't have time to be curious. The terrible battle raged, you see, and he couldn't think of anything but that, and worry about Gandalf, and Faramir, who had been hurt. And then we looked down on the battlefield, and he saw his friend Merry had come with the Rohirrim, and he was too worried about him to spare me another thought."

"I hope you will tell us of your people soon," Legolas said. "But I must now go to see how Aragorn does, for he has been longer than I expected, and I begin to fear for him."

Gimli at once nodded. "Aye, I'll come with you, laddie. We should find Gandalf. If there has been trouble...."

"Gandalf went not far away," Legolas said thoughtfully. "Galen, forgive us, but we must seek out news of Aragorn."

They set off together, and Galen noticed that Legolas slowed his steps to allow for Gimli's shorter legs. Alan and Pete adjusted their steps for his different gait, Galen had noticed, without evidence of consultation, once they had grown comfortable with him. It was another sign of friendship.

Before they could leave the garden Aragorn and Gandalf entered side by side. Galen drew back into the small alcove to allow them their privacy, but he could see Aragorn looked quite distressed. Knowing Pete and Alan for nearly a year had taught him how to read human expressions. Gandalf offered Aragorn him unspoken support and wise counsel. Legolas and Gimli hurried to meet them, and Legolas put his hand on Aragorn's shoulder.

"What worries you?" he asked.

"Did yon palantír cause you trouble?" queried Gimli.

"I saw Sauron within it," Aragorn replied. "I showed him the Sword of Elendil. He knows I mean to challenge him."

"Then he will await you with his orc armies," cried Gimli.

"He showed me Arwen in the palantír," Aragorn admitted, his shoulders slumping. "You know Elrond told me at Dunharrow that her fate had become linked to the Ring. She looked frail and fading, as she did in my dream. I fear she will leave this life before we can confront Sauron. He gloated, believing himself safe from me." He looked so distressed Galen gave a little gasp of sympathy, although he did not feel he had the right to intrude.

Aragorn straightened. "He will feel my wrath," he said through gritted teeth. "We march out the day after tomorrow. Would that it could be tomorrow, but there is much to set in hand. I have sent word to Gondor's captains and to Éomer, and to those who will see to our weapons and foodstuffs for the march, and preparations begin. In truth, they had already begun. Gandalf, you know we cannot defeat him with strength of arms, my old friend. But this is what we must do. If the west should fail, I would not have it said that we cowered in the shadows and awaited our fate. I would strike out, as bold and strong as possible."

"I will ride at your side," Gandalf promised, and Galen could tell Aragorn's words had stirred him, too. Although he didn't know how to use a sword and had limited ability with a small bow, Galen was so roused by Aragorn's fierce determination he would have liked to volunteer to ride out with them. He couldn't go, because that would force someone to defend him, and in the heat of battle, he would startle the men of the west and might die at their hand by accident. But Alan was sure to join the march. Gondor had not needed to accept the trio. They could have been thrown into a cell and forgotten, or executed as spies. Alan's honor would drive him to fight, as he had fought yesterday. He would march off with the army, and if he fell there, Pete and Galen might never know when it happened.

Galen shuddered. Would this be as futile as Faramir's attempt to reclaim Osgiliath? Could there be hope of Frodo valiantly making his way to Mount Doom and ending the conflict before it began?

If only there could be hope. Stranded so far from all he knew, Galen felt the urge to pledge himself to Gondor, as Pippin had done. Would they consider accepting an oath from one who could not fight to defend Gondor? As he watched Aragorn speaking to the other three, Galen's heart was moved in a way that had never happened before. He would be for Gondor, for here in this great stone city so unlike Central City back home, he had found noble humans who aspired to such greatness Galen could only be awed by it. He had helped the brave fallen soldiers and had seen their pride in the victory, their determination to rise again and fight, even though Galen had felt only horror at what he had witnessed of the battle. The healers had taken him to their hearts and had assured him they would accept him into their numbers if he must stay in Gondor. Undaunted by his unfamiliar appearance, the lady Ioreth had chattered to him whenever their paths crossed. Healer Girand had told Galen healer training could be arranged if he wished it.

"For you have a deft touch, a quick mind, and a good heart," he said, "and you draw not back in revulsion from the most terrible wounds."

Galen had cringed in his heart and willed his stomach to behave when he cared for such wounds, but he knew how much worse it was for the poor injured men. "I...often wished to," he had confessed, so Girand would not believe him unfeeling or stronger than he truly was. "But if they had to bear it, then I wouldn't shame myself by turning away."

"So, too, do all of us feel. You would make a fine healer, Galen. I know not if you can return to your own time, but if you must stay, know you will be welcome here."

Recalling that now, he smiled faintly, then he turned his attention back to Aragorn.

"Remember," Gandalf spoke, his words grave and urgent. "Sauron is a deceiver, who will know the hearts of men and twist his words to enhance fear and doubt."

"So I would believe, if not for the words of Elrond," Aragorn replied. He swallowed hard, and Legolas rested his hand on Aragorn's shoulder without speaking.

"We must bring about Sauron's end," Gandalf said fiercely. "If courage is the measure of victory, why then our brave host will march in glory."

Aragorn smiled at him. "You hearten me, old friend." He looked to the other two. "All of you do. Come, there is much to prepare. I must meet with Éomer, who will have a count of his men who will be fit to ride, although we must march with the great bulk of the army on foot. It will take us longer to reach the Black Gate, but so be it. I must also visit Faramir to see how he does this morning."

Galen emerged from his alcove. "Pardon me, Lord Aragorn, but I just came from Faramir before Healer Girand sent me out for air. He is doing well. The lady Ioreth was present and fussed over him quite happily, and I could see how relieved she was. He will be glad to see you, because he's worried about the city, and has heard rumors of your plan to march on Mordor."

"I thank you for your information, Galen," Aragorn replied. "I will go to him after I have conferred with Éomer. If you should see him before then, tell him I will arrive within the next two hours."

"I will," Galen agreed. "He will be allowed up to sit in the garden for a brief period, I think. He's weak yet, but all are amazed at how quickly he is healing." He drew breath. "You healed him, just like you healed my friend Pete. Thank you. I don't know what Alan would have done if Pete...."

Aragorn gripped Galen's shoulders. "Worry not for what might have been, my friend, for such futile speculation only wearies the heart. Your friend Pete mends excellently well."

"I know he does. Alan has been watching over him, but now...." His voice trailed off.

"What distresses you, Galen?"

"I think Alan will march with you to Mordor--and I'm afraid for him," Galen burst out.

"Aye, laddie," Gimli said. "It is a dangerous business, but it is what we must do. I have been in danger ever since the Council of Elrond. I would not know myself if I did not have to suddenly swing my axe to defend myself. The world will feel new and strange when Sauron has fallen."

Aragorn laughed out loud. "Well said, Gimli, particularly the 'when'. So we must see to it, and we cannot forget Frodo, for he may surprise us all."

"I," said Gandalf, his face both warm and worried, "would be unsurprised at any achievement of Frodo's." He stared unseeing into space, no doubt remembering the hobbit. "I would have him free of the Ring, so he could laugh again. I remember how he would laugh so joyously in the days before the Ring fell to him."

"It is not your fault that he must bear the Ring, my friend," Aragorn said quickly. "It is the workings of fate. It is what must be, and I have heard you say that all we can do is decide to what to do with the time that is given us."

"Oh," breathed Galen, awed. "Did you really say that, Gandalf? To do what we can with the time that was given us? This time of the world was given to the three of us. Is that what we must do, learn to bear it?"

Gandalf blinked himself from his reverie. "Ah, Galen. I had not thought of journeying from distant times when I spoke to Frodo, but we must cope with what befalls us, for that is our path. Change what we can, endure what we must, and venture forth to do what must be done." He smiled. "And that is a lesson all of us must learn over and over, even this battered old wizard."

Aragorn clapped him on the shoulder. "Well said." He drew a deep, determined breath. "I must meet with Éomer now," he said, and turned.

With quick words of farewell to Galen, the other three followed him. Galen watched until they had gone out of sight, then he cocked his head, smiled, gave a little bounce, and returned to the Houses of Healing, greatly cheered by the encounter.

            *****

Faramir returned to his bed, weary, wounds aching, but with a smile upon his face that not even the throbbing of shoulder and side could take away. His wounds were healing, although he would not yet be well enough to ride out with the army, and that distressed him. As steward, a post he had never expected, and wanted not because of the tragic means of its falling upon him, he held responsibility for Minas Tirith, indeed for all of Gondor, until the Lord Aragorn could be crowned. He meant to defer to the king in all, for he had already pledged himself to Aragorn, but he could not shirk his official responsibility and he meant not to.

His smile did not fade. How could one quick glimpse of the fair lady Éowyn have warmed him so? She had stood in a window embrasure, and he had stopped dead, even though his legs still trembled with the effort of walking, and met her gaze. Long it seemed they had looked upon each other, although he knew it but moments. She was pale and sad, still mending from her own wounds sustained in her heroic battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl, but when she looked upon him, her breath caught and she returned his gaze.

Ioreth had interrupted to insist he return to bed, and he had smiled upon Éowyn. "You see how sternly and fondly I am protected, my lady."

"So, too, will they urge me soon, my lord," she had replied.

"I am Faramir," he had introduced himself. "And I know you are the lady of Rohan. Call me not 'my lord' but Faramir."

She smiled her sad smile. "So I will. I am Éowyn."

"Come, my lord," Ioreth insisted, but she had suddenly begun to smile. "Forgive me, my lady, but he has been too long out of bed."

"Indeed Ioreth speaks truly," Faramir admitted. "I must go or I would disgrace myself and Gondor by pitching unceremoniously to the ground at your feet." Not a bad position in which to find myself, he thought.

"We must not have that. Go, Faramir. I am certain we shall meet again."

"So I do anticipate." He bowed, a chancy proposition, since his balance was not yet steady, and managed with a supreme effort of will not to fall on his face. "Farewell for now, Éowyn." He surrendered to Ioreth's urging.

As he settled against his pillows, relieved to be off his feet, a healer examined his wounds. He soothed a healing paste on the arrow wounds, and a thin cream on the slight burn on his side, and Faramir endured it not so much stoically as with little attention. He did glance down at his shoulder, to see how the arrow wound mended. It looked raw yet, but better than it had when Aragorn had drawn him from the shadows.

The healer applied fresh bandages, talking reassuringly the whole time. "You do well, my lord. No, try not to move your arm greatly yet. You are fortunate indeed, for at times a shoulder wound can impair the mobility of the arm, but your wound was clean and touched no vital spot. Flex your fingers for me--no, gently," he counseled when Faramir made a fist then gasped.

"Gently it shall be," he acknowledged, lying very still until the pain ebbed.

"Still, that is very good. Exercise will strengthen your arm when you progress further in your healing, and later, practice with your bow will prove a very fine form of therapy. But that is not yet. Rest here several hours, sleep if you feel so inclined, and if you have visitors, as I am sure you will, send them away if you become sleepy."

Satisfied with his orders, the man smiled at Faramir in the manner of a healer, bowed to him the way he would have bowed to Faramir's father, and withdrew.

Faramir's first visitor came not five minutes later, when Faramir lay very gently, allowing his muscles to ease from the strain of treatment. He was half dozing when a soft voice said, "Are you asleep?"

"Pippin." Faramir roused, the desire to doze vanishing. "You are most welcome. Enter."

The hobbit came right up to the bed, circling around so he could snatch up Faramir's good hand, and squeezed it. "The healers say you are doing well. I am so glad. You look so much better than you did this morning. They say you have been allowed up. I will only stay a moment, but I had to come."

"Yes, I have been up, but briefly, and it was dismaying how my legs shook at holding my weight."

"That will pass. I once had a very bad fever and was in bed for more than two weeks. When I first got up, it was like I had to learn to walk all over again. But in a few days I was scampering around just like new."

Faramir doubted not the scampering. Pippin brimmed with energy. Yet shadows lurked in his eyes.

"What troubles you, my friend?" he asked.

Pippin shook his head. "Nothing," he claimed, then he spoke. "We're going to Mordor."

"You will accompany the army?"

"Merry and I both. He will be well enough because we don't leave until the day after tomorrow." He hesitated and gazed at Faramir. "Is it wrong to be afraid?"

"Of course it is not," Faramir assured him, because he could see the question distressed Pippin. "All fear before a battle, and during one, too. It would be foolhardy not to. It only proves your courage, that you will ride to battle in spite of your fear."

A huge smile lit Pippin's face. "I never thought I was brave," he said. "But even Gandalf says I am. I thought being brave would mean riding fearlessly into a fight, but everybody else says different. Maybe it wouldn't be hard to be brave if you weren't afraid." He drew a deep breath and changed the subject. "I'm glad you were allowed up. Did you go into the gardens? They are very fine. I wonder what Sam will think of them, for he is a gardener, did you know?"

Faramir chuckled. "When Frodo introduced himself and Sam to me, I asked if Sam were his bodyguard. He said, 'His gardener,' and I saw he meant it. But in truth he is Frodo's bodyguard, and I am glad for Frodo's sake that they journey together." He smiled. "Yes, I went into the gardens. And there I saw the Lady of Rohan, but for a moment."

Pippin's gaze sharpened. "She is very fair," he said speculatively.

"Fair and brave," Faramir acknowledged. "I hope I will be granted opportunity to speak with her again."

"You like her!" Pippin crowed. "This is wonderful. When I meet her I will tell her many good things about you. Merry will be sure to visit her, and I will go with him."

"Pippin...." Faramir chided, but he could not hold back a smile. Pippin's praise was bound to be excessive, but perhaps Éowyn could weed through it and discover a few shoots of truth.

Pippin laughed. "Don't worry. I will say nothing to embarrass you. I must go now, for they told me you might need to sleep, and I can see you look weary. But Galen met me out there," he gestured vaguely into the rest of the Houses of Healing, "and said to tell you Aragorn would come to meet with you within a few hours, so take some rest now and be ready."

"I will do so."

"Dream of the Lady Éowyn," Pippin urged cheekily, and darted from the room.

"I do not think I needed such a command, my friend," Faramir said softly with a smile, and closed his eyes.

            *****

"Pete, there's something I've got to do."

Alan Virdon took a steadying breath. He had gone out into the city while Pete napped during the morning, mostly because healer Girand had insisted he take some air, and he had heard the plan to march on the Black Gate of Mordor was definite. Virdon had listened to the buzz of many conversations, some full of despair that their new-found king would march away and never return, others hopeful after the great victory on the Pelennor, convinced that Mordor would surely fail, now when it had been so weakened. Alan suspected Mordor held more than enough orcs to challenge the army Aragorn would be able to raise. He'd heard that Rohan had come following an immense battle of their own, and they had suffered many losses on the Pelennor. Gondor had lost many in streets of the city. Aragorn's army would be pitifully small to venture against Mordor. Yet the distraction of such a battle might be the only way for Frodo to triumph.

Pete half sat up, propped with pillows. He wore a loose robe, gaping open across the chest for ease at reaching his dressings, which the healers saw changed regularly. No blood transfusions, no IV's. Natural healing, which Alan wouldn't have wanted to trust for a second, not for his best friend. But the athelas had done its work, and Pete was already bouncing back. Lines of pain marked his face, and his hair was tousled from sleeping. But he looked alert, and at Alan's words, his eyes narrowed.

"You're gonna go, aren't you?" he demanded. "You're gonna march with the army when it goes to Mordor?"

"You heard about that?"

"Everybody here knows about it." He gestured around the ward. "We've been talking about it. Half the men in here want to march off with the army, even though they're not up to it yet. The healers came through and told us which of us would be able to go. They said I wouldn't."

Alan heaved an inner sigh of relief that Pete would be spared, although the thought of separation tore at him. He had grown so used to having Pete with him every moment, his only tie with home. They had endured so much together it had felt natural, even essential, for Pete to stand with him. This time, Pete couldn't. Neither could Galen, who had come to be another brother. Alan would set out on his own, with only strangers to back him, to a battle he already considered hopeless.

Pete narrowed his eyes. "Are you crazy!" he exploded. "Nobody's gonna make you do this. You're not from Gondor. You think I'm gonna let you go off on your own and get killed--" He lowered his voice abruptly with a glance around the ward. Alan knew without looking that half the men in the room were hanging on their every word. Free entertainment. "Come on, Alan, you can't do this."

"I have to, Pete."

"Why?" Pete challenged hotly. "Because you can't get home and it's a sure way out...." As he realized what he had said, he gasped, and color drained from his face. "Oh, man. Alan, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

"Yes, you did," Alan said with cold fury that wasn't directed so much toward Pete as toward fate. "You remember me throwing the disk away and you think I'm going because I want to die. Is that it?" If Pete wanted plain speaking, he'd give it to him. "You think I'm suicidal."

Pete looked at him a long time. "Come on, Alan," he finally said with difficulty. "I need you to level with me. I've never seen you quite as hopeless as you were when you threw the disk away. You scared me."

They gazed at each other unblinking for what seemed half a year. Alan couldn't refute the words because the thought had crossed his mind when he'd agreed to don armor and fight for Gondor during the siege. Yet in battle, in the midst of the terrible struggle, a sudden truth had hit him. If he had truly wanted to die, it would have been far too easy. He would merely have lowered his sword and allowed an orc to kill him. Yet he had fought fiercely, defending himself and Pete as well as Gondor. His instincts knew better. Believing, even briefly, that he had nothing to live for was a different matter entirely than wanting to die, wanting to have a hand in his own end. Only in death was there no hope at all. The Guardian was a hologram. Unless Urko and the other gorillas knew exactly how to destroy the hidden base so completely that the Guardian's power source was lost, he could not be killed. If he survived after the gorillas had ridden away, he might restore the Annuate machine. A slim hope, but hope all the same.

Even without that hope, without the chance of going home, he was alive and had fought to stay that way. How could he not when he saw how bravely the men of Gondor and Rohan had battled against such seemingly insurmountable odds? To give up, surrender to death, would be a dire insult to their great courage. Pete was here and Galen, poor Galen, stranded in a world where he was the only ape except for the possibility of primitive apes in a distant land. Seeing them would be an unspeakable horror to Galen.

Alan remembered Pete telling him how Urko had reacted to the poster of the gorilla in a zoo when the two of them were trapped in the ruins of San Francisco. It would be even worse than seeing the downtrodden humans of Galen's time, who had it in them to rise above the servile state they had been cowed into. His friends needed him to be strong. They needed him to live--at least they needed him to find the strength to refuse to give up, even in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds.

Alan gripped his friend's shoulders. "Pete, listen to me. Come on. Look at me. This is important."

Pete's eyes were hot with strain. "You think I don't know that?" he challenged. Every muscle in his body had stiffened; he had forgotten the pain of his wound. "Tell me I'm wrong, then. Because if I have to stay here thinking you're rushing off to die I'm gonna have to sneak into one of the supply wagons and come along."

They both knew the threat was ridiculous. Pete wouldn't be well enough to stagger down from the seventh level in less than two days. He might be well enough to sit for a few hours in the gardens and walk short distances, but there would be no sustained strength in him. Impossible for him to consider such a feat.

"You can't," Alan said. He tightened his grip on Pete's shoulders. "Listen to me. I mean this. I am not going so I can get myself killed."

"Convince me," Pete begged. "Because I'm trapped here, too, and you think Galen and I want to be stranded here without you?"

"You think I want to leave you and Galen behind?" Alan countered. He gave Pete a little shake, a gentle one so as not to jar his injury. "Come on, Pete, we fought through the streets of Minas Tirith. It would have been so easy not to block a sword slash. Think about it. We both fought as hard as we could--not only to defend against the orcs but to stay alive. When it came right down to it, I didn't want to die." Pete deserved truth. "I won't deny I didn't think of it when we were getting ready, when they gave us swords and tested us to see if we had any idea how to use them. Don't you think it would have been easy to die? I could have been killed in the first five minutes, but my gut knew better. I do not want to die."

The questions in Pete's eyes found answers, one by one, and gradually his muscles unlocked. With a massive sigh he leaned back against his pillows, and sweat from the exertion dampened his brow. "Then why go?" he asked, and this time it was a reasonable question, not a challenge.

"Because I have to. Because I'm the only one of us who can. They took us in, Pete. They took us in when the most likely assumption they could have made was that we were Sauron's spies. They'd never seen anyone like Galen before. How could they trust us? But they accepted us. Yeah, Denethor ordered us locked up, but even if he was off his trolley, he did the sensible thing to give that order. They had no way of knowing we were the good guys. Even when we fought, that could have been self-defense."

"I think they knew we were okay because Gandalf said so," Pete ventured after a minute. "He's a wizard. I'm not sure what wizards do, but when he looked at us, he saw more than our appearance. I don't think anyone would have been so quick to trust us if Gandalf hadn't given the green light."

Alan could understand that. Denethor hadn't trusted the wizard, but that had been his own paranoia speaking. Faramir trusted Gandalf utterly. But Alan and Pete had fought for Gondor, and Galen had served devotedly here in the Houses of Healing, and won the respect of the healers. Yet winning trust and respect had taken time. All too easy to have killed them out of hand, or shut them outside the city, or locked them away. Yet none of that had happened. Instead, they'd been brought in. They'd been fed and treated kindly, even after Denethor had given his orders.

"They took us in, Pete. They didn't have to. If we can't get home, this is all we've got. This is the way it's going to be for the rest of our lives. There are good people here, and Aragorn wants to unite all the races of Middle-earth. He thinks they can learn to live together as brothers. Legolas and Gimli already live that, and from what I've heard, elves and dwarves have been enemies for a very long time. I respect what Aragorn's trying to do. I think it's what all people should do. That was what Galen hoped for, back in his time, that humans and apes could live as equals. That was what we tried to do when we were there, to show the people we met that humans weren't inferior, that humans and apes could live and work together as equals." He drew a fierce, impassioned breath. "Don't you see, Pete? A cause like that is worth fighting for. It's worth dying for. I don't want to die, I know that now. But I have to fight because it's what I believe in. I've seen humans downtrodden in Galen's time. I've seen blacks treated like second-class citizens in our own. This fight is to prevent Sauron from dominating everything. You think he would care about different peoples being equal, being friends? That's the last thing he wants. I bet he's been stirring up resentment between the different races here." He paused to catch his breath. "That's why I have to go, Pete. Because it's what I believe in, all the way down to the soles of my feet."

Pete hesitated, then he smiled. "I hate it that you're going off where I can't watch your back. But you're right. That's what it's all about. That's what we hoped to accomplish in Galen's time. I'd go if I could, but I can't, and Galen can't. So you have to stand in for us. But I swear to God, if you get yourself killed, I'm gonna come after you, drag you back from the afterlife, and finish you myself."

A laugh behind Alan made him turn. Aragorn approached, with Gandalf at his side. "Here I have come to make certain Pete mended, and I hear such a voice of hope that it heartens me."

Alan scrambled to his feet. If there was no way home, this man was going to be his king, and you didn't face kings sitting down. "I mean it," he said. "I know we're new here, and some would say we don't have the obligation, but you saved Pete's life. And you stand for what I believe in. So I'm going on the march."

"You are most welcome," Aragorn replied. "You speak truly, that Sauron would isolate the different races and foment discord between them. Through him did Saruman dominate Théoden King until Gandalf freed him from that thrall. You met Lord Denethor yourself, and see how he had fallen. I never wished to be king, but if I must be, and it seems that I must, then I will make certain alliances are formed, that there will no longer be discord where there should be harmony. Gondor and Rohan should have stood united all along. Now we do so, and I can but hope it is not too late. When I see my good Legolas and Gimli together, I know it is possible. Now when I see the two of you and Galen, that is a further sign of hope."

"Well spoken," agreed Gandalf. "I must say, the future breeds brave men. When all battles are over, I shall search my memories and the archives here in the city, to learn if there is a means to return you to your homes. I know of no such possibilities; not even the Valar have displayed the ability to move to and fro in time, although no doubt they could, should they wish it. Alan Virdon, I say to you that hope comes in many forms. Could I grant it, I would see you returned to your wife and son. If I cannot, then I wish you would find hope in a life here, where there are good and loyal folk with great courage. You are not alone, and shall not be alone on the march, even if your two friends must remain here."

"Gandalf speaks true," Aragorn said. "Gondor is glad of you." He gave a nod to emphasize his point, then edged around Alan. "Well, Pete, let me take a look at your wound. The healers say you are mending well."

"I'll be okay," Pete insisted and braced himself for the ordeal.

 

            *****

Before the march on the Black Gate, there remained much to accomplish. Aragorn set in train all he could, quickly learning the soldiers of Gondor were strong and resolute and could take a command and follow through without the need of someone to watch their every action. The captains of the city guards and the rangers reported to him as they worked to muster their men. Supply officers arranged the wagons that would accompany the army, bearing foodstuffs, bedrolls, extra weapons, all that could be loaded to allow the armies to march as lightly as possible. Scouts would ride ahead to survey the land and report back any threats or possibilities of orc ambushes. Yes, all was well in hand.

Learning that Alan Virdon's weapon had been the rapier, Aragorn set him to work with a swordmaster to drill on the different techniques he would need to develop to master a sword of Gondor. There was no time to watch such exercises, but the swordmaster reported to Aragorn that Virdon was strong and determined, and would hold his own in battle, especially against orcs who fought without finesse. He had the ability to watch his back, which came with experience and could never have been taught in the time allotted. Had his military training in his own time given him that awareness? Aragorn knew not and lacked the time to question Virdon in any detail. There might be time to speak on the march, but there was surely none before.

Need there was also to plan with Faramir. Aragorn knew the army might fail, and if so Minas Tirith would be the last hope of the Gondor and the west. So they spent several hours together both days, discussing the state of city repairs. The great gates could not be rebuilt before the army left, but at Faramir's command construction had already begun of makeshift barriers to give the city protection. Enough guards must remain behind to ensure a chance of holding the orcs at bay, and archers to line the walls were supplied with enough arrows to fend off their foes. The sight of the vast pile of orc corpses who had lain, impaled with arrows before the shattered gates, had spoken of the determination of Gondor's guardians.

Faramir gained in strength, yet not enough to allow him to take part in the march, for his wounds had been severe and he had been so close to death when Aragorn had come that he had nearly fallen. He would be much restored by the time the army returned. If they returned.... Faramir drove himself as hard as the healers would allow. Twice Aragorn had found him in the garden of the Houses of Healing, and each time Faramir had turned eagerly. Was there a trace of disappointment in his eyes to see Aragorn? If so, it was always quickly banished, and a genuine gladness replaced it.

Interesting to see Faramir, to speak with him, to hear his dreams for Gondor. He was like his brother in many ways but unlike in others. He had far more patience than Boromir, and would willingly discuss an idea from all angles, whereas Boromir would have wished to make quick work of it, resolve it, and move on. Both were gifted soldiers, loyal to Gondor, determined to see the nation restored to greatness. Yet Aragorn knew they would have approached their goals from different directions. Faramir proved to be vastly learned, knowledgeable about the history of Middle-earth and understanding that one could learn from the mistakes of the past.

At first, he was solemn and serious in Aragorn's presence, deferring to him, offering opinions when asked, volunteering to do aught possible to aid Aragorn. As they talked, Faramir grew more comfortable in his presence, willing to offer suggestions unsolicited, to volunteer information, even to venture humor a time or two. Yet even before then he had not hesitated to set in hand what must be done. Aragorn began to enjoy his company, and look forward to their brief meetings. If Frodo succeeded and the army returned safe from Mordor, Aragorn would know he had the loyalty of his steward, a man he was coming to respect greatly.

"My brother had far more training to serve as steward than I ever did," Faramir admitted. "He was my father's favorite, and I was stationed in Ithilien to lead the Rangers there. I think it surprised my father that I rose to such a rank, but it should not have, for I learned much from Boromir. He was a great general, perhaps Gondor's greatest. How could I not learn from him?"

"He was a mighty warrior indeed," Aragorn agreed. "And trained to serve as steward he might have been, but I do not find you wanting. Your tact has served me well in encounters with the councilors of the city. Your knowledge has aided me. I think it is in you to be one of the greatest stewards of Gondor."

"But I shall not rule, my lord."

"No, you shall not. But the office of steward existed side by side with that of king time out of mind. You shall rank with Mardil the Faithful, the first ruling steward, which is fitting, as you will be the last to rule. But the position of stewards to Gondor's kings shall be yours and your descendants as long as the line of kings shall stand."

"So you would have named my brother," Faramir agreed, although his eyes shone at the honor. "Is this in his honor?"

"Only in part, Faramir, for I loved your brother, and would not hold his one flaw against him. But it is mostly for you, for what I see in you, and for what Gandalf reports, for he has a great kindness for you and has told me I will be vastly fortunate to have you at my side."

"Gandalf has always been kind to me. I must thank him for his support."

"He expects none." Aragorn smiled. "Come, we are too serious, and there is yet much to be done. I leave you with a city whose lower levels are shattered and need much work. The Houses of Healing are full to overflowing, and we must see to much. Spring dawns, and we must ensure a good harvest this year, and that will be a mighty task."

"I have already sent to speak with the growers of crops. We will do our all to ensure it, and hope that the spilling of blood will nourish the land so that we can bring forth a bountiful harvest. I have sent for an inventory of my father's private stock and have ordered the bulk of the foodstuffs and supplies distributed to those whose homes have been destroyed. We are seeing to shelter for all, although we will be crowded at first. You will be glad to know your people are vastly generous, sire. Those whose homes are intact have offered space to those who need shelter. We have also set up tents on the third level, and kitchens so that the homeless will have food."

Aragorn shook his head. "All this you have ordered from your sickbed? More, too, I am sure that we have not yet discussed. Grateful I am for your initiative, because it is well needed. I shall name you Faramir the Faithful, or perhaps the Enterprising."

"I only do what Gondor requires," Faramir said rather stiffly.

Aragorn clapped him on the back, careful to avoid the side where the arrow had penetrated. "I shall stop embarrassing you now, for I am needed in twelve places at once. One more thing I will ask of you, though, before I go."

"If it is in my power to perform or command it, it shall be so," Faramir agreed, then he smiled. "In truth, I would need a dozen of me to do all that must be done--a dozen fit Faramirs. Yet I will do what I can."

"Then make certain the ape Galen is not mistreated in my absence. People come to recognize him now, and I think none would harm him, but refugees drift into the city from the outlying lands, and not all will know him. I do not feel he is in grave peril here in the White City, and have issued commands that he be treated kindly. The healers speak of him fondly, and the wounded he has treated sing his praises, but he must feel lost and isolated, especially since one of his companions will join our march."

"I have spoken with Galen several times. He appears very learned. If the healers can spare him, I may take him to the archives and set him to work on some of the records that are in chaos. He is willing, and I have already sent word to the chief archivist, Menalir." He gave a delighted smile. "In truth, he is an old friend of mine, and he came at once to see me. He will find a place for Galen, if the healers do not snatch him up."

"Excellent. One last request. The lady Éowyn also dwells here in the Houses of Healing. She will be grieved when her brother rides away to battle. If you see her, treat her with kindness." Aragorn had been unable to return Éowyn's love, yet he had a great fondness for her and wished her happy with all his heart. In Faramir, he found one who would treat her with kindness and sensitivity, and the two of them might take comfort in each other's company.

Faramir's eyes sparkled. "I have already met the lady Éowyn, my king, and I will do all in my power to ensure her happiness."

Oho, Aragorn thought, and smiled to himself. If Faramir were drawn to Éowyn, so much the better. His kindly and honest esteem could but warm her heart. Aragorn had told Éowyn it was but a shadow and a thought she loved, isolated and lonely as she had been, despairing, with none to admire and little to hope for. Aragorn had happened by at the right moment to stir her interest, but he was not the man for her. Faramir might be, for what Aragorn had seen of him so far had certainly proven him worthy. If warmth grew between them, he would approve it wholeheartedly.

Yet it would not do to fluster his poor steward. "Excellent," he said heartily. "I can ask no more. I must go now, but we have set much in hand. Go you to rest as soon as needed."

"There is no fear I will not," Faramir admitted, although his eyes still held warmth the mention of Éowyn had evoked. "The healers are most solicitous on my behalf. Too solicitous, it seems, at times. I am mending. I would it were fast enough to ride out with you, but it is not to be. I will be very busy in your absence and will await your return with great eagerness."

Aragorn gripped his shoulder in farewell, and went to attend to his next task in the great list of things he meant to accomplish before the army departed.

            *****

In the pre-dawn light, Alan came quickly to the Houses of Healing to say goodbye to Pete and Galen. All though Pete's room, similar encounters took place as men parted with fathers, sons, and brothers. Watching the sad farewells, Galen's throat caught. No one, not even Urko, could have watched such a moment and failed to believe humans were equal to apes. So much genuine emotion filled the room that Galen had to blink hard to keep his own from spilling out of his eyes.

"Look out for each other," Alan said seriously, then his eyes lit. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

It had an almost ritual sound to it, and Galen said quickly into the breathlessness of the moment, "Is that an expression?"

Pete laughed shakily, "Yeah, it is, Galen. Usually the next line is something like 'and that gives you carte blanche.'"

"Permission to do anything in the world?" Galen echoed. His own laugh was just as tremulous. "Oh, Alan, do be careful. Beregond says you've really improved with the sword from your practice."

"Yeah, I'm a regular Errol Flynn." Alan's smile was wry. "Lucky the orcs are more into brute strength than skill." He didn't add what the three of them knew, that ten thousand orcs waited in Mordor, and that the army that would soon march out of the broken gates of Minas Tirith could not come anywhere near that number. This might be farewell forever. Galen could not say so, and he couldn't really act as if he feared it was their last parting, either, because that would make it so much harder. Instead he hugged Alan and drew back to allow Pete to do the same. The hug itself proved both men knew and acknowledged the possibility, although they did not speak it. They did not commonly hug; a handclasp or a slap on the back was more customary. Galen was glad they had done it, though.

"I need you to do something for me, Alan," Pete said. He drew something out from beneath his pillow and held it out. "I want you to take this with you. You know, like a good-luck charm." He opened his hand.

It was the computer disk.

Alan stared at it as if he had never seen it before. "I didn't know where it went," he said so softly Galen almost missed the words.

"Gandalf had it, keeping it safe. I got him to give it to me. He brought it by last night." Pete pressed it into Alan's hand. "I'll feel better just knowing you have it."

Alan hesitated, then he closed his fingers around it gently. Eyes glazed with memory and distance, he clutched it, then he tucked it inside his armor where it would be safe. "Thanks, Pete," he said in a very soft voice.

Pete's face lit with relief. "Thank you," he said even more quietly. Galen wasn't sure he entirely understood, but in a way he did. Even if Middle-earth had no computers, the disk remained a symbol of hope, hope for all of them. A charm for luck? Apes didn't believe in such concepts, and he doubted Pete or Alan did, either, not in reality. But a 'charm' to raise a person's spirits? That just might work.

An officer appeared in the doorway. "Time to move out," he said, and the soldiers said their final farewells and departed obediently. Galen shifted closer to Pete as the soldiers marched out, their shoulders squared, their backs straight.

"The Valar guard you," called a grizzled veteran from the corner. In spite of his bandaged head and shoulder, he stood tall, every inch the soldier, in respect for the departing men.

No one else said a word. But once they were gone, the men who had been granted permission by the healers to watch the march began their exodus to find places along the walls.

"Come on," Pete said in a very tight, hard voice. "Let's go."

Tugging Galen after him, he made the way to the place he must have chosen in advance, in a corner of the Garden, under an archway. Galen looked around and saw others there, including Faramir, who looked steadier on his feet than he had even the previous day, and who was dressed for the occasion rather than clad in the robes of the Houses of Healing, even though Galen knew he was not yet discharged. He waited a little apart from all, and the men around him gave him that space in deference to his position as the ruler of Gondor. None crowded too close, but then the lady Éowyn came through the garden to join him. He looked down at her and smiled with such warmth Galen was surprised it was not as audible as the ringing of bells. He couldn't see if she returned his smile because she faced away from him, but she looked up at Faramir. They did not clasp hands or touch, but simply acknowledged each other in a long, steady gaze.

Once, long ago, Kira had looked at Galen in just such a way.

Galen found himself wishing he could see Éowyn's face.

After a moment, Faramir said something to her, too soft to hear, and she inclined her head in response. At once he pointed down toward the main gate.

Two more men edged in along the wall, pushing Galen and Pete closer to the Steward and the Lady of Rohan. Pete nodded to Faramir, who gave him and Galen a quick smile. "The weather favors us," he said.

Yes, the day would be bright, but the clouds still seethed and churned over Mordor. Galen shivered at the sight of the wall of mountains across the river. How he wished Alan need not go.

Closer at hand, a few pyres still burned on the Pelennor, the last of the orc corpses and that of the great mûmakil, the tusked beasts that Pete and Alan had called elephants and Pippin had named oliphaunts. Broken down siege towers still lay near the walls. From his position, Galen could see the recess where the gate was, and, if he leaned over the edge a bit and craned his neck, he could see the soldiers lining up in the courtyard for the march from the city. He could see horses down there, too, Gandalf's white Shadowfax easy to distinguish in the morning light. The watchers in the garden were much too high to distinguish the individual features of the men who prepared to march, all of them in their armor and helmets. A flash of white showed Gandalf as he spoke to someone on horseback, who was probably Aragorn, for he had dark hair and wore no helmet.

"There is my brother," Éowyn said. "He is too far away to recognize, but his plumed helm is distinctive, and I saw the plume fly out for an instant. See, he is mounting."

Faramir gathered her closer to him, then he put his sound arm around her shoulders. She leaned against him. "I will see him again," she said. "He is a great warrior. He will come back."

"Aragorn will also return," Faramir answered. He tilted his head to look at her, but she only stared down at the courtyard and did not return his gaze.

Slowly the army grew organized. Movement near the gate proved those who guarded it removed the temporary barricade. Beside Galen, Pete was as rigid as a statue. For one like Pete, who had a ready quip for every situation, his silence indicated how tense and unhappy he was. Alan was his friend as well as his commanding officer. They had known each other for years before the mission that had stranded them in the time of the Apes. How much harder this must be for Pete when it was so very difficult for Galen.

Worse still for Faramir, Galen realized. He had commanded some of the men who rode out. He had lost brother and father, and now must hold the city and rule it, no doubt believing the army might fall, Frodo might fail, and the world would end. Horrible beyond imagining. Galen could not quell the fear that twisted his gut. How much worse to have the world end while one ruled it, to face such an end when love had come to him, when hope of that and of the king returning, should have given him great joy.

"There they go!" cried one of the soldiers, and the mounted man Galen had believed to be Aragorn led the way from the city. Gandalf rode to one side, and although he could scarcely tell it from so high, Galen thought Pippin rode before him. King Éomer's distinctive helmet with its flowing tail marked him, and it looked as if he, like Gandalf, had a small passenger riding behind him; Merry. There, on the other white horse rode two who did not wear Gondor armor; Legolas and Gimli. A soldier rode bearing Aragorn's banner, and a few others went mounted, but the bulk of the army marched out on foot. Impossible to single out Alan from among the great mass of foot soldiers. Some of them waved to those above, and one of them was bound to be Alan. Galen could not tell which he was, so he waved energetically, as most of the wounded did, and the folk on the lower levels and the soldiers who remained behind to guard and protect Minas Tirith. A quick glance at Pete, squinting urgently down at the marching army, proved he tried to find Alan in the crowd. From the way his shoulders slumped, he had been unable to pick him out.

The patients on the wall cheered them away, waving makeshift banners that caught in the morning breeze. Faramir straightened his shoulders, and Éowyn held herself tall and proud.

Not one of the men in the garden moved as the army flowed out through the gate. Healers had joined them, and hovered solicitously. One of them brought a bench and urged a pair of wounded men to sit on it, but other than that, the rest of them stood like sentinels, honoring the brave army. Galen wished Urko could see this. He could never doubt the honor and courage of humans if he had witnessed this brave departure. None could. Yes, they were marching away to war, and war had always been a failing of humans, but this war was not of their making, for they fought to defend their lands from evil. Apes would have done the same.

Once, an ape they had met on their travels, one Galen had known in school, and who had failed to turn him in out of old loyalty, had gazed at Galen when they parted, then shook his head. "Be careful, old friend," he had cautioned. "If you are not wary, I fear you will turn human."

Galen's horror at the suggestion had proved to him he still had far to go in his acceptance. Yes, he loved Alan and Pete as brothers, but perhaps there lingered in him a remnant of the old prejudice that was not so easy to eradicate. If it could exist even between humans of different lands, how could it not linger, instinctive, in the hearts of those who had long been at enmity? Galen had been shocked when he realized the blind ape girl Fauna, who believed her father had been murdered by humans, loved Pete, not knowing he was human. Although Galen had furthered the deception by letting her feel his face so she would believe Pete an ape, his reaction had startled him.

Yet watching these brave humans march out to face a foe that vastly outnumbered them, he saw a truth that resonated in his heart. Humans were strong and bold, courageous and honorable, and the only way to judge them was as individuals, the way he judged apes. To do less was to demean himself even as he faulted humans. He knew humans were equal in intelligence, although he had once, in his utter ignorance claimed he had always thought humans unimportant animals. How little he had known in those days. How well-conditioned he had been. If humans had different abilities than apes, well, some apes differed from each other. Seeing these men of Gondor had made Galen realize completely and utterly that the old values he had believed set aside were finally and truly gone.

As the army rode toward the ruined Osgiliath, where they would cross the Anduin for their march upon Mordor, the healers gathered the more seriously injured of their patients and returned them to their beds. Pete, who was still not quite steady on his feet, looked briefly at Galen, his determination to stay until the army passed from sight etched on his face.

"Lean on me, Pete," Galen offered. "We'll stay as long as you want to."

Pete threw him a brief, appreciative smile, then he draped his arm around Galen's shoulders. "Glad you're here, buddy," he said quietly, then turned his gaze to the departing army.

They watched together in silence for a long time, and Galen hoped Pete would draw as much strength from him as he did from Pete.

Faramir, too, insisted on remaining until the soldiers had departed from sight. Gently he urged Éowyn to go and rest, and she looked up at him, touched his hand in a soft parting gesture, and went with the healer woman Ioreth. Faramir's eyes followed her, and Galen saw the yearning in his gaze as he watched her depart, and was glad when Éowyn turned back as she left the garden and granted him a faint smile. The joy that filled Faramir's face at her action made Galen smile, too.

"Come on, Pete," he said softly. "I think you would feel better lying down."

"I'm sick of lying down," Pete said, but he managed not to snap, although Galen was certain he wanted to.

Faramir overheard him. "As am I. But I am ordered by my king to rest as needed." He heaved a weary sigh. "Walk with me, both of you, if you will. Galen, I have a proposition for you."

"Oh? A proposition? What kind of proposition?"

"I have been talking with my king and with the chief archivist of the city. I know you have a great curiosity and have asked many questions about Minas Tirith, Gondor, and Middle-earth. If you and your friends must stay here, I know the healers would accept you to work as one of them, but if you would have a choice, the archives are in a poor state and will need much work. If such a task would interest you...."

"Oh, yes," Galen said. "I would love to learn more about your world. I can read and write...." His voice trailed off as he thought of an impediment. "The machine that sent us here gifted us with the language of your people. I know I am not speaking my own tongue, but I don't even think of it most times. Whether I can read the language is another story. Perhaps I can't."

"He's right," Pete said thoughtfully. "Alan and I were talking about it yesterday. When we use a word you don't have in your language we say it in ours, and no one knows what we mean. If we use a phrase that has its own meaning in our language they may understand the words but not the meaning."

"The idiom, you mean," Faramir said thoughtfully. He looked very tired and from the way his muscles tightened, Galen was sure his wounds were aching. "Yes, I understand. We must test this."

"You must test it later, my lord," said the healer Girand, pouncing upon Faramir. "Come, you must rest for at least several hours."

"There are councilors I must meet with," Faramir objected, but the element of doubt in his voice suggested he had pitted his will against Girand's before, and had not won.

Girand smiled. "So shall it be, my lord. I will send them to you, and you will receive them from bed."

"Must I?" Faramir asked wryly.

"You must. And you, Pete Burke? Why are you still on your feet? Come. This afternoon you may return to the garden, but for now, it is time to rest."

Pete and Faramir shared a grimace, but Galen nodded at Girand with great satisfaction, and between them, they shepherded the two recalcitrant patients back to bed.

            *****

Pippin was used to making camp at night; he'd learned that once he and Merry had fled the Shire by the Buckleberry Ferry to escape from the Black Riders. That first night they hadn't even dared go to Brandy Hall for safety, once they'd crossed the Brandywine, but had set off through the Old Forest, afraid the Nazgûl could track them by scent and would come to Merry's home and wreak havoc there. Sleeping on the ground with no more than their cloaks to wrap up in had not been fun, but it had been necessary. Frodo and Sam had come better equipped, knowing they must journey onward, and had shared what they could. In Bree, Strider had seen them equipped with bedrolls and other necessities, and over the months that followed, he and Merry had become accustomed to setting up camp, spreading out bedrolls, even sleeping on the ground. A few nights in Minas Tirith had not softened him, so he prepared his bed at their halt, smiled at Merry, who was doing the same, and went in search of dinner.

The Black Gate was too far distant to reach in one day, or even several, so they must stop each night, although they had marched until dusk and would be on their way at dawn. They had not dared march into the night for fear the orcs, who were much more comfortable in the darkness than men--and hobbits--would be able to attack with scant warning. Aragorn sent riders ahead to scout the way and posted guards to change at two-hour intervals. As Pippin approached the nearest cooking fire with Merry, he saw Aragorn and Éomer of Rohan conversing with several of the captains of both Gondor and Rohan, plotting their battle strategies, no doubt. Pippin didn't understand such things. He had fought in Moria, at Amon Hen, in Isengard with rocks, and a little in the siege of the city, but that experience had only proven how much he hated battle. A hobbit's heart loved peace. For Pippin, knowledge of warfare had only intensified that love.

They met Gimli and Legolas at the cook fire, and elf and dwarf called out a greeting to the two hobbits. "Come and eat with us," Gimli urged. "We have had little enough time together these days." He passed Pippin a bowl of trail stew, the quick-and-easy kind, thrown together with a few spices and heated fast in a communal pot, and gave another to Merry. Pippin had eaten many such meals and had grown accustomed to them without complaint. Sometimes he thought with longing of the mouth-watering dinners his mother fixed, back home in the Great Smials, and his stomach would twist with longing. How far away home seemed, here in Ithilien with only the ominous threat of Mordor awaiting him. If only he could see his mother and father one last time, say farewell to his three sisters....

Farewell? No, he shouldn't think such grim thoughts. They didn't help at all. He sat down next to Legolas, with Merry on his other side, and concentrated on eating. The food and his stomach did not like each other at all.

"You are uneasy, Pippin," Legolas said softly, gazing down at him with a wise eye.

"I am longing for home," he admitted. "The Shire seems so far away, and there is no hope I will ever see it again."

"Come, say not so," the elf urged. "Trust in Frodo, and trust in Aragorn. He has never faltered, the entire time we journeyed together. He will not now. I told him in Helm's Deep, even when I feared death, that he had not led us astray, and he had not. We triumphed there when it should have been impossible. Three hundred against ten thousand? We face that number now, and there are more than three hundred of us."

Pippin opened his mouth to point out that Helm's Deep had been a great fortress, and Éomer had come galloping to the rescue, led by Gandalf. Thousands of horsemen would not come to their rescue at the Black Gate.

"And have a thought for Frodo." Gimli leaned forward to see around Legolas. "We divert the Mordor orcs from him. Trust him and Sam. They will surprise us yet."

Pippin swallowed hard. Frodo. Poor Frodo. He had climbed the Winding Stair to Cirith Ungol, where Faramir had said a dark terror dwelled. Even before they could enter Mordor, Frodo and Sam had to face that, with the treacherous Gollum at their side.

The orcs would learn of the army's march, and would hasten to the Black Gate. Would it be in time for Frodo?

"Frodo and Sam can hide and duck out of sight," Merry said. "They're small. They might be overlooked." He drew a deep breath. "I just want to see them again."

"I have faith you will," Legolas said with certainty. Could elves see the future? Pippin stared up at him with wide, doubtful eyes.

"I just want us all to be able to go home," he said in a small voice. "I don't think hobbits are meant for the wide world." How very far away the Shire seemed.

He turned his gaze away from his friends so they would not see the lost and desolate look in his eyes. There, across the campfire, sitting by himself, was Alan Virdon, the man from the future, gazing unseeingly into his empty bowl. The very lines of his body spoke of his loneliness.

How terribly far away his home must seem.

Pippin muttered, "Excuse me," to his friends, put down his bowl, and went around the fire to stand before Alan. "Don't sit there alone," he urged. "Come and sit with us. No one should be alone."

Alan's head jerked up and he stared at Pippin. Quickly he masked the pain in his eyes. "I marched with some guys," he said with a vague gesture. "I wasn't alone."

"No, and you don't need to be now." Pippin grabbed at his wrist. "Come on. We'll make room for you."

Alan grabbed his abandoned helmet and rose, carrying it in one hand and the bowl in the other, and came with Pippin. "Move over, everybody," Pippin urged. "We need to make room for Alan."

Merry shifted over obligingly, staring up at Pippin with respect and pride in his eyes. Legolas nudged Gimli over, and they all found comfortable new places. Pippin directed Alan to sit beside Legolas. "There," he said when all were seated. "That's much better, isn't it?"

"It is indeed," Gimli agreed. "Want you more stew, Virdon?"

The blond man shook his head. "I...no, thanks. I'm not very hungry tonight."

"None of us are," Pippin said. "And you wouldn't want to eat too much before a battle, anyway."

"You being so experienced," Merry muttered with a grin.

"Well, no, I'm not that experienced, and I hope this is the last time I'll ever get any experience," Pippin replied.

"As do we all," agreed Legolas. "If we succeed, if Frodo triumphs, there will be no need for more. Perhaps random skirmishes with orcs, and we are accustomed to that."

"You have a lot of faith in Frodo," Alan said. "I've never met him, but he's a hobbit, isn't he? He'd be able to keep a low profile in Moria--duck out of sight of orcs, and hide in small places, I mean," he clarified.

"Nine of us were sent forth from Rivendell," Legolas explained. "At first we thought we would journey with Frodo all the way to the Cracks of Doom, but nine of us in a party would have been discovered all too quickly even if we could secretly enter Mordor. Saruman's Uruk-hai had no trouble locating us as we traveled down the river to the lake of Nen Hithoel."

"But Frodo and Sam can hide," Merry said quickly. "Hobbits can be very unobtrusive if we need to be."

"That they can," Gandalf said, coming up behind them. "Here you are, my fine hobbits. Alan Virdon, it is good to see you in such company."

"Sit with us, please, Gandalf," Pippin encouraged. "Have you eaten?"

"Yes, I have dined, but I thank you for asking." He settled himself on a convenient rock beyond Gimli.

"Gandalf," Alan began doubtfully. When the white wizard looked at him, he said, "I have a question, and I think you're the one to ask. Galen says you know everything."

Gandalf gave a little half smile. "That is kind of Galen, although I fear he exaggerates my abilities. What would you ask of me?"

"Well, it's kind of complicated," Alan said. "The more I heard about Aragorn wanting to see the various races of Middle-earth in harmony, the more I thought I had to come along and fight for his cause."

"So feel we all," Gandalf agreed. "Sauron would foster discontent and strife in all the lands, the better to isolate and then dominate them. Long has he worked to bring Gondor and Rohan into conflict, yet that has changed, for Aragorn will stand with Éomer in peace and unity even without the need of official treaties." He bestowed a fond smile on Legolas and Gimli. "Watching these two form strong ties of friendship also gave Aragorn hope, that elves and dwarves could stand with each other, and with men. If that is a cause you support, then Aragorn will be glad of you, as am I."

Legolas gave a nod of approval, and Gimli muttered, "Aye."

Alan looked around the campfire to determine if anyone else was near enough to overhear him. "Gandalf, you know my history and Pete's, how we were thrust into a time two thousand years in our future, to a society where apes were the dominant species. Many of them considered humans little better than animals, and used them as servants, and sometimes even slaves. Seeing that, I can't help supporting Aragorn's policy. All we have met have treated Galen fairly and well, even in times like these when everybody might be too suspicious even to give him a chance."

"Gandalf spoke for him," Pippin said quickly. "He can tell when people mean well. At least I hope he can because otherwise he would be so annoyed with me there would be no bearing it."

Gandalf laughed aloud. "Yes, Peregrin Took, I see your good intentions. I also see your reckless haste to plunge into trouble. The good intentions begin to outweigh your gift for mischief." When Pippin brightened, he held up a warning finger. "Only begin, I said."

"Yes, Gandalf." But Pippin couldn't help smiling.

"I did encourage all to treat Galen fairly," Gandalf admitted. "And it is not because I saw how he was willing to respect me. I saw in him an eager curiosity to learn, and the ability to open his mind to new experiences. Such an attitude should always be encouraged." He turned back to Alan. "So what is it that disturbs you, Alan Virdon?"

"Well, every since I got here, all I've heard is how terrible orcs are, and how we have to kill them all. I've fought against them, and I admit they're not the kind of guys you'd want to invite home for dinner. But...I can't help being afraid that, in a way, we're doing what the apes of Galen's time did, diminishing an entire species. I've been thinking about it. Every soldier I marched with hates orcs. They told terrible stories about losing friends and family members, so I can understand it. But...in Galen's world, the three of us traveled together as fugitives, and as we went, we tried to...to open the minds of those we met, to let them see how apes and men could live in accord. Is there no hope of that for orcs?"

Gandalf let him finish his astonishing statement. Peace with orcs? Friendship with them? Equality? How could that ever be? The memory of the huge Uruk-hai who had kept shooting those terrible arrows into Boromir rose before Pippin's eyes. There had been no compassion in him, nor in any orc Pippin had ever met. He could not remember ever seeing an orc stop to help an injured friend. They were cannibals, willing to eat the flesh of other orcs. The memory of that moment when he and Merry were captives and the orcs had wanted to eat them still gave him bad dreams.

"They eat their own kind!" he blurted. "They don't protect their friends, or mourn for them when they fall in battle. They eat them. Men and elves, dwarves and hobbits don't do that. I think orcs are...are less than we are."

"Ah, so that is what you think, Peregrin Took?" Gandalf looked down at him, and Pippin couldn't tell from his expression what he thought of Pippin's words.

"That one killed Boromir. It wasn't just part of battle, either. It was deliberate murder. I saw it. Boromir kept rising to fight, and that Uruk-hai just walked calmly closer and fired another arrow at him." He shuddered. Beside him, Merry reached out and clasped his hand.

"Well, all I can say," Gimli joined in, "is that I have never seen a good heart or a kind purpose in an orc. They were bred to be evil, to be mindless killers, and that is what they are. They slaughtered the dwarves in Moria. My cousin Balin fell to them. Peace with orcs? It will never happen."

"The only good orc is a dead orc?" Alan asked as if it were a saying in his time.

"Aye," Gimli agreed.

"Is that certain, Gimli?" Gandalf asked. "Have you met each one, to know that is true? Come, do you tell me you have learned naught since the day the Fellowship was formed, when you cried, 'Never trust an elf'?"

Gimli squirmed. "That is different. Even dwarves know elves can be noble. Arrogant, maybe, but not petty, not evil."

"Arrogant?" Legolas asked with an arch of his eyebrow.

"Not you, laddie. And the more I meet, the more I see it isn't so. Some are arrogant--"

"And so are some dwarves," Legolas countered. "Gimli, coming to know you so well has taught me a lesson of great price, that I must value each individual for his own worth. There will come a time when I will be forced to defend my friendship with you to my people, and I have given thought to what I will tell them. Alan Virdon's question has merit."

"Indeed it does." Gandalf nodded. "There have been an endless list of atrocities performed by orcs against the various races of Middle-earth. Many years ago orcs even tried to invade the Shire, driven back by an ancestor of Pippin's. Alan Virdon, long ago Melkor, who later was called Morgoth, captured elves when their race was new, and in his dungeons tortured and mutilated them until he created a new race of beings, goblins, who became known as orcs. As elves are fair and bright, they were dark and evil, twisted to serve the darkness. Their only joy is to create pain in others, to slaughter those who would strive to be free. Pippin speaks true that they are cannibals. They are bound to the service of the Dark Lord, and would obey any command out of fear of him. They would rather die in battle than face his punishments. Their eyes are attuned to the darkness, which is why Sauron has created such a fell shadow over the land." He gestured skyward where no stars could penetrate the murk. "Only the Uruk-hai, specifically bred by Saruman, could easily endure the daylight.

"Your questioning speaks well of you and of your attitude toward life and equality of beings. Yet orcs are different. They are not a naturally evolved race of beings, and under Sauron's domination, they will never cease their desire to slaughter, not merely warriors in battle but innocents such as children and the elderly. They will pillage and burn without ceasing unless we can stop them."

"Should Sauron fall, they will be purposeless, leaderless," Aragorn said, coming up behind them. Pippin looked up at him and realized he had been listening all along. "Alan, I am glad of your question, for it is one I have long pondered. But Gandalf speaks true. It may be an orc here and there can rise above his making and his conditioning, but I doubt this can be true of all. Once Sauron has fallen, I will consider it, as I have already done, but I dare not endanger my people." He sat on his heels before them and looked at Alan. "Does that satisfy you?"

"Yes, my lord," Alan replied.

He stumbled a bit over the title, and that made Aragorn smile. "You have no liking for titles, have you?"

"It isn't that," Alan admitted. "The apes in Galen's time expected servile humans. It was...insulting to have to defer to them, and we did it as little as possible, and then only when it couldn't be avoided. It made us feel like second-class citizens." He smiled suddenly. "The thing is, you deserve it. It's just not a habit we got into, even back in our own time. We didn't have kings and nobles. Our leaders were elected by the people."

"Indeed?" Aragorn's face lit with curiosity. "Did it serve? Were the people able to choose wisely?"

"Not always," Alan replied drily. "Sometimes it was a popularity contest, which is not a good way of choosing leaders. My...my wife, Sally, used to say it might be a good thing to require that, in order for someone to be president, he had to not want it."

"Not want it?" Aragorn asked sharply. "Why was that?" Gandalf merely looked on and smiled enigmatically.

"Because it would mean he wasn't greedy for power," Alan replied.

Legolas gave an unexpected shout of laughter. "Aragorn, Alan's wife would approve of you. For as long as I can remember, you have not wished to be king."

"Yet it is a burden that will no longer elude me," Aragorn replied. "I have accepted it now. Ever since Boromir pledged his oath to me as he lay dying, I have known I must accept my birthright. When Elrond brought me Andúril, its blade reforged, I knew the moment I touched it I could not turn back. I will be king. It is not my heart's desire, but I have a great love for the people, and I will serve them to the best of my ability."

"Then if I have to stay here," Alan said with sudden fervor, "I will swear allegiance to you. It would be like my military service back home, only...." He hesitated, struggling to express a concept that Pippin understood far better than he had expected to. Back in the Shire, the swearing of such oaths would never have occurred to him, and he had only known of such things from old stories and tales Bilbo Baggins told of the outside world. Yet he had pledged himself to Gondor, not once but twice, and must yet swear it to Aragorn.

Aragorn bowed his head to Alan. "I would accept it gladly."

"Let me show you," Pippin volunteered. "I already swore my oath to Faramir in the Houses of Healing. Denethor released me from my oath when he set to burn Faramir, but I renewed it. Aragorn, let me swear my oath to you now."

Aragorn looked down at Pippin and smiled so fondly Pippin's heart warmed. "Gondor accepts your allegiance, Peregrin Took. Gladly will I hear it."

Pippin jumped up then knelt before Aragorn, who rose and bent slightly forward. The others all watched, and Gandalf beamed at him in approval.

"Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me." He shivered a the mention of death, which loomed over all. His service to Gondor might be of very short duration.

"Gladly do I accept your oath, Peregrin, knight of Gondor."

He offered his hand, and Pippin gladly kissed the great ring he wore, far more gladly than he had kissed Denethor's. "I will follow you into any battle," he cried.

"So you shall, Peregrin Took," Gandalf said and put his hand on Pippin's shoulder. "Come, on your feet. Your oath was timely. Pleased I am you also offered allegiance to Faramir."

"I had to," Pippin said as he scrambled up. "He is so brave, Gandalf. I think he is as brave as Boromir, and he let Frodo go. That takes another kind of courage, I think."

"Courage indeed, knowing how his father would react," Gandalf agreed.

Pippin sat next to Merry, who clapped him on the shoulder. "We serve Gondor and Rohan, you and I," he said. "Do you know what that means?"

"That we will fight in a great battle?" Pippin asked doubtfully.

"No, that even after we go home to the Shire, we will have reason to come back again."

Pippin smiled. "I will like that. Once Sauron is defeated, it won't be dangerous to travel, well, except for wolves and bandits and such." He smiled around.

"Well done, young Pippin," Gimli praised him.

Pippin beamed, then he looked up at Alan. "That's what you do when you swear your oath. They coached me on the right words, Gandalf first, then officials of the Citadel, so I would remember it when I swore it. But now I remember it so well I will never forget."

Aragorn turned to Alan. "You have yet hope of home," he said. "Know that as king, I would not bind one to such an oath if there should be good reason to release him. Pippin will return to the Shire when all battles are done and I am crowned. His oath will hold, so he will serve Gondor from a distance. The Shire is located within the ancient kingdom of Arnor, which I must see to one day, once all is settled in Gondor. Pippin, you shall be my representative in the North until that time."

Pippin squared his shoulders. "I will."

Alan looked up at Aragorn, then he rose to face him. "My thoughts are still of home. I can't offer allegiance yet. But I'll still fight in the battle to come, and fight for Gondor, and for you."

"I could ask no more." Aragorn clapped him on the shoulder. "Should you feel later you can swear allegiance to Gondor, Gondor will welcome you. If not, you will still have a place among us, you and your friends. Never doubt that."

They clasped each other's wrists in the way of those who respected each other, and Gandalf nodded his head in approval.

            *****

...and my friends know how to construct a machine that can fly," Galen said. "They built one, and they let me fly it. I soared up into the sky and controlled it with a movement of a lever, to and fro, to catch the wind. It was wonderful, Faramir. Wonderful."

The steward stared at Galen, unable to doubt his words for delight lit his face, and his eyes shone with remembrance. "How is this possible?" he asked. "I know the Nazgûl fly on the backs of their fell beasts, and Gandalf has flown on the back of one of the great eagles, but to fly upon a machine? That would be a great wonder."

Galen leaned closer. "You would like it, too, I can see that. Oh, Faramir, it was so exciting, to be free up in the sky, the world stretched out below. It would be like the view from the top of that tall tower." He pointed skyward.

Faramir looked up at the Tower of Ecthelion that jutted up above the level of the Citadel. From here in the garden of the Houses of Healing, he could only see the very top of it. But he had stood in the highest chamber many times and looked out across the world. He remembered the first time he had climbed there with Boromir when he was but six years old and his small legs had grown so weary that his brother had picked him up and carried him on his back the last distance. They had stood side by side at the window, and Boromir, who had been nearly as tall as a man at eleven, had found a box for Faramir to stand upon. The brothers had gazed, enraptured, at the world spread before them. Even if the view included the dark walls of Mordor, he had been awed and breathless at the sight. Boromir loved the tower; he had once told Faramir he always watched for it when he returned to the city after duty elsewhere, and that when he saw it rising so high above the White City, he knew he had come home.

Boromir would never again come home, but what would he have thought had he believed a machine could fly as high as his beloved tower?

"What makes such a creation fly?" he asked. "I would know of such matters, for never in my studies in the archives have I seen reference to such a device."

"It has a huge wing like a flying reptile to catch the air under it. Have you seen a great hawk soaring in the sky, its wings outspread, the tips of the feathers a bit apart? They bank on the currents of air."

"Yes, I have seen, but the weight of a hawk is not great, and the wingspan is wide." Faramir lowered his eyes from the tower. He sat in the garden where he had been escorted by two healers, waiting for Éowyn to join him. They had come here the day after the army had ridden out, and Éowyn had sounded so despairing, he had encouraged her. "I do not believe this darkness will endure," he had said, and knew his belief was true. Hope sprang through him, and he had reached for her hand. When her fingers closed around his and she rested her head on his shoulder, his heart had leaped with joy. How he looked forward to each new meeting.

But she had not yet come, and instead he had found the ape Galen in the garden. The healers had sent him out for a rest, for his work in the Houses of Healing had been diligent and tireless. Intrigued with the ape, he had joined Galen and urged him to speak of his own time. He had never thought to hear of machines that flew.

"The great wing spreads wide on the flying machine," Galen explained. "And beneath it hangs a seat for the passenger to sit upon, a lever in front of him, to move from side to side, to guide it and to make sure it responds to the air. I flew twice, and it was wonderful. Alan and Pete have flown in a machine that was far more complex, one that was enclosed and could fly in the very dark between the stars."

"Surely none but the Valar can do such," Faramir challenged.

"I saw the machine myself. It was not flying, but lying upon the ground and the gorillas had smashed the devices that made it work, but it existed. Knowing it existed, knowing the truth, that humans were intelligent beings, made me outcast in my time."

"Outcast? For truth?" Faramir frowned. "All too easy, I fear, in any time. The truth can be terrifying. My father refused to see the truth of the One Ring, that it had power only for destruction. He meant to bring it here, and claimed it would not be used but locked away, and then his voice changed and he said that only at the uttermost end of need could it be used. I knew it would corrupt him completely, as I believed it had my brother. Yet I knew Boromir had risen from its thrall to fight for Pippin and Merry."

"If it is so dangerous, will it endanger Frodo?" Galen worried.

"So I fear," Faramir said. "Yet Frodo is strong, and so determined to succeed, and his companion, brave Samwise, is loyal and sturdy of heart. I spoke yesterday to Éowyn, that I did not believe the darkness will endure, and I do not. Yet I know there is peril and that many may die before the Ring is cast into the flames and Sauron falls."

"I worry so much about Alan. Pete is getting better, and he will come out soon to take the air. But Alan is so far away, in such danger, and we can't help him." His shoulders sagged.

"I worry, too, about my king, about Mithrandir, about Pippin, about Éowyn's brother, and the others, men who have served under my command. All we can do is trust them and hope. Come, tell me more of your time. What became of this flying machine?"

"We destroyed it," Galen admitted. "For there was a female chimpanzee, Carsia, who meant to use it to carry explosive devices to destroy all who were not chimpanzees. Apes do not kill apes, but she meant to." He hung his head. "I once killed a gorilla, but I didn't mean to. His weapon went off when we were struggling. Even if he was trying to kill my friends, I wish I had merely stunned him instead. It is a heavy weight to bear."

"The first time one is forced to kill is difficult," Faramir admitted. "I have seen men who consider themselves very brave turn aside after their first battle and spew the contents of their stomachs in revulsion. We must kill orcs, for they are not as we, not as men, elves, dwarves, or hobbits. They eat their enemies, and even each other. They were created to kill and for no other purpose. I will slay any that confront me because it is what must be done. They would see the west destroyed, the world of men ended and for no other reason than that we exist. Yet they will replace men's greatness with filth and corruption. The men of Númenor built this city long ago, a masterpiece of design, and Osgiliath, which was once a place of great beauty and light, art and music. When I rode off to Osgiliath with my men, I told Gandalf I would gladly give my life to preserve what was always good in the world of men, and so I still hold."

"In my time, apes considered themselves superior to humans. Humans had always made war, and apes believed themselves peaceful. Yet I have seen gorillas kill humans simply because they could. Carsia would have killed gorillas and orangutans simply because they were not chimpanzees. I've thought about it long and hard, and I think there is the potential for good and for ill in all races. The apes of my time were afraid, I think, of becoming too much like what they believed humans had once been, and in striving so hard, they became what they feared." He chuckled. "Pete once said as much. He told me there was a great sage in his world who said, 'We have met the enemy and they are us.' And do you know, Faramir, I see what he meant. I prefer to think all apes are not like that, but I think it is in every being, to face the challenges and to rise above them or to fall."

"Your friend Pete is wise, my friend, and so are you," Faramir said with a smile. "I will consider your words. But come. What other devices have you in your world that we have not here?"

"Well, once Alan was shot, wounded, by gorillas and he needed surgery to remove the bullet."

"Bullet?" Faramir asked. He had never heard that term before.

"The gorillas have weapons called rifles; they can throw a small piece of metal very fast, and it penetrates the body and causes damage, like--like an arrow can," he added. "Oh." Realization struck him. "I'm sorry, Faramir, I didn't mean to remind you of your wounds."

"I do not forget," Faramir said, "not when sudden movement unhappily recalls them. But this little piece of metal you speak of did not have a shaft? It flew of its own accord? That is why surgery was needed, to cut it forth?" He shuddered.

"Yes, that is why. In my time, surgeons--healers--do not perform surgery on humans." He bowed his head. "It is a great fault of my time, and I tried to educate my fellow apes, but only with limited success. This time, Pete and I took Alan to Kira, once a dear friend of mine. I almost...married her, but it didn't work out." His eyes grew grave with remembrance. "She and Dr. Leander did operate on Alan, and we stole a book about human anatomy to help them. But there was a problem."

"What problem? Alan lives and is well."

"Yes, now, but he had lost much blood and would lose more when they cut the bullet out. So Pete and Alan, who know much, suggested we find a way to transfer blood from someone else to Alan."

Faramir straightened so quickly his wounds shrieked at him, but he ignored the sudden pain. "Such cannot be. In my studies, I have learned such things were attempted here, but it always failed. There was only one success, but more deaths, so the practice was abandoned."

"They had tried such there, on a human, taking her blood and giving it to her brother, but he died. She was outcast as a result. But Pete knew better. He said each person has slightly different blood, that there are a number of different types, and that it is not always...what was that word he used? Compatible. If you use the wrong kind, it will kill the person. But if you use the right kind, then it can work. They knew how to test the blood and found that the human girl had the right kind to save Alan, and so she gave her blood to him, and he lived. And so did she."

"This is remarkable, Galen. A true miracle, if such can be done. If Pete knows how to test for this and can explain the process to our healers, Gondor will be in his debt--and yours--for telling us of such."

"I know he will gladly tell of it," Galen said. "Oh, this is exciting. I'm so glad we can help. I don't understand the process, but your healers will, once Pete explains it to them." He gave a bounce. "They know many things. Once Pete made a device called an expander out of polished crystal. If you looked through it, it made everything appear very big. It could also be used to make fire, if the sun shone through it."

Faramir smiled. "This we know. I have seen such devices in the archives. Elves know of such, and we learned it from them. They are not widely used, but are valuable for reading ancient text that was writ very small."

"It might help in the healing," Galen said, quite carried away with the thought. "To see wounds up close and make sure they were cleaned up and stitched completely."

"What else do you do in your time?" Faramir asked. "I would learn all I could, the better to help my people."

"Well, let me see." Galen cocked his head, pondering. "Oh, I know. The gorillas have a signaling device. It is a piece of very shiny substance that they tilt to catch the sunlight, and they know a code to spell out their messages. They are mounted atop hills and can send messages to others who will relay them on, or give warning to those below. It would be like the beacon fires you lit to send for the Rohirrim. More detailed messages could be sent."

"Another useful tool. I thank you, Galen."

Galen smiled. "I will do all I can. I have never been around so many humans before, but it only convinces me what value humans have. And now I must also include elves and dwarves, and our little hobbit friends, too. Oh, this is all so interesting!"

That made Faramir smile. "Enthusiasm for knowledge is not as widespread as I wish it was," he admitted. Talking to Galen was like finding a kindred spirit, one who wished to learn everything possible. How quickly one forgot his strange appearance. If Galen and his friends could never return to his own time, he could make a place for himself here in Minas Tirith, and he and Faramir could study the old scrolls together.

"Have you considered my offer about working in the archives?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, I've thought about it very hard. I found a book and looked at it and I could read the writing as long as I didn't stop to think about it too hard. If I did, then the letters would grow unfamiliar, but then they would change back and I could read them. I think I must learn them from the beginning, instead of trusting this amazing knowledge the machine that brought us here put into my head."

"I would like to learn the language you speak, but not if it would cause you difficulties."

"Difficulties?" Galen asked.

"The amazing machine gifted you with our tongue. Yet I realize you know not the language of elves or dwarves. You speak our tongue without considering it, and you hear it and understand it when it is spoken to you. But it is...oh, a thing of the part of the mind that works without conscious plan."

"Alan and Pete call it the subconscious mind," Galen said. "The part that comes up with things when you really aren't thinking about them."

"Yes, that is what I mean. If you struggle too hard, maybe the part that is aware will overcome that part and you will lose the gift of Westron."

"Westron? That is the name of your language? It flows very smoothly. There are even words in it I do not understand, but I will learn."

"You said this machine that thrust you here was used when the society who made it fell, and those last stragglers escaped through it into their past? Perhaps the language teaching was not meant to falter. For those who meant to make a permanent home in their past, it would be needed; it must not fail. Or perhaps the constant speech of the new language would become natural and customary.

Galen looked past Faramir and suddenly breathed, "Oh." He jumped to his feet. "I must return to my duties," he said. "And here is your lady to keep you company."

Faramir rose, too, and saw Éowyn hesitating in the archway. At once he went to her and held out his hands to her. After a hesitation so slight as to be almost imperceptible, she put hers into them.

Galen edged past, a knowing smile upon his face. "Goodbye, Faramir. Hello and goodbye, my lady," and hurried away in his unusual swinging gait.

"You have been speaking with the ape?" Éowyn asked. "He is very kind. He brought me fruit this morning and said he had looked for it especially for me."

"Yes, kind he is, and quick of mind. I enjoy talking with him."

"He need not have hurried away."

Faramir smiled. "Ah, but he is very quick of mind. He knew how eagerly I awaited your coming."

Her cheeks suddenly took on a tinge of pink, and she looked up at him and then away. His heart bounded at the sight. Was she coming to care for him as he did for her? He knew she had felt a great love for Aragorn, and he could understand that, for who would not love the long-awaited king, who was noble and brave and great of heart? Would she consider Faramir, who was not to be king, nor even ruling steward? Yet his heart craved her company, and he knew he would find contentment, peace, and joy if she would but look to him.

"My lord, I am glad to come," she replied.

He squeezed her hands then released them. "Let us sit," he said. "The damp has passed and there is warmth in the air. Can you not feel it? Even if Mordor is wreathed in shadow and flame, the very air holds hope." He drew her to a seat that faced away from Mordor. Soon the army would reach the Black Gate. Frodo had not yet made his way to the mountain Orodruin, for surely the world would change in an instant, if the Ring should be unmade. But it could happen. It could happen very soon. Why else would the air tantalize him with hope and the birth of springtime?

Unless it was the fair lady at his side.

He waited for her to sit and then sat beside her. It was too soon to speak of all that filled his heart, but he craved her company. "Éowyn, I have been hearing a remarkable tale that I would share with you," he said. "Galen has told me a story of how in his time Pete and Alan constructed a machine in which he could soar through the air?"

She lifted wide, startled eyes to his. "Soar through the air. As on the back of a fell beast?" Her mouth tightened.

Mentally, Faramir cursed himself for reminding her, however obliquely, of her uncle's death. "No, not as that, my heart. A device that enabled a man to leave the ground and soar like birds on high." He captured one hand and held it warmly in his own. "It would be like the way I feel when I stand aloft in the high tower above."

"Oh," she breathed, suddenly caught in the thought. "Often in Edoras, I would stand before the Golden Hall and gaze out across the vast expanse of land below. I never thought to soar out above it, but such vistas there would be."

"If any be bold enough to dare such, it is you," he told her. "Perhaps when the war is past and our brave army returns in triumph, we will ask Galen's friends the construction of such a machine, and build it. Would you soar with me above the world?"

Her eyes lit. "I would love to soar...with you." The last two words were spoken so very softly he could not be certain he had heard them. Quickly she lowered her eyes and would not dare to meet his gaze. "To soar on high," she said more loudly. "It is but a dream."

"It is a dream worth having, and for you, with such a bold, free spirit, I can see it."

"Value you a bold, free spirit in a woman? Or is it that I am strange to you, a shield maiden of the north."

He wanted to say 'not strange, but dear,' yet he feared she was not ready to hear such. She had clasped his hand more than once, but her eyes often turned to the north. To Rohan? Or across the Anduin to the Black Gate where rode Aragorn and her brother? Which of them did she sigh for as her eyes scanned the far distances?

Would that she would sigh for him.

"I value spirit when I see it, and why should a woman not be bold and free? It is a gift, the gift of a strong, courageous heart, the gift to look beyond convention and bring forth the truth of one's soul." He smiled down at her, then he tilted her chin to bring her gaze up to him. "I have not been free to do with my life as I would, and perhaps never fully shall be, for it is in me that to study lore would be a wondrous thing, to learn of the past, of Númenor, of the elves, of all the knowledge of Middle-earth. Yet Gondor needed me to be a ranger, so that is what I have done. Now, Gondor requires me to serve as steward."

"You shall be a fine steward," she said. "Gondor's finest, I think."

"Yet it is not what I have been trained to. Oh, doubt not I have had some training," he said. "It was required I learn the duties of the steward, and my father expected me to know all, even if it was not made easy. I have been told I have a gift for tact and diplomacy, and that I have patience, and perhaps I do. All I know is that I will serve Aragorn, and it will be my honor to do so, and in doing so, serve Gondor, for my country is dear to me."

She gazed at him, her eyes wide and respectful. "To accept duty and perform it out of love is the most worthy thing I can think of." She smiled then. "And surely Aragorn will need his steward to be most learned and will often require him to resort to the archives to learn how tasks were carried out in the days of the kings."

At that, Faramir's smile blazed out. "I hope that will be. He has named me the Prince of Ithilien, and that gladdens my heart, for it is a fair land, and will be a great country once the Enemy is no more and the lands can be made safe. One day, I hope to dwell there, near the White City so I may perform my stewardly duties, but in my own realm. It is a very fair country, Éowyn. Wild and free. I think you would like it."

"I hope to see it one day, my lord."

"Call me not 'my lord,' but Faramir," he encouraged.

She smiled up at him hesitantly. "If you wish it," she said. "Faramir."

The sound of his name on her tongue warmed his heart.

Surely Frodo would succeed, surely Aragorn would triumph at the Black Gate. The air held such hope it felt like breathing rapture.

            *****

Alan Virdon had believed the battle he had fought in the streets of Minas Tirith terrible beyond endurance but the sight of the Black Gate of Mordor, as towering as a section of the Great Wall of China, sent despair plunging through his heart. How could they hope to win against such a massive fortress? Would the gates remain sealed against them while orcs sent down a rain of arrows from the walls the way they had slaughtered Faramir's men in his futile charge on Osgiliath? Or would the gates swing wide and allow ten thousand orcs to pour forth and kill them all? He had been insane to come here. If he fell, Sally would never know how he had died. He would have no chance to see her again, or Chris.

How could one small hobbit ever hope to stand against all those orcs? Surely he must have been captured or killed by now.

Aragorn rode forth with his party; Gandalf with Pippin, Éomer with Merry, Legolas with Gimli, and a herald bearing Aragorn's banner. They stopped just short of the vast gate and Aragorn raised his voice. "Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth. Let justice be done upon him."

Yeah, right, Alan thought cynically. How could such a tiny army ever hope to do justice upon the lord of this dark land?

The gates creaked open a narrow slit and one man rode out. Alan craned his neck to see over the shoulder of the man of Rohan before him. The rider's helmet completely covered his eyes, but he rode on anyway and called out in a voice that made Alan itch to shut the creep up, "My Master, Sauron the great, bids thee welcome." I'll just bet, Alan thought. "Is there any in this rout with authority to treat with me?"

Gandalf answered him. "We do not come to treat with Sauron, faithless and accursed. Tell your master this. The armies of Mordor must disband. He is to depart these lands, never to return."

Alan didn't think Sauron's mouthpiece would buy that, and he didn't. "Old Greybeard," he said, sounding almost amused. "I have a token I was bidden to show thee." He suddenly held up what looked like a very small shirt of chain mail. Tension ran through the small party on  horseback that Alan could feel, even two rows back in the body of the army.

"Frodo!" cried Pippin in a horrified, stricken voice. The character flung the shirt though the air, and Gandalf caught it. "Frodo...."

"Silence!" Gandalf commanded, probably afraid the creep who had thrown the shirt would realize how effective his little display was.

Merry cried, "No!"

Once again, Gandalf ordered, "Silence."

The guy with the eyeless helmet decided to twist the knife. "The halfling was dear to thee, I see. Know that he suffered greatly at the hands of his host. Who would have thought one so small would endure so much pain."

Gandalf flinched and let Pippin take the shirt. The hobbit's fingers clutched it tightly. Alan was pretty sure he was crying, and he didn't blame Pippin one bit. This had to mean Sauron had the Ring. It was hopeless. The battle was already lost.

"But he did, Gandalf," the figure in black gloated. "He did."

Aragorn had evidently had all he could take. He guided his great horse closer. That won him the instant attention of Sauron's flunky. "And who is this? Isildur's heir? It takes more to make a king than a broken elvish blade."

Aragorn didn't argue with him. He didn't speak at all. Instead he whipped out his long sword and beheaded the guy, just like that. One swift stroke and his head went flying, proving the king wouldn't hesitate to use the 'broken' blade.

Gimli's voice rang out. "I guess that concludes negotiations."

Aragorn reined around and looked at Gandalf. "I do not believe it," he insisted fiercely. "I will not."

Alan wished he dared disbelieve it. But with everything he had been through, hope was not exactly the number one emotion on his list of doables. If anything could go wrong, then it surely would go wrong. Murphy's Law.

To prove him right, the massive gates grated wider, exposing an impossible number of orcs. Even before the gates had opened to their full width, the orcs started marching out, steadily, inexorably, making no sound at all except the pounding of their feet and the clank of their armor. Beyond them Alan saw a huge black tower topped by a great flaming eye that gazed down ceaselessly upon the land. The Eye of Sauron! At the sight of it, Alan's belly knotted up. How could they hope to defeat something like that? Sauron wasn't human. Could he even be killed?

Beyond rose a great volcano, flames shooting from its cone. Mount Doom. That terrible mountain was where poor Frodo had to go. Impossible. It had to be impossible.

"Fall back! Fall back!" Aragorn called and wheeled his horse. The small band galloped back to the main body of the army.

Alan could feel panic surging through the men. If something didn't happen to halt their fear, they might break and run. Aragorn picked up on their blind terror, and he rode back in forth in front of them, calling out to them in a desperate attempt to bolster their courage.

"Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes cashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!"

Alan had thought nothing could cut through the agonizing dread engendered by the sight of all those orcs, but Aragorn's words and pose, there on his horse, did what should have been impossible. A breath went through the men like a great wave, a breath of resolution. As each man drew his sword, Alan looked up at Aragorn and saw his horse rear. It put the punctuation on his words, and sent a wave of heartening determination through the small army.

Aragorn sent the horses to wait with the supply wagons. There were too few of them to make a difference in battle. Once they were gone, the army waited silently while the orcs marched endlessly out of Mordor. Alan wondered why Aragorn didn't call on his men to attack, but he didn't. He just stood at the head of the army and waited. Was he delaying as long as he could to give Frodo every possible second? What were the odds that Frodo would succeed any time soon just because they needed him to?

Slowly and inexorably the orcs marched, gradually surrounding the pitifully small army. There could be no hope. They were all going to die here, to die for a cause that would likely fail anyway. Alan expected to die. He had thought only a few days ago that he wanted to die, that he had no hope, but the earlier battle had proven how fiercely he wanted to live. Even if he could never go home, he wanted to live. He wanted to make it back to Minas Tirith and see Pete and Galen again. He wanted at least to have the hope the Guardian could repair the Annuate and bring them back. It was a small hope, so small as to seem impossible, but this very battle was impossible, too. Without hope, none would dare try, and Aragorn's ringing words had given the men hope, even believing they would fall.

Not far away, Gimli looked up at Legolas. "Never thought I'd die fighting side by side with a elf," he said.

Legolas gazed down at him, and Alan saw the warmth of his smile. "What about side by side with a friend?" he asked.

Gimli's face lit. "Aye," he said, and his voice held a certain rich contentment, even in the face of impending death. "I can do that."

Those brief words heartened Alan more than he had believed possible. He looked around, seeking out those he had come to know. Little Pippin seemed so small, there beside his friend, but his face was taut with resolution. Gandalf stood, grave and intent. Could he do whatever it was he had done against the Nazgûl earlier? Or was that dependent on the staff he had carried, the one it was said the Witch King had shattered just before the Rohirrim had come? He carried a sword, but he was an old man. Just how old Alan didn't know, just as he didn't know if a wizard was something greater than a man. Éomer of Rohan stood rigid and determined, broad and strong in his armor, his face as if carved from stone, but his courage would carry him on, the way it had on the Pelennor. The men Alan had marched with were sturdy and purposeful, supporting Gondor, supporting Rohan.

Alan had never been prouder of the human race than he was in this moment.

The orcs completed their circle around the army and still did not attack. A horrible silence covered the land, and Alan swallowed hard, for his throat had grown drier than dust.

Aragorn turned and gazed back at Gandalf. "For Frodo," he said in a voice too soft to carry back more than a few rows.

Then, brandishing his sword, he ran out toward the orcs and toward the Black Gate all alone, so surprising the army that for an instant, no one else moved. Pippin, sworn to Gondor, Frodo's cousin, was the first one to follow him, his friend Merry half a step behind him. The rest of the army charged the orcs in a great flood, yelling as they ran.

As Alan ran with them, he found himself caught up in a wild battle madness. This was worse than the streets of Minas Tirith. As he slashed and parried with his sword, he was granted glimpses of the orcs. Only the first ones in the rows that surrounded them attacked. As they fell to the fury of the men's assault, the ones behind would fill in the gap. It was as if each had twenty five back-ups, ready to step in as replacements when the first string fell. Tag-team warfare.

Hopeless. It was hopeless.

Alan spotted Pippin driving his sword into the belly of a hulking Uruk-hai, astonishment on the Uruk's face as he realized the size of his killer before he slid off the sword and died. Beyond him, Gimli swung his great axe, chopping orcs the way he might chop firewood. When he had a clear space, Legolas used his bow. He had also a sword and fighting knives and moved with the lightning grace Alan had come to associate with elves, so fluid were his movements.

Gandalf battled like a man decades younger than his apparent age. Tested on the Pelennor, Merry never hesitated. When he couldn't get a good angle with his sword, he would scoop up rocks and fling them with deadly accuracy. Éomer fought like a driven man. Once Alan saw him glance over at Merry, who fought as if his strength would never end. Pride in the halfling lit Eomer's face, and, as if he could draw strength from the sight, he plunged into battle with renewed vigor.

Aragorn was incredible. Impossible to imagine any man could fight so tirelessly, so ferociously, so skillfully. He would never yield, not while he had breath in his body.

Alan would have followed him into any battle.

Nazgûl swooped overhead, threatening them, but then something happened Alan could never have imagined. Soaring out of the sky to contend with them came eagles, but not the ordinary eagles Alan was used to back home. These were huge, as big as Piper Cubs, and they fought on the side of Men.

"The Eagles!" Pippin shouted exultantly. "The Eagles are coming!"

Each of the great birds attacked one of the Nazgûl. Alan saw one of the black riders fall from his mount and crash to the unforgiving ground. At once a dozen soldiers mobbed him, slashing and stabbing. The Witch King had claimed no mortal man could kill him, but he had been the leader of the Nazgûl. It seemed the rest of them were more vulnerable. Or maybe the fall had killed him. After a moment, Gandalf fought his way in that direction, and he thrust his sword into the unmoving figure.

"If he should need a slayer who is not mortal, then Gandalf will suffice," Legolas said to Alan as he fought his way past.

"Isn't Gandalf mortal?" Alan asked, and the question seemed to answer itself.

"He is of the Istari," Legolas said, then whirled to confront two orcs, who bore down on him, leaving Alan to wonder who the Istari were. With a shout, Alan took on the second of them, and together they dispatched the pair.

The battle raged on. Alan's sword arm ached with the effort of countering orcish attacks. If he stopped to think about it, his arm would tremble so much he would surely drop his weapon, but he had no time to think about it. There were only orcs and more orcs, orcs without number, orcs that never stopped coming.

Something happened then that surprised Alan. All at once, the Nazgûl whirled away and flew off into Mordor. The Eye turned toward the mountain. Could that mean Frodo had reached his destination? At the sight of the departing Nazgûl, Gandalf stared after them, despair on his face. Did he fear they would stop Frodo before he could succeed? Or was the option worse? The Ring had tempted Boromir. Maybe it had finally tempted Frodo.

The horrible roar that rang across the battlefield turned Alan's bones to water. He knew that sound all too well from the defense of the gates of Minas Tirith. A troll. Whirling, he looked for it and saw it storming across the battlefield, knocking men and orcs from its path.

It made straight for Aragorn.

"Aragorn!" Legolas bellowed, off to Alan's right. He was too far away to reach his friend before the troll did, but he started that way, forcing his way through the battle, driving orcs back as he fought. Alan plunged after him. Maybe he hadn't sworn an official oath to Aragorn, but he'd given the king his loyalty without it.

The troll swung a humongous sword at Aragorn, who countered. Alan half expected his sword to shatter from such a ferocious blow, but it held. It had been reforged, which Alan would have half expected to make it weaker--but it had been reforged by the elves. Maybe they had a special technique to give it added strength.

As Aragorn fought the troll, Legolas struggled to reach him, and the orcs battled on. Suddenly Aragorn went down, and Alan couldn't tell if he had been killed or merely knocked from his feet. If he were dead, that meant hope was gone.

Legolas pushed aside two orcs and ran on, yelling Aragorn's name. Alan ran at his heels. Suddenly from his left came a huge orc, bearing down on Legolas, who seemed unaware of anything except the danger to Aragorn.

With a fierce cry, Alan jumped at the orc and thrust his sword into its back before it could skewer the elf. It writhed and twisted on his blade, then it slid free to sprawl dead on the ground. Legolas ran on, unaware of his close call, but Alan caught a deep relieved breath before he hurried after him.

That was when the world changed. Suddenly the great Eye spasmed and cried out in a horrible voice of pain and torment. Alan ran a few more steps before he faltered to a shaken stop, his gaze lifted to Sauron. As he watched in disbelief, the tower of Barad-dûr crumbled in upon itself and fell, just like a building set for demolition. Everyone froze, staring as the Eye twisted and writhed, almost boiling in its torment. Abruptly it imploded into nothingness, forcing out a great shock wave upon the land.

The troll blundered away. Orcs threw down their swords and fled mindlessly. As Alan watched, Barad-dûr finished its collapse and great pits opened up in Mordor, sucking countless orcs into their depths. The vast bulk of the remaining orc army fell, and the ones who ran past the army and away didn't even look back. The walls of the Black Gate plunged down into the huge pits.

Aragorn climbed to his feet.

Abruptly the shock wave ran past them, a wonderful thing, a sudden burst of hope the likes of which Alan had never felt before. Its force should have knocked the army to its knees, but it didn't. Heads came up and smiles lit weary faces.

"Frodo! Frodo!" Merry cried, exultant.

Victory! That's what it was. Frodo, indeed, up there on the fiery mountain, had cast the Ring away into the fire, and it was unmade.

A man Alan had never seen before pounded him exuberantly on the back, and all through the army, cheers rose.

That was when the mountain blew its top off.

Dead silence hit the army. Every eye focused on the great eruption. Fire shot into the sky and lava surged down the flanks of the mountain. Not too far away, Pippin fell to his knees, weeping.

Frodo!

Was the eruption Sauron's last hurrah, a final shot against the people of Middle-earth, to destroy the Ringbearer? Gandalf looked utterly crushed, and Aragorn's shoulders slumped as he moved to stand with the wizard.

An Eagle came then, dropping down from the sky while two more circled overhead. It landed just before Gandalf, who approached it boldly. "Great Gwaihir, I have urgent need of you," he said.

"I come to serve," the bird replied. Alan's mouth jaw dropped halfway to his knees. "Come, we shall seek the Ringbearer."

"I go to find Frodo and Sam," Gandalf said to Aragorn, then he knelt before Merry and Pippin. "If they can be found, our brave Eagles will find them, for they are very farsighted, as well as bold. Take heart, my dear hobbits, for such courage as Frodo's deserves a more fitting end than this."

Then he mounted the Eagle's back, and flew away.

Alan was still staring after it in openmouthed wonder when someone grabbed him around the middle and hugged him fiercely. He looked down in astonishment to find Gimli drawing away from him. "Thank you, laddie," the dwarf said. "I saw you save the elf, there in the heat of the battle. He never saw, but I did. I am in your debt," he concluded simply. "He is my friend."

"I hope he's mine," Alan replied. He was so weary, his sword tip driven into the ground because he didn't think he had the strength to lift it.

As one, they turned and gazed up at the flaming mountain. "I have hope for the wee hobbit," Gimli said, "and for Sam, too. The Cracks of Doom are not at the very top, but lower, in a cavern. They may still have time to flee. I must go and tell Merry and Pippin that." He hurried off to the hobbits.

Alan followed more slowly. Ah, Frodo, he thought, and it didn't matter that he had never met Frodo and now probably never would. He owed his life to Frodo, and everyone else here owed him their world. How had he managed such an impossible task, when the Ring must have acted against him all the way as it had affected Boromir? Someone else Alan had never met and never could. But Frodo had done it, and Sauron had fallen.

No hope? Why, the world was full of hope. If Frodo could succeed, if one small hobbit--no, two small hobbits--could make their way into the very heart of Mordor and destroy the Ring, then anything was possible, anything at all. Frodo and Sam might yet live to be rescued. It might even be possible that, one day, Alan would find a way home, see Sally again, see Chris, and find them waiting for him.

If that didn't happen, he was still alive, and he had two friends waiting in Minas Tirith--and other friends right here. Spread out before him was a whole world, full of hurts that needed mending, dreams waiting to be realized. Being stranded here was not the end. It was just a different path, one he hadn't selected, but one he would have to walk.

Smiling a little, he started for the hobbits, to see what comfort he could give them while they waited to see if the Eagles would find their friends.

            *****

"They are very kind to me here," Galen said, and he tilted his head thoughtfully as he pondered it.

Pete stretched a bit, and smiled when his wound didn't instantly protest. He had grown used to the pain, but his side felt much better than it had at first. Yeah, right, he thought with an edge of bitterness. The army's been gone all this time and it's still dark over Mordor. Alan could be dead for all we know, and the world be ready to collapse. And all Galen thinks is that they're kind to him.

He shook off the dark mood. It wasn't Galen's fault. He didn't understand war; in his time gorillas might make small wars on humans and chase them, gunning them down, but that wasn't war, and it had never really touched Galen except in the pursuit they had often experienced. The battle on the Pelennor and the fighting within the city had terrified him, numbed him, because it was beyond his comprehension, and the task of caring for the wounded had let him focus his thoughts on positive action. But now, waiting for the world to end, what right did Pete have to rain on Galen's parade?

"Kind how?" he asked. He turned his eyes toward the mountains of Mordor. Dark and grim as they were, it was what was beyond them that bothered him; the flames that rose from the distant mountain, the seething of clouds, poor little Frodo, lost somewhere in there, and Alan going off to fight orcs because he saw it as his duty, his responsibility. Alan had always been a great one for responsibility.

"They have taken me in, the healers, and will train me to be one. Girand has been very kind. He saw I had a room of my own for sleeping, and Faramir has given me books to read so I can learn about Middle-earth. And, oh, Pete, I can read the writing here. It's different from the writing we know, but I can read it. I'm making myself learn it even if I can read it, sounding out the words and memorizing the symbols in case the magic of the Annuate machine should fail. The books tell of the creation of the world. I never thought about that, not really, but it is so very interesting. The people of Gondor are descended from the men of Númenor, who lived far longer than normal humans. Aragorn is descended from them more directly, and he is eighty-seven years old, the Lady Éowyn says."

"And is Faramir that old, too?" Pete asked skeptically.

"I asked him. No, he is thirty-four."

"Well, good. I was afraid everybody around us was going to live forever like the elves." He heard the sarcasm in his voice. "Sorry. I'm just worried about Alan."

"Oh, Pete, so am I. Now that I know what war is like--it's so terrible--I can't help worrying about Alan, and about little Pippin, and Gandalf and the others. They are so brave."

"Yeah, they sure are," Pete agreed.

Galen bowed his head. "I don't think I could be so brave."

"Oh, give me a break. Brave? The times you defended Alan and me against gorillas don't count? The times you acted a part, knowing if you were found out you'd be killed.... You're the bravest chimpanzee I ever met. And one of the bravest people, no matter what race."

"Oh!" Galen stared at him, eyes wide with wonder. "Do you really think so?"

"Wouldn't say it if I didn't." When Galen's eyes warmed and he straightened up, Pete couldn't hold back a smile. "So, you're gonna learn how to be a healer?"

"Well, I could. But Faramir said if I wanted to help in the archives he would arrange that for me. It's why he gave me the books, to make sure I could read them. It would be so fascinating. I've always wanted to learn all I could. Back in my time I wanted to become Zaius's assistant because I thought I could learn so much. My father encouraged me to apply to him." He scrunched up his face in concentration. "I suppose Zaius considered me because my father is on the High Council, but I'm glad he did because it put me in a position to meet you and Alan."

"You're glad about that, huh? Even though we're stranded in the ancient world before recorded history and Sauron is about to take over everything?"

"Well, you know I don't like that part. Sauron sounds like a monster. Why, he would make Urko seem virtuous by comparison. But I would never go back to the comfortable and safe assumptions I made all my life. Once you learn the truth, Pete, you can't just ignore it because it's uncomfortable or frightening."

No, that you couldn't. Drawing back and pretending the truth was wrong led to more problems than Pete could imagine. What was that old saying back home? 'Minds are like parachutes. They function best when open.'

"I know what you mean, buddy. I've had a few collisions with the truth myself. Truth is, we're probably stuck here. I'd say the odds of going home are a heck of a lot worse than finding a computer that could read Alan's disk, back in your time."

"You never encouraged him with the disk." Galen said thoughtfully. "You said he was, er, 'off his rocker' to even consider it."

"Not very sympathetic, was I?" With Alan off to the Black Gate, Pete wished he had encouraged Alan a bit more; yet in the end, he was pretty sure he'd been right not to. Alan had thrived on the challenge, even if it might be pointless, and it had given him something to focus on. That hadn't been Pete's reason, but now, sitting here in the garden of the Houses of Healing, waiting for the world to end, he thought he'd been an idiot. What right did he have to try to take away Alan's hope without giving him something to replace it? Alan had replaced it here with his sudden loyalty to Aragorn, a loyalty uncommon back home. A soldier might admire a great military commander, but he wouldn't swear personal allegiance to him. That kind of thing had gone out of fashion well before 1980. Here, it felt right. Pete admired Aragorn, too, what little he had seen of him.

"Maybe Alan didn't need sympathy," Galen ventured, looking up at Pete with wide eyes. "Maybe he needed a...a spur, something to give him purpose. I think a part of you knew that."

"Maybe," Pete conceded. "But it was a small part. So," he said briskly, because thinking of Alan scared him too much, "which is it to be? Healer or scholar?"

"Oh, Pete, I don't know. Scholar...that is so natural to me. I have so much to learn, you see, about the world here, the customs, the peoples."

"I think a lot of folks here will have those lessons to learn. The races have been isolated but I don't think Aragorn will let that continue. He wants them all to be able to live together, to be more understanding. That's what Alan likes so much about him. You'd make a great scholar, Galen. You have an inquiring mind, and you take so much joy in new experiences. I can still remember how thrilled you were when we rigged up our glider and let you fly it. Alan and I watched you, and we couldn't stop grinning the whole time."

"I was...grinning, too," Galen admitted. "I told Faramir about the flying machine, and I think he will want you to make one for him, after the war. I told them about the expander you made, too, but he says they are known here, if not very common. Elves discovered how to make them, I think." He bowed his head a moment. "Oh, Pete, I want so much to be a scholar here. But those poor men in the Houses of Healing; they were so terribly hurt, and I could help them. I could soothe them. It made me so sick to see their terrible wounds, but I could ease them. It would be so much harder to be a healer, but...but I think I would choose that."

"Because it's harder?"

"Because I can," Galen admitted. "The books will always be there. Faramir would be a scholar if he could, but he can't, either. He must be the steward. He became a warrior because Gondor needed warriors, and now he will be steward because Aragorn needs him. I think to serve where you are needed is...is a heroic thing."

"You admire Faramir, don't you, Galen?"

"Very much. Until I met you and Pete, I thought humans were, oh, only clever animals. I couldn't see what was right before my eyes. And now I can see so clearly. If I went back to my own time, I could never sit back and let apes continue to close their minds. I couldn't."

"You'd lead a rebellion?" Pete asked.

"Oh. No. Not violence. I never want to see violence again. But there must be a way...." He shook his head. "I don't think we can ever go back, Pete. I don't. I can't help the humans of my time. So I'll help the humans here who need healers."

"You know, Galen, you're one heck of a great ape." Pete clapped him on the back. "I'm proud to know you."

"Oh? Truly? Proud?" Galen beamed. "But I learned it all from you and Alan. Pete, what will you do here?"

"What will I do? Once I'm let out of here, you mean?" He gestured around the garden to indicate the Houses of Healing. "I've been thinking about it. I know a lot of things, things we did back in the twentieth century. Some of them had better stay there. I don't think we'd do the future any good if I started inventing things before they were meant to happen. But there are ways to make things easier for folks. The people here are pretty damn smart. They may not have cars and toasters, but they don't need them." He rose, stretched carefully, and sat down again. His side pulled, but in a better way than it had at first, and it didn't even make him wince."

"Will you make a...a battery, like you did in that ruined Oakland place?"

Pete grinned. "No, because there's nothing for it to power. Still, it's something to think about. Back in my time, they had a term for people who knew a little bit about a lot of things. They called it a Jack of all Trades. Maybe they have people like that here, and maybe they don't, but if not, I could be the first one."

"I think that's a wonderful idea. You could look in some of the books, too. I'm sure they have them about how things work here, what sort of machines they have. No computers, any more than my people had them, but they have machines that make war. So why not machines that help in times of peace?"

"Maybe I can design them better plows," Pete said with a smile. "Build windmills. Though if they have trebuchets and some of the other things they've got here, they probably have windmills already."

"But you could learn what they have and see what they don't, and then build what might help. Even if Frodo carries the Ring to Mount Doom and Sauron is destroyed, there's been so much damage, Pete. So many lives have been lost, and so many homes destroyed. The land is probably torn up and they will need any help they can get to grow good crops."

"Reconstruction," Pete said thoughtfully, and then he smiled. "Yeah, they'll need all the help they can get." He straightened up. It felt good to have a purpose.

Across the garden, he saw Faramir and Éowyn standing together, but he didn't suggest they join the pair. Faramir was pretty much smitten, but Pete wasn't so sure about Éowyn. She spent a lot of time gazing off to the north, in the direction the army had marched. She might be worrying about her brother, her people, and Merry, who had become a friend. But Pete had the idea she was thinking of Aragorn. He hated the idea that Faramir would be an also-ran, but lately he thought Éowyn looked at Faramir with more awareness than before. Back home, the last thing he ever did was wonder if people were going to get together. That was something women fussed over, not men. But he liked Faramir, and he'd hate to see the guy hurt after all he'd been through.

Galen followed his gaze. "He loves her," he said.

"Yeah, I figured that."

"I cannot tell if she loves him. She likes him, though."

Before they could speculate further, something happened. The sky over Mordor stirred in a different way, and a kind of darkness arose out of the mountains. It seemed that the city stilled, not only the city, the world, and a huge breathless hush filled everything. Pete drew in a sharp breath and looked at Mordor across the river. Lightning flickered there. Across the garden, Faramir and Éowyn watched, and their hands clasped. Pete jumped to his feet, and Galen stared openmouthed.

A shock wave hit, then, a kind of weird tremor that ran through the very stones of the city beneath Pete's feet, traveling every outward. It was as if the world heaved a great sigh, and Pete let out his breath as he felt the tension draining away from him.

"Oh, Pete, what is it?" Galen whispered, and he reached out nervously to clutch Pete's arm. "Is it the end of the world?"

"No," said Pete, and surprised himself at how positive he sounded. "I think it's the beginning."

Faramir must have thought so, too, because he spoke earnestly to Éowyn, and then he bent and kissed her brow. She looked up at him, eyes wide with wonder, and Pete's smile blazed out at the sight. "You know what I think, Galen," he said, turning away to allow the couple their privacy. "I think Frodo did it. I think the Ring is destroyed."

"Ohhh. Can it be?" Galen bounced on his feet.

"I think so. I think he made it all the way to Mount Doom and threw the Ring in the fire."

A moment later, a great burst of flame shot into the sky with a roar so loud they could hear it. Pete froze. Looked like Mount Doom was doing a Mount St. Helens.

And poor little Frodo was somewhere in the middle of it all.

Ah, shit.

            *****

The sky cleared over Mordor so quickly Faramir was astonished. He knew the Ring had been unmade, knew it in his heart with no need of explanation. To stand with Éowyn to see the world reborn was a moment he would always treasure. But fire shot up into the sky from the volcano, even as the clouds parted, and Faramir's heart weighed heavy for Frodo. How could he have survived?

All he knew of Frodo, both from his own encounters in which he had observed Frodo's desperate purpose, and what he had heard from Pippin, from Gandalf, convinced him Frodo would not have counted the cost. That did not mean others could not count it for him. Elated for his people, Faramir still ached for Frodo.

Yet it was not long in time, no more than hours, before a great commotion rose up even in the Houses of Healing, and he left his bed, where he had lain down to rest at the healers' bidding and to mull over the changes that would surely come upon the world, and went to investigate, climbing the ramp that led to the Citadel.

Wonder filled his eyes when he saw what had caused the stir, three great Eagles alighting in the court of the Fountain, Gandalf bestriding the largest of them. Two of them carried small forms in their claws and guards ran to receive them.

Frodo and Sam.

No time to gaze with wonder upon the great Eagles, whom Faramir had never before seen so closely. With a cry, he wheeled around and grasped the arm of the nearest guard. "Summon healers at once! Bring two litters!" When the man ran to obey, Faramir hastened to the wizard. "Mithrandir!"

"Faramir!" Warmth and delight flashed in Gandalf's eyes. "You are mended."

"Mostly," Faramir admitted. He knelt at Frodo's side as Gandalf dismounted, and touched the Ringbearer's forehead. His eyes were closed, and he looked much thinner and more frail than he had when Faramir had last seen him. His skin was reddened from the heat of the great fires of Orodruin, scars and painful scrapes vividly marked his face, and the sides of his neck where the Ring's chain had weighed so heavily were bloodied and raw. A rough bandage covered one hand, stained with blood. Beneath Faramir's fingertips Frodo felt hot to the touch, but the flesh was living flesh. He looked up at Gandalf. "He lives."

"Yes, and Sam as well. We must see them quickly to the Houses of Healing." He looked up at the Eagles. "Great Gwaihir, I thank you for your aid in these perilous times."

"The Ringbearer has saved Middle-earth. There is naught we would fail to do for him," the Windlord replied. "Tend him well, and his brave companion, for they have endured much."

"So we shall," Gandalf replied.

"We take leave of you, Mithrandir, and of you, Steward of Gondor," the Eagle replied, then he thrust himself into the sky and his brothers followed, leaving Faramir openmouthed to be recognized and acknowledged by the greatest bird in Middle-earth. Yet that mattered not when Frodo lay so still. Gandalf knelt beside Sam and rested his palm upon the gardener's forehead.

"Ah. He will do. It is exhaustion and the heat of the fires of Mount Doom that have drained him."

"And Frodo?" Faramir asked.

"Ah, Faramir, the Ring exerted a terrible pull upon him. I fear for Frodo, even now that he is rid of it."

Healers arrived at a run, trailed by litter-bearers, and converged on the two hobbits, the ape Galen trailing in their wake. Gandalf rose to give them room, and Faramir, backing away from Frodo, got his first good look at the Wizard. Although he bore no obvious wounds, fatigue lay heavily upon him, and his robes were spattered with filth and orc blood. It had surely been a terrible fight.

"Aragorn?" Faramir demanded urgently. "The King survives?"

"Yes, Faramir, he survives."

"Pippin? Eowyn's brother? Legolas and Gimli? Merry?"

"Yes, they all live," Gandalf assured him, clapping Faramir's shoulder. He looked past him to Galen. "Your friend Alan is safe as well."

"Oh!" cried Galen, delight filling his face. "I will tell Pete, once we have seen to the poor hobbits."

"So you shall," Gandalf told him. He pressed Faramir's shoulder and released it. "They return to Minas Tirith as quickly as can be managed. Aragorn will not leave Gondor's brave slain for the crows, and there are wounded to manage."

"We will send out aid to meet them," Faramir said, and beckoned to the captain of the guard, who waited for commands. "Prepare supplies and wagons and set out immediately to meet the army. Take healers and all necessary equipment, foods, medicines. Leave as soon as all can be managed."

"As my lord commands," the guard captain said and hurried away. Faramir knew he would do all as required. The soldiers of Gondor were skillful and well trained, full of initiative. Galen looked after the soldier as if he wished to accompany the party to meet the army, then down at Frodo and Sam, and said nothing. Although not yet a healer he could serve best here, even if Faramir saw the longing to rush to meet his friend upon his face. So, too, did Faramir wish to greet the king, but he would welcome Aragorn at the city gate and surrender Minas Tirith and all Gondor to him there when he returned, as tradition required.

He turned instead to Gandalf. "You are unharmed, Mithrandir?"

"I am unhurt. I have sent an Eagle to inform Aragorn Frodo and Sam live and that I would bring them here. For I would have them tended as quickly as possible." He looked down as the healers placed Frodo and Sam on the litters. Galen stared at Frodo, awe upon his strange features, and he tilted his head and made a sympathetic sound, full of pity.

"We are ready, my lord, Mithrandir," a healer announced, and the party moved toward the ramp. Faramir and Gandalf fell in behind them.

"All is well in the city?" Gandalf asked as they traveled down the ramp.

"Repairs are in hand, although it will take time," Faramir admitted. "We have only lost two brave soldiers among the wounded since the army departed, and many have been released from the Houses of Healing. The lady Éowyn has healed wondrously well. We watched together on the ramparts and knew the Ring had been unmade and that Sauron had fallen. I must tell her that her brother survives, for she will long to know. And Aragorn," he added softly.

Gandalf looked at him sharply, but when he spoke, his voice was mild. "The destruction of the Ring will serve Aragorn in more ways than peace for Middle-earth," he said. "For Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond of Rivendell, had sickened, her fate bound to the fate of the Ring. Now it is unmade, may she regain strength and live, for Aragorn has long loved her."

"I wish the lady of Rivendell all the strength and joy in the world," Faramir said fervently. He added more softly, "Does Éowyn know of the elf maiden?"

"She does. Aragorn has told her he cannot return her love, and she knew this before she rode to battle."

"And that is why she rode to battle," Faramir said sadly. "To seek a glorious death, one with valor. When I first saw her, I thought she was the saddest lady I had ever seen, and my heart was stirred with pity, but now, I know her truly and the pity fades and in its place I wish only for her happiness."

"Never cease wishing such," Gandalf said. "For I am convinced she will come to see your true worth, as I do."

"She begins to look at me, to see me as Faramir and not merely a man of Gondor who companions her in the garden. I will not yield her, unless she should say me nay," Faramir admitted.

"I will speak on your behalf," Gandalf promised. "For I see in your heart the hope of joy, and I have always wished that for you, all the years we have known each other. But come, we must first see to Frodo. He will need the strength of all who love him."

"I have thought as much," Faramir agreed as they entered the Houses of Healing. "For the creature Gollum was driven mad by the One Ring, and it was as if two Gollums dwelt inside him, one lost and pathetic, made fragile by his love of the Ring, and the other cold, hard and vicious, determined to do whatever it took to snatch it back, even if it meant Frodo must die. I warned him fiercely before I set Frodo again on his path that if he harmed Frodo, I would that death come swiftly to him."

"Death has come," Gandalf replied. "For Sam roused a bit and told me that Gollum fell with the Ring into the Cracks of Doom." He paused and put his hands on Faramir's shoulders. The injured one scarcely twinged at the touch. "I go now to be with Frodo. I will find you once I know how he does."

"I will have food prepared for you and find you clean clothing until your own can be washed. Whatever Frodo and Sam should need, command it in my name, and I will see it done."

"So shall it be," Gandalf said. He squeezed Faramir's shoulders affectionately and wheeled away to be with Frodo.

            *****

Poor Frodo looked so fragile and weak Galen could not help worrying about him. He had never before met Frodo, but his name had loomed so large that Galen had imagined him as a great hero, a magnificent being wearing a halo around his head as he had sometimes seen in very old books about humans who had done great deeds and were revered. Yet the hobbit seemed so frail and slender that he was dwarfed by the great human bed on which he lay. The marks on his neck that were so raw and sore looking had been caused, Gandalf said, by the weight of the Ring, that he had worn on a chain around his neck, and the remains of his poor finger looked dreadful. How had he lost it? As he passed cloths to the healer Girand, Galen shifted his weight from one foot to the other, wishing he could will strength into poor Frodo.

His friend Sam was not so gravely ill. Like Frodo, his skin had reddened as a result of the fierce heat from the mountain of fire, and he had his share of small wounds, but he was sturdier than Frodo, of a heavier build, and that would give him more to fall back on. Even as he lay unconscious he would shift as if he were listening for Frodo, and more than once his hand reached out and groped on the coverlet. Galen saw the gesture and wished the two of them could have been placed on the same bed so Sam would be able to touch Frodo and know he lived.

"Frodo is very weak," Girand said to Gandalf. "Fatigue weighs him so heavily he will have little strength for recovery. We must hearten him. I will see he is fed nourishing broth, as rich as we can make it. I will see it spooned into him personally. Galen, go and order it."

Galen ran to obey, and returned to tell Girand, "It is coming,"

"Excellent. Will you sit with Sam and rub this cream into the skin of his face? This reddening is the mildest of the types of burns human flesh endures, and it will feel hot and itchy. The cream will ease it."

"I will," Galen agreed and took the small pot of salve. Gently he massaged it into Sam's skin, mindful not to press too hard.

"Do his throat and neck as well, and his hands, arms, and his lower legs and feet, all that was exposed as he lay awaiting rescue. You will see where."

The two hobbits had been stripped to their undergarments, and after a moment, realizing every item they wore was filthy and reeking of smoke and sulphur, the healers had whisked that away, too, and covered them with thin sheets to allow for decency. "We will see night garb made for them," Girand had told Gandalf while Galen listened. "And new clothing for when they are well. A tailor has already offered to make clothing for the hobbits." He smiled sadly down at Frodo. "Let us hope he will soon need it."

"Will he live, Girand?" Galen asked hopefully.

"I think he will, friend Galen. You fear for him, when you have never seen him before?"

"I've always feared for him, once I understood what it was he meant to do. He is such a hero, and he looks so very small." He swallowed hard at the sight of Frodo. "I think a hero's size must be measured by his heart, not his inches."

"Ah, Galen, that is very wise of you," Gandalf said. "And remember, Samwise is a hero, too, for he was not bidden to carry the Ring, but went with Frodo every step of the way."

Galen resumed his task of soothing Sam's burns. "It will be all right," he said to the hobbit. "Just rest and sleep. Frodo is being cared for, and everyone is watching out for him. You can safely rest."

Gandalf put his hand on Galen's shoulder. "I am told you wish to become a healer," he said. "You have the heart for it."

"Oh. Thank you, Gandalf." Maybe it was true. Maybe, hard as it was to see the poor folk so gravely hurt, he could help them. And surely that was what mattered most.

"There," said Girand. "He will do. As Frodo mends, we will find a fine room for him, worthy of his brave deeds. Sam, I think, will be up and around by tomorrow, although I will have him sleep as much as he can. Healing broth for him, too. And I will see both are given athelas, for we have a much better supply now, and it is being planted in our gardens, and in many homes throughout the city."

Galen soothed a small burn on Sam's leg. It had blistered, but the blister had not broken open. He pointed it out to a healer.

"We will cover it with a loose dressing so it will not open up as he lies there," the man said. "See, it is but small. Water they must have too, great amounts, for the heat they endured was so excessive. The body can dry out and that is very bad. Prop him up, Galen, so he may drink."

Galen set aside the pot of ointment and braced Sam against his shoulder. When the healer held the glass to his lips, he hesitated, then drank greedily. The healer drew back and gave it to him in small sips. "Not too much at once, or he will be sick, you see. I will leave this task to you, and you will give him water, every quarter hour."

"I will," Galen promised.

"I will see to Frodo myself," Girand replied. "Galen, you will remain with us, and we can send you out should we need more supplies."

Galen nodded, then eased Sam down again. "If someone will send to Pete to tell him Alan lives, I will stay," he said.

            *****

While they kept him here in the Houses of Healing, Pete had developed the habit of a nap following lunch, then the afternoon in the garden, sometimes chatting with Faramir or some of the other wounded soldiers, or with Galen when he was free, and once he had spent an hour with Éowyn. If Faramir had not already fallen for her so hard, Pete would have been a little tempted himself. She wasn't like any woman he had ever known, but Women's Lib would have loved her. Imagining how she had taken out the Witch King boggled the mind. Pete had always been a sucker for blondes, but that didn't have anything to do with how much he liked her. She wasn't for him, but that didn't mean he couldn't do a little healthy window shopping, even as he put in a good word here and there for Faramir.

Other times he explored beyond the Houses of Healing, although he was not yet dismissed and the healers had told him no more than an hour or two away while he was still regaining his strength. That gave him time to venture up to the Citadel more than once, to look at the White Tree that grew there. It had long been dead, or so said some guy in robes he'd run into up there, once he found that the guys with the winged helmets wouldn't talk when they were on duty. But now it had begun to bloom again. It was because of Aragorn, the man had said.

"We shall have a king once more, and the tree, which came from a seedling the elves gave long ago to the men of Númenor, must sense that. Nimloth, it was, the White Tree of Númenor, and when Númenor fell, Elendil took a cutting from it, and planted it in Minas Ithil across the river. Although Minas Ithil fell to evil, our tree is from a sapling off that very tree. And now Aragorn, son of Arathorn, will return from battle to be our king, and he is of Elendil's line."

"I thought he was descended from somebody named Isildur," Pete objected. He had never figured out all the genealogy everybody here seemed hung up on. Even the hobbits got into the act. Just hearing Pippin explain how he was related to Frodo on both sides of his family had made Pete dizzy.

"Isildur was the son of Elendil," the councillor explained. "So it is vastly fitting the tree would be reborn at Aragorn's coming."

Pete would have ventured up to the Citadel to look at the Tree, now that Sauron had fallen to see how it looked, but he hadn't gotten that far yet. In a little while, he'd get up and wander up there to take a good look at the White Tree, and smile to know it was reborn.

Was Alan safe, there at the Black Gate now the battle was won? Would he be coming home?

The relief that the battle must truly be over hit Pete like a ton of bricks, and when he returned to his bed, he had flopped down and gone out like a light. He couldn't know yet if Alan was safe, but something inside him insisted he was. Forlorn hope? The overwhelming relief that had flowed through the land to know Sauron was gone forever? Whatever the cause, he slept more deeply than he had since his arrival in Middle-earth, as if to make up for lost time.

"Pete Burke!"

The voice calling his name roused Pete from a dream of home, and he gasped, startled into wakefulness because it was one he hadn't expected to hear. He bolted up from his bed as the White Wizard entered the ward, conscious of the other patients staring and a buzz of eager speculation filling the room. In the next bed, Garith propped himself up on his elbows, ignoring the pain of his leg wound, and frankly stared.

Gandalf looked tired, and he wore unfamiliar robes, white but cut differently than his usual garb, but a contentment in his eyes must be the result of the fall of Sauron. It was all Pete could to do keep from shaking news of Alan out of him.

"Gandalf! I thought you were off at the Black Gate with the army." Tell me what happened to Alan.

"Why, so I was, until Frodo cast the Ring into the Fires of Mount Doom."

Pete lunged at Gandalf, although he stopped short of shaking him. "How did you get back here so fast? Is Alan okay? What happened to Frodo?" His heart thumped. Maybe wizards' powers enabled them to travel at jet speeds. He didn't care how it had happened, just as long as he could find out about Alan.

"The great Eagles bore me aloft to search for Frodo when Mount Doom erupted. Saw you that here?"

"Yeah, and we all thought Sauron must have bit the big one--uh, fell."

"So he did, but the volcano spat its violent fire. I went to search for Frodo, and brought him and Sam here, where they will be cared for. They live. And before you erupt like the great Orodruin, be assured Alan Virdon lives. He is uninjured, save for mild scrapes such as all bear. I have no messages for you and Galen, for I needed to go very quickly to rescue Frodo and Sam. I saw Galen when I brought them for he came with the healers. He knows Alan lives, but good Girand required him, so he bade me tell you the news."

"Yahoo!" Pete cried. He resisted the urge to grab Gandalf and hug him, but he grabbed his hand and pumped it energetically. He couldn't quite bring himself to slap Gandalf on the back, but his elation needed some outward display. "That's great. You don't know how glad I am to hear that."

Gandalf reclaimed his hand and looked at it warily to make certain Pete hadn't crushed it. "Oh, I believe I do," he said mildly, his eyes sparkling. "Glad I am to bear such welcome news."

"Welcome? Oh, man...." Alan had made it. In a few days he'd be back. The tension that had weighed Pete down ever since the army had marched away leaving him trapped in the Houses of Healing vanished as if it had never been. He felt like he could fly as joyously as Galen  in the glider. "What about Pippin? Is he okay?"

Gandalf arched a brow. "He is indeed 'okay', as I take that word to be one from your own time, and to mean he lives and is well. Yes, he lives, and Merry, too. Aragorn survived, as did the rest of our Fellowship, Legolas and Gimli, and also Éomer. Faramir has ordered wagons forth to meet the returning army, with healers and supplies."

Pete sat down abruptly on his bed, so relieved he wasn't sure his legs would hold him. He looked around the room, at the few patients who remained. "Did you hear that, guys? We won, and Aragorn's coming back."

"I have not specific news for each of you," Gandalf addressed the other men, "for I know not the names of all your kin and friends. There were losses; how could there not be? But many more orcs fell than men, and those orcs that survived fell into yawning pits in the earth, or fled, purposeless."

The other patients cheered, and Pete grinned at Garith. "Good news, isn't it, buddy?"

"It is indeed, friend Pete."

"Now all we have to do," he said with a grin a mile wide, "is wait for the army to come home."

Alan was alive! Whatever happened next, whether they found a way home or stayed in Middle-earth for the rest of their lives, at least they could face it the way they always did, as a team. Together.

            *****

"Frodo!" Sam Gamgee came awake calling the name. He thrashed around for a bit, uncertain where he was, because surely that was a bed under him, a soft, comfortable bed. Was this a dream? Where was Mister Frodo? Were they both dead? The last thing he remembered was lying on a projecting rock while the lava flowed past them. So much terrible heat, and poor Frodo so weak from the weight of the Ring and the way the stump of his poor finger had bled. Could he possibly be safe?

"Easy, easy, Frodo is sleeping," soothed an unfamiliar voice. A hand patted his shoulder, a hand that felt kind and reassuring. No nasty orc would comfort him like that. "He will be well, the healer has said so."

Sam forced his eyes open, then jerked away in horror and disbelief at the creature that hovered over him. He was a beast, strange and hairy, with thick black fur on his bare forearms, and more smoothed back from around his face. His eyes looked like normal eyes and not hot and yellow like those of the orcs, but his mouth and nose thrust forward like a muzzle. "What are you?" Sam cried. "What have you done to Mister Frodo? You leave him alone or I'll have you, see if I don't." He scrambled awkwardly to his feet and looked around wildly for a weapon to defend himself. Was it an orc after all? Was he a prisoner? Where was Mister Frodo?

"Sssh," the beast said. "Look to your left. There he is. He's sleeping. This is the city of Minas Tirith, and please don't fear my appearance, because I only mean you well. I am Galen, an apprentice healer here."

Sam turned his head, and sure enough, there was Mister Frodo, lying asleep on the next bed. He was breathing. Sam could see his chest rise and fall with each breath. Already the terrible sores on his face and neck were beginning to mend, and his poor hand was neatly bandaged. He was clean and clad in a white nightshirt. The room where he lay was clean, too, and the bed soft, even if it was a man-sized one. Wherever this was--Minas Tirith like Galen said?--they had taken care of Frodo.

Ignoring his dizziness and weakness Sam held his place at Frodo's bedside, placing himself carefully between Frodo and the strange Galen. Was he really a healer? Was this a trap? Surely orcs wouldn't have seen Mister Frodo taken care of like this? He snatched Frodo's uninjured hand and squeezed it in both of his own, careful to stand ready to defend him if Galen should attack. "Oh, Mister Frodo, we're both alive," he said. "We will see the Shire again. I promise you we will."

Frodo didn't rouse, and a flash of worry stabbed Sam in the stomach.

Behind him, the strange creature Galen spoke. "Healer Girand says he is utterly exhausted and will sleep for a time, maybe even several days. They take wonderful care of him, and already he looks ever so much better. Every healer here in the Houses of Healing is determined to see he is better. I think everybody in Middle-earth cares about him." He didn't come any closer, and there was a combination of sadness and kindness in his eyes. Sam nodded at him to keep his distance, and Galen spread his hands and moved back a few steps, tilting his head sideways and making a sound that in a hobbit would have been distress.

"They should," Sam returned, clutching Frodo's hand. "Mister Frodo is the greatest hobbit who ever lived, and the greatest hero in all Middle-earth. That Ring was terrible and it hurt him so." He hesitated, still not sure this was where he should be. "Are you sure he'll be all right?"

Galen bobbed his head in a nod. "You and Frodo came here yesterday. Huge Eagles brought you, Eagles that can talk. They rescued you from the slopes of the volcano and carried you in their claws."

Sam stared at Galen over his shoulder. "The Eagles carried me?" he blurted. How could that be? He could understand them carrying Frodo, but he was just an ordinary hobbit.

"Why wouldn't they? You're a hero, too." Galen looked like he meant it. At least Sam thought he did. How could he tell what somebody like that was thinking? Maybe he didn't know all the peoples of Middle-earth, but he'd heard of elves and dwarves--and even orcs--before he ever saw any. He'd never heard of anyone like Galen. Was he trying to get round Sam with his words?

"What, me, a hero?" Sam scoffed. "Mister Frodo, now, he's the hero. He's the bravest hobbit I ever knew."

"Hobbits are very brave," Galen agreed, and went on talking even when Sam turned back to Frodo and make sure he hadn't weakened in those few moments Sam had looked away. "Pippin is a hero, too, and so is Merry."

That made Sam glance over his shoulder again. "Merry and Pippin are safe?" he asked. Orcs surely wouldn't know Merry and Pippin by name, would they? Maybe this really was Minas Tirith. He'd only seen the White City once from a distance, when the rangers were hurrying him and Mister Frodo down to Osgiliath, and it had been so far away he hadn't seen it well, just enough to know it was very big and had a great white tower on top, like Boromir had mentioned when he talked about his home. "We worried about them so, because Mister Frodo said they jumped out and lured the orcs away so Frodo could escape. Captain Faramir hadn't met them when we saw him."

"No, he met them later. Pippin saved his life."

"Did he? Good. Captain Faramir is a fine man. He saw finally that he should let Frodo go, and I think it was hard for him, especially after I told him how Boromir fell."

"He is very sad about Boromir," Galen agreed. He joined Sam and gently touched his shoulder. When Sam tensed, he lifted his hand away apologetically. "I'm sorry I was the only one here when you woke up. They know me here, but you don't. I won't hurt you, and I won't hurt him. I promise you that. Tell me, though, will you want to see Faramir?"

"Yes, I want to see him," Sam said. "He was good to us at the end."

"I will tell him. He has been anxious to see you and he came several times while you were still sleeping and looked down at Frodo, so very worried about him, like we all are."

"I thought you said he'd be all right," Sam cried accusingly. How still Frodo looked, how very frail. He still didn't trust Galen, even if he seemed kind.

"He will. But everyone is anxious for him to wake up, even if the healers say the sleep is good for him. He carried the Ring so long, and Gandalf says it wore him out" He smiled at Sam. "Come, get into bed."

"I want to stay with Mister Frodo."

"So you will. I can push your bed closer to his, if you like." He shoved it right up against Frodo's bed. "There. Now you must have some water."

"Water," Sam groaned. "I kept dreaming I was drinking water, all the water in the world. I don't need water."

"The healers say you need it. You will feel better for it because it was so hot and dry where the Eagles found you. We've been making sure you and Frodo get plenty of it."

"I'll slosh when I walk," Sam said, but he climbed into bed and accepted a big glass of water. A man-sized glass. It reminded him of Merry coming back to their table in the Prancing Pony in Bree with a huge glass of ale, and Pippin's delighted cry, "It comes in pints? I'm getting one." Sam smiled. "Where are Merry and Pippin now?" he asked as he sniffed the contents to make sure it really was water. It smelled like it, fresh, clean water, unlike the thin foul trickles they had found in Mordor. Even wine couldn't taste as good as fresh, cool water. He sipped it.

"They are on their way back from the Black Gate. Aragorn led the army there to distract the orcs of Mordor so you and Frodo could make it to Mount Doom."

"Oh!" Sam gasped. "That was why they all rushed off to the North? We'd never have made it if he hadn't done that. I didn't know why they went, but I was never so glad to see anything. We only met one band of them, and we escaped them."

"Legolas said it was a distraction," Galen agreed. "I'm very glad it worked."

Sam finished the glass and passed it back to Galen. "Poor Mister Frodo looks so tired."

"He needs to sleep. Let me summon a healer to look at you." He went to the door and spoke to someone, and a moment later a tall man with bushy red hair bustled into the room.

"Master Samwise, you are awake. This is wondrous news. I will send to Gandalf and tell him, for he has been very worried, and to the Steward as well."

"Steward?" Sam questioned. "You'd bother the Steward just to tell him I'm awake? He must be a grand, important man who won't care about hobbits."

"Not care about hobbits?" the healer asked. "Why, he thinks the world of hobbits, and how could he not, with brave Pippin saving his life the way he did. And he has been so worried about Frodo; he's been here many times to look in on him."

"Pippin saved his life?"

"I told you that," Galen said with a little exasperated twist of his mouth. "But you have so much to think about, maybe you didn't remember. It's Faramir. He's the Steward, and he rules all Gondor until Aragorn can be crowned."

"Captain Faramir? He can't be the steward," Sam insisted as the healer fussed over him, felt his wrist to check the rhythm of his blood, and rested his palm on Sam's forehead to see if he still had fever. He made clucking sounds like healers everywhere, and smiled as he worked. That must be a good sign, it must.

"Yes, Master Samwise, Faramir rules Gondor until the coming of the King. His father died during the siege of Minas Tirith, and Faramir's brother was killed by orcs, as I believe you know. Faramir was gravely wounded, but he mends now. We will soon release him from the Houses of Healing, but he is up each day and often goes up to the Citadel to tend to the business of government, even if we insist he return here each night."

Well, imagine that!" Sam said. "Did you hear that, Mister Frodo? Captain Faramir rules all Gondor now, at least till Strider comes."

Frodo slept on, but he moved a little in his sleep and turned his head in Sam's direction.

"An excellent sign," said the healer. "I am Girand, Master Samwise, and glad I am to see you awake. I will send for dinner for you because Pippin has instructed me well in the care and feeding of hobbits. Are you hungry?"

Sam considered it. Until the healer mentioned it, he hadn't thought of such a thing, but he nodded. "I'm that hungry, and didn't even know it. What I wouldn't give for a nice hearty stew just full of good taters."

"I think we can manage that," Girand agreed with a delighted smile. "I will see to it personally." He clapped Sam on the shoulder. "Oh, and please be easy in the company of Galen. He is an apprentice healer, and will one day tell you what brings him to the White City. I think you are too concerned for Frodo to listen now, but Galen will make a fine healer, and he is both intelligent and good-hearted." He bowed to Sam, bowed to Galen, and went out.

Galen made a very pleased sound and tilted his head to look after the healer. "He is very kind," he said.

Sam looked over at Frodo again, but he was still sleeping. "I'm sorry I was suspicious of you and all, when I first woke up. I just never saw anyone like you before. Frodo will be that interested in you, he will. When he wakes up, you can tell us about yourself and we'll listen together." He sipped from his water glass again. "But please, if you would, tell me about all the Fellowship, so I can reassure him when he wakes?"

"Well, I wasn't here for all of it," Galen said. "But here is what happened after you and Frodo went off to Mordor...."

            *****

The triumphant return to Minas Tirith took time, for the wounded on foot must be succored, and all were weary. Once the wains sent out by Faramir met the party, they were able to travel more quickly, and the healers who had come rode beside the more seriously injured in the various wagons to tend to their hurts. Gandalf had departed, leaving behind his magnificent white horse, and Pippin sometimes rode, although he would need a boost onto the back of Shadowfax, for the horse wore neither bridle nor saddle. Until the wagons came from Minas Tirith, Pippin had asked Shadowfax to bear wounded men since the supply wagons that had followed the march would not hold them all, and the horse permitted it. Aragorn was glad Pippin found something with which to occupy himself, since he and Merry could not stop fretting over Frodo and Sam.

Aragorn worried about the pair, too. How could he help it? How could any? The Eagle Gandalf had sent had reported that Frodo and Sam lived and that they would be borne to Minas Tirith to the healers, but it was the need of healers that worried the two remaining hobbits. Pippin had asked Aragorn at least a dozen times on the return journey if he thought Frodo would be all right.

"I do, Pippin," he replied earnestly, clasping the hobbit's sholders. "I have great hope for him. He will be waiting for us when we return."

"I can't wait to see him," Pippin admitted, and Merry bobbed his head in agreement.

"Nor can I," Aragorn admitted. "Legolas and Gimli as well."

"Aye," said Gimli from his position behind Legolas on his horse. "The Fellowship together again. Well, all but poor Boromir."

All but Boromir.... Aragorn shook his head at Gimli. The two hobbits had enough to weigh upon their spirits without reminders of Boromir's brave death.

"There's Faramir, though," Pippin said with deliberate brightness. His face lit at the thought. "Oh, Aragorn, he is so brave, such a great hero. I have never before known anyone like him. I hope he's all right now. I can't wait to see him.

"And Éowyn," Merry said wistfully. "I wish we were there right now."

"Aye," Gimli cried, and even Legolas inclined his head in agreement.

Aragorn rode on the journey to the White City because the whole army expected it, and none would allow him to offer his horse to the wounded. Sometimes he walked beside this ranger or that, leading Brego, talking to each man in quiet tones, and other times he rode with Éomer, discussing the future relations between Gondor and Rohan. He saw the joy in the soldiers, who often sang as they marched, yet he knew the future would be difficult, at least at first, for the reconstruction would take time and effort, and life would not be easy for some years yet. The burden of his name and responsibility weighed heavily upon his shoulders.

Legolas understood without explanation the overwhelming tasks Aragorn faced. Once he rode with Aragorn for a time. "The weight of the crown shall not bow you down, Aragorn," he said. "You do not stand alone."

"So I know," he replied. "My friends have ever been with me, and even when you depart for your own lands, I shall feel your support. Gandalf will serve as advisor for a space, I think. And I have great hope for Faramir."

"Great hope you should have," the elf replied.

Riding behind him, Gimli muttered, "Aye. He's a good lad. We could all see that, and Boromir always spoke so well of him." The mention of Boromir made sadness flash in his eyes and he cast about quickly to alter the subject. "Aragorn, I will send to my people, for dwarves are great workers in stone. They will come and assist in the rebuilding of Minas Tirith--aye, and Osgiliath, too, if you would have it rebuilt."

"I would. I have been told Boromir would have seen to it, had he lived. So I will see to it in his name. My thanks, Gimli."

He had worn Boromir's vambraces in battle since Amon Hen, and when he would notice the wrist guards in the heat of the fighting, he would recall anew his purpose, his oath to the dying Boromir that he would not let the White City fall, and by extension, Gondor. Now Gondor had been saved, and Aragorn must see to its restoration.

Gimli studied the ruins of Osgiliath as the army crossed its bridge and marched through, nodding wisely at the state of the city. "Ah, much work is needed here, but the city was once very fine. I'm thinking dwarves had a hand in its building, long ago."

Legolas twisted his head to look at the dwarf who rode behind him. "Dwarvish vanity, Gimli?"

"Plain fact. Look at the way the stones are set. If not dwarves, then men who learned from dwarves."

Aragorn smiled and let his gaze move past them to Minas Tirith, rising up out of the Pelennor. Scaffolding had been erected here and there to indicate repairs were already in hand, and that surprised him not. Repairs had begun before the army's departure, and Faramir would have seen it continued, and a great many other tasks, even from his sickbed. The Pelennor had been cleared. Great charred circles marked the pyres of the orcs and the great mûmakil, and here and there a few ruined siege engines still lay in rubble, for to remove them was not as urgent as to deal with the dead. Much to be done yet. But it would be done.

As they emerged from Osgiliath, he saw people lining the walls of the White City. Some waved banners and cheered, others watched in silence, but a great host of folk had gathered to attend the army's return. With a smile, Aragorn surveyed his bold company.

Merry and Pippin rode together on the back of Shadowfax, Pippin with one hand gripping the horse's mane. Just behind Aragorn, Legolas guided Arod, Gimli mounted behind him as they had long traveled. Éomer rode at Aragorn's other side, he and Aragorn attended by heralds bearing the banners of Gondor and Rohan.

In the first row of foot soldiers marched the man from the future, Alan Virdon. He had survived the battle unscathed, save for a scrape or two and the bloody knuckles all received when battling with swords. All the soldiers looked at Minas Tirith with joy, even the Rohirrim, for they would find a chance to rest before returning home. Éomer had sent off the vast bulk of his men to return to Rohan and let the people of the Mark know the Enemy had fallen, although Aragorn was certain the great wave of relief that had run through the land had already convinced them Sauron was no more. Éomer meant to bear his uncle's body home in honor, and would do so after Aragorn was crowned. Aragorn would accompany that procession; he could do no less to honor Théoden's brave sacrifice.

Alan Virdon's face was the only one that did not show unconditional joy to be returning to the White City. For him, it was not home, although the bleak despair Aragorn had often seen in his eyes in the beginning had been replaced with a wary and tremulous hope that had flared into more brilliance when the Eagle Gandalf had sent had reported that Frodo and Sam lived and would be borne to the White City. Returning here amid men who celebrated return to their city could only remind Alan how far he was from his own home. Yet he would soon see his friends, and that could account for the eager light in his eyes.

As if he sensed Aragorn's gaze upon him, Alan looked up, and he offered Aragorn a smile. He had fought for Gondor without swearing his allegiance, but fought as a man of Gondor. Aragorn could ask no more of him--nor of any man.

The temporary gates of the city had been drawn back for the army, and Aragorn rode up to the opening, and there he reined in. He knew what must happen next, and indeed, here came Faramir to greet him. "My lord King," he said. He glowed with renewed health, and if he were not yet at total energy, he was well enough to be released from the healers' care. He gazed up at Aragorn, who dismounted, passed his reins to Legolas, and went to meet him.

"I must know if Gondor welcomes me, my brother," he said to Faramir. "For I dare not enter the city without its acceptance."

Faramir bowed deeply and formally, prepared to complete the necessary rituals for the transfer of power. "My lord, Gondor welcomes you. Gondor accepts you. All has been set in hand for your coronation. Be welcome to your city. Here do I surrender Gondor to you." He held out a white rod. "I surrender to you my staff of office, for Gondor shall now have not steward but king."

Aragorn accepted the rod and immediately returned it to him. "Your office is not ended, Faramir of Gondor, for you shall hold it, and your descendants, as long as my line shall endure. Thank you, my steward, for your loyalty and diligence," he said. "Here I will take up my office, but you must hold the city for me until I am crowned."

"Together we shall plan for that day, my lord," Faramir agreed. He raised his voice. "What say you?" he called to all in earshot. "Here stands Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descendant of Isildur. Shall he enter and be our king?"

In one voice the crowd cried out, "Aye!"

"Then so I do accept the weight of my responsibility," Aragorn said to Faramir. "I shall serve Gondor, and my descendants after me, until the breaking of the world."

He and Faramir bowed to each other, then Aragorn drew a deep breath and let it out. "Thank goodness that is over," he said for Faramir's ears alone. "Will you assist in seeing to the disposition of the troops? Grateful we were for healers, supplies, and additional wains."

"I have sent for the healers and they stand ready to convey the wounded to the Houses of Healing," Faramir replied with a gesture across the courtyard where a host of healers and litter-bearers waited. He passed the rod of office to an aide with a quick, "Return that for me to the Hall of the Kings."

"What news of Frodo and Sam?" Aragorn asked hastily.

"Sam is awake and out of bed, daily gaining strength. Frodo sleeps yet, but the healers assure me it is a healing sleep and that he will awaken soon. Gandalf and Sam spend hours at his bedside each day. Fear not for him. The reunion of the Fellowship will rouse him from his rest." He looked around the square to survey the returning troops. Éomer of Rohan dismounted, threw the reins to one of his men, and joined them, and Faramir eyed him with sudden wariness that made Aragorn smile to himself, suspecting the cause. Faramir would no doubt wish to speak privately to Éomer if he and Éowyn had reached accord, but that must wait, for the soldiers must be dispersed first.

Faramir bowed to Éomer. "My lord king, if you would send your captains to me, I will show them where they may stable their horses and where their men are to be housed. As we speak meals are being prepared, and we will see to Rohan's comfort as we see to Gondor's."

"Well spoken," Éomer replied, and looked upon Faramir with approval. "Aragorn, would I could steal away your steward, for I have none, but must appoint one when I return to Edoras."

"You may not have him, for I have great need of him," Aragorn replied with a smile. "Come, let us see to our men, for I must disperse them before I go to the Houses of Healing to ask after Frodo." He gestured for the two of them to follow him and set off to do what must be done.

            *****

Word spread rapidly through the city that the army had been sighted  marching through Osgiliath, and Pete Burke, newly released from the Houses of Healing, paused there only long enough to grab Galen. "Come on, Galen. Alan's back."

Galen gave a squeak of delight. "We must see him, but I will have to help the healers once I greet him." He hurried along with Pete who noticed many of the people they passed called out greetings to Galen or smiled at him, and Galen called back greetings, bouncing a bit with delight.

"They are men I helped tend," Galen said with a gratified smile, but it faded. "We will have many more."

"Do you like learning to be a healer?" Pete asked as they hurried lower through the city.

"Parts of it are sad," Galen admitted. "To work so hard and then have the person die anyway--that breaks my heart. But to be able to help and know someone will be better because of what I did--oh, Pete, it's such a wonderful feeling. I remember that book Zaius had that helped us when Alan needed surgery. I wish I could remember all of it. They have books here, and I've begun to read them. They gave me books. When I think of how I would be a traitor and a criminal in my own time and be executed just for having such books...."

"I used to read what they called thrillers," Pete admitted. "Stories about great adventures. I never thought I'd find myself in the middle of an adventure. Come on, hurry. I can't wait to see Alan."

He and Galen burst into the courtyard to find it already full of milling troops and the citizens of Minas Tirith who had come to welcome home their returning kin. Over by the gate, Faramir and Aragorn conversed with each other, and Pete could see there was a kind of ritual about it, as if Aragorn were officially being given the key to the city. Pete grinned at the sight, then he craned his neck to look for Alan. With Galen, he pushed his way through the crowd, but everyone in the city was doing the same, looking for friends and loved ones. Cries of joy and elation rang out every few moments as a wife found her husband or a mother her son.

Galen clutched Pete's tunic to make sure they weren't separated in the horde of milling people. "I will need to go and help the healers soon. Where can Alan be?"

A great white horse blocked their path, and Pippin slid down from its back, followed by Merry. "Pete! Galen!" he cried. "Alan's over there somewhere." He waved vaguely off to his left. "I'd help you look for him but we have to find Frodo."

"He's in the Houses of Healing," Galen explained. "They think he will be waking up soon. Sam and Gandalf are watching over him."

"Oh! Thank you, Galen." Pippin reached up and squeezed Galen's hand. "We've been so worried about him, haven't we, Merry."

"Yes, we have. You're sure he's all right?"

"The chief healer says so," Galen replied. "You'll see. His cuts are nearly mended. Faramir made sure he got the best care, but he would have anyway, for saving all of Middle-earth. You hurry up to the Houses of Healing. Sam will be so glad to see you, and maybe having you there will rouse Frodo."

"Are you a healer now, Galen?" Merry asked with a gesture at Galen's garb.

"An apprentice healer," Galen replied. "You ask for Healer Girand, or the Lady Ioreth, when you get there, and they'll take you to Frodo. Gandalf is there, too." He gestured them away.

"You go find Alan. He's fine," Pippin called over his shoulder as he and Merry started away. Shadowfax followed them. "Come on, Shadowfax," Pippin urged. "Merry and I will find you a nice stall and some oats, and then it's off to see Frodo."

"Thanks," Pete called after the departing hobbits and steered Galen in the direction they had indicated.

Gimli appeared out of the crowd, bowed his head to the two of them, and said, "I'm off to make certain Aragorn goes and rests the second he has seen to the army. The man won't sleep, no matter what you tell him. I'm thinking the elf and I will need to tie him down and carry him to his bed." He snorted in fond exasperation and disappeared into the crowd before Pete or Galen could reply.

Pete looked after him, and when he turned, there was Alan hurrying through the crowd, looking around for his friends, although he had not yet seen them. He looked weary and disheveled like all the soldiers, but his face held far fewer shadows than it had before he had ridden away. With one look Pete realized Alan had found hope again, whether it were in his disk that was useless here or because the victory against all odds had proven to him that nothing was impossible.

He saw them then, and his face lit up. "Pete!" he yelled, waving. "Galen! Over here!"

They ran for him and mobbed him, hugging him, one after the other and pounding him enthusiastically on the back, then drew back to study him. If he had taken even minor wounds, Pete could see no trace of them.

"Its so good to see the two of you," Alan cried. All over the courtyard, such conversations were taking place, happy reunions.

"You made it, Al," Pete exulted. "You look great." He studied the armor Alan wore. He was helmetless, but then all the men were. They probably wore their armor because it was easier than carrying it, and the wagons were for the wounded--and the dead.

"You look good, yourself. Is your side better?"

"They let me out this morning," Pete replied. "Said I'd malingered long enough." He knew a number of folks had been discharged to make room for the expected wounded, but he felt good. Climbing to the higher levels of the city would probably leave him breathless, but he'd live with it. It didn't matter, not when Alan was back safely and the world was free.

"Is Frodo okay?" Alan fussed. "They said he was alive; one of the Eagles came and told us. Oh, man, talking Eagles. Who'd have ever thought it. We've been wondering how he is."

"Don't you worry about Frodo," Galen said firmly. "He's nearly ready to wake up. Every day he looks better, and he's got Sam to watch out for him. Sam rarely leaves his side, and Gandalf is there, too. He's the only one who can make Sam rest."

"Galen's studying to be a healer," Pete explained. He wasn't sure how Alan would take that, because to become a healer was a commitment to staying in this time. Alan's every thought had always been focused on the way home.

To his surprise, Alan smiled. "They know your worth, then, Galen? They accept you, even though they hadn't seen apes before you came?"

"Why shouldn't they?" Pete asked. "Galen's worked so hard in the Houses of Healing they'd have to be nuts not to recognize what a great ape he is."

"I know what a great ape he is," Alan replied. "But it shows what Aragorn wants to achieve, unity of the different races. It's what I've always wanted, to see intelligent creatures learning to live and work together."

"You said that to Zaius, before I really knew you," Galen remembered.

"I meant it then, and I mean it now. Sometimes it's just easier for those with a great vision to see how things must be than it is for the ordinary people. It was like that in your time, too, Galen. We saw people reaching enlightenment in ones and twos, not across the board."

"Well, anybody who doesn't appreciate Galen is crazy," Pete said firmly. "He's gonna be a great healer."

Galen made little sounds of pleasure and rocked delightedly on his feet. "I'm going to try," he said. "Alan, what about you? Are you hurt?" Tilting his head to observe his friend he snatched up Alan's sword hand. It was scraped and scabs had formed on the knuckles. "Is it sore? There's a salve that will help."

"No, it's okay. It's just from using a sword. Everybody's got a sword-hand like that. Don't worry about it." He pulled his hand free. "I've gotta get out of this armor. I smell like I haven't had a bath in two weeks."

"Probably because you haven't," Pete responded with a grin. "You might smell worse than the bottom of a dumpster, but you look great."

Alan smiled back. "I think we all reek, but we feel great in spite of our aches and pains. Just knowing Sauron's done for--can you imagine it, guys? All those orcs, and Mordor itself, and Frodo made it all the way to Mount Doom and tossed the Ring into the fire. He's no bigger than Pippin, and he did it. And then when the volcano blew, he still survived." His eyes glowed. "It's incredible, when you think of it." He looked around. "You should have seen Aragorn. I never saw anybody fight like he did."

"You fought bravely," Legolas said, stepping up to him. "Gimli has told me you saved my life, although I saw it not. Hannon le. I thank you." He bowed to Alan.

"I was trying to get to Aragorn, too," Alan replied. "Just happened to be in the right place at the right time. You would have done the same for me."

"So I would," Legolas replied. "Aragorn is well. And now I must go and help the dwarf see that he rests. You, too, should rest." He turned to Pete and Galen. "Take him to be bathed and fed, then see him to bed."

"We will," Pete promised, and Galen nodded emphatically.

Legolas moved on with the smooth grace of his elven walk, and Pete stared after him, then grinned at Alan. "Once you've slept the clock around, I want to hear all about it," he said. "But right now, you're gonna clean up, eat, and then head for bed like he said. They gave us a big room for the three of us, now that I'm out of the Houses of Healing. We'll probably get a better space once repairs are made and the people on the lower levels can go back to their homes"

"Come on, Alan," Galen urged, taking hold of his arm. "Let's go."

An officer came through the crowd. "All are dismissed," he called in a ringing voice. "Eat and rest, and none need report tomorrow, for it is declared a day of recovery. Those with horses see to your mounts. Make sure your armor is cleaned and put away properly. Report to your officers the day after tomorrow." He moved on through the crowd repeating his instructions. Every now and then, he singled out a few to help with the process of moving the wounded up to the sixth level.

"I should go and help," Galen said gravely. "They will be busy and need me."

Pete smiled. "You go, Galen. I'll see to Alan." When the chimpanzee had departed purposefully, he slung his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Come on, buddy. I don't want you falling asleep on your feet. Let's not make the Twentieth Century look bad."

Alan grimaced, but he fell into step with every indication of willingness.

            *****

Faramir encountered Éowyn and Galen the next morning in the Houses of Healing, where he had come to visit the men who had been newly wounded at the Black Gate. Many of them had served with him in Ithilien, and he passed among them, stopping with a quick word of praise and reassurance. Always they greeted him with delight, and it felt good to hear himself named "Captain Faramir" out of habit. He was unaccustomed to be addressed as "My Lord Steward" as the people of the city had begun to do, but grateful they still appeared willing to approach him and speak to him without hesitation, and without fear of his rank. His father had been proud and distant, and the common folk had drawn back out of his path. The folk of Minas Tirith did not do that to Faramir, and he was glad of it.

When he found Éowyn she and Galen, they were seeing to the Ringbearer, under the doting supervision of the Lady Ioreth. Galen dabbed a healing balm on the closing scrape on Frodo's face, and Éowyn sat clutching the hobbit's hand and murmuring softly to him. At the foot of the bed stood Gandalf, smiling down at Frodo. Ioreth leaned close to watch Galen work, and nodded approvingly before she smiled upon Faramir. He had noticed that the normally garrulous healer tended to be far quieter in the presence of the White Wizard.

"How does he, Mithrandir?" Faramir asked.

"Why, I think he will awaken this very morning. I have sent Samwise out to find Merry and Pippin, and word has also gone to Aragorn, who will wish to speak with Frodo when he rouses. We are preparing him for their visit, for he will wish to see our Fellowship. I fear it will surprise him greatly to see me, for he believes me fallen." He chuckled. "Master Samwise was so astonished he threw himself at me and hugged me so fiercely I thought I would be suffocated." His eyes gleamed with warmth at the memory.

Éowyn looked up at Faramir and smiled. "He should rouse soon," she said, "for his sleep is restless now, and he called for Sam but moments past, although without waking."

Frodo's free hand groped toward his throat, and Faramir winced, recalling the way the hobbit would clutch at the Ring he wore on its chain. At once Galen made a sound of distress--he had a repertoire of small sounds that expressed his emotions so vividly; it must be a custom of his people--and took hold of the hand. "Rest easy, Frodo," he soothed. "Gandalf is waiting here to see you, and Sam will soon return with Merry and Pippin."

Frodo tilted his head in Galen's direction as if he were listening, but he roused not.

"You see," said Gandalf with a fond smile at the sleeping hobbit. "Soon he shall awaken. Faramir, all is well in the city?"

"Well, indeed. I came to visit our brave soldiers, men I have fought beside in Ithilien." That he also hoped for a glimpse of Éowyn, who had pledged herself to assist here, need not be spoken.

Eyes knowing, Gandalf glanced from Faramir to Éowyn. She looked up and smiled, the kind of smile that warmed her eyes. At the sight of her smile, Faramir's heart leaped. He had spoken to her brother at the first possible opportunity. Éomer King had taken counsel with Éowyn before he gave his reply, then he came back to Faramir, Éowyn at his side, and, with a smile, put her hand into his. "I yield to you Rohan's dearest treasure, Faramir," he said. "Such is her wish, and my wish is for her happiness. I need not ask that you treat her well, for I see that you shall. Your men have spoken of you with fondness and respect."

"I shall love and honor her all my days," he had replied.

"And I shall love and honor him," Éowyn told Éomer. "Fear not for me, brother, for I shall be happy."

She looked happy today. Just to see her, how she smiled, how kindly she saw to Frodo, could not but cheer Faramir's spirit. He noticed Galen watching them, head tilted, his eyes full of delight, saw how Ioreth beamed with understanding, and then turned to Mithrandir. The wizard nodded as if he understood well the joy in Faramir's soul.

"I'm finished," Galen said and looked to Ioreth, who nodded.

"And a very gentle touch you have, Master Galen. Come, then. There are others who need us. We will leave the poor wee hobbit to Mithrandir. My lady, if you would also come...."

"We are being evicted, I see," Faramir said, and drew Éowyn to her feet. He bent over the sleeping Frodo and gently touched his brow. "Waken soon, Frodo, for the whole world awaits that moment."

When they emerged from Frodo's room, they found the rest of the Fellowship gathered expectantly. Aragorn came across to them to speak to Ioreth, Sam at his heels. Pippin rushed to Faramir and smiled up at him, and the others gathered nearby.

"He will awaken momentarily, I think," Ioreth said, loudly enough for all to hear. "Wait here for him, and Mithrandir will summon you when the time comes. Ah, the dear wee halfling. How it will hearten him to know his fine friends await him so eagerly." She smiled impartially around the gathering, then she nodded at Galen. "Come. We must next see to Éorin's leg."

"I'm ready." Galen nodded to the assembled company and hurried away in Ioreth's wake.

"I must go, too," Éowyn told Faramir. "There is much to do this morning, and all helpers are needed, even such as I with no skill, only a desire to serve life instead of death."

"Were I laid upon a sickbed, the very sight of you would make me strive toward wellness," Faramir told her. "Go, and I will see you at dinner this evening, my heart." He raised her hand to his lips, to the great delight of Pippin, who watched, beaming.

When she had departed, Pippin nudged Faramir's arm. "I am glad you will wed her, Faramir. I hope I can be at the wedding."

"Indeed you shall, Pippin, for we will wed in Edoras, and I am told you and your friends will accompany us there, on your way home to the Shire. I would ask you to stand for me."

Pippin's eyes lit. "I will," he vowed. "Who else will stand for you?"

"Your king will stand for you," Aragorn said, joining them. "And your uncle of Dol Amroth also, Faramir. But glad I am that Pippin will join us, for it is good to involve the Shire."

"I would do anything for Faramir," Pippin told Aragorn. "And I have a question."

"What, you?" Aragorn said with a twinkle in his eyes as he pretended great astonishment. "I'm shocked, Pippin."

"I know I ask a lot of questions," Pippin replied, "but this is a sensible one, truly. I know you are king not only of Gondor but of Arnor in the north, and the Shire is part of Arnor, so you are our king, too. Does that mean Faramir is our steward?"

"Hmm, now that is a sensible question, Pippin," Aragorn said, looking down on him. "For now, he must so serve, for Arnor is but a kingdom on paper at this point. I must see to it yet, but that will not be for some years. When that time comes, I must appoint a steward to remain in the north, for I cannot dwell in two places at once, and I must rule from Gondor."

"Will you rule over the Shire?" Merry asked, coming closer.

"No, Merry. The Shire will rule itself, as it has always done. Long ago, hobbits obtained permission from the king at Fornost to settle the Shire. All that was required from them was to maintain the bridges, to speed the king's messengers, and to acknowledge the king. There has been no king of Arnor for so long I am sure your people have forgotten. I shall not demand acknowledgment. I think it might be better to see to the Shire's protection, and grant you the right to remain autonomous. Independent," he clarified, when Pippin blinked up at him doubtfully. "Permission to enter the Shire must be granted by hobbits, not authorized by a distant king. When you become Thain, I shall count on you, and you, Merry, as Master of Buckland, to see to it, but I shall devise edicts to protect the Shire in time."

"Thank you, Aragorn," Merry said quickly. "I think most hobbits would prefer it that way. They're not like us--and that's as well. I would hate the Shire to be changed."

"We all would," Pippin said. "When we were trying to urge the Ents to help us, I thought if we failed we could just go back to the Shire, but Merry knew better. He knew the evil would spread if we didn't take a stand against it. He said, 'There won't be a Shire, Pippin.' So I'll do what I can to protect it."

"Excellent. Faramir and I shall confer on this. It may take several years, for there is much to be done. But I shall always be available to the four of you, should you ever need me."

Pippin smiled at Merry then both of them bowed quite formally to Aragorn.

Faramir smiled, too. "My king, there is indeed much to be done. While you wait to greet Frodo, grant me leave to attend to the business of the kingdom."

"Frodo will want to see you, too, Captain Faramir," Sam said, coming up to join them.

"I wish to see him as well, Master Samwise, but this first visit should be for the Fellowship. I shall visit him later, for I am most anxious to see him."

"If you don't come soon enough, he'll send me to fetch you, so you bear that in mind," Sam said stubbornly. "He worried about you when we were in Mordor, afraid your life would be forfeit for letting him go."

"Here I stand," Faramir said, "well mended from my wounds. Yet I freed Frodo by my choice, because it was the only honorable thing to do. I am sorry Frodo worried for me, when he had so many worries of his own. My fate was never his responsibility. The Valar willing, he will soon be mended. All in Middle-earth wish him well."

Sam smiled up at him. "Thank you."

Faramir patted his shoulder. "I must go now and do my king's bidding, but when we next meet, I hope Frodo will be well and strong."

"Listen!" Pippin cried. "Merry, that's Frodo. He's awake!"

Laughter came from Frodo's room, that of Gandalf, and one other. Frodo! Without a moment's hesitation, Pippin and Merry raced madly for the door.

The other members of the Fellowship started after them, and Aragorn looked to Faramir. "Come if you will. I know Frodo would be glad to see you."

"This moment is for the Fellowship," Faramir said. "Go. I shall come later."

He started down the corridor and paused at the end of the hall. All but Sam had vanished inside, and as he watched Sam paused an instant in the doorway. A warm and gentle smile lit his face, and he plunged in.

As he went about his duties Faramir could not wipe the smile from his face.

            *****

"There's something I want to do," said Alan Virdon.

Pete looked at him in surprise, because he sounded so serious. He had been more peaceful since he returned from the Black Gate, not as if he had grown resigned to remaining in Middle-earth, but as if hope had returned. He had been thrilled to hear that Frodo had roused from his healing sleep and was mending. Galen's acceptance by the people of Minas Tirith pleased him, too. Pete knew he had endured enough unfair treatment at the hands of the apes that the thought of any form of discrimination had grown abhorrent to him. To know that Galen had been accepted here, to see people call out friendly greetings to him in the street, always made him smile.

But his thoughts had to turn to Sally and Chris, the way they had back in Galen's world. It was inevitable. Pete remembered friends and relatives back in the Twentieth Century, and even when he wasn't thinking about the people, he thought about the world he was used to, the world he'd grown up in, where he knew all the rules. He'd learned different rules in the ape-dominated society of 3085, and now he faced a whole new set here in Middle-earth in the year 3019 of the Third Age. The rules here were kinder ones, the customs not entirely unfamiliar. People were people, but here it was as if they had stepped back into an earlier Western culture. Of course his knowledge of the day-to-day details of that time were limited, but at times being here felt natural. Sure he might crave a pizza, or a fast car, or a night on the town with one of the many girlfriends he'd had back in his astronaut days, but the people here were great.

"What do you have to do?" he asked.

Galen, who stood with the two of them on the ramparts of the Citadel, looking out across the Anduin valley, balanced lightly on his feet and tilted his head to gaze up at Alan. "Is it serious?" he asked anxiously.

"It's important, at least to me," Alan replied. He leaned his hands on the parapet and stared off slightly to the north. "I want to go back to the place where we came here."

"Why?" asked Galen, staring at him open-mouthed. "Surely the machine that brought us here is broken. Urko would have been so furious that we eluded him that he would have smashed it, just like the gorillas destroyed the computer in Oakland."

"Don't you see I have to try?" Alan said urgently. He drew back from the parapet and faced his two friends. "The Guardian was a hologram. They couldn't have killed him, and they might have had enough superstitious fear of him not to ruin the machine, or at least not ruin it beyond repair."

"Okay, I'll allow that," Pete said. "But that still would mean he'd need to have fixed it from the damage the bullet did. He wasn't solid, so maybe he couldn't do it. We don't know. But even if he could, there's no device on this end."

"There never was, when people went back to study history," Alan returned. "I think the people just had to be at the right place, the spot where they'd arrived. Maybe they had to be there at specific times of day. I don't know. All I know is, I want to go and sit there for a few hours. I can't not try. You understand, don't you?" When they didn't immediately reply, his face tightened. "What's the matter? Don't you want to go home?"

"Oh, man," Pete said. "Yeah, I want to go home. I just never really believed I could. The machine--well, it hit so fast I didn't even have time to think. We just jumped in. It could have been a trap devised to kill us, for all we knew. We were gonna abandon Galen in a Forbidden Zone just because of home."

"Just?" Alan stared. "I'll never give up trying to get home. By now, Sally must believe I'm dead. Officially, we probably are. There's no way they can have any hope back there, not after so long. God, Pete, what if she meets somebody else, falls in love, gets married. Or does it because she wants Chris to have a father? Somebody else, not me." He stared at Pete, and the torment of that thought shone out of his eyes.

Pete wished he'd never thought of that, but of course he had. It had occurred to Pete almost immediately. "Come on," he said. "It doesn't mean she won't always love you."

"Yeah, and that makes me feel a hell of a lot better," Alan spat. "You want to stay here, is that it? What about you, Galen? Don't you want to go home? You're the only ape here. I've seen the way you cringe when strangers stare at you and point. I heard that little kid two days ago ask his father if you were a new kind of orc."

"They're learning I'm not," Galen said. "Girand told me I should always wear my apprentice healer's robes until people are used to me. A lot of them are already."

"So you want to stay?"

Galen cocked his head and gave the question due consideration. "Oh, Alan, when I think about going home, I think about a home that doesn't exist any more. I can't go back to pretending humans are only clever animals. I'm a fugitive there, a traitor, and they'd kill me as an example if they ever caught me, or imprison me forever. You know they would. I've got friends and cousins who would hide me, but eventually I'd be found out. I knew a lot of apes before I met you. My father is on the High Council, as you know. If I go back, eventually I would be a prisoner, and that's the best thing that could happen. Don't you think there are those who are suspicious of my father, just because I'm his son? If I'm gone, things will be easier for him and Mother." He wrinkled up his muzzle. "They'll think I'm dead, and be sad. Mother will weep for me."

Pete remembered Galen's mother, Ann, as one of the kindest apes he had ever met, and how well she had treated him when he was recovering from Wanda's torture.

After a moment, Galen continued. "In the end, I will always know my parents respected me for my choice, and that...matters to me. Being a fugitive was...very hard. Knowing the two of you made it bearable, and I would never give that up, even if I had a chance to and go back to my old life."

"But you were willing to stay in your own time alone, and let us go home," Alan reminded him.

"I couldn't deprive you of a chance to go home," said Galen simply. "What kind of friend would I be if I tried to hold you there, when you were so eager to return where you belonged?"

"You're the greatest friend in the world, Galen," Pete told him. "In any world."

"Oh." Galen's face lightened. "Thank you, Pete." He turned back to Alan. "I know you have to try, and if you do, I will, too, and return to my time, and try to survive and to enlighten my fellow apes. But if it fails, I have a purpose here, and Aragorn will do everything he can to make sure I can do it." He held up his hands before Alan could speak. "I know I may be an example for him, of how peace can come between all the races, but I don't mind that. I'm glad. So if we can't go home, I'll be...all right here."

"What about you, Pete?" Alan asked. "You ready to settle down here, too?"

"Come on, Alan, you know I'll go home if I can. I just don't think we can, and agonizing about it won't help me."

"Just go with the flow?" Alan asked.

"It's what works for me. If I stop and think about it too much, it's gonna get me down. Better to enjoy what's good about it--and there's a lot good here--and make a life for myself." Like Galen, he raised his hands to halt Alan's response. "It's different for me. I didn't have a family. That doesn't mean I don't miss the Twentieth Century, sometimes so much it hurts. You think I don't have dreams about it, just like you do? But I can't do anything about it, so I just get on with life."

"It isn't that easy for me," Alan said. "I have to have hope. I...lost it for a little while."

"When you threw away the disk?" Galen said very softly. "Oh, Alan, I'm very sorry."

"I know you are, Galen." He patted the chimpanzee on the shoulder. "But I got my hope back."

"Because you think the machine might be repaired?" Galen asked.

Alan shook his head. "No. I think Pete's right, that Urko would have destroyed it. But I don't know that. I only know there is always hope. If Frodo could carry the One Ring to Mount Doom in spite of all the odds against it and then survive, there has to be hope." He stared at the distant mountains of Mordor. Pete didn't have to look over his shoulder to know the sky above the jagged peaks was almost entirely blue, with only faint trailing remnants of smoke from the dying volcano.

"I talked to Aragorn last night," Alan said. "He told me when the people of Rohan had taken refuge in their fortress of Helm's Deep, and the orcs were coming, ten thousand strong, and they had only three hundred to stand against them, Legolas insisted they were all going to die. But then Aragorn found a young boy who was really too young to fight, but who would have to anyway, and talked to him--and told him there was always hope. And then an army of elves came to their aid, and in the end, when it seemed they would all be defeated, Éomer brought the rest of the Rohirrim in time to save the day. Just like here, when they came over the hill in time to halt the total destruction of the city, and then Aragorn brought the oathbreakers. There is always hope."

Pete nodded. "I'll give you that. We've survived too many times when you'd have thought we were doomed for me not to believe it." He drew a deep breath. "If you want to go sit on the hillside for a few hours and see if the machine is programmed with automatic recall, I'll go with you."

"Oh," cried Galen. "So will I, Alan."

Alan thrust out his hand, Pete put his on top of it, and Galen reached out a moment later. The three-way grip strengthened them all.

"I've gotta ask, Alan," Pete said quietly. "What if it doesn't work?"

"Then at least I'll have tried. I can't commit myself here if I don't try. I'll always wonder if I missed my chance."

"Then let's do it," Pete said. "Now?"

"Now. I told Aragorn I'd try. Faramir was there, so he knew, too. He said he hoped I would find what I sought. Gandalf was with them. He looked at me in that solemn way he had, and said I must seek my answers, and that mayhap I would find them on the hillside."

"Mayhap?" Pete echoed and waggled his eyebrows.

"I was quoting," Alan said with exaggerated dignity.

"I should tell Girand in the Houses of Healing," Galen said. "I'll go and do that now."

"Meet us by the main gate," Pete said.

            *****

Not only Galen met the two astronauts at the main gate. Faramir came, too, leading four horses. "I will ride out with you," he said. "I have seen supplies packed, and brought weapons, so you will not return to an unsafe world unarmed. I will wait for you, a little distance away, so your device will not draw me into the future." He smiled. "I have too many reasons to stay here."

"Éowyn, right?" Pete asked with a smile.

"And my duty to king and country," Faramir replied, inclining his head. "I will be grieved for my sake to see you depart, for I have come to value all three of you, but I will be glad for your sake should you find your way home. My king has sent his good wishes, and hopes the Valar will bless your undertaking."

They mounted and rode out through the broken gates. Faramir glanced at the makeshift replacement and knew that a new gate must be created, and quickly, not because Minas Tirith faced danger unless the orcs that fled the Black Gate should band together and attempt retaliation, but because Gondor must present a strong appearance in the negotiations with the Haradrim and Easterlings. One of the many things that needed to be completed, along with restoration of the city, settlement of people in Ithilien, the planting of crops to ensure a bountiful harvest. That had begun already, of course, with Aragorn dipping into the city's coffers to make certain the farmers had seed aplenty, and the necessary implements. So many things to do.

He would regret the departure of these three, should they go. Pete had proven remarkably inventive. His term for himself, jack of all trades, was one Faramir had never heard before, but he knew such people, who could put their hand to many tasks. Useful folk they were. He and Pete had enjoyed a number of talks in the Houses of Healing. There they had spoken of ways to mend the city and improve life in future. He had shown sense, too, in his explanation that the people of Middle-earth might not be ready for many things from his own time, but devices they could manage with existing tools, he would gladly help them develop. That showed a clear head, good sense, and proper ethics, and Faramir was glad of it. A pity he had not been granted time to build the machine that could fly.

The ape Galen would be sadly missed by the healers, for he was kind, was gentle with the sick, and genuinely cared for their well-being. Faramir would miss him personally, for he had discovered in Galen a kindred need to learn of the world around him and a fascination with nature and how it worked. He had borrowed books from Faramir, treated them with reverence, and returned them, eager to discuss what he had read. A companion of that sort was always welcome.

Alan he knew the least well, but what he had seen of the man, he respected. Aragorn spoke highly of him, how Alan valued the king's desire to bring harmony to the races and nations of Middle-earth. "Should he remain, I would put him to work for me in such matters," Aragorn replied. "For we face a long and tedious struggle. Even yet, the kin of our brave Legolas and Gimli express shock at their friendship. I heard Alan speaking to one of the elves who has arrived for my impending coronation, describing his friendship with Galen, and reminding the elf that if two such different beings could become brothers, then it should prove easy for elves and dwarves." Aragorn had smiled as he related the tale. "He next asked the elf, 'Or are elves less flexible and generous of spirit than men and apes?', at which point, the elf expressed exasperation and departed, but he went on his way looking thoughtful. Such a man as Alan can only aid our plans."

Yet Middle-earth could not hold them, should they choose to depart.

They rode along the wall and then north a ways, along the slope of the hill. Bushes grew here thickly, but they were shallow growth, only just now coming into full bud. In the day's bright sunshine, Faramir saw the first flowers breaking from the buds. Spring, and a whole new world, the beginning of a new age. It seemed fitting that there would be a new king to accompany the wondrous change that had come to Middle-earth. Fitting that Faramir had seen and recognized Éowyn as the woman his heart had sought. Fitting that the sun shine down upon Gondor.

Fitting that friends depart?

Yet more would depart soon, for once Aragorn was crowned, the hobbits must return to the Shire. Gimli and Legolas would return to their people, and Éowyn's brother to Rohan. Aragorn and Faramir would ride with the party that far, and there, Faramir would say his farewells to his hobbit friends. How he would miss Pippin, who had so greatly brightened his life. And Frodo.... Yet it was at Edoras that Faramir and Éowyn would be wed.

He smiled at the thought of his impending nuptials, then put aside the thought, for he must now give his attention to the three from the future. "Where is the spot you arrived?" he asked. "And another question. The great device that bore you here exists only in the future. How can you return, with it not here?"

"It has the ability to retrieve the ones it sent into the past," Alan said at once. "The people who made it designed it that way, so they could visit their past and study it. There must have been an automatic recall feature built into it, just as the gift of language was built into it. If it's working, it should detect us and pull us back."

Pete frowned. "I don't know, Alan. What if in order to return we need some sort of token for it to lock onto? A bracelet or device."

"We weren't given anything like that," Alan argued.

"No, but the Guardian thought we were going home. There wouldn't have been any need."

"If the machine could teach us Westron without us knowing it, then it should be able to find us." He looked about. "There," he said. "Near that tree."

"Are you sure, Alan?" Galen asked. "I thought it was farther."

"No, it was there. I remember the way that branch grew."

Pete looked at it and shrugged. "I just know it was around here somewhere." He dismounted. "I can't see any traces."

"It's rained a couple of times," Alan reminded him. "I don't think there'd be any marks to find. It's all grassy here. Footprints wouldn't last."

Alan and Galen dismounted. It had rather disconcerted Faramir to see the ape riding, but he had told Faramir in one of their discussions that in his time, only apes were allowed to ride horses. Faramir swung down and looked around, but came not close to them, for he had no wish to be swept away into the future. "I will stay apart from you," he called. "And wait with you to see if your future machine will summon you."

The other three prowled about, looked down at Osgiliath, back at Minas Tirith, and then took a few paces to Faramir's left. "I think it was here," Alan said. "Right here. I remember that log. I nearly tripped over it."

"Yeah, I remember that, too," Pete confirmed. "Galen you were just beyond it, and didn't have to watch your step."

The three of them looked at each other, then they took the supplies and weapons Faramir had brought and sat down on the log, side by side. "Faramir," Pete called. "If we should vanish, look after the horses, will you?"

"I will."

The sound of galloping made him turn his head. Here came Gandalf, mounted on Shadowfax, his white robes gleaming in the sun, with Peregrin Took mounted before him, clad in his livery of Gondor that had been made for Faramir when he was a lad. Gandalf spoke to Shadowfax, who halted beside Faramir's mount. Pippin at once flashed a smile at Faramir, then he slid down from the horse's back. Gandalf dismounted, too.

Faramir put out his arm to halt Pippin's impulsive run. "Wait, my friend. They sit in preparation for a recall from their time. Go too close and you might be swept away, too."

"Oh," said Pippin in dismay. "I'm here to say goodbye, in case they went home. I didn't want them to go without seeing them, especially Galen." He smiled at Galen, who made one of his many sounds of delight and jumped up to come to Pippin.

"If we go, I'll miss you, Pippin," he said. "I remember how kind you were to me when we were newly here and I had to wait and watch the battle alone."

Pippin flung his arms around Galen's waist. "Do you think you'll go home?" he said. "I know it must seem so very far away, but it's nice here, if you have to stay. Everybody who knows you likes you very much."

"For once, Peregrin Took, you speak sensibly," Gandalf said with a smile at the hobbit. He bowed to Galen, then looked past him to the two humans, who came to say their goodbyes.

"Gandalf! I have become a most sensible hobbit."

"In some small way," the wizard said. "Alan Virdon, Aragorn wishes you well, and asks me to relay his words, that, need you remain here, he will see you have a place, for he values your views on the unity of the races. As for you, Pete Burke, your willingness to help the people of Minas Tirith has served you well. You are also made welcome. And Galen, for your noble efforts in the Houses of Healing, you will always be remembered."

"This is a wonderful place," Galen said. "And you have a very fine king, who would decree that no race will tyrannize another. It is a lesson I wish could be taught in my own time, and if I return there, that is what I will try to do."

"And you'll be great at it, Galen," Pete encouraged him. "Gandalf, we're gonna miss everybody here. I know we've only been here a month, but it could be home, ya know?" He glanced at Alan. "We have to try this," he said, and Faramir suddenly realized he wouldn't have subjected himself to the strong possibility of failure if not for his friend. "Come on," he said to Alan and Galen. "Let's go and see if the machine will pull us back."

They retreated to the log, and Pippin stood between Faramir and Gandalf, watching them. He looked sad enough at the thought of parting that Faramir rested a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"It was almost this time of day when we arrived," Alan said after a few moments of staring. "I don't know if that would be significant, but I think we need to wait past that time."

And if this failed? Would he return at different days of the week, to see if the future device might only work on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays? Faramir knew a failure now need not mean anything, save that the time was wrong, that the machine had been damaged and was not yet repaired, that the need for a token to alert the machine was valid. There could be many reasons why it would not work this day. At what point would Alan yield his hope of home and the wife and small son who waited in the future? How long would Faramir try, were he separated from Éowyn?

The sun climbed higher and higher in the sky, and few words were exchanged. Pippin started to speak a few times, then fell silent. As time passed Alan's face grew grimmer. Pete and Galen exchanged doubtful looks. The hour crept along, and Pippin shifted uneasily on his feet and looked up worriedly at Gandalf, and then at Faramir.

Finally, when the sun marked the noon hour, Alan climbed to his feet. "Okay," he said, that word of his time that some in Minas Tirith had adopted from listening to him and Pete speak. "It's not happening."

Galen scrambled to his feet with such haste Faramir suspected he had almost hoped it would fail. Considered a traitor to his own kind, marked for death should he be captured, when all he had done was what he knew to be right, he might find Gondor kinder. Faramir knew all too well how hard it could be to do what one judged was right. It offered inner compensation, a sense of honor that could not be tarnished, but his attempt to do the right thing had won for him the contempt of his father and, very nearly, his death. Would Galen find comfort here in a world where his actions were valued, even if it meant he would never see one of his own kind again?

Pete slapped Alan on the back. "Hey, just because it doesn't work now doesn't mean it never will."

Alan faced him and gripped his shoulders. "I couldn't commit to a future here if I didn't try," he said. "When we were in Galen's time, there really was no hope of settling and finding peace there. We'd always be fugitives. We had to run, to help where we could, and then run again. We don't have to run here." He looked past Pete to Faramir and to Gandalf. "I may come down here and try from time to time," he admitted. "A part of me will have to. I need to, in order to keep my hope alive. Do you understand that?"

"Very well, indeed," Gandalf agreed. "Responsibility cannot be cast aside because it may be painful. To try and fail will wound the soul. There may come a time when you must choose, fully and completely, to accept that your life is here, but I would not yet counsel that." He looked down at Pippin, and let his hand fall on the hobbit's shoulder. "Know, Alan Virdon, that one can love more than one home. I, too, must make such a choice myself, for I was sent here to companion the Third Age, to do what could be done to aid the races of Middle-earth. The time will come when I must return across the sea to the Undying Lands, like the departing elves."

Pippin's head jerked up and he stared at Gandalf, his eyes full of horror. "Oh, no! Gandalf, we need you here. You can't go!"

"I must, Pippin," Gandalf insisted, and the use of the name Pippin rather than Peregrin Took indicated Gandalf's concern for the hobbit. "You and I have become such good friends it will be hard to sail away and see you no more, but I will never forget you. Indeed it would be hardly possible after your many escapades I have witnessed. And also your great heroism."

Pippin reddened. "I wasn't heroic, Gandalf. I only did what I had to do."

"As do we all," Faramir said. "Mithrandir, I have long known you would one day depart these shores, but I had hoped it would not be in my lifetime."

"It will not be for several years," Gandalf assured him. "There are many things that must be settled before I depart. You need not farewell me yet."

"Or us, either," Pete said. "Gandalf, I haven't known you very long, but I think Middle-earth will be a sadder place without you. I'm glad we'll have you around a while longer. Looks like you'll have us a while longer, too." He turned to his friend. "I'm sorry, Al. Looks like it just isn't in the cards, at least not today."

"The longer we stay, the more we'll put down roots," Alan said. "You and Galen are doing that already. I told Aragorn on the march to the Black Gate that if I had to stay here, I'd swear allegiance to him."

"Oh, I didn't know that," Galen cried.

"Neither did I." Pete looked quite hard at his friend.

"No, because I wasn't sure." He gestured behind him at the space where they had waited. "Nothing's happening here. And it's not like Galen's world. There, we pretty much reacted to what was happening around us. Sometimes we had to fight back, take the initiative, but on the whole, it was out of our control. We could take charge for little things, but not for our lives. To get by, I had to focus on home, otherwise I'd go nuts." He smiled at Pete, a sad, rueful smile. "I remember you telling me I was off my rocker to think the disk could ever get me home. Guess you were right." He put his hand into his pocket and drew out the small metal disk Faramir had only seen once before. The sun caught it, bright as flame. Alan looked at it a moment, then he gripped it so tightly his knuckles whitened. For a long moment, he held the pose, then he thrust it into his pocket.

"I was just trying to keep you from getting your hopes up," Pete said.

"I know, buddy. I know."

"Are you all right, Alan?" Galen fussed. "I'm really sorry it didn't work."

"I know you are, Galen. And yeah. I think I'm all right." He looked at Faramir as if to the representative of Gondor. "Looks like we're staying here. It's time to stop simply reacting and start taking charge of my life."

"Taking charge of one's life can be painful," Faramir said. He gave Alan a wry smile. "I still bear the scars from my attempt. Yet I regret it not."

"I don't know if I'm gonna regret it or not," Alan said. "Probably, every day of my life. But it looks like I'm stuck here. So instead of just thinking about being stuck, I'm gonna think about what to do here. It won't do me any good to brood. Frodo taught me there was always hope."

"A lesson well worth learning," Gandalf agreed. "Come. We must return to the White City. Otherwise I shall hear naught but complaints from Peregrin Took about how he has already missed elevenses, and how he will soon be late to luncheon, and how he will no doubt waste away to nothing before afternoon tea."

"I won't, Gandalf," Pippin said. "I had a huge second breakfast. And I know a cook who will always sneak me treats if I go in and smile up at her, especially if I am wearing my livery." He patted the White Tree symbol on his chest.

"Pippin, you are shameless," Faramir chided fondly.

"Of course I am. I practice being shameless nearly every day," Pippin teased.

"Oh, lord," Alan groaned. "Pete, he's just like you."

"Me? I'm not shameless. I'm...what am I, Galen?"

"You, Pete? Well, now, let me see. I'll have to think." He scrunched up his face in that way he had when he concentrated, then his eyes lit with triumph--and mischief. "I know what you are, Pete. You're audacious."

"Audacious?" Pippin echoed as Alan roared with laughter that made Pete's face light up with relief. "I like audacious. Gandalf, can I be audacious?"

"Somehow," Gandalf said as they mounted their horses, "It lacks the same ring as 'Fool of a Took.'"

            *****

Tradition held that on the night before his coronation each new king of Gondor must go off alone to ponder the weight of his impending duties, the responsibilities of his office, and his willingness to surrender his life to Gondor. So Faramir had reported after poring over musty reports more than a thousand years old, and so, then, must it be. Shorn of the escorts and bodyguards who had dogged his steps in the guise of protection and esteem, abandoning Legolas and Gimli, who would have loyally waited with him, Aragorn went forth into his city. He had spent the hour past with Frodo, talking with him of all manner of things, none of which at first had related to rings or kings.

They had talked such utter nonsense that Samwise had stared at them, his brow wrinkled in perplexity and muttered, "You and Mister Bilbo used to chatter away like that."

"I know, and I remember," Frodo had replied, his eyes wistful. "I begin to long for the journey home, for it will be so good to see him once more."

"Would that I could come with you as far as Rivendell," Aragorn said with equal longing, for there had been no word from Elrond, no news of Arwen's fate. The Ring was gone, and Sauron fallen, which should mean she lived and recovered; but even if she did, that would mean she must travel west to the Grey Havens and then across the sea, not south to Minas Tirith, to Aragorn's side. "Yet, we must leave you, I fear, at the Gap of Rohan."

"I will be glad for all the time we shall spend together," Frodo said. "Ah, Aragorn, to think you will be king."

King, yes, Aragorn thought, and a king who had aided the Ringbearer to the best of his abilities. "You four hobbits shall have a special platform tomorrow," he said, "to enable you to see over the heads of the crowd. As representatives of the Shire, you deserve such an honor."

Frodo's eyes had shadowed. Aragorn knew the truth of how the Ring had finally fallen, that he had claimed it for his own there on the edge of the Cracks of Doom, and that it had taken Gollum biting it from his finger and then falling into the flames to end the Ring. He knew Frodo believed he deserved no honor; yet the Ring would never have been unmade if not for his remarkable achievement, one small hobbit against the might of Mordor when even a man as strong as Isildur had failed.

"I would not deny my dear friends honor," Frodo acknowledged. "And I know the people need heroes, so I will stand with them. But, please, Aragorn, do not herald me before all as Ringbearer. I am simply Frodo."

"I shall do you honor, yet without panoply. Fear not, Frodo. Yet all would think it strange should I honor you not." He smiled suddenly. "Your moment in the sunshine shall be brief. Mine has been constant since I returned to the city. Should I wish to slip away for a convivial evening with Legolas and Gimli, I needs must have bodyguards dogging my steps, and the people stare as if I honor them simply by journeying among them. They will learn I am approachable, that I mean not to distance myself as Lord Denethor did, and that none of my people should hesitate to come to me in time of need. But I must settle into kingship, and that will take time."

"You are a great hero to them," Frodo said with a wicked smile. When Aragorn groaned, he said, "If they are to make me one, then they must also do so for you. You came to the city when hope seemed lost and saved it. You marched bravely upon Mordor itself for Gondor's sake. The love you, Aragorn. Be too approachable and they will come to you constantly."

"I shall not keep them away." He grinned suddenly. "Others will guard and protect me until I am distracted. Glad I am of my time spent serving Faramir's grandfather long ago, and Théoden's father in Edoras."

"You were serving your apprenticeship," Frodo agreed. "Now you come into your office."

"You'll be a fine king, Strider," Sam put in. "I mean, your majesty." He reddened slightly. "Seems that strange to know you will be king. Well," he added hastily, "not to know it, but to know you, if you see what I mean. I'm just a plain hobbit, and to know someone as important as the King of Gondor! Well, I don't know what to say."

Aragorn had laughed. "Call me Strider whenever you wish, Sam. I have determined that will be the name of my House, yet it will sound better in high elvish. Telcontar, it shall be."

"And you will be Elessar, the Elfstone," Frodo said. "A king must have many names, I see."

"But always, I shall be Aragorn to my friends," he had replied, and shortly thereafter took his leave of Frodo and Sam, and went out into the city.

His bodyguards trailed him distantly at first, as he moved among his people, pausing here and there to speak to those he met, but when he reached the Citadel, he dismissed them. "Tradition holds I now spend some time alone," he said. "I will go out and meditate on Mordor." He pointed out to the great thrust of rock that jutted out into the city. "None will harm me, and I must do this."

The soldiers withdrew to the steps of the Hall of the Kings, and after a moment, released from duty, they sat and began a game of dice. As he walked past the White Tree, Aragorn could hear the first rattle of the cubes against the stone.

It was not until he had nearly reached the farthest point that he realized it was not deserted. A man sat on the stone pavement in the shadow of the parapet, his knees drawn up, arms folded against them, as he stared unseeingly into the vast river of stars that glittered overhead. Not until Aragorn came within a few steps did he start from his abstraction and look up.

It was Alan Virdon.

When he moved to scramble up, Aragorn put out a hand to restrain him and sat beside him. "The stars are very fine," he said, "now that the murk of Mordor has dissipated."

"We rarely saw stars like this in my own time," Alan admitted. "Pollution always made them fainter, and our cities were so brightly lit at night that the stars lost their impact. I used to be surprised in Galen's time to see how bright they were."

"Many a long night have I lain beneath the trees and gazed up through the branches at the stars," Aragorn admitted. "Of course I was raised in Rivendell, where Lord Elrond fostered me, and the elves are devoted to starlight. To live in a world where their glory is dimmed seems sad to me, although no doubt other wonders compensated for the loss."

"Once Sally and I went on a cruise, before Chris was born," Alan said, his voice remote and remembering. "One would pay a fee to take a voyage to exotic locales. We chose the Greek Islands. At night, we would go far forward on the ship, where its lights didn't show, and the stars were like this. There would be phosphorescence in the water, and dolphins would leap and play alongside the ship." He stared unseeing at the stars lost in recall.

"An excellent memory," Aragorn said. "One must hold to such, for they are priceless."

Alan gazed at him. "You sound as if you understand," he said.

"Be not surprised. There is one I love, who is as dear to me as your Sally is to you. She is Elrond's daughter, Arwen Undómiel, and we pledged ourselves to one another many a long year ago. Yet her father would not consent to our union, for she is an elf with the long life of her people, and I am mortal, although the blood of Númenor will give me many more years than most men." He drew a deep breath. "When I joined the Fellowship to help Frodo bring the Ring to Mordor, Elrond sent for me. He wished his daughter to go beyond the sea to the Undying Lands where she would remain forever young and fair. I insisted she stayed out of hope, but he claimed she stayed for me. Thus I urged her to go beyond the sea, for I love her and would have what is best for her, even if she had pledged herself to me."

"I didn't know that," Alan said.

"When Elrond brought me the sword of Elendil reforged, he told me she was dying, that her fate was tied to the Ring, that as Sauron grew in power, she would fade. Now Sauron has fallen, and I have sent to Rivendell to learn her fate, but it is my fear that, even should she survive, she will still venture into the West."

"You don't think she'll show up here?" Alan asked.

"I know not. It would be a dream, one I dare not expect, or even hope for. Perhaps she does belong in Valinor with her people, where she need not watch me age and die, leaving her stranded here alone, with all her elf kin gone."

"If I were immortal and Sally mortal, I'd count every second I had with her of value, even if I had to go on without her when her time came," Alan said. "Pete's never been in love like that. He never married and had a family. He doesn't understand, not really, although he gives it his best shot." He drew a long breath. "We tried to go home. We went out and sat where the machine dumped us and waited, but nothing happened. I don't know if anything ever will. I'll have to go again, from time to time. But it's a hope, no more. I have to live the life I have."

"That's what Gandalf always said, that we make the best of what time is given us. You have been given the ending of the Third Age of Middle-earth and the dawn of the Fourth. It was not what you chose. Well, I would not have chosen to be king. Nor would Frodo have chosen to be Ringbearer. It will always scar him, I fear, although his fair Shire may ease his hurts and make them endurable. But there is a thing I know."

"What thing?" Alan asked. He sounded stiff and resistant, but he was listening.

"We may not like all that was given us in life, but that does not mean we shut the door on what is good. I find much good in the people of Gondor. Faramir is a remarkable man who does not recognize his own great worth. I have the brotherhood of an elf, a dwarf, a venerable wizard, and four hobbits. I did not wish to be king. I often wished I could avoid my duty. My own Arwen always had faith--and hope--and insisted my path was laid out before me. Neither you nor I have the life we would have chosen, yet this is what the Valar have given us. Let us live it, you and I, to the best of our ability."

Alan remained unspeaking so long Aragorn feared he had closed himself away from his words. But after a silence in which the only sounds were that of their breathing, and an occasional call or laugh from a level or two beneath them in the city, Alan looked up and met Aragorn's gaze.

"I've gotta say, you keep surprising me. I think your foreign policy is gonna be great, and now I think you'll be the best King Gondor ever had." He sighed. "I'm always going to wish I were home. You know that."

"Of course you will. How could you not? I hope you will find good in Gondor, or if you choose to go further afield, wherever in Middle-earth strikes your fancy. There are fine people here. For a long time, I could not see the strength in Men. Boromir insisted, all during the time we traveled together, that men had both strength and courage. He showed it to me himself, in his valiant defense of Merry and Pippin. All I ask you is that you not close yourself away from what you can find here. Your two friends will always stand with you and support you. Pete, I think, will find it easiest, being here, for he has the knack of accepting. Galen--well, for him, it will be hard in a different way, for he will miss his people, even if they had outlawed him. If he must be here, he is fortunate to be here now, when all celebrate the end of Sauron's reign of darkness and rush to embrace the new world we are making. He finds acceptance, and well deserved."

"Galen's special. He had to overcome lifelong conditioning to look past the views of his people and see the truth."

"That the different races can live in harmony." Aragorn nodded. "You and I know that will not always be easy. Yet it is what must be, if Middle-earth is to prosper."

"If anybody can make it prosper, you can," Alan said thoughtfully. "I told you on the march to Helm's deep that if I had to stay in Middle-earth, I would swear my allegiance to you."

"You heard Pippin's oath. Till your lord release you or death take you. Could you swear that in all honor?"

Alan hesitated. "If I had a chance to return home, you mean? I'll never give up on that possibility. But I can hardly go and sit on a log once a week in hopes it will be the moment."

"I am not one to bind a man against his inclination," Aragorn replied. "You saw Pippin swear his oath of allegiance, but it does not prevent him from returning to the Shire. I will summon him forth as needed, but not enough to disrupt his life, nor do I think Éomer will expect Merry to dwell in Edoras. Should fate grant you the gift of home, I would free you from your oath to me, but never from the intent, which, I believe, to be your solemn vow to work toward unity of the races and nations. Such a battle can be waged in any time, I fear."

"Certainly in mine," Alan agreed. "You're generous, to consider a man's oath when his heart is elsewhere."

"Not your whole heart," Aragorn replied, "for Pete and Galen also hold a portion."

"As do people here, and Gondor itself," Alan agreed. "All right. I'll swear my oath, and if chance comes to go home, I will still hold myself to the spirit of it, wherever I should be."

"Gladly will I accept such an oath," Aragorn acknowledged. "I shall see you are given appropriate livery."

"You mean I have to dress up and do it in public?" Alan asked, a touch of alarm on his face. Before Aragorn could reply, he laughed and waved a hand to deny the need for one. "All right. Tomorrow. In public. At the Coronation. I'll feel like an idiot, but if it's what I've got to do...."

"You think I will not also feel so, standing before all while Gandalf places the winged crown upon my head? They will observe you but a moment, yet their eyes will follow me all the rest of my days." He heaved a great sigh. "Who would be king?"

"You would," Alan replied. "Even if we don't have kings in my time--at least in my country--I have to say the people of Gondor are pretty damned lucky."

"Damned...lucky?" Aragorn echoed in surprise. "An expression of your time, no doubt."

"Well, it's for emphasis," Alan replied with a laugh. "It doesn't mean anybody's damned."

"Thank the Valar for that." Aragorn bounded to his feet. "Come," he said. "The evening grows chill, and I am bound by tradition to meditate in solitude. Go, if you would, to Faramir and instruct him to prepare livery for you for the morrow."

"I will," Alan said and jumped up. "Aragorn?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

He went off, his shoulder squared, his back straight, and Aragorn watched him, a smile upon his face. To have won Virdon's loyalty was an excellent beginning. No, not even that, for he had so much loyalty already; his friends in the Fellowship, Faramir, the soldiers he had fought beside, the people of Gondor. Arwen had never wavered in her devotion. He gazed out into the star-filled night, thinking of her with such longing it made him wish to weep, but then he made himself look past the hollow place inside created by her absence.

It was time to ponder the future.

            *****

Faramir stood beside Éowyn at the coronation, her presence at his side an open declaration of their betrothal. They would turn and smile upon each other as the ceremony progressed, and applaud when called for, together. Éomer King of Rohan was nearby, and from time to time his gaze lingered on his sister, yet each time he turned away, he looked reassured. He would miss her, Faramir knew, as she would miss him, but that he would smile upon her today proved he had accepted what must be, that she would go forth from Rohan and cleave instead to Gondor.

And to Ithilien. Faramir's heart beat with warmth and pleasure, for Aragorn had conferred upon him the title Prince of Ithilien. "Not for a few years yet, but one day soon, you will be able to make your home in that fair land. I know you love it, and I would see it restored, for it will be an excellent home for our people now that Mordor is fallen."

"My lord king, I thank you for the great honor. I have loved Ithilien since I was ordered there to take up my first command. I will build a city there, when the press of business in Gondor has eased a bit, near enough to be readily available in your need. In the hills of Emyn Arnen, perhaps."

"Then you shall also be known as the Lord of Emyn Arnen. Éowyn, I think, will like that, perhaps a city very high, for she was used to Edoras, and was accustomed to stand before the Golden Hall, gazing out over the plain."

"If it will please her, then so shall it be," he had replied.

"You know Éowyn once believed she loved me," Aragorn said. "But she was mistaken. I came at the right moment to win her fancy. Her life had been drear and devoid of hope, and I was as a great hero to her." He had offered a deprecating smile. "I cannot regret she took my words that I could not return her love as a cause to ride to battle, for she brought an end to the Lord of the Nazgûl."

"I shudder to think of the danger she endured, but it brought her to the Houses of Healing," Faramir replied. "Think not I feel jealousy, my lord. She has assured me her feelings for you were those of a young girl dazzled by a great lord."

"And so they were. Even when she would gaze at me in those days, I felt the hero-worship even more than the supposed love. What I see when she looks upon you is the stuff that lasts. Fear not."

That Aragorn would think to reassure him when he had so many demands upon him at every moment of the day only heightened Faramir's opinion of his king. As he watched Gandalf place the crown upon Aragorn's head and proclaim, "Now come the days of the king," Faramir could not hold back an elated smile.

Aragorn spoke very briefly, "This day does not belong to one man but to all. Let us together rebuild this world that we may share in the days of peace." When the applause died, Aragorn sang the words Elendil had spoken as he first arrived in Middle-earth, and Faramir mentally translated the elvish. Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world, then repeated them in a whisper for Éowyn. How fitting that Aragorn, a descendant of Elendil and Isildur, would repeat that vow at such a time.

Aragorn walked down the stairs and among his people. Gladly did Faramir bow to him, and Éowyn curtseyed. Éomer, crownless until his own official coronation in Edoras, also inclined his head to Aragorn.

Faramir smiled as Aragorn greeted Legolas, who wore a circlet on his head to represent his father's court in Mirkwood. Those two had been friends longer than Faramir had been alive. It showed in their greeting. Then Aragorn looked to his left and he froze, staring. Uncertain of what had occurred, Faramir took a hasty step closer, prepared to support his king.

The elf maiden who approached him bearing a banner representing the White Tree was darkly beautiful. Behind her stood an elf-lord that Faramir knew without explanation could be none other than Elrond of Rivendell. As Aragorn and the elf maid gazed at each other, Faramir felt his smile expand. They embraced and kissed. Arwen, the Evenstar. Pippin had told Faramir that Aragorn loved Lord Elrond's daughter and Aragorn had confessed his fear that he would never see her again. Yet here she was, and that very public kiss was little short of a betrothal.

Gondor approved, most heartily. To think the city that had once feared and shunned elves would so gladly welcome an elven queen!

"It is Arwen," Éowyn said in his ear. "Glad I am she has come. Aragorn believed she would sail away across the sea, and I saw in him his great longing for her."

"She will be our queen," Faramir said. "And I cannot but approve, for to see such joy in my king adds to my own bliss."

She laughed. "Ah, Faramir, I know you. You have discovered the joys of betrothal and would happily see all your friends wed, so that they would feel as glad as you."

"What man does not pity those who remain in the single state when he discovers true love?" he replied. Once he would have laughed at any who made such a remark. He and Boromir had chuckled over several officers who had fallen in love and proceeded to behave in what the brothers had considered a truly foolish and fatuous manner. Amazing to finally realize the great good sense of those men.

Aragorn led Arwen through the crowd to the hobbits. The four instantly bowed to them. Yet even as they bowed, Aragorn spoke, and his voice held both fondness and respect. "My friends. You bow to no one." And to the wonderment of all present, Aragorn Elessar, High King of Gondor and of fallen Arnor, went down on one knee before the Ringbearer and his friends.

Faramir knelt gladly. His opinion of hobbits was so high he would sing their praises to all he met. Look at Pippin, beginning to smile in delight at the attention. Sam, of course, thought it mere foolishness and he looked like he wanted to cry, "Now, Strider, none o' that. We're just ordinary folk." That he accepted it was for Frodo's sake.

Frodo held his head up and accepted the tribute, but Faramir knew it was tribute the hobbit did not seek, and would bear only because Aragorn wished it. Faramir suspected that, like him, Frodo saw not the hero in himself. He had done, he claimed, what he must, because none else could, and it had weighted him down so heavily he believed he had failed in the end. Faramir, who had failed at first to free Frodo, when he had known deep inside that he must, could understand, perhaps better than the others, what Frodo endured, but not even he could know what scars the terrible weight of the Ring had left upon his soul.

When Aragorn rose and the crowd with him, Faramir thought the rituals finished, but instead, Aragorn returned, with Arwen at his side, and announced in a ringing voice that there was one more matter before the celebration and feasting would begin. Faramir smiled, for he realized what would happen next, and he found it a sign of hope.

Pete Burke and Galen joined Faramir then, and both were smiling. It was a mark of how far Gondor had come since the dark days of the siege and battle of the Pelennor that several folks called out happy greetings to Galen, and none but newcomers and visitors stared at him. "Watch this, Faramir," Pete said. "It's gonna be great."

"You simply wish to tease him," Galen said with mild reproach.

Even as he spoke, Alan Virdon approached the king, wearing the livery Faramir had ordered for him. He dropped to one knee. "My lord king, I come to offer allegiance," he said in a loud voice.

The nearby members of the crowd quieted, for this was unexpected. Those who did not recognize Alan asked questions of those who did, and a buzz of conversation filled the Court of the Fountain.

"I will hear your allegiance, Alan Virdon of America," Aragorn replied as Alan knelt before him.

"America? Where is that?" people asked. Faramir, who knew the name of Burke and Virdon's land, listened with sudden amusement to the wild speculation.

"Here do I, Alan Virdon, swear allegiance to Gondor and to Gondor's king, Aragorn Elessar, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me," Alan said in a very clear, steady voice. Faramir could hear the faint, barely detectable edge of regret that was nearly buried by Alan's determination to support Aragorn's cause.

"Gondor accepts your allegiance, Alan Virdon," Aragorn said and held out his hand. Alan hesitated but a moment before he bent and kissed the great emerald ring Aragorn wore, the Ring of Barahir that had come from the finger of the Elven-king Finrod to the father of Beren, long ago.

Aragorn drew Alan to his feet, clasped his shoulder as he had clasped that of Legolas, then turned him toward his friends. Galen paused only long enough to smile at Faramir, then he plunged after Pete, and the two of them rushed up to Alan, slapped him on the back with enthusiasm and fellowship.

"I'm glad," said Pippin, suddenly at Faramir's side. "Look at them. I think they're all right now, don't you?" He was clad in the garb of his home and not in the livery of Gondor, but that mattered not.

Faramir beamed down upon his hobbit friend even as he tightened his fingers around Éowyn's. "I think we all are," he said.