The morning was surprisingly brisk given the summer season. Fog streamed in from Anduin, veiling the land in a cloud of cool moisture. The sky grew light as the sun prepared to rise above the grim peaks of the Ephel Duath. Green grass heavy with dew perfumed the coming day with a fresh scent. Trumpets sounded once, heralding the changing of the watch in a towering white city built into the side of a the white-capped mountain Mindolluin, and then the morning fell still again. The soft murmur of Anduin was barely noticeable through the thick fog. Light colors of pink and orange began to touch the few clouds lingering in the sky as the sun grew closer to making an appearance.
The silence was interrupted again by the sound of horses. Thundering over the resting land, a group of riders galloped toward the shining city. They did not hurry, but neither did they tarry. With skills born of long years in battle, they paced their horses so that they would arrive at the city in good time and in good strength should a longer journey present itself afterward.
Initially obscured by the fog, a wall suddenly loomed before them and as one the company of riders turned and rode parallel to it, seeking the gates that would give them passage to the fertile fields within the Rammas Echor. Before long, they found what they sought. The sentinels on guard immediately stood aside for their passage, and as they journeyed on, the sound of trumpets rose into the air behind them. Their coming had been announced.
Answering trumpets echoed out from the white city and in the distance, a great gate was being opened for them. The first rays of the sun shot over the Ephel Duath peaks and the city’s highest tower caught the light and reflected it back to the plain, twinkling like a star in the early morning. The lowing of cattle greeted the ears of the riders as they continued toward the Minas Tirith across the Pelennor Fields. When they were halfway across the vast fields, the trumpets sounded again, marking their progress and hailing their presence. A chorus of neighs arose in the morning air from a collection of proud horses corralled without the city walls. The standard of a white horse set against a field of green flapped lazily in the slight breeze, and the two foremost riders in the approaching company exchanged curious looks.
"The summons said nothing of Rohan," one said, his deep voice carrying clearly in the brisk air.
"But to me it felt as though the King Elessar meant more than what he wrote," the other replied. Shaking back his hair, he shaded farseeing eyes and looked toward the city. "He awaits us in the top of the citadel. I can see him at the window, and King Eomer is there as well. And I think…I believe I can see Gimli’s helm."
"Gimli must have come with Eomer, then. Can you see ought else, Legolas?"
The elf shook his head. "Nay, Faramir. If there be any others with them, they await us within."
"Then let us not keep them waiting," Faramir said, spurring his horse forward. Legolas urged his own mount after him, and the riders behind quickly picked up the pace as well.
It was not long before they passed beneath the towering arch of the City-gate and the clatter of hooves was soon heard on stone walks. Winding their way through the city’s many levels, they soon came nigh unto the citadel and dismounted. Here, grooms came forth to lead away the horses, though there was some trouble with Faensul, Legolas’s white elven stallion. The horse was loathe to leave its master and uneasy in the city of stone despite the elf’s soothing words, and Legolas eventually had to take the horse away himself, promising that he would join Faramir and the others soon.
With his own soldiers following close behind, the Steward of Gondor marched into the courtyard where the guards smartly saluted him and directed him to the tower where of old the stewards would keep watch over the land. Dismissing his own guard and directing them to find food and lodgings, Faramir made his way to the spiraling stairs and began the ascent.
Several minutes later, Faramir walked into a room where Aragorn, Arwen, and Eomer sat. Faramir bowed low before them and then dove forward as he sensed motion above. Rolling out of his dive, he caught sight of Aragorn shaking his head, Eomer shaking with ill-concealed mirth, and Arwen trying not to smile.
"Where is Legolas?!"
Turning his attention to the dwarf who had dropped from the rafters, Faramir started to laugh. "And hail to you, Gimli," the steward answered. "All goes well in Ithilien, and Eowyn sends her greetings, thank you for asking. How are your own people and your own work in the Glittering Caves?"
The dwarf glared at the steward and folded his arms across his barrel-like chest. "The summons was for both you and Legolas. Where is that elf?"
"His horse would not be led away by the Gondor’s men and he was forced to take the stallion himself. He will join us shortly," Faramir answered.
"Arod has never given him trouble before," Eomer said with a slight frown.
"Arod died two months ago," Aragorn explained. "Legolas now rides an elven horse. A present from his father, I believe."
Arwen nodded, resting her hand lightly on Aragorn’s forearm. "Thraunduil sent the horse along with his praise for Legolas’s accomplishments in Ithilien. And if I am not mistaken, something was said of Gimli in the message," she added, glancing at the dwarf.
"Legolas’s father does not appreciate the value of dwarves as his son so wisely does," Gimli grumbled. He eyed the rafters above him, wondering how he had managed to get up there in the first place and whether or not he could do it again before Legolas arrived. "Eomer, I need your chair again."
"You will never do it in time," the king of Rohan said, though he stood and slid his chair toward the dwarf.
"We shall see," Gimli grunted, clambering up on the chair and leaping, using his sturdy legs to propel himself high into the air. His hand caught hold of one beam and he swung there for a while before securing a hold with the other hand.
"Why can’t they greet one another as normal people?" Faramir asked, watching the dwarf’s struggles with bemusement.
"Because neither one is normal," Eomer answered.
"I hope that is not a slight against elves," Arwen said with mock indignation, smiling slightly to take the sting from her words.
"Nothing of the sort, my lady," Eomer replied, wincing as Gimli almost lost his grip while trying to get his legs over the beams. "Say rather that it is a comment on two very strange personalities, one of which happens to be an elf and other of which happens to be a dwarf."
By now, Gimli had managed to get a leg over a thick section of wood and was inches away from pulling himself completely on top of the beams when the rafters shuddered. The dwarf froze for a moment and then turned his head.
"This is a most unusual wait to meet. Would you permit to ask what you are doing and why?"
Gimli glared daggers at the newly arrived Legolas who now hung beside him. "What business is that of yours?"
With a quick laugh, the elf swung easily up onto the top of the rafters and looked down at the dwarf. "My curiosity could not be contained," the prince answered. "And I thought you believed that high perches were not suited for sane beings. Have the Glittering Caves finally driven you to madness or do you seek to be more like the elves?"
"Master Elf, I will have you know that—"
"May we begin?" Aragorn asked from the table, attempting to look stern despite the upward twitching of his lips. "There was a reason for the summons other than to watch the two of you caper about over our heads."
Legolas dropped lightly to the floor while Gimli hit the ground behind him with a hard thud. The dwarf murmured something too low to be heard and Legolas laughed as he took a seat. "You have much to learn, Gimli, if you truly seek to travel as light as the elves."
"And you, Legolas, have much to learn if you wish to keep that fair face intact," Gimli threatened with a menacing glower, sitting beside him.
"Thank you," Aragorn said, deciding to ignore the last two comments and be grateful for the simple fact that they had come down on the first request. "I have summoned you all here today to hear your counsel and, if you are willing, your companionship."
Gimli was sorely tempted to state that Legolas could provide neither of these but decided to hold his tongue. Almost as if guessing his thoughts, Aragorn directed a stern glare at the dwarf and then continued.
"Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth has reported that denizens of Harad have contacted him. They have asked him to pass on a message. Gondor and Rohan are invited to take part in the Gathering of Harad’s tribes. If we choose to accept the proposition, we are to meet with the tribal representatives at Dol Amroth in four days time. After that, we will be escorted to Haradhur where the Gathering will take place."
"What is a Gathering?" Faramir asked.
Aragorn frowned. "It is difficult to explain as we have no equivalant for it here, but I will try. The Gathering is more or less a large trade negotiation among the tribes. Every tribe meets at Haradhur and discusses problems of the last year along with creating agreements for the year to come. Were Gondor and Rohan to attend, we could broker deals and establish a presence among our southern neighbors." Aragorn paused to judge the reactions of the others at this point. Gimli looked bored, Legolas appeared interested but puzzled, Faramir was nodding thoughtfully, and Eomer seemed undecided. Arwen had already heard the news and, like Aragorn, was merely waiting for the reactions of the others.
"What are the drawbacks?" Eomer asked.
Aragorn and Arwen exchanged glances. "According to Harad tradition, the leaders of the tribes must be present at a Gathering," Aragorn answered. "This means that you, Eomer, and I have to attend. We will leave both our kingdoms without a king and that is a danger. Moreover, such an invitation has never been made before despite our overtures in the past years and I fear some treachery may be involved."
"Yet such an opportunity is a rare thing," Arwen spoke up. "We cannot overlook it, though it is true we must proceed with caution."
"I have decided to go," Aragorn stated. "Whether Eomer chooses to accompany me or not is his decision. In my absence, Faramir will govern Minas Tirith and Arwen shall aid him."
"I know little of the customs of Harad," Faramir admitted, "but already my heart warns me to take care. Is this invitation in keeping with their normal traditions?"
There was a pause as Aragorn considered the question. "Yes and no," he eventually said. "Long ago I lived among them for a time, and I remember the Gathering at Haradhur. Haradhur is one of the few permanent settlements in Harad’s desert, and any dealings with foreign kingdoms are usually done there. In this, all is customary for the Haradrim. It is the timing that is unusual. Under normal circumstances, if the Harad tribes wished to broker deals with foreign kingdoms, a few delegates from each of the most powerful tribes would be called to meet with foreign dignitaries at Haradhur during the winter months when the desert is not so treacherous. I cannot recall a single instance in which a foreign power has been invited to a Gathering. Yet here they have invited two!"
"Why do they hold the Gathering in the summer?" Gimli wondered curiously.
"So that all dealings may be done at one time," Aragorn explained. "During the summer, activity is nigh impossible during the day and everything is done at night. This prevents, to an extent, secret trades and treaties. Also, it is seen as a sign of commitment for the tribes to meet when conditions are most difficult."
"Do you counsel me to accompany you?" Eomer asked.
Aragorn shook his head. "I am unsure of my own counsel. How then shall I advise you? This opportunity gives us a chance to be seen by most of the tribes in Harad and also a chance to make our power felt. We may be able to acquire a promise from some of the desert’s northern tribes that they will cease to attack the southern fields of Lebannin. And there are valuable commodities to be had in the desert, as well. Fine linens are spun there, and precious metals are to be found. Key trade agreements would be very profitable for Rohan, and it would bolster Gondor’s position to be accompanied by a key ally. But I will not deceive you. Like Faramir, I am also wary. The invitation, though it appears sincere, may be a trap for something else."
"You suspect an attempt on our lives?" Eomer wondered.
"It is a possibility," Aragorn answered. "More likely they will seek to gain leverage over us in some way and so force us into a dangerous agreement."
"Those that would seek to do so would be unwise," Arwen said firmly. "The power and might of Gondor cannot be contested in such a way."
"My liege, you have decreed that I am to stay behind and I bow before your wisdom, but may I ask who is to accompany you?" Faramir broke in.
"A force of perhaps twenty mounted guards."
"Twenty?" Faramir blinked in astonishment. "Surely you would take far more for your own protection."
"The politics of the Haradrim are…different from our own," Aragorn attempted to explain. "If I were to arrive alone and without escort, I would be seen as weak. However, should I take an army with me, the other tribes would see me as either threatening or attempting to hide something. It must be a small force of able men. And Eomer, should you decide to come, I would counsel you to do the same."
"So be it then," Eomer answered. "I will ride with you, Aragorn, and with me shall come twenty of my best riders."
"Aragorn, what is my involvement in this?" Gimli spoke up, voicing Legolas’s question as well.
The king of Gondor shifted and appeared rather uncomfortable. "I would ask you to accompany me as well, but…for different reasons."
"We do not need reasons," the dwarf stated. "I think I speak for both of us when I say that we would gladly join you on this journey." Legolas nodded in agreement.
"I thank you for your willingness," Aragorn said slowly, "but I feel you must understand the logic behind my request. You see…the Haradrim are highly superstitious. They fear what they cannot understand and a tribe who possesses and controls something beyond their comprehension is seen as…powerful."
"Ah," Legolas said with a slow smile. "In other words, the possession and control of an elf and dwarf would be a sign of power for Gondor and Rohan."
"This suggestion was actually mine," Arwen spoke up for her uncomfortable husband. "I assured him that the two of you would not take offense at the idea, but he hesitated before including Legolas in Faramir’s summons and Gimli in Eomer’s."
"Let me see if I understand this," Gimli said. "The Haradrim would see that you had two very unusual things under their control and so would be more willing to favor Gondor and Rohan in negotiations. Do I have it aright?"
"You do," Aragorn sighed. "And I do not mean to say that the elves of Ithilien and the dwarves of the Glittering Caves are possessed or controlled in any way, but—"
"It is as Gimli said before," Legolas interrupted with a laugh. "We will gladly join you on this journey. The reasons matter not, for in your friendship the matters of possession and control are laid to rest. If it furthers political ends to think otherwise, so be it."
"I would ask, though, that you control Legolas more than you control me," Gimli said, skillfully ducking the elven elbow that flew his way. "In a strange land among strange men, the elves are not to be trusted."
"And the dwarves are?" Legolas shot back.
Sensing the meeting was close to an end, Aragorn sighed. "You are certain, both of you? For in this choice resides danger. It is a difficult land. There are no trees and no caves. It is a sea of sand and the days are hot beyond imagining."
"If a man shall endure it, so shall a dwarf," Gimli declared. "But in light of this, I think Legolas may want to reconsider."
"Nay, I must travel to support the aging dwarf with the strength of the elves," Legolas answered, rolling out of his seat and neatly avoiding Gimli’s swinging arm.
"This meeting is adjourned, then," Aragorn announced, standing up and stepping out of the way of Gimli’s lunge. "Eomer, you and your men can find provisions in the storehouse if you have need of them. Gimli and Legolas, your usual quarters are well stocked should you need to rest before we leave and I will see that you are also supplied with sufficient provender. I hope to depart late this afternoon and so arrive at Dol Amroth in the morning four days from now. Tents and other traveling goods are already waiting for us. Are there any preparations that need to be made in which Gondor could aid you?"
"A dwarf is always ready for travel," Gimli said proudly.
"But no more so than an elf," Legolas said.
"My riders will need to stock their saddlebags, but we will be ready to leave at the appointed time," Eomer said.
Aragorn nodded. "Good. We will gather at the gate ere the trumpets sound for the evening watch. And my thanks again for your willingness to come. It is appreciated."
"Where Gondor goes, so goes Rohan," Eomer said with a bow to Aragorn and Arwen. "Have no fear for him, my lady," he said to the queen when he rose. "The swords of Gondor will be ready in his defense as well as the lances of Rohan. And when we return, we shall bear the riches of the south."
* * * *
Gimli narrowed his eyes, cocked his head, and tapped his foot. The object of his scrutiny studied the dwarf in return, blinking large, dark eyes and eventually snorting, unimpressed with what it saw. Legolas fought down a laugh and ran his hand along the smooth arch of the stallion’s white neck.
"We could eat him if circumstances forced us," was Gimli’s final opinion on the horse. Faensul laid his ears back, tossed his head, and stamped one white hoof.
"E gara um caul a u-broniaa aglaredh, Faensul," Legolas told his mount with a laugh. The horse pricked his ears up, studied Gimli again with renewed interest, and then turned his attention to Legolas, rubbing his head against the elf’s tunic.
"What did you tell him?" the dwarf demanded, having understood only some of the words.
"Nothing of great importance," the elf answered.
The two stood before Minas Tirith’s towering gate, waiting for the signal to mount and ride. As was his habit when journeying with the elf, Gimli would be riding behind Legolas. But the new horse was beginning to give him second thoughts.
"Perhaps I should ask Eomer about that pony," the dwarf murmured, unaware that he was speaking aloud.
Legolas laughed and shook his head. "Faensul will not permit you to fall once I command him to bear you. In many ways, you are safer upon his back than you were upon Arod’s. Had I been forced off, Arod would have been beyond your control. Faensul will listen to your commands."
"Will he?" Gimli eyed the horse skeptically.
"If you have the sense to stay in his good graces," Legolas qualified with a mischievous smile that immediately put Gimli on his guard. The elf seemed about to say more, but motion to the side caught his attention and he turned as a large, gray horse rode up.
"Aragorn sends word that we are ready to move out," Eomer told them, pulling his horse Shade to a stop. "Do you have need of anything before we depart?"
"Does the offer of a pony still stand?" Gimli asked with a sidelong glance at Faensul.
The king of Rohan smiled and shook his head. "You would slow us down, Master Dwarf, and so I fear you must seek another mount. If you desire it, Shade will bear us both."
"Come, Gimli," Legolas laughed. "Let Faensul show you his paces for the first part of the journey at least. And then if you still have doubts, you may burden Eomer with your bulk."
"If I am such a burden, Master Elf, perhaps you would see me stay in Minas Tirith," Gimli retorted. "But then who would watch your back and warn you of the obvious things your elven eyes miss should I remain here?"
"You speak truly, my friend. I know of no one else who has your power to state the obvious," Legolas smiled.
Before Gimli could think of an appropriate retort to that, a horn sounded loud from the gate, and Aragorn rode forth accompanied by twenty of his guard on horseback. Eomer turned his horse and spurred Shade toward the waiting Rohirrim who would be journeying with them. Legolas shot Gimli a questioning look and the dwarf nodded reluctantly, moving to Faesul’s side.
"I shall hold you responsible for every bruise I endure because of this horse," the dwarf warned as Legolas helped him mount.
"Am I then allowed to hold you responsible for every affront I will endure because of your presence?" Legolas asked, springing onto Faesul’s back in front Gimli.
"My presence is a blessing for which you should be grateful," Gimli responded. Faensul tossed his head and snorted as if in response to the dwarf’s words. "Others would do well to learn that lesson, too," Gimli said to the horse.
"Alas, I fear it is a difficult lesson to learn," Legolas said, urging Faensul toward Aragorn’s side.
Surveying his guards and the Rohirrim who now waited to ride, Aragorn nodded as Legolas and Gimli joined him at the head of the company. "All is in readiness, I trust?" he asked the elf and dwarf.
"We await your word, lord," Legolas answered.
"Then let us be on our way," Aragorn said, feeling the eagerness of Arnor, his mount, to be off. Glancing back at their company, the king raised his hand and cried aloud. "Forward!"
As one, they sprang forward, thundering across the Pelennor Fields, skillfully drawing together to exit the gate in the great wall that encircled the fertile lands, and passing swiftly southward as the sun began to set.
E gara um caul a u-broniaa aglaredh, Faensul—He has an affliction and cannot endure your glory, Faensul.