The barrier was set aside, and the King himself led the way within, Frodo at his side. The King led the way slowly across the first square toward the stable there--how it had remained untouched by the fireballs sent over the walls by the armies of Mordor no one could say, although its roof had been breached by some of the shot sped into the first circle by the Enemy’s catapults. Its inhabitants had been sent out of the city with the women and children and infirm, and had returned with them; one thing for which the King had sent a request was for two riding ponies to be ready on their arrival. A groom now stood outside the stable door holding the two animals, already saddled and bridled and with waterskins hanging from their pommels. As the King’s party approached, the groom straightened, almost amazed to see the King had actually finally entered the city. Those who had not gone out to see the coronation now lined the streets to watch as the King’s party headed up to the Citadel, and now all eyes were on the tall crowned figure, the white-garbed Wizard, the three Elves, the Dwarf, and the four small figures of the Pheriannath.
The King stopped before the stable and looked expectantly at the groom, who came forward with a bow, leading the ponies. “Welcome, Sire,” the groom said.
“I thank you and your fellows for having these ready,” Aragorn said. He turned to right and left. “Frodo, Sam, I had these prepared for you. It is a long way to the top of the city; and although I believe Pippin can make it well enough, I would prefer the two of you ride. I can ask two of the guards to lead them if you would like.”
Frodo went somewhat paler while Sam colored. “We both know how to ride,” Frodo said definitely. With an exchange of looks the two of them walked forward, examined the ponies carefully, checked bridles and girths. Frodo looked up at the groom. “Thank you. I do not know if I can fully swing myself up. Do you have a mounting block?”
In moments they were mounted, and it could be seen that both were indeed experienced riders. So far Aragorn had seen Frodo riding from the Barrowdowns to Bree, and as he’d been shadowing the party in the woods on the South side of the road he’d not had a good chance to assess the skill of any; then on Bill when he was obviously very ill, at which time the pony had been led or allowed to follow after to find his path as he could; or mounted on Asfaloth, who had been told by his master to carry Frodo and who therefore would not allow him to fall if it could be avoided. To see that both Hobbits knew how to ride competently was a pleasant surprise. And he found himself unsurprised to realize Frodo was not only a skilled rider but a graceful one; and even Sam sat his mount with marked dignity. The King was smiling as, preceded by the two mounted Hobbits, the procession continued its way up through the city.
As they wound their way up the steep streets of the city they were greeted by lines of citizens on each side, flowers and bunting, songs and calls of greeting, bows and curious stares. Frodo remained somewhat solemn and perhaps a bit distant as they went through the city, nodding his acknowledgment of the calls aimed his way, occasionally sipping from the provided waterskin, now and then looking over his shoulder at Aragorn as if to see to it he was still well, checking to see that Pippin was holding up properly. Watching him, Aragorn was certain that if Pippin were to show any signs of flagging Frodo would be off the back of his pony and his young cousin on it before anyone could say a word, and no mere Captain of the Guards would tell him differently.
Éomer came up alongside him, and Aragorn looked to his side briefly. The young King of Rohan was watching Frodo and Sam with interest. “They both ride well,” he commented. “I am surprised, for although I knew that Merry could ride I had no idea that this was a skill widely known among the Holbytla.”
Merry, walking to Éomer’s right and slightly behind him, had yet apparently heard the comment. “Of course Frodo rides, my Lord--we all do. In fact we rode from the Shire to Bree--when we could. Bilbo had Frodo take lessons after he came to Bag End. It is a fairly common skill among gentlehobbits, after all, although I admit most of the better families appear to prefer the use of coaches. Bilbo would ride on occasion, but preferred to either walk or hire a trap from either the Green Dragon or the Ivy Leaf.”
“Does he keep a pony at home in the Shire?” asked Aragorn.
“Keep a pony? No, he never has. He likes them, but there’s no real stable on the Hill. I understand Bungo and Belladonna kept a small carriage and a pair at the Green Dragon, but Bilbo let it go after their deaths. He didn’t have a lot of patience for caring for ponies, and Frodo used to say the same when Mum and Dad offered to give him one from our stable. Said that he had too much to do to want to waste time caring for an animal when it meant going into Hobbiton or Bywater to care for it, and that it would take an exceptional pony to get that kind of commitment out of him.”
“And where did Sam learn to ride?”
“From the Cottons, who have a farm in Bywater. They have plow ponies and a trap and farm wagons of various kinds, and keep about eight ponies altogether, two of them well trained for riding. Plus they and the Thain have been known to do cross matings. Old Tom Cotton is a good judge of ponies, as is Pippin’s da; both have invested in much the same bloodlines. They’re relatives of sorts, the Gamgees and the Cottons; and the Gamgees have always helped out during harvesting. Even Frodo’s been known to help on the farm from time to time, and their older lads and Rosie will help in the harvesting of Bag End’s orchard. Sam’s much taken with Rosie Cotton, you know.”
Aragorn was intrigued. “Sam has a lady love? I had no idea.”
“Well, he’s not going to speak of it much, is he? After all, there was a good chance he’d not come back again, and Sam’s the type that prefers not to dwell on that which he may not come to. However, now that it looks as if we will indeed be able to return to the Shire, I’m certain she’ll be much on his mind.” He looked after his cousin and the gardener. “Sam has it in mind to buy back Bag End when we get back to the Shire, to buy it back for Frodo. It’s the only place Frodo has been happy since his parents’ deaths. Although convincing Lotho and Lobelia to give it up will take some doing. He’s already spoken to me and Pippin, quiet like, you know. Doesn’t wish to let Frodo know until it looks probable and perhaps get his hopes up unnecessarily.”
“Why would he approach you and Pippin before Frodo?” Aragorn asked.
“So we can get our parents to apply pressure on them. I didn’t say anything to Frodo before we left, but Lotho had been doing some very questionable business deals and acquisitions of property just before we left the Shire. One of the Brandybucks who’d taken a loan on his property from Lotho to purchase a new pair of oxen found the loan agreement so written that he lost the deed if he didn’t perform some wildly unlikely improvement within the first two months of the loan; he came to complain to my dad as the Master the day before we left the Shire. Only reason I didn’t tell Frodo about it was because I knew Frodo had used our cousin Brendilac to write the bill of sale and see to the conveyance of the deed, and there’s no one more honest then Brendi. As long as no Bracegirdle was involved in the writing of the papers, I don’t think Frodo could be taken advantage of in that way.
“But if Lotho Sackville-Baggins had such a contract made with Brandybucks, he’ll be open to a good deal of leverage, for he’ll have cheated others as well and Thain Paladin and Will Whitfoot won’t stand for it any more than my dad. He’ll either agree to vacate Bag End and sell back all interests, or Pippin and I’ll have Dad and Uncle Paladin and the Mayor all on his back double quick.”
It was a good deal to think on.
Lord Faramir and Lord Húrin were now coming up through the procession with their attendants in tow. Faramir now carried the gold carrier for the Roll of the North Kingdom. He looked up at his new Lord with appreciation. “I am pleased to see this, my Lord Elessar,” he said. “Its presence has been made known to many of the lesser lords who did not follow you to the Black Gate, and it has allayed much of the concern about the legitimacy of your claim.”
Aragorn nodded. “Lord Elrond sent it, foreseeing that its contents would be recognized as the type of authority most likely to convince many of those apt to question my lineage.”
“Will you keep it here in Minas Tirith in the archives, my Lord King?”
“No. The Roll of the South Kingdom will be amended by me this afternoon to indicate my acceptance of the Winged Crown, as will the Roll of the North Kingdom. But it will return North with Halladan and my brothers when all is properly ordered. The Roll of the South Kingdom will remain the authority here within the bounds of Gondor, as this one will for Arnor as has always been done. So Elendil and his sons intended, and so we will see it continued.”
Faramir looked forward toward the two mounted Hobbits. “It is good to see the both of them. I feared when we parted that I would never see either again.”
“I know. When did you give the Lady Éowyn your mother’s betrothal gift?”
Faramir reddened, and looked across the King to his beloved’s brother, whose face had become quite intent. “I hadn’t wished to speak of this as yet, my Lord. And how do you know that it was my mother’s betrothal gift?”
“Well, if you must know, I saw her wearing it after she accepted it.”
Faramir looked back to where Prince Imrahil and Elphir had fallen behind to speak with one of their own folk who’d approached out of the crowd, then turned back to the King. “Does my Uncle know you were Thorongil?”
Aragorn raised his brows. “I don’t believe so. Do you? And your father told you his suspicions, did he?”
“The discussions with Mithrandir became somewhat--heated, my Lord. No, I suspect my uncle does not recognize you as the one he knew as Thorongil when he was younger--not to my knowledge; although he did comment during his last visit to me before you marched Eastward that you reminded him strongly of someone he once knew, but he could not think what one.”
The King laughed. “Oh, I shall have a great deal of pleasure out of watching folk slowly come to recognize me from time to time, my friend. But that still does not answer my question. You are superb at redirection--you and I will need to utilize that skill in keeping the Council in check.”
Faramir colored, looking again at Éomer’s intent gaze. He finally said, rather carefully, “The Lady and I will discuss this with you and her brother later today, my Lord. This is neither the time nor the place.”
Aragorn smiled and gave a deep bow. “I beg your forgiveness, then, Lord Faramir. My brother Éomer and I will look forward to that discussion with anticipation, as we must grant the permission required for it. However, I assure you that you will meet no objections for my part.” He examined the face of his new Steward with approval. “You are fully worthy of her, and she of you, my friend, if you will indeed accept one another.”
Faramir examined the King’s face in turn, and finally his expression softened and he smiled freely. “Thank you, my beloved Lord. To have such as you as King of this realm again--I rejoice indeed, and know that the whole of Gondor will follow suit quickly enough.”
Aragorn placed his hand on the younger Man’s shoulder, and automatically Faramir’s hand came up to rest on his wrist. Aragorn realized that they were duplicating the gestures of fraternity known between Faramir and Boromir, and that his new Steward had accepted him as he had his lost brother. The King felt humbled by this.
They dropped their hands, but the gesture had been seen and was being commented upon by those they walked by. That the new King and their beloved Lord Faramir should already be building such a relationship meant a good deal to the folk of the capitol.
A soldier with half his head shaved indicating he’d had a wound there stepped out of the crowd with what appeared to be his wife and daughter; together they approached Frodo’s pony, the woman and girl holding out flowers to him. Frodo paused his pony, automatically reaching forward to pat its neck in reassurance, then accepted the flowers with a gentle, dignified smile of thanks and quiet words to the soldier. The three stepped back, obviously thrilled. A Man stepped forward to hand Sam a spray of greenery, and Sam colored slightly but accepted graciously. Now and then the titles “Ringbearer,” “Cormacolindor,” “King’s Friend,” “Esquire,” “Holdwine,” and “Ernil i Pheriannath” could clearly be heard from the watching crowd, and now and then flowers and petals would be showered on them from upper windows of buildings and houses overlooking the way or handed from onlookers. Aragorn himself began to collect his own sprays of tribute as they entered the Third Circle. No one approached Merry or Pippin as they were obviously on duty and the folk of Minas Tirith understood the need for such to remain unencumbered; but Frodo and Sam received their share, as did Faramir and Prince Imrahil as well as the King and Éomer and his sister, who’d joined the procession within the city.
By the time they reached the Sixth Circle the sons of Elrond had begun to take much of the overflow of the offerings made to Frodo and Sam, for they obviously could not carry so much. It was with relief they found this portion of the city sparsely populated and the way relatively quiet and open. When at last they reached the stable at the bottom of the ramp to the level of the Citadel Frodo was looking calm, although he was plainly tiring somewhat.
Sam dismounted hurriedly and was there to aid Frodo as he slipped rather stiffly from the saddle. “It’s obviously been too long since I rode last, Sam,” Frodo commented. “I’ll need to work on it before we head home again.”
“Right, Master,” the stouter Hobbit agreed. “It’s been a fair way, hasn’t it? Do we have far to go?”
Faramir approached, smiling. “Just up the ramp there,” he said, indicating the path with a gesture of his head. “I am so relieved to see you again, Frodo, Master Samwise.”
“At least you didn’t start addressin’ me as ‘Lord’,” said the gardener with a sigh. “That’s one title as I don’t quite cotton to.”
“You will find you will grow accustomed to it,” Faramir promised, laughing at the Hobbit’s obvious discomfiture.
Sam and Frodo gladly gave the last of their flowers and greenery to the Elves flanking them, and together they walked determinedly up the ramp. Aragorn thanked Faramir as the Steward accepted his load of tribute and walked behind them, ready to offer a hand if either faltered, which they didn’t. Then they finally reached the top, and they paused in relief, then looked up.
Frodo’s “Oh!” of surprise, awe, and delight could be heard by all. This was not the architecture of the Shire nor that he’d seen in the Elven lands, either; but it still touched a chord in all of the Hobbits. Seen through the bare branches of the White Tree, the Citadel and the Tower of Ecthelion were more than any of them had expected, even Pippin, who before had seen it primarily beneath the haze of Mordor, or Merry, who’d seen it awash with the fires of the First Circle. Here was a beauty and majesty that all thrilled to.
Slowly Frodo led the way forward until he reached a particular spot where he looked at the Citadel itself again through the branches of the White Tree, and there he stopped for some moments, examining it again, his face alight with the beauty of it. Standing behind him, Aragorn examined it as well. “And you shall now live there,” Frodo said quietly, “embraced in its beauty.”
The King’s voice answered softly, “Yes.”
“And when the White Tree blooms anew....” Frodo stopped, his eyes examining the view once more. Again he stood apart from himself, and from the viewpoint just behind his own shoulder, where Aragorn himself stood, he realized, he looked again at the tree, and smiled. He saw suddenly the image of a woman as if caught in the branches of the dead tree, and realized that somehow the blooming of the White Tree was bound up with the woman, that this was the embodiment of a different hope. Then he recognized the woman--the Lady Arwen, daughter of the Lord Elrond, sister to the two Elven Lords who stood on either side. He stood entranced for several moments, moved again by the sheer beauty of the vision, and all waited with patience for him to go on again. Finally, once more back inside himself, he slowly paced onward.
Aragorn now walked between the two Hobbits, holding a hand out to each, and the three of them walked slowly forward, around the Tree and the Fountain, heads turning to look up through the bare yet still beautiful branches. Quietly the Man explained, “This tree was planted almost two thousand years ago in place of the one which had grown before and which failed during the years of the Kinslaying. This died a thousand years past when Eärnur was slain approaching the Morgul Vale, gone there to challenge the Witch King of Angmar, who had retreated there after the loss of Arvedui in the far North and the Nazgul’s subsequent defeat at the hands of Eärnur’s troops. The fortunes of the lineage of Elendil’s descendants have ever been reflected in the health of the White Tree. It is my great hope that we shall see the flowering of the White Tree anew during my reign. It will be for me the symbol of my own hope, to see a child of Nimloth the Fair growing here once more.”
Frodo nodded slowly. “The White Tree grows in Elvenhome.”
“Yes, on the Isle of Tol Eressëa.”
“An Elven tree blossoming here in the mortal lands--like the mallorns of Lothlorien.”
“Yes--a memorial of the immortal lands here. A reminder of the grace of the Valar.”
Frodo again nodded his understanding, then reached out his hand to the Tree and gently touched its white bole, his face sad. “Its life is fled, but it awaits the coming of its child,” he said, his voice strange in his own ears, uncertain where the thought came from, but recognizing the truth therein nonetheless.
Gandalf looked down on King and Hobbit, seeing that the Lights of both were flaring at the moment. He watched as the King dropped Frodo’s other hand and followed the example of his friend, saw the gentle expression in the Man’s eyes, the abstracted expression in the eyes of the Halfling. And he saw a vision of Frodo’s Light beneath the White Tree, but not below this one, and wondered what that vision meant. But here, beneath the remains of this White Tree he saw that Frodo’s own Light was yet wounded, while in the vision of his Light beneath the other it was not.
For Frodo to be fully healed again, was yet another sacrifice asked?