Aramir rode back to Minas Tirith in silence. He would have spoken to Isilmë if not for the fact that the girl had fallen asleep almost immediately. She leaned against him, her head tucked under his chin, breathing softly. Aramir kept his hands about her waist, holding her tightly. Her fingers laced through his, and for some odd reason, this small thing made Aramir feel very special. Perhaps it was because he felt needed for the first time in many years. Needed, cared about, even loved. Narmo walked on steadily, his gait smooth, his ears flickering, listening to the storm as it beat in fury upon him. Aramir sensed the storm dying down, and he patted his horse reassuringly.
“You’ve been such a good boy, Narmo. I don’t know what I’ll do when I can’t see you.”
“Don’t think like that,” Kellian’s voice cut through the storm to Aramir’s ears as the Elf approached. “Be positive.”
Aramir sighed. “I’m trying.”
“No you’re not. So, is she ok?” Kellian asked before Aramir could retort.
The Exile nodded. “She’s fine, just exhausted. And a little disappointed that I wouldn’t let her run away with me,” he added lightly.
Kellian chuckled. “I think I’ll ride on ahead and make sure you don’t meet any…concerned parents or otherwise when you get back.”
Aramir nodded. He didn’t even want to know what the King would say if he could see them. “Thanks Kell,”
“No problem. I’ll see you at the front gate.” With that, he cantered carefully over the wet field towards the city.
Kellian had not been gone ten minutes when Aramir realized that he was being followed. He didn’t even have to look behind him, he just knew. He rode on nervously, desperately hoping that his stalker was just a weary traveler coming into Gondor.
The sound of hoof beats grew steadily louder, now that the storm had calmed down. So much for a weary traveler, Aramir thought as he realized that whoever it was was coming right towards him. “Why am I doing this?” he asked himself, but kept riding.
Then the rider was next to him, a tall, dark figure on an equally dark bay horse. The figure rode closer, and Aramir nearly fell off of Narmo in shock and fear.
“Lord Arodan.” Instinctively he nudged Narmo, and the horse sidestepped away from the King. He suddenly realized how he must look, with Kellian’s broadsword at his side, and Isilmë in front of him, asleep. And himself, on Narmo, out of the city and its prisons. “My Lord, this isn’t what you think,” he stammered, awaiting the onslaught he was sure would come.
To Aramir’s great surprise, the King chuckled softly. “And what do I think, Aramir?” he asked.
Aramir gave a start as he realized that the King had called him by his name instead of ‘Exile’. For a moment he was speechless, then he muttered, “I do not know, my Lord. I could not know the thoughts of my King.”
“Then I shall tell you,” Arodan said. He was silent then for a time, and it seemed to Aramir that he was working up the courage to say something that he truly did not want to say. Finally, the King sighed. “I think…I think I have misjudged you, young man.”
That was the last thing Aramir had expected to hear, and this time he almost did fall off of his horse. He inhaled sharply, wondering what this change in the King could mean. “My Lord?” he whispered, not trusting himself to speak any louder.
“I was wrong about you, Aramir. You have shown me that tonight.”
“I have shown you? How?” Aramir asked, confused.
“I suppose I should feel honored to have stayed hidden from you for so long.” The King smiled slightly. “Ever since you came back and told me that you rescued my daughter, I have been watching you. I stood in a corner of the dungeon and watched and listened. I heard everything you said to Janst, and then Kellian, every single thing. Then my daughter ran away, and I followed you again, waiting, wondering if the story you told Kellian was true, wondering what you would do. And if your actions tonight are anything to judge you by, then I have seriously misjudged you.”
Aramir was beginning to understand, but his inner consciousness, the part of him that had mistrusted people for so long, told him not to drop his guard. He nodded slowly, knowing that the King had more to say.
“First was your story, the one you told Kellian. If that is even remotely true, then I am greatly in your debt for saving her life. And I believe it is true. At least, I would like to believe it. Then there was what you did when you locked yourself back in that cell. No, no-” he shook his head when Aramir tried to cut him off. “I don’t believe you understand how much honor and bravery that took. You knew what would happen to you if you stayed. You knew you had been treated wrongly, that I had no right to put you there, and yet you stayed out of care and concern for your best friend. You put him before yourself. And then you saved my daughter’s life, again so it seems. But it was something more than just that. When she was in peril and called out for help, she called out to you. Not Kellian, not Janst, not even me. You. And that tells me something. And now you are going back yet again, despite what may happen if it is discovered that you were gone.”
Aramir blessed the dark night as he rode, knowing that he was blushing deeply. Realizing that the rain had stopped, he reached down and gently pulled the hood off of Isilmë’s head. Absently he stroked her soft hair, forgetting for a moment that the King was watching. Isilmë stirred slightly, pressing herself even closer to Aramir. Her head rested on his chest and she quietly whispered his name. The Exile closed his eyes and sighed softly.
King Arodan watched silently, then said, “You love her.” He made it a statement of fact, not a question.
Aramir’s head snapped up at the King’s words. He met Arodan’s gaze and held it bravely. “Yes,” he admitted.
“And she loves you, does she not? She kissed you.” The King smiled slyly at Aramir.
“I-I kissed her, my Lord,” Aramir lied quickly, not wanting to get Isilmë in trouble.
“Don’t lie to me, young man,” the King admonished sternly. “I saw the entire thing.” He raised his eyebrows at Aramir as a smile played across his lips.
Aramir wasn’t sure whether he should be happy or not. The King obviously had had a change of heart concerning him, but what would come of it, the Exile had no idea. “My Lord, I…I,” he stammered, not sure what to say. Fortunately, he was saved the trouble of having to think of something as they crested the last hill and the palace of Minas Tirith shone in the night. Again, Aramir was uncertain as to whether he should be glad about this or not. A lone horseman was approaching them from the city, and Aramir could just make out Kellian’s slender figure atop his horse as the Elf rode up to them.
“Aramir,” Kellian greeted, but his eyes were watching the King as he said it. “Lord Arodan.” He bowed slightly from his horse’s back.
“And since when do you greet an Exile before your King?” Arodan asked, sounding angry. He turned to Aramir, and the young man was astonished to seem him wink.
“Oh, forgive me, my Lord. I was only-“
“You were only showing where your loyalties lie, Kellian,” he snapped, then turned to Aramir. “What do you think we should do with him?”
“What does he think…hey!” Kellian spotted the smirk playing across Aramir’s lips as he tried not to laugh.
Failing miserably, Aramir began to laugh quietly. His soft, musical laughter was joined by Arodan’s low chuckle. Kellian crossed his arms over his chest in mock anger.
“Fine then, I’ll just pretend I know what’s going on. And I was going to say that it is perfectly safe to sneak back in, Aramir, but apparently its safe to simply ride back in.”
“No,” the King shook his head. “I would prefer if we did enter secretly. The people of the city will find out about this sooner or later, but I’d prefer it to be later.”
Aramir frowned. What did he mean, sooner or later? There was a distinct catch in his voice that suggested he was hiding something. Biting his tongue to keep from questioning the King, Aramir rode on in silence.
They made their way into the city without meeting any resistance. The King was only mildly amused by the easy way Kellian and Aramir snuck first into the city, and then into the palace using the secret entrances. Once inside, the two young men turned to the King, waiting to see what he would have them do. Aramir still held Isilmë in his arms, but when he offered the girl to her father, he shook his head, saying that his daughter looked perfectly content where she was. This caused Aramir to blush bright red, which then caused Kellian to break into a fit of quiet laughter. Once the Elf had calmed down, at least to what was considered calm for Kellian, Arodan took lead of the company. He led them quietly down the hall, and it didn’t take the two friends long to realize where he was going.
A soft rap on the door brought a short, plump, sleepy-looking woman to the door. She took one look at Isilmë, asleep in Aramir’s arms, and gasped.
“Oh, my Lord, what happened?” she asked, concern mirrored in her voice.
“Don’t worry Irian. She just had a little accident; she’ll be fine. I just thought you might want to look at her wrist.”
As if on cue, Aramir stepped forward, holding the sleeping girl out to the woman. Irian only glanced at Isilmë’s wrist before ushering the little group into the healing room. Aramir, who had been in the room before, only glanced around at the neat rows of beds which lined each wall. At the healer’s direction, he lay Isilmë down in one of the beds. She stirred slightly but did not wake.
Irian fluttered around the sleeping girl, muttering under her breath about the traumas that the poor girl had suffered lately. She pulled the soaking tunic and pants off of the princess and slipped a white sleeping gown over her head, making careful effort to stand between Isilmë and the two young men. When she was finished, she took the piece of black fabric off of Isilmë’s hand, then turned to the three men watching from a distance.
“Which one of you wrapped her hand?” she asked.
“I did,” Aramir spoke up.
She gave him a sharp glance, and for a moment, Aramir was afraid she would recognize him. She didn’t. “Well, I’m glad one of you Itir has some sense. Kept her hand from swelling; made my job easier, at least,” she added, looking pleased.
Aramir was startled at being called an Itir. He opened his mouth to set the woman straight, and Kellian promptly clapped his hand over his friend’s mouth. Fortunately, Irian didn’t notice.
The woman took a clean cloth from a pile by the bed and re-wrapped Isilmë’s hand. “Not much else to do,” she declared. “Just let her rest. But you are right; she will be fine. Now its your turn,” she announced, turning to Aramir.
He jumped slightly in surprise. “Me? No, I’m fine.” He brushed away her concern.
“Fine? You certainly don’t look ‘fine’ to me, young man. You’re cut up and bruised and bleeding. I don’t think that’s fine.”
Bleeding!? Where was he bleeding? Aramir frantically looked down at himself and realized for the first time that perhaps the woman was right. The right sleeve of his tunic was cut where the Warg’s claws had dug into it, and the fabric was wet with his blood. In fact, his entire tunic looked much the same as his sleeve- cut and covered in dirt and blood. And on top of that, thought he would not have admitted it, his side ached terribly where the Orc had wounded him. He shrugged casually. “I’m fine,” he lied. “Honestly, don’t trouble yourself over me.”
“Don’t trouble myself over you? You Itir are all the same. To proud to admit you need help. Don’t be stupid, young man. It is no trouble at all to help the Itir who saved the Princess. I assume that’s how you ended up like this…?”
Aramir nodded slowly. That at least was true.
“Well then…” the woman seized his arm and dragged him over to one of the beds, then promptly shoved him into a sitting position. “Take your tunic off,” she ordered.
“This really isn’t necessary,” Aramir insisted. “I think I should be getting back to my room.” He glanced meaningfully at King Arodan as he said the last word.
“Nonsense, Aramir,” the King said. “Now do as Irian says.” He raised his eyebrows at the Exile.
Sighing in defeat, Aramir did as he was told. Irian, Kellian, and Arodan stared at his Orc-wound in wide-eyed amazement, for somewhere in the course of the night, the bandage had fallen off, leaving the wound bare. Aramir heard Kellian gasp in horror.
“Aramir…” he trailed off, at a loss of what to say.
“Goodness, young man.” Irian raised her eyes to Aramir’s and he was surprised to find deep concern in her eyes. “Lie down,” she muttered as she crossed the room to gather some healing salves.
Aramir did as she asked. He lay on the bed, conversing quietly to Kellian, who was perched on its edge. Irian bustled around, cleaning Aramir’s many wounds. She muttered constantly about the Itir and how dedicated they were to protecting the royal family, and about how foolish Aramir had been not to have come and seen her sooner. If she noticed Aramir’s abnormal blood, she said nothing. The Exile made no comments, knowing it was pointless.
When Irian was satisfied with her work, she stepped back and pinned him with her steady gaze. “Now you need some sleep. And don’t start with me about going back to your room, you are staying right here where I can keep an eye on you.”
Suddenly the irony of the situation struck Aramir, and both he and Kellian burst into hysterical laughter. Here was Aramir, a feared and supposedly dangerous Exile, and this woman was ordering him around like it was her right. Even Arodan chuckled in amusement for a few seconds before turning to Irian.
“Don’t worry, Irian. He won’t go anywhere,” he assured the healer. He spoke to Irian, but Aramir knew that the King was really directing the comment to him.
“I’ll make sure he stays here,” Kellian offered. “We can stay up the rest of the night and talk.” He grinned.
“Oh no you don’t!” Irian burst out, poking one long finger into Kellian’s chest and looking up at him sternly. “He needs to rest. If you insist on staying with your friend, then you are going to sleep as well. Do you understand?”
“Yes’m,” Kellian replied meekly, biting back a laugh. “Umm, sorry to desert you Ar, but I think I’ll go back to my room. I’ll tell Lee you’re down here.”
Aramir crossed his arms over his chest and stuck his lower lip out in a pout, then grinned and nodded. He wondered if the Elf was really going to talk to Lee, or if he was just saying that to continue Aramir’s Itir alias. Kellian waved to him, bowed to the King, and skirted out of the room silently.
“And I shall be going to sleep as well,” Arodan announced. “Irian, I leave my daughter in your capable hands. Goodnight. Goodnight Aramir.”
Aramir watched him walk to the door and open it. He was about to leave when Aramir called, “My Lord, wait!”
Arodan paused in the door and turned to face the young man. “Yes?” he asked.
Aramir stared at the King for a moment, then looked down at his hands, and then back at Arodan again. “Thank you,” he managed finally.
Arodan smiled kindly at him, an almost proud smile, and then turned to leave the room. Suddenly he paused again, as though he had just remembered something.
“Oh yes. Aramir.” Aramir looked up to see the King reach into his tunic and extract something. He tossed it gently to the young man.
Aramir caught it deftly and looked down at the object with a gasp. It was the little moon necklace he had given Isilmë, the one Janst had taken from her. “Thank you my Lord!” he exclaimed, but when he looked up, the King was already gone.
Aramir sat in the bed, staring at the door until Irian reappeared and told him to get to sleep. He lay back down and drew the blankets to his head, feigning sleep. He heard Irian move about a bit longer, and then she left as well; her room was right next door. When Aramir was satisfied that she was gone, he slowly rose. He crept over to Isilmë’s bed and knelt next to her. Carefully, almost gracefully, he held up the small necklace, then leaned forward and clasped it about the girl’s neck. He gently stroked her soft hair, and she stirred slightly, turning so that her face was towards his. He simply knelt next to her, playing with her hair for a long time. Finally he leaned forward and softly kissed her lips. Then hurriedly, almost guiltily, he rose and climbed back into his bed, thinking about how long it had been since he had slept in one. With that thought, he fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.