Aragorn's eyes snapped open at the sound of clanging metal, but it was only a sheepish Gandalf he saw kneeling before the hearth, a fireplace poker poised in his hand. "That's better," the wizard murmured, smiling as he replaced the offending implement in its rack. He stood and looked apologetically at Aragorn. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's all right," Aragorn answered, rubbing absently at his eyes and stretching the parts of him which could be moved without too much pain. "I'm tired of sleeping, anyway. My dreams have been strange." He glanced about the room, taking in the reassuringly sturdy beams overhead, the mismatched heavy blankets piled about him, and the glow from the hearth glancing off the sword hilt propped in a corner. Through the window, he could see the building across the street awash with the warm tones of sunset. It seemed he last remembered Gandalf standing over him in the gray light of morning. "Have I slept allday?"
"Most of it," Gandalf said, smiling. He raised a defensive eyebrow at Aragorn's accusatory stare. "Peace, Aragorn. It was none of my doing. It is your own body forcing the sleep upon you, and as for your dreams - " He reached into his robe and pulled out a handful of small amber-colored glass vials, each the size of a large grape. "Do you remember seeing one of these before?"
Aragorn frowned. "I don't think so."
Gandalf tucked the vials back into his robe. "They contain a powder which is released by breaking the glass. Halbarad and I found one here in Bree, in Teburic's house, and several more, broken, where you were being held at the mine and in the shed at Teburic's cabin. They appear to havecontained some kind of drug intended to confuse your mind and render you more susceptible to interrogation. As the drug is purged from your system, your sleep should ease, and more of your memories may return."
It did not escape Aragorn that Gandalf failed to mention where he found the intact vials now secreted away in the folds of his robe. "I remember more than I want to already," Aragorn said softly.
"I know," Gandalf said, seating himself by the bed. He poured a glass of water and helped the Ranger prop himself up to drink it. "How are you feeling?"
Aragorn dropped his gaze and picked at a corner of the blanket with the hand that was not shrouded in layers of cloth padding and bandages. "What would you have me say?"
Gandalf smiled. "It is only you and I here, my friend. I think the truth is safe enough."
Aragorn sighed. "All right. I feel foolish."
Gandalf shook his head. "Aragorn - "
"Gandalf, I have battled every foul spawn of Mordor between the Emyn Uial and the Morgul Vale, only to be nearly undone by a sweet-faced, fourteen-year-old boy."
Gandalf folded his arms and looked at him with fond patience. "Well, dear Ranger, I hardly imagine you would have been undone by a yellow-eyed orc, would you?"
Aragorn was taken aback at the mirthful tone in the Wizard's voice. "What do you mean?"
Gandalf sighed. "Aragorn, deception is the Enemy's greatest weapon. There is a war ongoing, all around us, and few of its battles are won with swords. Even the wise are not immune to lies and deceptions. You resisted with all your might. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
"A boy is dead."
"That was his choice, Aragorn, not your doing."
Aragorn closed his eyes against the image of Rolly's torn body lying still on the bloody ground. "Why?" he whispered, finding that the question he most wanted to answer was not why the boy died, but why, of all the men and boys whose torn bodies he had seen scattered across a score of battlefields, had this been the one he most desperately wanted to save.
"The Enemy's grasp on him was very strong. I felt it myself." Gandalf's voice trailed off and he cast an unsettled gaze into the fire.
Aragorn sank back into the pillows, losing himself in tormented memories. He had felt it too. He had felt it but stupidly thought he could defeat it. "Who was his master, Gandalf? Who would do such a thing to a child?"
Gandalf sat in thought for a moment, clearly troubled. "To mold a child, to instill in him such blind loyalty... such tactics are regrettably not new. But to do so with such preeminent success - for the child to then in turn control beasts, control orcs...I would not have thought it possible. Perhaps Sauron himself managed to confer this authority on him. But for what purpose, I cannot say."
Aragorn turned to Gandalf. "He kept asking about you."
"About me?" Gandalf's eyebrows arched with surprise.
"About the Shire, as well," he added. "The guard. But especially about you." Gandalf stared at him in open shock. Aragorn met the troubled gaze with hesitation, knowing how such a revelation must horrify the Wizard. "It was as if he knew you."
"When he awoke and looked at me, it was as if he knew me, also. But I am sure we have never met," Gandalf said. "I told him so."
Aragorn closed his eyes, sifting through disjointed memories - idle conversations he'd shared with Rolly along the road and dreams that he now suspected were more than just dreams - trying to draw a common thread. "He seemed to have no idea who I was, and no interest, beyond my association with you, and what I could tell him about the Rangers posted at the Shire borders. But with you it was... personal, Gandalf. There was a sense of arrogance, and..." he paused, fighting to recall tones of voice and turns of expression now shrouded by exhaustion and fever and whatever had been in those little yellow baubles. He closed his eyes, willing memory to seep up from the well of his mind. "And...jealousy. Does that make sense?"
Gandalf sat motionless, vexed by this revelation. "I had not known that I had any enemies," he said quietly. "None who would take such a personal interest in my activities, at least." He shook his head in dismay. "I am sorry, my friend. It seems that that I led them to you. I led them to the Shire. Somehow all my best intentions have been bent against me, and I have brought ruin to those I sought most to protect."
"No one is ruined yet," Aragorn pointed out with a rueful smile. "Not permanently, at least."
Gandalf's face twisted into a forced smile, but his eyes were tight. Aragorn decided to change the subject. "Where is Halbarad?"
Gandalf's eyes crinkled in a slight smile. "I'm not surprised that you don't remember. You were very...weak, when we arrived yesterday. As soon as Halbarad was assured that you would be safe here he rode to the Brandywine to fetch more Rangers. I believe they have spent the day rounding up the rest of Teburic's gang."
Of his arrival at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn harbored a single, fragmentary memory of being carried through the door as a wide-eyed Butterbur hastily thrust his doughy form out of Halbarad's way. He chuckled softly. "That should please him. He has always enjoyed playing constable."
"Yes, I understand all the activity is causing quite a stir among the Breefolk." Gandalf smiled. "He's a good man, Aragorn."
"I know he is," Aragorn said sharply. "He does his duty." The Ranger fixed a stare out the window. "Even Rolly did his duty."
"Loyal service to an evil purpose is hardly an admirable trait, Aragorn."
Aragorn turned reluctantly to meet Gandalf's gaze. "Isn't it? What if he saw not the evil but only the loyalty? He was but a tool in his master's hands, Gandalf. He tried to tell me," Aragorn said, his voice softening. "He said he would never fail someone who had been like a father to him. I don't know if he knew his purpose was evil, Gandalf. But I do know that he managed at least this much. He did as he promised. He didn't fail."
"Aragorn, he did fail," Gandalf said quietly, but with the tone of a lecture. "He failed to complete his mission."
Aragorn closed his eyes, feeling the familiar weight of purpose, of foreboding, of ominous destiny fall onto his shoulders again, wondering what would have been different had the forged note had never been delivered, if he had met Gandalf as intended; here, under the safe and sturdy rafters of the Prancing Pony. Save but for a multitude of bruises and a ruined hand, the entire ordeal might have seemed but one more surreal dream. Save but for that and another dead boy. He opened his eyes again. "As I failed to complete mine."
"What mission was that?"
Aragorn averted his eyes. "I promised you I would not come back without Gollum. I looked everywhere. I followed the valley all the way from Lorien to the Carrock." He pushed himself up against the headboard, remembering the long months of lonely searching that started with determination and ended with a refusal of failure that left him attempting the passes far too late, trying to make the one commitment it seemed he could still keep. He looked up at Gandalf again. "I didn't want to give up. But finally, I did. Rolly didn't fail, but I did. I have failed you, Gandalf."
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn," Gandalf sputtered, straightening in his chair. "That is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard come out of your mouth. You haven't failed me. In the first place, I did not set this task for you as if you were a minion to be commanded. I do not even know if Gollum is alive; indeed if he can be found. I was grateful that you offered to continue the search when I had to come back. I would not have agreed to the fail-safe rendezvous if I didn't expect you to return, Gollum or no."
Aragorn closed his eyes, realizing that the weariness he felt sprang from a far deeper well than the ordeal he had just endured. "It is not just Gollum, Gandalf. I have been out there-" the jerk of his head took in the wild, the far lands, Gondor, Rohan, and every other place in Middle Earth outside the confines of the Prancing Pony – "for nearly 60 years now, and I have nothing to show for it. I have accomplished nothing." It was not just Gandalf that he had failed. At the moment, he could not think of a single person in his life that he hadn't failed, beginning with a certain Elf-lord whose expectations for his accomplishments were far from trivial. But this was not a topic he was up to arguing with Gandalf. He sank back against the pillows as the throbbing behind his temples waxed, and clutched at the edge of the bed as a wave of dizziness snatched at him.
"Your time has not yet come, Aragorn," Gandalf said softly. "But there is no doubt that it will." His hand brushed the Ranger's brow. "You are tired, and I think it would be good for you to eat something. If you will be all right for a few minutes, I will see if the cook can come up with something light - some soup, or the like."
Aragorn nodded without opening his eyes, deciding that soup was definitely a less threatening topic than destiny. "And what of your wayward hobbit?"
He heard a slight exhalation of air from Gandalf's direction. "Ah, young Dudo. There is no telling what mischief he may have accomplished in my absence."
Aragorn smiled at the consternation woven into the Wizard's tone. "Dudo the wolf-killer. I was sure I was imagining things when I saw him standing there with Elrohir's dagger."
He sensed rather than saw Gandalf's answering smile. "He put that dagger to good use. But his conscience is troubled. He blames himself for what happened to you."
"He saved my life," Aragorn whispered as heaviness overtook him again. "Tell him that."
"Perhaps you can tell him yourself, when you're a bit stronger." He heard Gandalf's robes rustle as he stood. "Rest now. I'll be back shortly."
The entry of eight tall, dark, and extremely well-armed Rangers into the Prancing Pony stirred a rumble of muttering and a wave of heads among the clientele.
Halbarad ignored the stares of the locals and dismissed his men with a wave as they descended on an empty table. Spotting Gandalf and Tillfield in the corner, he lowered himself wearily into a chair across from their bench. "We're still as popular as ever, I see."
"On the contrary," Gandalf said, chewing on his pipe and smiling at the lethal glare the Ranger shot at a particularly slack-jawed Bree-lander, "there is quite a vocal contingent arguing that the temporary displeasure of your presence is a small price to pay for ridding Bree of that lot of Dunlending rabble."
"I suppose I should be flattered," Halbarad said, managing another scathing look toward a staring local.
Gandalf glancedtoward the table of Rangers. "How many did you bring from the Brandywine Bridge?"
"Every last one of them." As he leaned back in the chair and kneaded his sore leg, Halbarad cast a warning glare at Gandalf. "And he won't know unless you tell him."
Gandalf's eyes widened. "That matter would be none of my concern."
Halbarad grunted, noticing thebook the hobbit held propped against the table edge. "Say, Tillfield, Gandalf isn't teaching you magic tricks or anything, is he?"
The little hobbit shot a wink at Gandalf before answering. "Well, I've just finished learning how to turn a chicken into a dog." As Halbarad obligingly responded with an appalled look, he laughed. "Of course not, silly, he's just teaching me to read."
"Really," Halbarad said hesitantly, appealing to Gandalf for confirmation with a cock of his eyebrow. As usual, the wizard offered nothing in return but a cryptically benign expression. Halbarad shrugged, deciding that he was getting used to this behavior, and reached over the table to help himself to the scraps of Gandalf's meal. "How is he?" he asked through a mouthful of bread
The amusement in the wizard's eyes faded, replaced by a pale smile of reassurance. "Much better today than yesterday," Gandalf answered, with a cautious glance at Tillfield. "He slept easier, and his mind is clearing." Gandalf nodded at the raucous table of Rangers, whose jubilant manner bespoke a victory celebration. "I take it you were successful today?"
"Not really," Halbarad answered, unconsciously rubbing his bruised knuckles. "We just knocked a lot of heads around. We interrogated the last of Teburic's crew. They didn't know anything. We set them on the road and made sure they know better than to return to Bree anytime soon. We also searched that house again, on the Street of the Not Painted Lately Doors. It's been cleaned out. There's nothing left to do here - I'm sending this lot down south to check out that cabin tomorrow."
"I doubt they will find anything left there, either."
"You're probably right. Teburic's men have no idea who this Rolly was or where he came from. It turns out that Teburic was nobody down in Dunland, just hired muscle for a thief-lord called Dregan. By most accounts, Rolly showed up on the scene a little over a year ago, right before Teburic talked a few men into coming up here to Bree to pursue greater opportunities. Once they got here, Teburic established himself very quickly, with surprisingly little resistance. In a matter of a few months he had eliminated or recruited all his competition and had every honest merchant in town paying protection to him. As he expanded his little criminal enterprise here, he brought up more men from Dunland as well. That lot Strider killed at the falls had only been here a few months. Apparently they were expendable. Teburic's men all claim that they didn't see much of the boy and assumed Teburic was keeping him locked up in the house. Business was good and they didn't ask questions."
"That is surely what Rolly intended," Gandalf said.
Halbarad turned his attention to the hobbit. "All right, Tillfield, did you clean that dagger the way I showed you?" At the hobbit's enthusiastic nod, he held out his hand. "Good. Let's see it."
Tillfield produced the weapon and turned it over to Halbarad. "Not bad," he said, removing it from the sheath and raising itcloser to the lamp to inspect it. "There's still a little bit of blood in the crevices here, on the inscription. You have to get that out of there. Work on it a bit more tomorrow, all right?" He handed the weapon back. "That was a very brave thing you did, Tillfield, killing that wolf."
"But it didn't matter," the hobbit said. "That boy still died."
"Yes he did," Halbarad answered. "That happens, sometimes. Doesn't change what you did." He looked to Gandalf. "Does Strider remember what happened?"
Gandalf took a last sip from his mug and laid it down. "Most of it. The memories have been slowly surfacing. The boy's death troubles him."
"The boy!" Halbarad choked out. "Gandalf, that...that, boy, nearly killed him!" He rose to his feet. "Let me talk to him."
Gandalf's hand on his arm pulled him back to the table. "Give him time, Halbarad. In any case, you aren't going anywhere near him like that." Gandalf's disapproving gaze took in the Ranger's grimy and blood-spattered raiment. "You may visit later, after you've washed and found some clean clothes."
"Who was that boy?" Tillfield interjected.
Halbarad sat down again, and looked at Gandalf."Well? Who was he?"
Gandalf took a deep breath and chewed on his pipe, the hearthlight flickering behind his eyes."Someone who fell into the wrong hands, Master Tillfield, and could not see his way back out again." The Wizard smiled as Halbarad's gleaning efforts began to target smaller and smaller morsels of food. "Dudo, would you mind fetching some more stew from the kitchen? Else I fear Halbarad will scrape all the finish off Butterbur's dinnerware."
"All right," the hobbit answered. He scooted down off the bench and started making his way to the kitchen.
"He's quite a character, isn't he?" Halbarad chuckled. "I think I might have to offer him a job."
Concern was in Gandalf's eyes. "He has a plucky spirit but I have worried for him. Strider's condition...it frightened him. It is good that you have returned - this is the first I have seen him brighten since we arrived."
Halbarad laid a frank stare on the Wizard. "What are we going to do with Dudo, Gandalf? He can't stay here in Bree." They could never take the chance that Teburic's men would somehow make their way back here and take their revenge.
"His mother's people are in the Shire somewhere," Gandalf said. "With help, we should be able to locate them."
Halbarad's jaw dropped. "Gandalf, you can't unleash Tillfield on the Shire. He'll have all those complacent little Boffins and Bolgers in an uproar within a week."
Gandalf chuckled. "I agree that some attempt at reform may be necessary,"
"Please don't reform him, Gandalf," Halbarad groaned. "He's the first hobbit I've ever met who's interested in something beyond where his next meal was coming from."
"He is not the first I have met," Gandalf answered. "But funny you should say that. You have just given me an idea."
"I have?" Halbarad waited a moment to see if Gandalf intended to expound. When it became clear that this would not transpire, he shrugged and resumed his foray into the leftovers.
Gandalf sighed and chewed absently on his pipe for a moment before rising. "I had better check on Strider. Keep young Dudo out of trouble, won't you?"
Halbarad snorted. "Something tells me that keeping Tillfield out of trouble could be a full-time job."
Halbarad cracked open the door slowly, squinting into the shadowed room. Only embers from the fading fire illuminated the still figures occupying the bed and the chair next to it. Carefully, so as not to step on any of the numerous creaky floorboards, he made his way to the sleeping wizard and leaned close to his ear. "Gandalf."
The wizard's eyes opened, and without a word he stood and silently ushered the Ranger out into the hallway. "Is something wrong?" he asked, glancing up and down the dimly lit corridor.
Halbarad shook his head. "No, I just came to relieve you. When was the last time you slept in a bed?"
Gandalf glanced back toward the half-closed door as if reluctant to leave his charge.
"He'll be fine," Halbarad pressed. "I'll call you if I need you."
The wizard considered the offer for a moment and finally gave a short nod of assent. "Very well. The midwife just left a remedy which should help the fever and the pain. If he wakes, try to get him to take some; it is in a brown jug by the bed."
"Did she look at his hand?"
Gandalf shook his head. "No, he was sleeping, but I knew already there was nothing she could do," he said. "The bones will knit in place, but he will not regain full function unless they are set properly, and there is no one in Bree with this skill."
The Ranger frowned at Gandalf, realizing where this was going and knowing Aragorn wasn't going to like it. "Gandalf..."
"He must go to Rivendell."
Halbarad snorted. "He won't."
"He may resist the suggestion," Gandalf conceded. "But he must be persuaded."
"Well, you can persuade him then, Gandalf," Halbarad said. "I can't even get him to talk about it."
Gandalf sighed. "I, on the other hand, have discussed this topic quite exhaustively, and not just with Aragorn, and I am growing increasingly impatient with all aspects of it. But very well, I will speak with him in the morning." A ghost of a smile flickered over the worn features. "Fear not, Halbarad. You may yet have the opportunity to sling the Chieftain of the Dúnedain across the back of his horse like a sack of wool."
Halbarad managed a smirk at the prospect before bidding Gandalf good night and entering the darkened room. He knelt at the hearth, stoking the fire as quietly as he could, and then settled himself in the chair Gandalf had recently vacated and took stock of his charge.
Now stripped of its obscuring patina of grime, Aragorn's face was covered in bruises and cuts, against which the few unmarked patches of pallid skin stood out in stark contrast. The charcoal smudge of a black eye hugged the contour of his nose, and a swollen lip pulled his peaceful face askew. Some greasy ointment had been smeared on the worst of the cuts and across his cracked lips, and a faint gleam of perspiration shone on his forehead.
Aragorn had pushed the blanket down in his sleep, and it lay bunched at his waist, revealing a shirt big enough to be Butterbur's. With a wincing thought to Tillfield's criminal proclivities, Halbarad decided that this was a line of speculation best abandoned. He carefully untangled the blanket from Aragorn's hand and pulled it back up over his chest.
Rivendell, indeed. Though Aragorn never gave an explanation, he had quietly avoided the place for years. Halbarad knew enough to guess at why, though he judged it just as well, as it seemed with so many things of late, that he was left ignorant of the entire reason.
Aragorn groaned lightly without waking, tossing his head to the side and pushing the blanket away again restlessly. Halbarad spied a basin of water on the bedside table and fished a cloth out of it. He wrung it out and wiped it gently over the hot forehead.
Gray eyes opened and struggled to focus in the dim light. "Halbarad?" Aragorn whispered, his voice raspy with sleep.
"Hush," Halbarad ordered. "Go back to sleep."
Aragorn refused to listen, as usual. "What are you doing here?" he asked, rubbing a hand against tired eyes. "Gandalf said you were out rousting bandits."
"I was. I ran out of people to beat up."
Aragorn levered himself upright with some difficulty, aiming to prop himself up against the headboard. Halbarad reached a hand tentatively to help, almost afraid to touch his captain for fear of adding to his hurts. Aragorn grunted as he eased himself into a reasonably comfortable position and rested his head against the headboard for a moment, catching his breath. Finally he opened his eyes, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at Halbarad's expression. "What?"
"I think you looked better before we got all the dirt off of you," Halbarad commented.
Aragorn smiled sheepishly. "I don't recall having much say in the matter. But your appearance seems remarkably presentable, as well. Who was it that managed to persuade you to bathe, or has your wife unexpectedly arrived?"
Halbarad snorted. "Who do you think?"
Aragorn laughed, but then his smile faded and his eyes grew serious. "Halbarad," he began, "There is something I must say."
Halbarad dropped his gaze. "I know, I was wrong-"
"No," Aragorn said. "You were not. I was. It was wrong of me to give you a general's job and expect you to follow orders without question like a common foot soldier."
Halbarad shook his head. "No, you weren't - "
Aragorn raised a hand. "No, let me speak. I left the Dúnedain under your command because I trusted your judgment and leadership as much as my own. Maybe more. Your judgment is true, Halbarad. It was only information that you lacked."
Halbarad shook his head, realizing only now that he no longer wanted the knowledge he had so insistently demanded.
Aragorn lowered his voice. "Halbarad, about the Shire…"
"No," Halbarad said firmly. He shook his head again. "Don't tell me. I don't want to know."
The battle-scarred countenance tightened with concern. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," he said. "If what happened to you is because of it, then you were right all along. It's better that I don't know." He lowered his head. "I was wrong not to trust you. I couldn't see past my own cares. "
"Your care was for our people. There's no shame in that."
Halbarad hung his head. "Not in that, maybe. But I was afraid, as well."
"Afraid? Of what?"
Halbarad sighed, recognizing only now the name of the fear that had long gnawed at him, spurring his frustration, his resentment. His temper. "That in the long years you spent away from us, your care for the Dúnedain had waned, your link to us diminished. I feared that you would forget us when you go to meet your destiny."
A hand as cut and bruised as his own found his shoulder. "I will never forget you, my friend," Aragorn promised. "And I will always be a Dúnadan, though my behavior of late would leave you well justified in renouncing me." Aragorn's eyes strayed to the window. "My destiny lurks ever beyond my grasp, Halbarad, and I grow weary of waiting for it. It will not come but at at great cost, and yet if it must come, I would have it come quickly, before my strength diminishes and my resolve fades. I would go out to meet it, if I could, but instead I must watch it hanging ever against the horizon like a bank of distant clouds, threatening rain which never comes."
Halbarad grasped his chieftain's hand and willed his troubled gaze back from the clouds. He could see them, too, hanging low in a dark sky somewhere far from Bree. It was a sky he somehow knew he would see, would manage to see, no matter what the cost. "Your strength will remain true, and your resolve firm, no matter how long the wait," he promised. "And when you do ride out to meet that storm, I would be at your shield-arm, even if we are both gray-beards like Gandalf by then."
As Aragorn returned the grasp and brought his gaze back to the present and the room in Bree, Halbarad saw a glint of mischief steal into their desolate gray depths. "I don't know, Halbarad," he answered slowly, the gravity in his tone betrayed by a hint of mirth, "I'm not sure if I can spare you from inspecting ox-carts at the Brandywine that day."
Halbarad grinned broadly as Aragorn broke out into a cascade of self-amused chuckles. "You deserve that," he chastised indignantly as Aragorn's mirthful eruption abruptly bent him over with pain.
"There is no one I would rather have beside me in battle," Aragorn wheezed, struggling to regain his breath. "Who else would allow me to abuse his horses thus?"
"You leave my horse out of this. That's the last horse you're getting out of me, I'll have you know."
Aragorn snickered, giving his arm a cuff, then frowned as Halbarad raised a pottery mug before his face. "What's this?"
"Just for that, you're going to have to take some medicine."
Aragorn sniffed the brownish liquid skeptically, wrinkling his nose at the foul odor. "What is it?"
"How should I know? The midwife brought it."
Aragorn raised both eyebrows. "The midwife?"
"This is Bree, what do you expect?" Halbarad said. "We tried to get the blacksmith, but he had a previous engagement pulling teeth over Archet way. Now just be quiet and drink this. It's good for you." He held the mug expectantly before Aragorn's face.
Aragorn frowned, peering closely at unidentifiable bits of detritus floating atop the liquid. "I don't think so," he said finally, with a tone that said the discussion was closed.
Halbarad huffed, exasperated. He stared at Aragorn in frustration for a moment and finally grabbed the mug back from him. Stubborn Ranger, for all that he was constantly pouring noxious substances down other people's throats. "It's perfectly safe. Look, I'll take some myself."
With Aragorn watching expectantly, Halbarad lifted the mug and downed a mouthful of the liquid. The instant the taste hit his palate, he lunged to his feet, his face screwed into a knot, fighting to keep from spitting the liquid out. Finally managing to swallow with an audible gulp, he exhaled forcefully and opened his eyes in shock. "That's worse than Orc-draught!"
Setting the mug down and hastily downing a glass of water to chase the taste away, all thought to setting a good example gone by the wayside, Halbarad found Aragorn looking back at him wearing a smugly amused expression that would have earned him a belt in the mouth if he weren't currently a certifiable invalid. "Well done, cousin," Aragorn said. "Very persuasive."
Halbarad looked down at his captain and then at the tankard on the table. Exhaling with dismay, he set down the water glass and took his seat, regarding Aragorn with a rueful expression. "I don't suppose there's any chance that you would just cooperate and drink this now."
"I'm not feeling terribly inclined to," Aragorn responded. "What's more, I imagine you are going to feel very sleepy in a few minutes."
"Why do you say that?"
Aragorn smiled. "I know these things."
Halbarad groaned, striking his forehead and letting his head fall against the back of the chair. "Gandalf is going to kill me for this."
Gandalf slipped quietly into Aragorn's room and smiled at the pair of sleepingRangers. The figureon the bed was so thoroughly buried beneath the covers that only a few stray locks of dark hair peeking from the top end of the blanket were left to attest to his identity, while the other lay sprawled beside him in the chair, long legs stretched out before him and a cloak strewn across his chest. Gandalf set a large pot of steaming water and a stack of clean cloths down next to the bed, and then knelt to re-kindle the fire. As he laid logs on the grate, a booted foot stirred next to him.
Gandalf glanced over at the bleary-eyed Ranger. "Good morning, Halbarad. How passed the night?"
Halbarad frowned and rubbed at his eyes. "Fine," he muttered noncommittally.
"Did Aragorn sleep comfortably?"
With a sideways glance at the still form of his captain, Halbarad scratched his forehead and chewed on his lip.
Gandalf raised an eyebrow patiently. "Well? Did the medicine seem to help?"
Halbarad cleared his throat. "Oh, yes. Absolutely. Very well, actually."
"It was positively awful, Gandalf," interjected a thin but amused voice from the indistinct mound on the bed. Aragorn's face emerged in a tangle of disheveled hair as he rolled over and pulled the blanket down to his waist. "In the future, if I have to choose between that vile concoction and a slow death by spider poison, I'll take the spiders." Gandalf caught him shooting a conspiratorial wink at a relieved-looking Halbarad and was virtually certain that he was being had.
"I see," he said, looking from one guilty party to the other with his best discerning Istari expression. "Well then, so long as you're feeling better," he said presently, deciding that he had never been so pleased to see a pair of septuagenarians behaving like miscreant schoolboys. He turned to Halbarad. "Tillfield is in the kitchen, seeing to our breakfast. Will you see how he's coming along while I see to Aragorn? Unless you would like me to clean that leg wound first."
Halbarad banged his knee in his haste to get to the door. "No, no, that's fine, I'll just be in the kitchen, helping Tillfield." With a sympathetic glance at Aragorn, Halbarad slipped out into the hallway.
Gandalf urged Aragorn to shift onto his side, and the Ranger lay quiet, eyes closed, as he set to cleaning the healing wounds on his back. Pulling the borrowed shirt carefully back down to cover the injuries, he moved to examine the arrow wound on the Ranger's leg. As before, he found the area around the healing scar tender and hot. He knew from working the joint earlier that inflammation and scar tissue had spread through it, stiffening it so that the leg could not be bent more than a few degrees.
Gandalf left it alone. Nothing more could be done about it in Bree. He moved to the Ranger's arm, unwinding the bandage he had wrapped around a deep cut from some bladed weapon. "Who sewed this wound for you?"
Aragorn looked down at the neat row of stitches. "Rolly." He looked away from the boy's handiwork.
Gandalf cleaned the injury and re-bandaged it before answering. "You must not blame yourself. It was simply not within your power."
Aragorn was silent for a long moment, looking away from Gandalf. "It seems that not much is," he said finally.
Gandalf smiled. "Much more than you give yourself credit for. But you must be patient."
"I've been patient."
"I know," Gandalf said. "It has been a long trial for you."
"I know that there will be no comfort for me, no rest, until my trials are over and all that must come to pass is completed," Aragorn said with closed eyes. "My mother foretold it long ago, and Elrond also."
Gandalf sighed. "Someday, there will be comfort for you, Aragorn. There will be rest. But until then, and indeed after, you need not face your trials alone, unless you choose to. You have had a difficult life, and I know you think it a long one, but you must believe me when I tell you that your life has not even begun. When you are well," the wizard said, "we will hunt for Gollum again, together."
"You will come back with me?"
Gandalf placed a hand on the Ranger's shoulder. "Of course I will. You cannot do this alone, Aragorn. None of us can. There is no shame in that." He eased himself back in the chair and stroked his beard absently. "But you know - I do worry a bit about this little expedition of ours. I am just a feeble old man myself. I can't be saddled with a decrepit, arrow-riddled, one-handed Dúnadan hobbling along behind me."
Aragorn locked wary eyes on him, and his jaw tensed.
"There are wounds here which cannot be treated in Bree," Gandalf said.
The Ranger's eyes strayed to the bandaged lump lying across awkwardly across his chest.
"Yes, your hand. And this leg, as well." Gandalf pulled the blanket back from Aragorn's wounded leg and lightly touched the inflamed knee, causing the Ranger to wince. "This wound is causing your fever. It needs to be re-opened and thoroughly cleaned out. I don't imagine you would care to allow the midwife to attempt the procedure." Aragorn turned away from him. "Not now," Aragorn said, turning away.
"Why not?" Gandalf asked. "Aragorn, there is no other choice. Only Elrond has the skill to repair this damage."
Aragorn lay silent for long minutes, looking out the window as if it offered escape.
"Aragorn, Lord Elrond can be somewhat-" Gandalf struggled for a diplomatic way to put this – "set in his ways, but he is hardly a troll. He cares for you very much."
Aragorn turned back to Gandalf and expelled a long breath. "Nearly thirty years have passed, Gandalf,and nothing has changed. I have not achieved what he expects of me. Who knows if I ever will?"
Gandalf opened his mouth as if to respond, but then raised his eyebrows at a light knocking at the door. "Ah," he said. "That would be Master Tillfield now."
Before Aragorn could comment further, the Wizard opened the door and allowed Halbarad to shepherd the young hobbit into the room, guiding him to the side of Aragorn's bed. The boy's tousled head was lowered, his gaze focused intently on the tray of food he carried. He set it carefully down on the table and allowed Gandalf to steer him close to the bed. He stood still, his head so bent that Aragorn could not see his eyes even though they were on a level with his own. Aragorn looked up at the wizard questioningly. Gandalf merely patted the tiny shoulder and winked.
"Now that you are feeling a bit better, Strider, there is someone I would like you to meet," Gandalf announced. "May I present Dudo Tillfield"?
Aragorn pushed himself up a bit straighter in the bed and tried to appear as alert and presentable as possible. "I'm glad to meet you, Dudo. I'm afraid I don't remember much of our first meeting, or the trip back to Bree. I understand I owe you a great debt."
As Aragorn watched in growing distress, the hobbit's shoulders began to hitch with barely repressed sobs, and Aragorn looked to Gandalf in alarm. The wizard merely held the anguished boy quietly and waited for him to calm himself. "Dudo has something he has been waiting to tell you, Strider," the wizard prompted gently, giving the hobbit's shoulder another encouraging pat.
"I'm sorry for what happened to you," the boy whispered finally, tears rolling unchecked down his round cheeks. "It was my fault."
"Dudo, it wasn't your fault," Aragorn said softly. He reached his good hand to wipe the tears from the boy's face. "You couldn't have known what would happen. You were very brave to help Gandalf and Halbarad. You were very brave to kill that wolf. If not for you, I would be dead."
"That's the exact same thing that Gandalf said."
"Well, Gandalf is right. He almost always is, you know."
"He says that it was all his fault".
Aragorn shot the wizard an exasperated look. "He did, did he? Well, as I said, he's right almost always. In any case, he's right that it wasn't your fault. We all make mistakes, Dudo. What's important is that we learn from them. And you have, haven't you?"
There was no reply beyond more sniffling and hunching of the tiny shoulders, leaving Aragorn to look on helplessly at the obvious despair of the little figure in front of him. He found himself struggling to recall what wise and comforting words Elrond might have found for such an occasion, but found to his frustration that unlike Elrond, his own effort at mature counsel brought forth no words of consolation or wisdom particularly relevant to the present situation.
"Dudo," he finally whispered, so softly and intensely that the boy finally looked up. Aragorn looked directly into the hobbit's swollen green eyes and reached out to take the tiny hand in his own. "You must forgive yourself, Dudo," he said, surprised at the emotion he heard in his own voice. "I have seen so much lost to evil already. I cannot bear the thought that you would be lost to it, as well. The guilt you feel is nothing but the darkness refusing to release its grip on you. You have friends around you now – Gandalf and Halbarad and I. We will not surrender you to despair. You must reject it and let us help you."
Aragorn grunted with the impact of a small head against his shoulder as the hobbit collapsed across his chest in helpless sobs. He embraced the shuddering little body as best he could, gently stroking the golden curls away from the damp and overwrought forehead.
"Dudo," Gandalf said gently, when finally the hobbit's shudders had quieted and he lay still across Aragorn's chest, "I think Strider had better get on with his breakfast before it is too cold to eat. Why don't you run along and I'll come see you in a little while?" He waited until Aragorn released the small being with a last benedictive embrace, then Halbarad led the hobbit to the door and shepherded him out with a broad hand on the narrow shoulders.
Gandalf shut the door and returned to Aragorn's bedside. "That was wise counsel, son of Arathorn," he said with a smile.
"And best I should heed it?" Aragorn ventured, sensing a lecture.
"The most cunning snares of the Enemy are fear, doubt and despair, Aragorn. They are more deadly than arrows, and even the strongest are not impervious to them. There is failure only in surrendering to despair."
"There is failure in failure, Gandalf. And Elrond will not let me forget it." He closed his eyes,seeing behind themGondor's rivers, its fields, its towers, an empty throne Elrond had told him was his to claim. "I went to Gondor," he said, "all those years ago, because Elrond told me my place was there. I served Gondor as one of its own. I stayed there long enough to know that I will never be King as long as Denethor lives."
"Denethor will not live forever."
"Nor will I," Aragorn said pointedly. "And Denethor has two sons. Why should I think they will be any different? I will not take the throne of Gondor by force, and I cannot outlive Denethor's entire line. I grow weary of waiting, Gandalf. I grow weary of hiding. If I must act, then I would. Endless waiting brings nothing but doubt, and yet I know not what else to do."
"Aragorn," Gandalf said wearily, "you can neither summon the future nor forestall it. It will come in its own time and in its own way. Even Elrond knows this."
"Then why does he hold me hostage to it?" Aragorn answered,a note of bitterness creeping into his voice. "My choices are ill, Gandalf. I will fail him or I will break his heart."
"He knows this, Aragorn. He has accepted it."
"Then why can't I?"
"Elrond knows much of love and loss, Aragorn, and he has seen many generations of your line pass. Never before has he told one of them that he must be King," Gandalf said. "He would not have done so now unless he foresaw that you are so destined. Especially not when it comes at such a great cost to himself."
"How does he know I'm worthy to be King?" Aragorn asked.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Gandalf said gently. "He might tell you."
"Too much stands between us now,"Aragorn answered. "And then, I did not think to ask.When Elrondtold me that I must be king, I accepted it without question. If he had told me I were destined to sprout wings and turn into an eagle I would have believed him just the same. But the years have been so long, Gandalf, and as I grow older, I find that each time I make decisions that affect men's lives, I seem to choose badly. Men die."
"Men die, Aragorn, whether by your command or not. That is a fact of life. It is the burden of a leader to make such choices."
Aragorn's eyes tightened."I used to believe that, Gandalf. I saw men die at my command in Rohan, in Gondor; even here, among my own kin. Maybe I saw one too many die, or maybe age has revealed the value of a life lost too soon. But now, I find that I wish to see no more men die on account of my choices," he said softly. "And not just men."
"If it is Arwen you speak of, I remind you that not all choices are yours to make," Gandalf said.
"Aren't they? Her father sees it differently."
"Come, Aragorn. Elrond sees with the eyes of a father."
"I did not say he was wrong," Aragorn said. "Gandalf, I wish no strife with Elrond. For this reason alone I cannot go to Rivendell now, when I am weary, when I cannot see the road ahead of me."
"You can if I am with you," Gandalf said. "Besides, I have another errand in Rivendell which I suspect may distract Lord Elrond from overly preoccupying himself with your lack of progress toward kingship."
"What is this errand?"
"We are left with the matter of young Dudo. He is an orphan, and it is no longer safe for him in Bree. Besides, he is easily influenced by bad company and I feel he would benefit from mature supervision."
"You're planning to take him to Rivendell?" Aragorn yelped, finding himself simultaneouslyhorrified and intrigued by the possibilities.
"Only temporarily. He has family somewhere in the Shire who may be persuaded to take him in. After what has happened, I fear to draw attention to Frodo by my presence, but perhaps through Bilbo it may be possible to identify Dudo's relatives. Then, perhaps a letter of introduction..." Gandalf smiled. "Our Dudo is not unlike Bilbo in his younger days, and I think the two of them will hit it off splendidly."
Aragorn chuckled. "You are entirely too gleeful about this, Gandalf. I suspect you are looking forward to disrupting Lord Elrond's household."
Gandalf affected an injured look. "My dear boy, I would stoop to nothing so nefarious. Now that you mention it, though, Lord Elrond has become a bit staid and uncompromising in his old age. It might do him good to be shaken up a bit…"
Gandalf winked at Aragorn as he rose to his feet. "So it's all settled, then. By week's end you should be strong enough to travel. After you recuperate, you may meddle in Halbarad's affairs or traipse after Orcs with those overgrown Elflings you call brothers while I accompany Dudo back to the Shire and get him settled in."
"We need to make the passes no later than October," Aragorn said.
Gandalf's eyebrow lifted. "Word has it that the winter passes are no affront to you, young Dúnadan."
"Perhaps not," conceded Aragorn with a smile. "But this time I would like to make it across with my toes and my provisions intact."
"October it is, then." The wizard gave the Ranger's blanketed feet a pat as he turned to go. "Get some rest now. I have to make sure Halbarad's men have not incited a barroom brawl in my absence."
Gandalf closed the door behind him and set off down the hallway only to walk right into ahobbit clutching a dagger.
"Dudo! What are you doing? " Gandalf looked down at the hobbit and then to the sheepish Ranger who stood behind him.
"Is Strider awake?" Halbarad asked. "Tillfield wants to show him his dagger."
Gandalf sighed. "Can this not wait until later? Strider has had quite enough excitement already this morning."
"Halbarad told me that we're going on a trip with the Rangers – I have to show Strider my Ranger dagger that Halbarad gave me," Tillfield insisted.
Gandalf sighed. "Very well. You may go in and show Strider your dagger, but as soon as you have done so you must leave him in peace, is that understood?"
The hobbit nodded enthusiastically, and Gandalf opened the door to let him into the room.
Aragorn's eyes opened slowly enough at the party's intrusion that Gandalf guessed he had already been asleep, but the Ranger smiled at seeing the hobbit. "Dudo," he said, eyeing Gandalf with a questioning glance. "What a nice surprise. What do you have there?"
The hobbit approached the head of the bed and held the sheathed dagger near Aragorn's face. "You didn't get to see the dagger I killed the wolf with. Halbarad gave it to me."
Aragorn smiled and glanced up at Halbarad. "Yes, I know he did. That was a wise gift. He must have known that you have the heart of a warrior."
"Of course," Aragorn answered, accepting the dagger from the small hand and pinning it between his elbow and ribs to unsheathe it. Withdrawing the blade, he held it up to the lamplight. "What did Halbarad tell you about this blade?"
"He told me your brother gave it to him."
"Do you know why?"
"Because once he was in a bad fight with Orcs and he ran out of weapons."
"Yes. A warrior never leaves his brother warriors defenseless in the hands of the Enemy. If one of us is weak, the others lend him strength. If one of us stumbles, the others keep him from falling." Aragorn flipped the blade in his hand and handed it back to the hobbit. "This is a very old blade, older than you can imagine, with a distinguished history. You have honored it."
"Halbarad said that I'm an honorary Ranger."
Aragorn smiled at his kinsman. "If he said so, then it is true."
"He said that we're going on a trip with the Rangers to see your family."
Gandalf thought he saw Aragorn wince. "Yes, if you would like. You don't have to go if you don't want to."
"I do want to!" the hobbit exclaimed. "I want to see all the Rangers."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at Halbarad. "Rangers?"
Halbarad rolled his eyes. "If you say one more word about your family, nobody's going to get a wink of sleep between here and Rivendell."
Tillfield's head tilted up. "Rivendell?"
"It's a village where the Rangers live," Halbarad said firmly.
"Dudo," Aragorn said, "Since you're a Ranger now, it's time you learned my Ranger name. Outside of Bree, no one calls me Strider."
"You have two different names?" the hobbit said in wonder.
Aragorn shot a warning glare in response to Halbarad's strangled chortle. "Yes. You also have two names, do you not? A Bree name and a Shire name?"
The hobbit nodded slowly.
"Well, I have a Bree name also, and it's Strider. But when I am with the Rangers, I am called Aragorn."
"Better stop there, or we'll be here all day," Halbarad muttered.
Tillfield pondered this for a moment. "Then I want a Ranger name, too."
Aragorn frowned. "Dudo, you have two fine names already. You should honor your family by bearing them proudly."
Tillfield crossed his arms. "Why can you have a name for when you visit Bree but I can't have a name for when I visit the Rangers?"
The hobbit looked expectantly at the faces of the speechless Rangers. Finally, it was Gandalf who spoke. "I think that is an excellent idea, young Master Tillfield. What sort of Ranger name would you like?"
The hobbit's nose wrinkled with concentration. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "I guess I don't really know many Ranger names."
Gandalf smiled and glanced at Aragorn and Halbarad. "Dudo, the Rangers have a tradition of honoring their comrades who have fallen in battle by bestowing their names on those who come after. That way, the memory of their valor lives on in the minds of their people. Perhaps Aragorn and Halbarad can think of a Ranger whose honor merits remembrance."
Aragorn looked up at Gandalf in surprise, but then he exchanged a glance with Halbarad, who paused a moment before nodding. Aragorn stretched out his hand. "Dudo, come here."
The hobbit stepped closer to Aragorn and the Ranger grasped the small shoulder. "Dudo, I bestow on you the name of a Ranger who was young, and brave, and good-hearted, like you. He saw too few summers, and he died fighting bravely. May his valor and his spirit live on in you, Baranuir."
"Baranuir," the hobbit said, trying out the sound of it.
"It suits you splendidly," Gandalf said. "Now, off with you. Strider needs his rest if we are to travel to meet the Rangers."
Tillfield allowed himself to be steered toward the door, but wriggled in Halbarad's grasp and stopped himself before exiting. "Thank you, Aragorn."
Aragorn smiled. "You're welcome, Baranuir."
"Uh, Tillfield," Halbarad interjected, with a worried glance at Aragorn, "we Rangers have a rule - we never use our Ranger names in Bree; only our Bree names."
The hobbit shot a perplexed scowl at Halbarad. "What is Halbarad, then – your Bree name or your Ranger name?"
Halbarad looked appalled. "It's my only name, and it's served me quite well for nearly seventy years. Strider has enough names for all of us."
"No, you must have a Bree name." the hobbit pronounced solemnly. He pulled himself up to his full height and looked up at Halbarad very seriously, as Gandalf stood behind him barely repressing a grin. "I name you for an honest ale merchant, whose product is hardly ever watered down. His prices are fair and his barrels sound. May you never suffer from crapulence while you bear his name, Bob Pearblossom."
Halbarad stood speechless as a snort erupted from the bed behind Gandalf.
Gandalf chuckled and patted Tillfield on the head. "Well done, my boy. Now go with Halbarad and he'll help you with your reading."
"What about you, Gandalf? How many names do you have?" Tillfield asked, twisting in Halbarad's grip.
"Out!" Gandalf commanded, shooing him toward the door.
"Good-bye, Bob," Aragorn called softly as Gandalf ushered the hobbit and the Ranger out into the hallway.
Gandalf pushed the door closed before Halbarad could reverse its motion and frowned at Aragorn, whose gleeful chortles had managed to double him over with pain. "Bob Pearblossom," the Ranger sputtered, inciting a fresh round of groans.
"Aragorn," Gandalf admonished sternly, "it was intended as a compliment."
"I know," Aragorn said, with limited success at stifling his laughter. "It's just – the look on Halbarad's face - "
Gandalf stood over the Ranger and crossed his arms over his chest. He waited patiently until the Ranger's mirth exhausted itself and he lay still, catching his breath. "There now, if you are quite finished, I expect you to get some sleep. Is there anything else you need?"
Aragorn's face took on a hopeful expression. "Some Longbottom?"
"Not just yet," Gandalf said firmly. "Perhaps tomorrow." As he slipped out into the hallway, a final chortle escaped through the crack of the closing door. Gandalf smiled. It was good to hear him laugh.
A/N: Thanks to all for reading. Aragorn, Halbarad, Gandalf, and Dudo's adventure will continue in"A Matter of Honor," coming soon.