My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Matter of Honor, A: 4. Homecoming
Dudo awoke with his face pressed against fabric the color of raspberry jam. He stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment, then sat up and untangled himself from a thick blanket someone had draped over him. Getting his bearings, he saw that he was on a colorful sofa, the centerpiece of a coordinated ensemble that also included two floral-print chairs. On a low, elegantly carved table at the side of the couch, his belt and scabbard had been placed. Recalling how Halbarad always took great care to leave Aragorn's weapons within their owner's reach, Dudo felt a surge of pride at being deemed worthy of a warrior's treatment. He reached for the belt, noticing only as a great wad of rolled-up sleeve flopped at his wrist that he was dressed in an enormous, Man-sized linen shirt that fell to his ankles. His own clothes, which he vaguely remembered being helped out of in preparation for a bath, were nowhere to be seen.
He stood up to fasten the belt, burrowing his toes into the lush pile of a thick green carpet. The entire room was furnished in what to a Bree hobbit was inconceivable luxury. In the center of the wall opposite the single window was a large, gilded dresser, and above it, he saw to his amazement, was an enormous mirror, hanging in a gold frame. Mirrors were rare in Bree – Butterbur's wife had a small one the size of a saucer, and there were a few copper pots in the kitchen that rendered a slightly distorted image of one's face when painstakingly polished, but a real mirror wider than a doorway was an undreamed of novelty. Unfortunately, it had been hung so high on the wall that even standing on tip-toes he could barely see the top of his curly head. He dragged one of the flowered chairs over to the dresser and climbed on top of it. He was pleased to see that the figure staring back at him was, on the whole, not a bad-looking fellow -- a bit on the thin side, perhaps, and definitely in need of a haircut; but the eyes were a pleasant shade of green and the cheeks, he was pleased to note, were firming into the angles of adulthood. He was a bit short for his age, but broad enough in the shoulders. In fact, he might have cut a dashing figure, if not for the fact that he looked absolutely ridiculous wearing a Man's shirt, no trousers, and a dagger belt strapped to his waist.
Dudo groaned and fumbled to remove the belt. "Stupid hobbit," he mumbled to himself. He started to drag the chair back to its place but reconsidered and pushed it over to the window instead, drawn by the sunlight pouring between the half-drawn draperies, beyond which could be seen blue sky through gaps in gently waving tree branches. He climbed up onto the chair to get a better view.
Breefolk were a largely unsentimental lot. In his short, hard life, Dudo had seldom seen tears shed, and had surrendered to them on only a handful of occasions. In any case, he had not imagined that there could be any other cause for tears than grief, loneliness, or fear. He had not known before this moment, as he glimpsed for the first time the valley of Rivendell in all its splendor, that it was possible to shed tears of joy. He took a long, shuddering breath as he fought the unaccustomed emotion. Suddenly, everything he had seen before in his life seemed flat, and grey, and featureless. From the elegantly wrought bridge that seemed to be woven from stone to the sculpted staircases rising to the houses perched high above the waterfall, everything before him seemed to have been designed for the sake of beauty alone. Winding pathways traced through lovingly designed flower gardens, where statues and benches had been artfully arranged to maximize the enjoyment of both passers-by on the ground and observers above. Dudo leaned forward, levering his elbows against the sun-warmed window frame. Craning his neck, he could see high, sun-drenched peaks far above the tops of the trees. Scooting forward, he leaned still further out to try to get a view of the building he was in.
"Please do not jump," a soft voice spoke in his ear as hands grasped him by the waist. "I promise to show you a safer route to the gardens." With a chuckle, his captor lowered him to the floor, and Dudo turned around, seeing by the faint gash above his temple that it was Elrohir. He was unarmed now, dressed in a simple blue tunic and leggings, but even unadorned with any insignia of rank or authority, there was nobility in the set of his shoulders, authority in the casual strength of the hand resting on Dudo's shoulder, and wisdom beyond reckoning in his grey eyes.
Dudo took a step back and bumped into the chair, grabbing hold of it and simultaneously attempting an awkward bow. "My lord," he managed to whisper, keeping his eyes averted.
"Dudo, no!" Elrohir dropped to his knees and caught him by the shoulders. Tipping his chin up, he forced him to meet his eyes, smiling ruefully. "Please. My father would be most displeased to learn I had frightened a guest. Although not as displeased as if I had let one fall out the window!"
"This is the most beautiful place I ever saw," Dudo said.
Elrohir smiled. "Me, too. Would you like me to show you around?"
"Yes, please!" Dudo exclaimed. "But first, where is Halbarad? Where are Gandalf and Aragorn?"
"Gandalf and Elladan are with Aragorn now, but Halbarad is right next door, sleeping." Elrohir said. "You may see him if you promise to be very quiet." Dudo nodded, and Elrohir took him by the hand and led him into an adjoining room. There, planted deep amidst the mounded bed linens like a seed poked into garden soil, lay Halbarad, asleep.
"What happened to his face?" Dudo cried, already forgetting to keep his voice down. He quickly clapped a hand over his mouth.
"It is just a bit of swelling and bruising," Elrohir said. "He will be all right."
"No, not that," Dudo whispered. He had become accustomed to seeing Halbarad's face swollen, scraped, and discolored. The odd thing was the sight of the normally grizzled Ranger with a face as smooth as a hobbit's. "What happened to his beard?"
Elrohir laughed. "Don't worry, it will grow back. We had to shave the left side to clean the cuts on his cheek," he explained, tracing the wounds lightly with his hand. "It would have looked silly for him to go about with half a beard, would it not?"
"I suppose," Dudo said. "But why is he still asleep? Why doesn't he wake up?"
Elrohir smiled. "If I know Halbarad, he has not slept an unbroken hour since you left Bree, and making such a hard ride with his injuries was no small feat. He has been given something for his pain; it may be that he sleeps until tomorrow morning. Rest is what he needs the most, now. But I am informed that a hobbit requires regular nourishment. Would you like something to eat?"
Dudo's stomach growled at the suggestion. "Yes!" he answered enthusiastically, then frowned as he remembered his embarrassing state of undress. "But where are my clothes?"
Elrohir chuckled. "I am afraid that your clothes have been taken to the laundry. But I believe Master Erestor left something for you to wear a little while ago." Dudo seriously hoped so, as Rivendell did not seem to be the type of place where people went about all day in their nightshirts. Fortunately, Elrohir found what he was looking for in the wardrobe. "Here we are," he said, handing a folded bundle of clothing to Dudo. "These should be close to your size. Later, the seamstress can measure you for something made to fit. I'll wait in the hallway while you change."
Dudo took the bundle and unfolded the garments skeptically. Though they appeared to be more or less his size – a trifle big, perhaps – they were not the attire of a Bree hobbit. Shire garb this was: a green vest, finely tailored with notched lapels and bright brass buttons, fitted trousers that buckled at the knee, and a cream-colored shirt. He got dressed and resisted the urge to look at himself in the mirror again. He emerged into the hallway tugging at his vest and feeling slightly silly, but Elrohir's face broke into an approving smile at the sight of him. "They fit! Splendid! Then let us find the kitchens." He guided Dudo through broad hallways of polished stone, down a great staircase, and along more hallways, until Dudo was quite sure he would never find his room again should Elrohir abandon him. Finally they arrived at the kitchen. It was twice as big as the kitchen of the Prancing Pony, and much, much cleaner. Pots and pans hung from racks over a center worktable, and every size and shape of baking dish was stacked neatly in a hutch. There was a great open hearth, several large ovens for baking, and two enormous wood stoves. A lady was standing at one of them, stirring a pot. It took him a moment to work out that she was actually cooking, for the simple reason that she looked unlike any cook he had ever seen. Butterbur's cooks were both old and bent, with stringy gray hair on their heads and curly black ones sprouting from their chins and noses. But this….he didn't even know what he should call her, he realized. This lady Elf, he supposed, was as beautiful as a sunrise and as tall and lithe as a hawk in flight. Her long fingers curved around the handle of the simple wooden spoon as if it were a silver chalice. Dudo could scarcely abide the thought of those delicate white hands twisting the neck of a chicken. He felt Elrohir's hands on his back, pushing him forward. "Tiriel, I would like to present Master Dudo Tillfield," he announced.
The cook, for want of a better term, favored Dudo with a sparkling smile that sent shivers down his spine. "You must be starving, little one," she said, with a voice as light and melodious as the coo of a dove. "I know how you hobbits like to eat."
"You do?" he answered, and Tiriel laughed.
"Of course, Master Dudo." She looked to Elrohir. "He has not met Bilbo yet, then?"
"There has been no time," Elrohir answered. "Dudo only just woke up a short time ago, and I knew he would be hungry."
Tiriel smiled at Dudo. "Would you like some soup and a piece of freshly baked honey cake? It just came out of the oven. It was intended for dinner, but I suspect the evening meal will be somewhat informal tonight?"
This last question was aimed at Elrohir. "That is a safe assumption," he answered soberly. "Perhaps if you could just keep some soup warmed up." Tiriel nodded and squeezed his shoulder briefly. Elrohir clasped her hand for a moment, and then a mischievous gleam came into his eye. "Dudo, you have not tasted delight until you have had Tiriel's honey cake," he said. "For its sweetness, Elbereth herself would forsake the glory of Valinor."
"Hush," Tiriel scolded him, "or I'll send you to Valinor with the back of my frying pan!"
Elrohir bent over Dudo and whispered slyly. "Take care not to anger her, Dudo. Among the goblins of the mountains, the frying pan of Tiriel is more feared than the swords of the sons of Elrond." He ducked Tiriel's swat and raised a hand in defense, laughing. "Mercy, my lady, I beg you!"
Tiriel ignored him, steering Dudo to a plain wooden table in the corner. It was no higher than a hobbit's table, with three small chairs arranged around it. "Sit right down here, Master Tillfield. We call this 'Estel's table', for when he was a boy he could rarely wait for dinner. He ate many an afternoon snack sitting here."
"Who is Estel?" Dudo asked, as Tiriel laid a plate and a spoon in front of him.
"A little boy who used to live here, a long time ago," answered Elrohir, wedging his long frame into the chair opposite Dudo. Tiriel placed cups of tea before both of them and moved to the counter to cut the cake.
Dudo noticed how Elrohir's brow had tightened again. "What happened to him?" Dudo asked.
Elrohir smiled wistfully. "He grew up, and went away."
"And then what?"
Elrohir laughed. "You ask a lot of questions! Very well, then. He grew tall and strong, and became a mighty warrior, and a great leader of Men. For years he fought in distant lands, and wandered the wild, far from home, and his family and friends missed him very much. Finally, when he returned at last, he ran into a little trouble in Bree, and everyone was very worried about him. They did everything they could to find him and bring him back where he belongs."
"And now he is back home, safe," Dudo said with a smile.
Elrohir smiled back. "Yes he is."
The last thing clearly registered by Aragorn's fading mind was the sight of Elladan, bending over Halbarad's lifeless body. After that came only fragments of awareness – garbled voices murmuring words he could not understand, the press of an arm around his chest, and the endless rhythmic pounding of a hard gallop. His senses dimmed, leaving him aware in the end only of cold. It had almost been a mercy when the clammy chill of the barrow finally numbed his aching limbs. Now it was creeping into his chest, choking off his breath and crushing his heart like a fist of frozen iron.
It was said that at the moment of death, men see their whole lives pass before them. There would have been more mercy in that than the bleak vision he saw instead: a beloved face, its impermeable beauty marred at last by grief, staring out over the open sea. So she would sail, he realized with relief – she would sail to that forbidden land where broken Elven hearts find refuge.
But for the Dúnedain, he saw, there would be no refuge but the grave. In the years ahead, cairn after cairn would sprout on the Eriador plains, until there were too few hands left to build them. Halbarad, stooped and bitter, would bury his own wife and children and grandchildren, before an orc's arrow finally released him from the memory of hope. And in the end, the ragged remnants of Elendil's people would be swept from the face of Middle Earth, as thoroughly as their kin had been swept from doomed Númenor. So, too, would the sweet grass of Cerin Amroth be burnt black, and of the white city that had so captured his heart there would not be one stone left upon another. Rivendell would be crushed, the Shirefolk slaughtered. And finally, when all had been prepared for him, Sauron would move through the West like a great black shadow to reclaim his prize.
With the cold knowledge that all he had most feared would now come to pass, Aragorn son of Arathorn quietly drifted free of Arda's embrace.
It was the voice that called him back. Faintly, thin as a gull's cry far from shore and fading from time to time like a hawk circling a meadow for its prey, it called out relentlessly. He knew this voice, he realized. It called to him with promises of light and warmth and love, and it showed him a new vision: the same flawless face as before, pale from exhaustion and beaded with moisture, but this time from exertion instead of grief. Joy brightened her eyes instead of sorrow, and he saw the reason for it: she cradled in her arms a newborn babe no more than a few minutes old. She held it out to him, and as he reached to take it in his arms he felt a warm presence take hold of him and carry him upward, into the light.
His mind was slow to rekindle, and his body slower. It took him a very long time to identify the steady, rhythmic roaring in his ears as the sound of his own breathing. It was even harder to pinpoint the source of the pain that pulsed through him with every heartbeat. He shifted slightly, struggling to assert control over his resistant limbs, and eventually he recognized the unaccustomed softness beneath him as a bed. The smooth coolness against his skin was linen, he realized, and the weight pressing down on him must be blankets. He risked a deeper breath, taking in the smells of leather and beeswax and dust and ink; mingled with the fresher scents of freshly mulched gardens and blooming vines. There was only one place on Arda that smelled like this. He was home.
Nearly imperceptible amidst the echoless quiet of well-furnished rooms and the soothing rush of distant water was the sound of quiet breathing. Quiet, but not Elvish. And if he was not mistaken, there was also a very faint whiff of stale pipe-weed, as carried in on someone's clothes. Hearing the faint rasp of a page being turned, he pried gummy eyelids open, blinking as the afternoon sun brought a flash of pain to his head. Slowly his eyes focused on the figure beside the bed, and he blinked again in surprise; for it was not Gandalf sitting at the bedside, as he expected, but an ancient hobbit in a tidy vest and knee britches. His face was hidden by a fall of silver hair as he read his book, afternoon sun playing across the pages. The raspy croak that was all the speech Aragorn could produce succeeded in gaining his attention.
"Oh, my!" he exclaimed, dropping his book and pushing himself off the chair to land with a thud on his short legs. "You're awake!" He hurried to Aragorn and took his hand between his own small ones. "You are safe now, Estel. You're in Rivendell." Aragorn, finding his mouth as parched as a Harad summer, failed again to utter more than a croak, and Bilbo's old face wrinkled with worry. "You do know me, don't you, Estel? It's Bilbo. You wouldn't forget old Bilbo, would you?"
Aragorn tried to smile, but his face still seemed oddly stiff and unwieldy. Somewhere a chill still clutched at him, and the unnamed pain was unrelenting. He wondered where Elrond had gone, but he could not bear to see Bilbo in distress. "How could I forget…" he gasped finally, finding that speaking required more breath than his lungs seemed able to hold, "the first hobbit I ever met?"
Bilbo's eyes brightened. "That's my boy." Leaning over conspiratorially, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "I have never told Elrond that story, you know. But what was it I was supposed to do if you woke up? Water, that's it." He reached for something beside the bed, and Aragorn heard water filling a cup. Ashamed to be a burden to the frail old creature, he struggled to move, but his limbs and even his head seemed weighted with solid granite, and the pain intensified with his slightest movement. "Don't try to move yet, Estel," Bilbo cautioned. "Elrond said you must not get up for many days."
On this point Aragorn ventured no dissent; barely managing to swallow enough water to rinse his mouth before slumping, drained, against the pillows. "Thank you," he said, letting his eyes drift shut.
He heard the cup being set down, and then a gentle tug as Bilbo fussed with the blankets. "Better now?" the hobbit asked hopefully. Aragorn forced his eyes open and fixed what he hoped was a reassuring smile on his face, but Bilbo was eyeing him worriedly. "I should tell Gandalf you're awake," he said.
Aragorn glanced toward the window. It was late afternoon, but what day? He could not even remember arriving here. "Where is Elrond?"
"Resting," Bilbo said. "He worked over you all night and most of the morning. When he was finished, Glorfindel sent him to rest and ordered that he not to be disturbed. Gandalf and Elladan have been with you for most of the day, but Erestor chased them off a little while ago and ordered them to eat some dinner. You seemed to be resting comfortably enough that a hobbit could mind you for a while."
Aragorn smiled. "Yours was a welcome face to wake up to, Bilbo." Something about Bilbo's account bothered him, though. Something was missing. With sudden alarm he recalled an image of Halbarad's face sinking beneath dark churning waters. "Bilbo – my kinsman, Halbarad. Where is he?"
Bilbo patted his shoulder. "Not to worry. He is being well cared for. And your guest, Master Tillfield, is enjoying all the hospitality the Last Homely House has to offer. Dudo – such a delightful child - spent this afternoon exploring the valley with Elrohir. The young are so resilient, aren't they? But I am told that Halbarad slept long today."
"He sleeps still," Elrond remarked from the doorway. "But that is largely my doing." He smiled gently at Bilbo, but exhaustion was plainly written on his drawn features. His normally straight shoulders were bent with fatigue, and his agile frame seemed brittle and frail. He was carrying a tray that he set down with little grace on the bedside table. "Thank you, Bilbo, for sitting with Aragorn, but please go to dinner now. Gandalf and young Master Tillfield are waiting for you."
"Why, thank you, Elrond," Bilbo replied, scooping up his book. "If you're sure you I won't be needed…"
Elrond shepherded him to the door. "Your assistance is greatly appreciated, Bilbo. But now you must go and enjoy your dinner. And keep a close eye on Master Dudo, for I fear the young one is wholly beyond Gandalf's capacity to supervise." Elrond watched patiently as the hobbit made his departure, then pushed an armchair closer to the bed and lowered himself into it. Without preamble, he leaned forward and brushed his fingers lightly across Aragorn's forehead, then touched his wrist. "You feel cool. Are you warm enough?"
To Aragorn it seemed that he would never be warm again, but he merely nodded. Elrond frowned skeptically. As he reached for Aragorn's right hand, lying propped on a pillow at his side, Aragorn belatedly saw that it was freshly splinted and heavily bandaged. Elrond methodically tested the blood flow in the fingertips, then stood and went to the table to mix some potion that Aragorn would no doubt be administered very shortly. "It was necessary to re-break the bones in your hand and set them," he said without turning. "The incision is in your palm. The pain will be considerable for a time, but you should regain full function with patience. The leg was very badly infected, and blood poisons had spread through your system."
"Thank you," Aragorn mumbled cautiously, realizing his situation. Now that it was clear that he would live, he would face the Lord of Rivendell in full wrath.
Elrond set down the jar he was holding and lowered himself back into the chair. "You were very close to death, Estel. Elladan informs me that you were but a few days from Rivendell when you took this wound. You must have known it would require treatment."
So Elladan and Elrohir had kept quiet about the botched cave raid, for which they had no doubt already paid the price. "There was no time," Aragorn proffered. "I was already late meeting Gandalf."
Elrond's tone was carefully controlled. "Gandalf would have understood. He would not wish you to place yourself in unnecessary danger."
Irritation that Aragorn would have sworn he had not the strength for flared. "What is my life, but danger?" he said. "Such wounds as this, and worse, I have dealt with in the wild for many years, far from the shelter and succor of Rivendell." In truth, he had gambled that the wound would be treatable once he reached Bree. It was true he had dealt with worse before. He simply had not counted on being kidnapped by bandits before he could meet Gandalf.
"So you have," Elrond said. "All the more reason to avail yourself of its shelter when you tread within sight of its borders. You will always find shelter here, should you seek it."
It had never occurred to him that Elrond would refuse him shelter; Elrond would refuse no one shelter. But Elrond knew full well what stood between them and what had kept him away. Of Arwen, they had not exchanged more than courteous pleasantries in more than twenty years, but her presence haunted their every meeting. To spare them both, it seemed easier to simply stay away. Elrond was normally as scrupulous at adhering to courtesy as he was; Aragorn realized finally that he had been badly frightened. "I humbly beg pardon for offending you," he said.
Elrond's eyes flared. "This is not about my offense, Aragorn. This recklessness does not become you. A leader must above all be responsible for himself. Others are depending on you."
Aragorn bit back a retort. It was for the sake of others that he had wasted seven years of his life crawling through every cave, swamp and muckhole in the Anduin valley. When he had finally dragged himself back over the mountains, weary and empty-handed, it had been for the sake of others that he had crawled into an orc-infested cave and taken an arrow in his leg that almost killed him. He had proven himself a capable and worthy warrior to the Rohirrim, the Gondorians, the Haradrim, the Corsairs, and the Dúnedain. But to Elrond of Rivendell, there would always be only one accomplishment that mattered; one that seemed perpetually beyond his grasp. Having neither the will nor the strength for a confrontation, Aragorn closed his eyes and slumped deeply into the softness of the bed.
A faint sigh of dismay escaped Elrond, and then a hand slipped behind Aragorn's head and lifted it gently. A cup was placed against his lips. "Drink, Estel," Elrond said softly. "It will ease the pain." When Aragorn had swallowed the bitter substance to Elrond's satisfaction, the cup was removed, and he felt the pillow beneath him once more. As he surrendered to encroaching darkness, he felt the touch of a hand upon his cheek, and a quiet voice. "Rest," it murmured.
Elrond brushed a strand of hair from his foster-son's face, frowning at the coolness that lingered in the pallid skin. His fingers traced faint lines he did not remember seeing before. How long had it been? Three years? Four? They aged so quickly…his own head pounded and he rubbed at tired eyes.
"Am I interrupting?"
Elrond turned his head slightly and nodded a greeting. "Not at all, Mithrandir. Please, come in." That he had not heard the telltale swish of robes or the soft, slippered steps, he accounted to fatigue, but he wondered how long the wizard had been standing there. He straightened the blanket covering Aragorn and turned around, stretching to ease the ache in his shoulders. "I thought you were dining with Bilbo."
"Bilbo promised to tell stories and I have heard them all." Gandalf approached the bed, sounding as tired as Elrond felt. He looked down at the Ranger. "Is he asleep?"
With a glance at the mug he has just emptied into Aragorn, Elrond twitched an eyebrow. "I would hope so." He leaned over the bed once more. "Aragorn." He paused. "Estel." When there was no response he gave a last tug to the blanket and stepped away from the bed, casting his professional scrutiny over a new target. "And how do you fare, Gandalf? Have you rested?"
"I might ask the same of you, my friend," said Gandalf, "but I already know the answer."
"I slept for several more hours this afternoon," Elrond said, "after Glorfindel threatened to lock me in my room."
Gandalf smiled. "I think that he would threaten to lock you in there again, if he could see you."
Elrond shook his head. He felt wide awake now, and he wanted answers that only Gandalf could provide. "He can hover over me later. First, I would speak with you privately. Do you know where Elladan is? I would have him sit with Aragorn."
"I believe your sons intend to enjoy yet another re-telling of the Tale of Lonely Mountain this evening along with our young hobbit friend, Dudo."
Elrond smiled. "I am sure Bilbo will understand if I ask one of them to excuse himself." Stepping into the hall, he dispatched a passing Elf to fetch Elladan, then led Gandalf to his study and waved him to a chair by the hearth. It was really too warm for a fire, but Elrond found himself desiring the comfort of one. He busied himself kindling it while Gandalf settled back into the cushions of the chair and eyed the glass of ruby wine Elrond had poured for him as if he had not seen one since his last visit. He probably hadn't, Elrond realized; Bree favored beer, as he recalled. He wiped his hands and sat down, nursing his own glass as Gandalf related the tale of Aragorn's kidnapping and rescue. The flickering flames warmed the small, book-filled room, and Gandalf's eyes were soon drooping. Elrond, conversely, felt tension creeping back into his neck. "Who was this boy, then?" he pressed, realizing this was a matter best discussed when sober and well-rested, but feeling too unsettled to let it drop. "A mere Breelander, you say, and yet capable of commanding beasts? Of commanding orcs? Of organizing bands of Dunlendings and orchestrating the kidnapping of a Dúnedain chieftain? This is no mere boy you describe, Mithrandir."
Gandalf closed his eyes wearily. "Rolly was in truth a mere boy, Elrond. I nearly reached him in the end. Unnatural authority had been vested in the child, but a child he remained. I beg you to proceed cautiously with Aragorn in this matter, for he took the loss to heart."
Elrond rubbed his aching eyes. Aragorn would indeed take such a loss to heart. "Estel has yet to accept that all things cannot be saved."
"Maybe that is his gift," said Gandalf.
Elrond's head was aching steadily now, and he leaned forward and massaged his temples. "Sauron alone could confer unnatural powers on a mortal, could he not?"
"The stench of Mordor was not upon the boy." Gandalf stared into the fire. "His virtue and honor had been twisted and manipulated by a powerful and clever mind. Yet it was not Sauron, I think."
Elrond raised an eyebrow, but hesitated before speaking. "If not Sauron, then who? It could only have been another of his kind. One with a less obvious stench." He winced, thinking that he really must get some sleep. Or at the very least have no more wine.
"I do not know who it could be."
Elrond scowled. "What was it you said?"
"I said I do not know who it could be."
"No, not just then. Earlier. 'A powerful and clever mind', you said."
Gandalf shot him a sideways look, and Elrond knew he had read the inference perfectly. "Elrond, I know you dislike Saruman, perhaps with good reason, but I cannot believe him capable of such conduct. It would be utter madness. Saruman has no reason to set spies against me."
"If you trust him, then why have you not told him about Bilbo's ring?" Elrond asked.
Gandalf closed his eyes wearily. "He is ambitious. He is vulnerable to temptation, and in any case, it is best if as few of us face temptation as possible, if our suspicions are correct. But there can be no temptation without knowledge. It would never occur to Saruman that I possess knowledge worth pursuing. He thinks me a simpleton, frittering away my time on idle and useless pursuits."
"Very well," Elrond said, allowing the matter to drop. "What was the boy's purpose, then?"
Gandalf rose and refilled both glasses before dropping back into his chair. "It was a trap within a trap, a scheme intended to arouse Aragorn's protective instincts toward the boy and use them to obtain information about my interest in the Shire."
Elrond felt a twinge of irritation. Allowing the ring to remain in the Shire, hiding in plain sight, as it were, had seemed the only practical solution. Now it appeared that Gandalf had somehow drawn the Enemy's attention directly to it. "We cannot afford to have the Enemy's eye turned toward the Shire, Mithrandir. Even the Rangers cannot protect it from an all-out assault. Frodo may be in danger."
He regretted the words when Gandalf's face tightened with guilt. Obviously this was no news to the wizard. "It was I who led the Enemy to the Shire, and to Aragorn," Gandalf said slowly. "It is I who must lead him away."
"What do you mean to do?"
"I must quit the Shire," Gandalf said. He bowed his head in utter weariness. "I cannot bring ruin upon it."
"Where will you go?"
"I will return to the Shire one last time, to escort Master Tillfield and take my leave of Frodo. And then I have promised to search for Gollum with Aragorn."
"Aragorn will not wield a sword for months, Mithrandir. The hand was deliberately ruined."
"His adversary evidently respected his swordsmanship," Gandalf said grimly. "And what of his leg? I feared to take it, and then I feared that by not doing so I had cost him his life."
"There is no blame in this for you, Mithrandir." Elrond's jaw tightened. "I have spoken with my sons. They tell me now that Aragorn sustained the leg wound in a battle with orcs before traveling to Bree." He noted the hoarseness of his voice, as well as his resurging irritation, as signs of exhaustion. They should both just go to bed; Gandalf looked half asleep already. "Elladan tried to persuade Aragorn to come to Rivendell before traveling to Bree, but he refused. He avoids Rivendell even at risk to his own life."
Gandalf sighed. "My dear friend, he might have had other things on his mind than avoiding you. He is weary and discouraged at failing to find Gollum. He worries for his people and has just finished burying several of them. He has just lost his mother and has yet to visit her grave, as far as I know. You are tired, my friend. Do not dwell on this. Gilraen is dead now. Aragorn needs you now more than ever."
"I cannot help him if he will not let me," Elrond said.
Gandalf leaned back in his chair and regarded Elrond with a weary expression. "Well, tell me, then, friend, what do you intend to do about it?"
Elrond straightened. "What do I intend to do?"
Gandalf raised a bushy eyebrow at him. "Yes, you, Elrond Eärendilion. Your daughter stays away in Lorien and your son stays everywhere in Arda but here. What do you intend to do about it?"
Elrond regarded him flatly. "Gandalf, surely you do not see me as the perpetrator here."
"Surely you do not see yourself as the victim."
Elrond shot Gandalf a glare, but the wizard was leaning over to fish a pipe out of his robe. A bag of pipeweed came out of the other pocket, and he made a show, Elrond thought, of packing the pipe as slowly and methodically as he could without looking at Elrond at all. Gandalf obviously meant for him to think long and hard about the statement; something that Elrond found extremely irritating. He forced himself to check his anger, reminding himself that the counsel of a Maia was not something to lightly disregard, no matter how irritating he personally found it. Had he thought himself a victim? In truth, maybe he had, just a little. Had he pitied himself for the price he had been asked to pay for the salvation of Middle Earth? Had he resented the tribute demanded of him, who had already sacrificed so much and waited so long? Had he mourned the whole, pure joy that would now never be his, even should Barad-dur come crashing down and Sauron be utterly destroyed? Yes. He had.
Gandalf leaned back in his chair and drew on his pipe, a habit he knew Elrond despised. "You expect much of Aragorn."
"I expect only one thing of Aragorn, as you well know, Gandalf." Elrond's lips tightened. "Aragorn has nothing to fear from me. I would never turn him away. Certainly not injured and in need."
"It is not your charity he needs, but your approval."
"He has not earned my disapproval. Nor will he."
Gandalf blew a smoke ring that blossomed into delicate fronds, like a fern along a stream bank. "But suppose he did. If Aragorn fails to become King, you are released from your promise. You regain your daughter."
Elrond's eyes closed and he sighed deeply. He had long ago hardened himself against the possibility. And he must remain hardened to it, lest he falter for an instant. "Aragorn must succeed," he said grimly. "There is no other option. Sauron grows stronger. Even now he seeks the Ring. If what we suspect is true, he will not be long in finding it, no matter how hard we try to conceal it. There is nowhere in Middle Earth it can be hidden. One way or another, this age will end with Aragorn."
"Indeed, no Man has ever had a heavier doom laid on him, nor at such a young age," mused Gandalf. "Yet he has borne this burden well, do you not think? It has long been his heart's desire to restore the Kingship," he continued, "and in so doing to gain everything that has been promised to him. His burden would be lighter if he did not believe that promise was made grudgingly by one he loves as a father."
Is that what Estel thought? Elrond had rarely discussed this topic with Gandalf, and Estel he guessed to be similarly reticent; but the wizard was more cunning than he pretended. Elrond could not be sure how much of this had come from Aragorn's own mouth. Or Arwen's, or Galadriel's, for that matter. He winced at the thought. "If Aragorn fully understood what he asks of me he would not think me grudging."
Gandalf released a cloud of smoke. "It is really not so much his choice, in the end, as Arwen's, is it?"
Elrond's jaw tightened, an act that only served to intensify his headache. "Arwen is young, Mithrandir. Do not look at me like that. For all her years, she has been sheltered here, or in Lothlorien. She has never seen sickness, she has never seen war, she has never seen death. Her mother's ordeal was the most difficult experience of her life, and yet even in her sorrow she is comforted by the knowledge that Celebrian waits for us across the sea, in health and in peace, longing for the day we will be reunited." The thought crushed something inside him, and he shut his eyes to block out the image of what was fated to be bitter reunion. "Arwen does not understand what it is to watch helplessly as slow decay overtakes the flesh. She does not understand what it is to be sundered forever from a loved one. Aragorn does." Elrond opened his eyes and looked at Gandalf. "I do."
"We do not know what lies beyond the circles of the world for mortals."
Elrond reached for the decanter and poured himself another drink. "Let us not debate this all night. I have given him my terms, and they stand. He must learn patience."
"He is no Elf, to watch mountains crumble as he waits for his time to come. He is a Man. His youth has come and gone out in the wild, while here in Rivendell barely a season of Arda has passed. His time is running out, slowly but surely. The Shadow lengthens but it does not fall. Uncertainty begins to creep at him. Doubt will follow, and then fear."
"Aragorn is not a fearful man," Elrond said.
"No, he is not. But fear lurks within all of us, does it not?" Gandalf puffed slowly on his pipe as the fire licked slowly at the sweet-smelling logs. "Why did you never tell him of Arwen when he was a boy? I have long wondered."
Elrond stiffened and pushed himself to his feet, setting down his empty wine glass and moving to scrutinize the contents of his bookshelf while Gandalf pretended to doze. Finally he turned. "What would you have me say?" he said. "That I forgot for eighteen years I had a daughter?"
"Ah, there you are," said Glorfindel, advancing his lanky frame through the doorway and raising an eyebrow as he noticed that Elrond had flinched. "Am I interrupting?"
"No," answered Elrond, a bit too quickly. "Come in. Would you care for some wine?"
Glorfindel picked up the decanter and absently swirled the last remaining dregs. "I suppose not," he said dryly, setting it back down. "You were supposed to be resting, my friend. Did you know it is nearly midnight? If you do not rest you will be of no use to Aragorn tomorrow."
"Yes, Elrond, listen to Glorfindel," Gandalf said through his pipe. "You have overtaxed yourself, and must recover your strength."
Elrond glanced first at one caretaker and then the other. Clearly they presented a united front, and they also happened to be right. "Very well," he agreed finally. "But I must check on Estel first."
"I just did," Glorfindel countered. "Elladan told me he has slept soundly since you left." He hooked a hand around Elrond's elbow and dragged him gently toward the door. "Say goodnight to Mithrandir."
"Goodnight, Elrond," Gandalf said pleasantly, making no move to get up. "Sleep well."
Just before Glorfindel succeeded in marching him through the doorway, Elrond wrenched his arm free with somewhat more force than he intended. "Mithrandir," he said, turning back to the study. He waited until the silence forced Gandalf to turn around.
Elrond smiled, amused at how he always felt better after losing an argument to Gandalf. "I will speak with him."
Gandalf nodded and turned back to the fire, expelling a puff of smoke. "You will speak with whom?" Glorfindel asked, reasserting his grip on Elrond and and guiding him into the hallway.
Elrond sighed and allowed himself to be pulled along. "My son."
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