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Matter of Honor, A: 6. A Gift Returned
Halbarad leaned back in his chair, feeling the seams of his fancy new tunic strain under the pressure, regarding with dread the dish that had just been placed in front of him.
Elrohir snorted. "It is only a tart, Halbarad, not a troll that needs slaying. Didn't I warn you to eat a light breakfast this morning?"
"You should have warned me," Halbarad retorted, "that the cook intended to feed this small gathering enough food to provision the Last Alliance."
"Well," Elladan said from across the table, "if you had only refrained from gorging yourself quite so thoroughly on the soup, the roasted boar --"
"The quail --" interjected Elrohir mildly.
"—and the quail, and the cheese, and the bread, and the walnut-crusted trout," concluded Elladan, "you would have had room for dessert. My father would be a poor host to send you off into the wild on an empty stomach, would he not?"
"If I eat one more bite, my stomach will empty, I promise you," Halbarad answered, feeling put out. He hadn't gorged himself at all; quite the opposite. He'd deliberately consumed only a modest portion of each course, unlike --
A massive, three-pronged candlestick blocked his view of the seat directly across from him. As Halbarad leaned sideways to see around it, he felt the seam under his arm pop. "Yes, Dudo?"
The hobbit, having not bothered to speak to him all evening, was now pointing hopefully at his untouched dessert dish. "Are you going to eat that?"
Halbarad suppressed a belch. "Absolutely not."
The eyes fixed on the confection were wide and hopeful. "Can I have it, then?"
Halbarad's jaw dropped. "You've already eaten your own dessert. In fact, you've probably eaten enough food to sustain the entire population of Eriador through the Fell Winter. How could you possibly eat any more?" Dudo was looking at him as blankly as if he'd asked him to refrain from breathing. "All right. Here." Before Elladan or Elrohir could comment on the unforgivable transgression of Elvish etiquette he was no doubt committing, he pushed the plate to the center of the table. Fast as a frog's tongue, a small hand spirited the dish to the opposite side, and a silver spoon plunged through the golden-brown pastry crust. Halbarad shook his head in amazement and stole a look to the head of the table, but Elrond seemed too intent on his discussion with Glorfindel and Aragorn to notice portions being passed. The chair between Aragorn and Gandalf was empty; Bilbo having quietly departed just after the quail course. Evidently he had leave to come and go as he pleased from these sorts of doings, a privilege Halbarad envied. He leaned to the right, where Gandalf was slowly churning his tart into a stew while carefully avoiding getting any of it into his mouth. "Are we almost finished?"
Gandalf laid down his spoon, took a sip of water and regarded him officiously. "Finished with what, Halbarad?" He looked irritated; Halbarad guessed he wanted a smoke.
"Do not let Elrond hear you say that," Gandalf chided. "This feast was called in your honor, after all."
"Gandalf, it must be nearly midnight," Halbarad protested. "I have a long ride ahead of me tomorrow. I need to get an early start."
Across the table, there was a clatter as Dudo's spoon was dropped abruptly into a porcelain dish, and Halbarad winced as Elladan's boot connected with his shin.
"Nice, Halbarad," Elrohir muttered under his breath. "We'd almost distracted him from the fact that you're leaving."
"I still don't understand your hurry, Halbarad," Elladan said with studied mildness. "Do you find the hospitality of the Last Homely House lacking?"
"Not at all, it's just that I've been gone nearly a month and --"
"He's worried he'll become soft," commented Elrohir. "Or worse – that he might begin to like it here."
Elladan nodded gravely. "It has been known to happen. Why, his great-great-great grandfather, what was his name?"
"On his mother's side? Halagarth, I believe."
"Yes, that was it. Didn't he take to wearing his hair in long, plaited locks and dabbling in the rose garden? Father quite despaired of ever getting rid of him."
"Saerbellas was quite fond of him, though, if I recall," Elrohir said. "Odd; he doesn't usually care much for Men."
Halbarad lowered his voice to a growl. "Let's leave my dead relatives out of this."
"Very well, I suppose we could discuss your mother instead," offered Elladan.
"Leave him be, you scoundrels," Gandalf clucked. "Fear not, Halbarad. It will take much more than a few weeks in Imladris to make a gentleman out of you. Now finish your wine."
"I already finished --" Halbarad looked down to find the goblet filled to the brim again. For the fourth time.
"Yes?" Elladan asked innocently.
Halbarad twisted around, catching sight of the wine server rounding the end of the table. Confounded, stealthy Elves. "I cannot drink another drop," Halbarad announced.
"Nonsense," Elladan answered. "The evening is just beginning, dear Ranger."
"I thought dinner was finished."
"Dinner is finished," Elladan explained with a cryptic smile. "It is not of dinner that I speak."
Elladan held his goblet at eye level, swirling the wine gently. "Why, merrymaking, of course."
Halbarad had enough experience with Elvish merrymaking to know that at his current level of satiated stupor, he'd be lucky to survive the first hour of it. He opened his mouth to speak, but a nudge in the ribs silenced him. "Hark, your host is speaking," Gandalf whispered.
An expectant silence fell over the hall as Elrond rose to his feet. "My friends," he began, "I hope you have enjoyed this feast in honor of our dear friends Mithrandir, Halbarad, and Dudo Tillfield." He smiled and waited for the clapping and murmurs of affirmation to recede. "We rejoice at the reunion with old friends," he said, nodding warmly first at Gandalf and then at Halbarad, "we extend a warm welcome to new ones," he said with an affectionate smile at Dudo, "and most especially, we give thanks for the safe return of a beloved son of this house." At this, Aragorn moved to stand in acknowledgement, but Elrond's hand came down firmly on his shoulder and lingered in a clasp of affection.
"Ai, that is a sight for sore eyes," Elrohir murmured.
"As we prepare to conclude the feast and adjourn to the Hall of Fire, I am pleased to announce yet another happy return." Elrond's hand tightened once more on Aragorn's shoulder, and Halbarad glanced to the side. Elrohir's noncommittal shrug failed to disguise the calm satisfaction written on his face. Whatever announcement Elrond planned to make, it was no news to his sons. "Long has the finest jewel of Imladris been absent from our sight, but no longer," Elrond was saying. "Arwen Undómiel, who has dwelt for long years with our kin in Lothlórien, will return to grace our fair valley once more."
Applause and cheers of joy erupted throughout the Hall, but beneath Elrond's paternal grasp Aragorn's expression betrayed no surprise. Halbarad cocked an eyebrow at Gandalf. "You knew, too, didn't you?"
The wizard merely shrugged cryptically and smiled at Dudo, who was excitedly tugging at Elladan's sleeve. "Who? Who was he talking about? Who's coming back?"
Elladan laughed as he extracted the small fingers from his tunic. "Our sister."
"Your sister? I didn't know you had a sister. Where is she now?"
Elladan and Elrohir exchanged a glance. "Visiting relatives, on the other side of the mountains," Elladan answered finally.
Glorfindel appeared behind Dudo's chair and pulled it back from the table. "Save your questions for the Hall of Fire, Master Dudo," he said, extending a hand as the hobbit twisted around to peer up at him. "It is time for singing. Do you like to sing?"
Dudo went along with him gleefully, leaving Halbarad to smile at the memory of what kind of songs the hobbit would have learned at the Prancing Pony. When the rest of the table had emptied, he dragged himself to his feet and fell in behind the happily chatting throng of revelers making its way to the Hall of Fire. Once there, he spotted a shallow alcove along the back wall, lowered himself onto a bench, and tugged his belt loose a notch. Breathing a sigh of relief, he let his head fall back against the cool stone wall. Even this far from the fire, the room was quite warm, and the music had begun. As the rich sounds of Elvish singing and lilting Elvish conversation drifted to his ears, he yielded to pleasant drowsiness and closed his eyes. All he wanted to do in Imladris was sleep, it seemed, even when he was not over-fed and frankly drunk, and he surrendered to a light doze in spite of himself. It wasn't long after, though, that he was snapped to alertness by an ear-splitting peal of decidedly un-Elvish laughter. Jerking upright, he quickly scanned the room, seeing with amusement that all eyes were fixed on Dudo. The hobbit was laughing delightedly and jumping up and down as Elladan demonstrated a magic trick. Another shriek of delight fractured the carefully cultivated serenity of the Hall as Elladan pretended to extract a silver coin from Dudo's ear.
"Valandil taught him that trick," Elohir remarked, settling himself on the bench and stretching his long legs out before him. "He's always looking for a new audience. Tired, Halbarad?"
By some combination of long practice and alcoholic languor, Halbarad had managed to suppress his startle to a bare twitch. He rolled his head casually sideways without giving up the support of the wall. "No," he said. "Just drunk."
"Not drunk enough, I think!" Elrohir replied, beckoning a passing servant and relieving him of two glasses of wine. "You're still too glum. Cheer up. Arwen is coming home."
Halbarad accepted the glass. "That is good news indeed. How long have you known?"
"Father told us only this morning. We are to leave in two weeks' time to fetch her from Lothlórien."
"She seems to enjoy it there," Halbarad said noncommittally. "Are you sure she'll want to come back?"
Elrohir smiled and looked across the Hall. "She will after I tell her about this evening."
Following his gaze, Halbarad saw Aragorn seated by the fire with Bilbo, whose earlier absence from the dinner table had evidently been in service of a nap. Aragorn's head was bent close to the hobbit's as if listening intently, and he was smiling as if at a joke - or maybe one of Bilbo's bawdy verses. A short distance away, Elrond and Gandalf were speaking quietly to each other as they pretended to listen to the minstrels. Gandalf's chin dipped every so often in the direction of his chest, as if fighting sleep, but though Elrond feigned polite interest in the entertainment, his sharp gaze never wandered too far from foster-son.
Halbarad nudged Elrohir's elbow. "Your father hasn't taken his eyes off Aragorn all night. Had I thought there was still cause for worry, I would not have planned to leave so soon."
Elrohir joined the assemblage in polite applause as the minstrels concluded their piece and laid their instruments down. "Father will certainly watch him like a hawk for a while, but it is not worry I see in his eyes tonight."
Elrohir cocked his head as he looked across the room. "Peace. Joy in life is ever mingled with grief, and for Father, at least, there will never again be the one without the other. But tonight, they are both at peace."
Halbarad did not need to ask of whom Elrohir spoke. Aragorn's throaty laughter was light as it drifted across the crowded room. He was obviously as comfortable here in these graceful and luxurious surroundings as he was crouched over a sputtering cook fire in the wild. "He will not feel out of place in a palace someday," Halbarad observed.
"Indeed he will not," Elrohir agreed quietly. Beckoning another waiter, he refilled Halbard's glass. "Have some more wine, friend Dúnadan. It is a far sight better than that curdled barley you drink."
"I don't recall you ever turning your nose up at curdled barley," Halbarad countered.
"As well I shouldn't," Elrohir affirmed with a laugh. "Those who are destined to straddle two worlds might as well partake of the best of both. But look, my brother is about to make a fool of himself."
"I welcome the return of my dear sister," announced Elladan, having stepped into the center of the room and taken possession of an abandoned harp, which he began plucking experimentally. "She is indeed the light of Imladris." A murmur of assent rumbled through the crowd, but Halbarad sensed trouble in Elladan's exultant tone and unsteady stance, and so, by his frown, did Elrond. "Dear friends," Elladan continued dramatically, ignoring a glare from Glorfindel that would have dropped a troll in its tracks, "it is indeed good that we gather here tonight to celebrate the homecoming of our dear friends, our brother, and soon, it seems, our beloved sister. It is customary in this house to honor such occasions with song, and so I offer one to you now. I present: The Lay of Dudo Tillfield."
"What's got into him?" Halbarad whispered as Dudo clapped with glee.
"I would say," remarked Elrohir, "about a gallon of Erestor's finest vintage."
Halbarad winced as Elladan overbalanced while bowing to his father and nearly knocked over a music stand, but Aragorn's laughter seemed to disarm Elrond's wrathful glare. With a prim nod at his son, Elrond sat back down as Elladan propped the harp against his chest. Halbarad frowned skeptically and leaned closer to Elrohir. "I didn't know Elladan played the harp," he remarked.
"Nor did I," replied Elrohir, wincing as Elladan took another practice pluck, bringing forth hearty laughter from the less inhibited members of the crowd. Grinning proudly at his accomplishment, Elladan began to sing.
Rangers tread the marsh and midden,
Risking perils plain and hidden
Without a fear of fang or swarm
Keeping hobbits safe from harm
Wielding blades of bronze and steel
Lest trolls bespy a tasty meal
But best of all by bow or sword
Was one the Rangers called their lord
"By sword, truly," Halbarad whispered. "The bow issue is less clear."
"We tried," Elrohir answered. "We did try."
Now Aragorn was fearless ever,
Showing fear of naught but weather,
His travels took him far from here,
In search of Barley's tasty beer.
He staggered into Bree one night,
Seeking the Pony's warming light
How could he have known that there
In Bree, so cosy, safe and fair
Spies lurked out from 'round the stable
Behind each door and 'neath the table
In Bree where he'd not dreamt of danger
A plot had hatched to snatch a Ranger
T'was not a troll that brought him down,
Outfoxed he was by folks in town.
Elladan broke off his song as one of the minstrels, pained beyond endurance by the assault on his instrument, approached him and snatched his harp back. Waving an affronted Elladan an arm's length away, he raised the instrument to his chest and bowed slightly. "By your leave, my lord, if you will continue, I will attempt to follow your tune."
His deliberate stress on the word "tune" brought forth a swell of uproarious laughter, and Elladan frowned in mock outrage.
Elrond's lips tightened at the collapse of decorum, and Glorfindel looked weary, but Dudo was laughing so hard he stumbled against Gandalf's knees, and Halbarad grinned at the delight in Aragorn's voice as he called to his brother from his place by the fire. "Carry on, Elladan!"
Elrond waved a hand in defeat and stepped back, folding his arms, while Gandalf snorted smoke from his pipe.
"Thank you, Estel," Elladan said dramatically, bowing low to Aragorn. He directed a cooler nod at the minstrel. "Shall we continue, then?" With that he resumed his song, managing to keep nearly in tune with the harp.
They snatched Estel clean off the road
But how it happened, no one told.
I will not say my brother's simple
But that letter ruse won't fool a pimple
But not to fear, lord Dúnadan,
Freedom's soon to be re-won.
For in pursuit, your faithful liege
With but one thought - his mare retrieve
With mare and Chieftain hauled away
He vowed there'd be a price to pay
And so in haste he fled to Bree,
Where they gathered, rescuers three
Gandalf, stalwart, grey and wise,
His fearsome staff will blind your eyes
Halbarad, morose and dour,
In stubbornness resides his power
And Dudo, though but young and small,
Never shirked from battle's call
He held his ground and did not waver
Trusting to an Elven saber.
In the face of death he did not wilt
He sank that blade up to the hilt
And so we sing tonight of valour,
Of deeds long past and deeds anew,
We sing of Dudo, friend to wizards,
Friend to Elves, and Rangers, too.
Though wolves, I'm told, will flee before him,
Lest they meet the blade he drew.
With a final flourish, Elladan took Dudo's hand and pulled him into a dual bow, to another round of delighted applause.
Elrohir drained his glass. "Somewhere Elbereth is weeping."
Halbarad chuckled. He'd heard Elladan's improvisations before, but never in his father's great hall. "The look on Glorfindel's face was priceless. Aragorn loved it. And Dudo will sing it for his grandchildren."
"You will miss him, will you not?"
"Aragorn?" Halbarad shrugged. "I'll see him in a few weeks."
"No, besotted Ranger, not Estel. The hobbit."
"Tillfield?" Halbarad blinked and took a reflexive gulp of wine. He paused a long moment, finding it strangely difficult to speak. "Yes," he said finally. "I suppose I will."
"I thought you had no use for hobbits."
Elrohir's familiar keen gaze suddenly seemed bottomless, and Halbarad tore his eyes away from it. "I don't," he replied automatically, shaking off the unsettling awareness of his friend's impossible antiquity. He made it a habit of avoiding examining some realities too closely, including the fact that Elrohir had sat in this very Hall and shared a glass with Valandil himself, or that he might very likely do the same with some as-yet unborn Dúnadan, when Halbarad's bones were dust. All such things were better left to the contemplation of Elves and wizards. Looking across the polished stone floor, slowly clearing of guests, Halbarad saw that Bilbo and Gandalf had risen to say their good-nights to Elrond. Taking this as a sign that he, too, might soon gracefully make his exit, he made to stand.
An elbow nudged his own, and when he looked over he was relieved to see once again beside him not an ageless figure of legend but only an old friend with a wicked sword. "It looks as if young Dudo is going to bed without saying farewell to you."
"He's barely spoken to you all evening," Elrohir commented. "He must be quite put out at you leaving."
Halbarad watched as Dudo walked ahead of Gandalf and Bilbo to the back of the Hall. The hobbit paused at the door leading to the family and guest quarters, but did not turn before disappearing into the shadows. "He'll get over it," Halbarad said after a moment. "Gandalf and Bilbo have it all worked out. Some nephew of Bilbo's is to get him settled in the Shire, and sponsor him in an apprenticeship of some sort. Gandalf will keep an eye on him. In the long run, he'll be better off with his own kind."
Halbarad chuckled. "Like me. But I had better say my own good-nights. Morning will come soon enough."
With Elrohir at his side, he worked his way through the diminishing crowd to reach Elrond, detouring around Elladan and Glorfindel to avoid disrupting what seemed to be a spirited discussion about the appropriate venue for drinking songs. Elrond, having seen the hobbits and Gandalf out, was once again standing beside Aragorn. As Halbarad approached, he saw that his chieftain was sound asleep in the chair.
Elrohir came to his father's side. So alike were their features they could be taken for brothers, Halbarad thought, yet somehow he knew that even a stranger would never think so. It was not the lines of his face, but something in the set of his chin, the depth of his gaze, that set Elrond apart as an ancient among ancients, a lord among lords. Beside him even Elrohir, ancient and venerable in his own right, looked young and untested. "Estel looks quite comfortable," Elrohir remarked. "Will he be warm enough in here tonight, do you think, if I stay with him and keep the fire stoked?"
"He will rest better in his own bed," Elrond answered. "But first, go and light the fire in his room. You are right that it is quite warm here and I would not have him take a chill when he goes upstairs."
Having dispatched Elrohir, Elrond turned to Halbarad. "I hope you enjoyed the evening, Halbarad, as well as the rest of your stay."
"The hospitality and graciousness of your house are beyond compare, my lord Elrond. Never have I enjoyed such comforts, or such welcome, as I have been shown here in your halls."
"And yet you cannot wait to leave us."
This time, Halbarad did not mistake the glimmer of mirth in Elrond's eyes. "I'm afraid you know me too well, my lord," he answered with a slight smile. "I am but a simple man. A mere Ranger, unaccustomed to fine things and houses of stone."
A hand dropped onto his shoulder. "You are much more than that, Halbarad."
Elladan and Glorfindel approached, having set aside their discussion, though Elladan looked flustered and ready to resume it at the drop of a hat. Glorfindel crossed his arms and regarded the sleeping Aragorn before raising an amused eyebrow at Elrond. "You used to carry him to bed when he did this."
"Spare us that spectacle, I beg you," said Elladan. Reaching down, he shook the relaxed, silk-draped shoulder, an effort that resulted in only a mumble of protest from its owner. A second shake achieved the desired result, as Aragorn opened his eyes and squinted at the four pair of eyes looking down at him. "Did I fall asleep?" he asked, pushing himself straight in the chair and rubbing at a crick in his neck. "That was rude of me."
"We'll overlook it this time, since you restrained yourself from insulting my singing," Elladan said amiably. He hooked a hand under Aragorn's arm. "Come now, off to bed with you."
"I'll just sleep in here tonight," Aragorn protested, trying to curl into a more comfortable position.
"No, you will not," Elrond said firmly, getting a grip on the opposite arm. "You are going to sleep in your own room, so you had better say farewell to Halbarad now."
Aragorn raised a half-hearted salute to Halbarad as he was hauled to his feet and led away. "Safe journey, Halbarad."
"I'm leaving Daisy in your hands again. See that you take better care of her this time." Halbarad watched as Aragorn was led away by the guiding hands of his family, grateful that for once the parting would not be a long one.
Stubborn darkness clung to the stable, shrouding stalls, horses, and tack in indistinct shadows even as the first songs of morning birds rang through the trees. Satisfied at feeling only a slight hitch in his ribs as he lifted the saddle, Halbarad settled it onto Star's back and cinched the girth strap by touch. He'd packed his gear and supplies last night, leaving the packs by the door for easy loading. Most contained gifts from Elrond: wine, bolts of fine cloth, needles, metal tools, healing herbs, and other goods that were difficult to manufacture in the Angle. And a cask of Erestor's wine. A pack horse was to be lent to him, and Daisy would be left behind for Aragorn's journey to the Angle in a few weeks. Halbarad took a moment to pat the chestnut mare in her stall. "I am leaving you in charge of my chieftain again," he said softly, "but be sure to bring him home safely this time." He shivered slightly in the damp chill of the stable, but outside, the graying sky was clear and he was sure the day would be warm in the lower valley. It was time to leave. He'd deliberately said his farewells last night and risen before dawn to ensure there'd be no drawn-out leave-taking rituals to endure this morning, but as he fastened the last pack strap, the rapid, urgent pounding of feet thudded on the cobblestone courtyard outside the stable. Bare feet. Hobbit's feet. Halbarad turned toward the door just as Dudo burst through at a run.
"I don't want you to go!" the hobbit cried, barreling into Halbarad's midsection. "Why do you have to go?"
Halbarad could feel the frantic thumping of the hobbit's heart against his abdomen, hear desperation in the ragged, sobbing gasps from the face plunged into his shirt. "Calm down," he soothed, taking the small shoulders in his hands and kneeling down to smooth damp hair from the tear-streaked face. He wondered if Gandalf was about. Halbarad had never been good at scenes like this, even with his own children. "Dudo, I have to go home to my people. We talked about this, remember?"
Dudo shook his head despondently. "No! You can't leave! I'll miss you!"
"Dudo…" he patted the hobbit's back reassuringly. "You'll be leaving in a few weeks yourself. Gandalf is taking you to the Shire."
Dudo sniffed. "I don't want to go to the Shire."
"But it's all worked out," Halbarad said, wishing even more desperately for Gandalf's intervention. "Gandalf and Bilbo are going to make sure you're happy there."
"I don't want to be happy there. I want to be happy here. Why can't we just stay here in Rivendell and never leave?"
"Oh, Dudo." Still on his knees, Halbarad pulled Dudo into an embrace. "I was afraid of this."
Dudo looked up in puffy-eyed puzzlement. "Of what?"
"Tell me something. Why do you want to stay in Rivendell?"
"It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen, and the people are lovely and kind and beautiful as well. Everything is perfect."
"All right then – what do you think you would do if you lived in Rivendell?"
Dudo seemed stumped by the question for a moment, as if it had not occurred to him. Finally he shrugged. "I could help in the kitchen, I suppose. The cook is very nice."
Halbarad smiled. "The cook is really very nice. And quite lovely, as well." He brushed away Dudo's tears and climbed to his feet. "Come with me. I want to show you something." Beckoning Dudo to follow, he set off across the courtyard to the path that followed the river upstream. Winding past the kitchen gardens, the forge, the pottery shop and the woodworking shop, past the cottages that lined the river, it eventually led to a small, unmarked trailhead, barely visible in the gray morning light. Halbarad set off up the steep path, climbing steadily but slower than his usual pace, surprised at how the light exertion winded him. The trail was seldom used, and the close-growing underbrush soon soaked his trouser legs with dew. Back and forth across the heavily forested hillside the path wound, until finally it ended at a promontory with a view of the western flank of the foothills. An enormous flat boulder dominated the site, overlooking a steep cliff that ensured that the trees would never obscure the panoramic view. "Don't get too close to the edge," Halbarad warned, lowering himself onto a smaller boulder several feet back from the sheer cliff and pressing a hand to his healing ribs as he caught his breath. Behind him, the sky was red, and below him to the west, the first rays of daylight were washing the grey plains in pale orange light.
Dudo stood speechless before the view of dawn breaking over Eriador.
"Tell me what you see now," Halbarad said.
It was a long moment before Dudo answered. "The whole world."
"And right down below us – what there?" Halbarad pointed to green treetops, a thin slice of silver water, the edge of a scalloped rooftop.
"Can you see now?" Halbarad asked. "Rivendell is but a small island, unmoving, unchanging, immobile, like a rock in the currents of time. It is not for us, Dudo."
Dudo tore his gaze from the image of tranquility that lay below him to the world on the horizon, one that Halbarad knew had up until now shown him only fear, pain, and uncertainty. "Why?"
"Because that is our place out there, where everything is not everlasting and beautiful and perfect. That cook, the one you like so much – she really is very beautiful. But do you know something? She looked exactly the same when I first met her - over fifty years ago. I suspect she looked the same when this age of the world began. And she will look the same when your hair is as white as Bilbo's, and when your great-grandchildren sing that lay about you that Elladan sang last night. You can stay here, in Rivendell, and grow old and die while surrounded by perfect beauty that never changes, or you can go out there --" he waved a hand at the vast expanse of land glowing under the warm touch of morning – "and live your life. Which would you rather do?"
"But Bilbo gets to stay here," Dudo argued.
"Bilbo was an old hobbit when he came to live in Rivendell, with a long, full life and many fine adventures already behind him. He has earned his rest. Elrond and Glorfindel and the other Elves here, too; even that annoying prig Saddlebags, have struggled mightily for many years, longer than you can imagine, to fight the Enemy and to keep this one place of beauty free of its shadow. Such is Rivendell, Dudo – an image of what awaits us, maybe, after our toil here is done; and a refuge, from time to time, from the trials of mortal life. But we cannot allow it to distract us from the paths we must tread. We must go out into the world and meet our destiny, not hide from it."
Dudo looked as if the weight of the world had just dropped onto his shoulders. "Where is my path, then? Where is my destiny?"
Halbarad smiled. "It will be your adventure to find out. Maybe you will marry a lovely hobbit lass, have a houseful of children and grow old together. Maybe you will be a cook, an innkeeper, or a farrier, or a weaver, or a pipe-weed trader."
"But not a Ranger," Dudo said with a sheepish smile.
Halbarad ruffled his hair. "You lack not the courage for it, but I think that you do not like sleeping on the ground so much after all."
"Can I still keep my Ranger name?" Dudo asked.
"Of course you can," he said. "You have earned it. It is yours as long as you care to keep it."
"Yes, Dudo?" The sun was climbing higher now, and below in the distance he could see the glint of the Anduin, where later today he would ride the familiar trail toward home. Already he could taste the tang of road dust in his mouth, feel the gentle sway of the horse beneath him. He had sat still too long.
"What is your path?"
Halbarad kept his gaze fixed on the west, though it was from the east that he felt the tug of his doom. "My path is with Aragorn," he said at last. "Where he leads, I will follow."
Dudo clasped his hands in his lap. "If I go to the Shire, will I see you again?"
"I don't know. The Rangers protect the Shire, but we rarely go inside its borders. The Shirefolk have no knowledge of the perils that you have seen. They know nothing of orcs, and wolves are a distant threat. Gandalf believes the Shire's innocence is a treasure and he would have it preserved."
"So I shouldn't tell them? About the wolves and orcs or any of this?"
"Why don't you talk to Gandalf about it, during your journey there. Gandalf is very wise. He will give you good counsel."
"I've been learning to write. Will I be able to write you a letter?"
He smiled. "Of course. Maybe you could send it to Bree, and Barley could give it to me when I come to the Prancing Pony."
Dudo laughed. "Maybe I should think of another way! Look what happened last time!"
Halbarad squeezed his shoulder. "Yes, maybe that isn't such a good idea. But I would look forward to a letter from you. I have truly enjoyed your company, young master hobbit. I am very glad our first meeting was not our last."
"You were very worried about Aragorn that day."
He'd been frantic that day, and this lad had seen the worst of him. He thought back to that day, to the cowering but defiant boy he'd interrogated about Aragorn's disappearance. "Yes, I was very worried, and I was very angry. I'm sorry I frightened you. You were very brave to do the right thing and tell me what happened. If you had not…"
"Aragorn would never get to be the king."
Halbarad sucked in a breath. "Who told you that?"
"Bilbo," Dudo answered. "He tells me lots of things. What does that mean, to be the king?"
Halbarad wasn't sure he knew. "It has been such a long time since there was a king that we can scarcely imagine what it would be like. But I know that there will be peace, and here in Eriador, towns will sprout up, and farms, and markets, and people will live in warm, dry houses with little gray cats sitting on the porch and big fat cows grazing in the pastures. And soldiers will hang up their swords above their hearths, and some of them will become minstrels, or farmers, or artists. And in a land far from here, on the other side of the mountains, the King's banners will fly over a towering city of white stone, and he will look out onto the plain below, and see his people happy and prosperous, and he will be happy, too. And there will be no orcs, or wolves, or thieves on the road, or any other evil thing, and the Rangers will wander no longer, but rest at last."
"You make it sound like a dream, like Rivendell."
"This is a different kind of dream. This is a dream of a world our children can live in, and build with their own hands, not just admire and envy."
"And Aragorn needs you to make it happen."
Halbarad released a long breath. There would be many things that Aragorn needed in order to become king, not the least of which were the favor of the Valar, a small handful of miracles, and a great deal of luck. Whether Halbarad's presence would matter in the end, he could not possibly know. "I don't know," he said truthfully. "What I do know is that I need him. Without him, there is no dream of a brighter future."
Dudo bent over and fumbled with something at his belt for a moment. When he straightened and stretched out his open hand to Halbarad, the flat length of a sheathed Elven dagger lay in his palm. "I want to give this back to you, then."
Halbarad would know the dagger anywhere. He had carried it on his belt for thirty-three years. "No, Dudo. I gave it to as a gift. You've earned it."
Dudo slid off the boulder and took a step toward the edge of the cliff, gazing off into the distance. "The Shire is peaceful, you say. There are no wolves and no orcs, and your Rangers guard it."
"I swear to you that as long as I draw breath, no harm will come to the Shire."
"Then I don't need this dagger," Dudo said. "And you do."
"No," he said again, but when the hobbit lifted his right hand from his knee and placed the scabbard in it, he did not resist.
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