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Matter of Honor, A: 3. Water
In the long years since he stepped off the boat in Cirdan's harbor, Gandalf had occasionally had reason to question the terms of his service to Middle Earth and his fitness for the task; but never so much as now. A guide, he was meant to be; a counselor, and above all a vanguard of resistance to the Enemy. But it had not been the Enemy's hand that held a knife over Aragorn this night, not Sauron who allowed desperation to fuel a rash decision that might have destroyed any hope of victory. Gandalf wondered if he had lingered in Middle Earth too long. With neither the power of the Valar at his disposal, nor, apparently, the wisdom, he might as well be simply what most folk thought of him – a pathetic old conjurer with a bag of cheap tricks.
And then, he reflected as the horse beneath him stumbled, slamming his pelvis hard against the pommel, there was the questionable choice of a physical form. Bone-jarring midnight gallops such as this were the province of the young, or at least the perpetually youthful, not decrepit old wizards. Had he imagined the feats of endurance that would be required of him in this guise, he would have insisted on a sturdier form – that of an Elf, at least!
A curse from Halbarad alerted him to the presence of some peril ahead, and he pulled back on the reins just as the road dipped suddenly downward. Struggling to slow his mount's descent, Gandalf could make out Dudo as a dark blur clinging to the Ranger's back, but the inky darkness had swallowed up the forms of Elladan and Elrohir. No slope gentler than the flanks of the Orodruin itself promised to slow their headlong rush to the flooding Mitheithel. At the pace they had kept so far, it was nothing short of a miracle none of the horses had yet fallen and broken a leg. If indeed that were a miracle, Gandalf reflected, he sincerely hoped that they were not being counted.
Realizing that this must be the bluff above the Hoarwell at last, Gandalf struggled to make a half-controlled descent that would allow him to stop short of plunging straight into the river. Now, as the ground leveled, he could see its steely glint in the gaps between the trees. The banks were much further apart than they should have been, with flooded ranks of trees marking the river's usual boundaries.
He caught up with his companions at the bank, and for a minute they all simply watched the darkly rushing water. Strangely quiet for being so powerful, only where it roiled against the foundation of the bridge did it give voice to its fury. "The bridge is an island," Halbarad said finally. "It looks ready to go." Indeed, the approaches on either side of the bridge were flooded to the height of a horse's chest. Churning, debris-laden water moved past at the speed of a running man, and though the bridge's heavy stone railings were still dry, the bridge deck itself was under a foot of water at its highest point. The floodwaters poured through the immense granite arches beneath the bridge with such force that it seemed the entire structure would be dislodged from its pilings and swept away.
"The bridge will hold," Elladan said. "A flood destroyed it once, many years ago, and when it was rebuilt my father vowed it would last until the end of Arda."
"Even if it holds," Halbarad said, sounding skeptical, "we can't get to it. The approaches are flooded, and the water is moving too deep and too fast."
Elladan glanced at the motionless, blanket-draped form in Elrohir's arms. "We have no choice," he said. "The river is still rising." The bridge would indeed be under water by morning, Gandalf realized, and then all hope would truly be lost.
"If we take up a position slightly upstream," said Elrohir, gesturing with his free hand, "and charge into the water at gallop, our momentum will carry us to the bridge. From there it will not be difficult to make the opposite bank, if we take care not to fight the current too much."
Elladan was in agreement. "It is the only chance we have. But my mount is fresher than yours. It has not been carrying two riders, nor have I been supporting the weight of a man for the last three hours. Let me take Estel."
"Very well," Elrohir said, easing to the ground, still with Aragorn in his arms. "But he is too weak to hold onto you, and your hands must be free to control the horse."
The solution, Elrohir proposed, was to position Aragorn behind Elladan. Having settled him as comfortably as possible and secured him to Elladan's back, Elrohir re-mounted his black stallion. "I will go first and anchor myself to the bridge," he said with a tone of command that betrayed no uncertainty. "Gandalf will cross next, and then Elladan will follow with Estel. Halbarad and Dudo will cross last."
"Gandalf, wait." Halbarad nudged his horse alongside Gandalf's. "Let Dudo go with you. It will be easier for me to handle two horses without a passenger."
Gandalf lifted an eyebrow at the uncharacteristic unease in the Ranger's tone. Halbarad was no worrier, except perhaps where Aragorn was concerned. But there was no time to delve deeper, and he had learned to respect Halbarad's instincts. He quickly nodded his agreement.
Halbarad lifted the hobbit onto the back of Gandalf's saddle and farewelled him with a fatherly pat on the shoulder. "Now hold on tight, Dudo. Gandalf will take good care of you."
Gandalf saw that Elrohir had positioned himself halfway up the steep riverbank, some fifty yards upstream from the bridge. With a sharp command, he sent his stallion galloping down the short hill. With a great splash it plunged into the river, its momentum driving it into the midst of the current. As planned, Elrohir steered it directly against the current, knowing the force of the water would drive it downstream to intersect the bridge. It was a tricky maneuver. If he went too far out into the current, he would be slammed against the bridge abutments and likely drowned in the undertow. If he did not go out far enough, he would be carried downstream past the bridge.
As Elrohir came abreast of the first bridge abutment, he reached out for the stone pillar at the upstream side of the bridge. He missed. A second before he would be swept past the downstream pillar, he yanked hard on the reins and barked a command to the horse. With a muffled clatter of hooves against the timber decking, it clambered up onto the bridge. Elrohir quickly maneuvered it to the highest part of the bridge deck, where water flowed only as high as the stallion's knees, and raised a hand in a salutation.
Elladan returned the salute but turned to Gandalf as he let his hand drop to his saddle. "Elrohir's horse is the strongest one here," he said tightly. "And he barely made it." Elrohir apparently had the same thought. Perched atop the broad granite pillar, he had removed a rope from his pack. Anchoring it to the bridge support, he tied one end to his belt, and with the other end made a loop. "I see what he plans," Elladan said. "He will throw you a loop of rope when you get near enough. Then, if you tie it to your saddle, he can help pull you in."
In Gandalf's view, catching a flying rope while riding a swimming horse and managing to tie it to one's saddle before being swept away by raging floodwaters was a task for a Rohan horseman, not a doddering old wizard, but there was nothing to be done about it. He suddenly realized that no one had remembered to ask Dudo if he could swim, but decided this was probably not the best time to bring up the subject. He glanced over his shoulder. "Are you ready, Dudo?"
Dudo gave a curt nod, too terrified to speak, and Gandalf nudged the horse up the embankment to the spot Elrohir had selected. Dudo's fingernails were digging into his abdomen so hard he thought they might draw blood right through his cloak. Gandalf cocked his head to the side once more. "It will be all right, Dudo," he said quietly. "I am not finished with Middle Earth just yet. And neither are you." Then, with a battle cry he had not used in decades, he spurred the horse into a gallop.
The horse's plunge drenched him in icy water, and an instant later the relentless current took hold, forcing them downstream. Gandalf tightened his grip as the horse struggled, realizing now that Elrohir had made it look easy. The bridge seemed an impossibly tiny target in the swollen stream, and he was being driven downstream faster than the horse could compensate. As he drew nearer the bridge, Elrohir, kneeling atop the pillar, whirled the rope above his head. It landed short, too far to reach. With inhuman speed, he reeled it back in and tried again. This time, the looped end of the rope landed across the horse's rump. "Dudo!" Gandalf shouted. "Get the rope, but don't fall off!" He heard a muffled grunt as one small hand detached itself from his cloak. A moment later, he seized the rope as it snaked over his shoulder and twisted it around the pommel. With Elrohir pulling on the other end, the horse's downstream momentum halted, and it lurched onto the bridge.
Standing in the center of the bridge, with dark water rushing by on all sides, was strangely disorienting. Elrohir, immune to it, probably, managed a smile from his perch on the abutment. "You see, Master Dudo? All is well." He turned his attention to Gandalf. "Gandalf, you had best continue on to the other bank as soon as your horse catches its breath. You will not have to fight the current as much since it matters little where you come ashore. There are no hazards on the other bank that I can see."
Elrohir was true to his word; the second half of the journey required merely steering the horse gradually toward the bank as the current carried it downstream. Finally safely ashore, Gandalf found a clearing above the bank and turned to look upstream, surprised to see that he had been carried 200 yards or more downstream before reaching the bank.
"Should we go back up toward the bridge?" asked Dudo. His teeth were chattering; from fear or relief or maybe even from cold. They were both thoroughly drenched. And so would Aragorn be, he realized.
"No," Gandalf said. "Everyone else will be carried just as far downstream as we were. Let us stay here and make a fire. We can warm ourselves and the horses can rest a bit before we continue on." He doubted whether Elladan and Elrohir had actually planned to rest before they continued, but building a fire would keep Dudo busy, and not even the determination of the sons of Elrond could get another mile out of a dead horse.
Gandalf was relieved to discover that while the packs were wet on the outside, a spare cloak buried deep inside one of them was only half damp. He spread it out on the ground before helping Dudo coax his collection of damp kindling to life. A tiny fire was sputtering by the time Elladan's horse staggered up the bank, snorting and dripping. Gandalf rushed forward and hurried to untie the waterlogged knots holding Aragorn secure to his brother's back. Elladan dropped to the ground as soon as he was free of the ties, lowering Aragorn to the waiting blanket. The Ranger's face was waxy, and the drenching had not helped, though the icy water had revived him enough to protest when Elladan jostled him trying to remove his sodden cloak. "I do not mean to hurt you, Estel, but I must have off this wet cloak," Elladan said gently. He lowered Aragorn onto the cloak Gandalf had set out. At his coaxing, Aragorn managed to swallow a bit of Miruvor before his eyes drifted shut once more. Getting to his feet, Elladan went to rummage through his packs, probably looking, as Gandalf had, for a dry garment with which to cover Aragorn.
Suddenly, a frantic shout was heard from the bridge. "Let go, Halbarad!"
Gandalf squinted in the darkness. Elrohir was standing atop the abutment. Halbarad had entered the water astride his brown gelding, Star, with the chestnut mare, Daisy, in tow. But the river seemed to have risen in the minutes since Gandalf and Dudo had made the crossing, and Daisy, without a rider to guide her, was trailing too far behind Star. Halbarad had caught the rope, hauling Star onto the bridge decking, but Daisy remained caught in the current, ten feet from the bridge. Halbarad was stretched like a man on the rack; his left hand wrapped around the anchor rope and his right around the mare's lead rope, fighting the current that pulled the mare downstream.
"Let go, Halbarad!" Elrohir shouted again. "You have to let go of the mare!"
"Let her go, Halbarad!" Elladan echoed. Unhearing or simply stubborn, Halbarad did not let go. Then Daisy's right flank caught the edge of the downstream abutment, and she scrambled up onto the drowned decking, flood water surging around her knees.
Because all eyes were fixed on Halbarad, no one saw the tree. One of many uprooted by the flood, it must have floated freely for many long miles until finally it encountered the river's only obstruction between the Ettenmoors and the shallow ford at Tharbad. It was a large tree, an oak of perhaps 100 years of age. Older, and it might have been too large to float so far without snagging against a bank or a submerged obstacle. Younger, and it would not have been large enough to slam against the bridge with the force of a charging Oliphant.
A boom rang out across the valley and Gandalf saw Elrohir lunge for a grip on the stone railing. Halbarad, astride one panicked horse and roped to a second, was not so lucky. He managed to keep his seat as Star reared, but the gelding slipped on the wet surface and nearly fell onto Daisy, who lunged forward, yanking Halbarad from the saddle like a hooked fish. He fell into the water and disappeared from sight as Daisy charged forward, still pulling the rope. Beneath the black water, Halbarad was being dragged.
Gandalf grabbed Dudo's arm as the hobbit lunged to his feet. Elladan was already atop his horse, racing for the bridge at a gallop -- Gandalf had not even seen him mount. Elrohir dove into the water as Elladan reached the near bank, opposite the bridge. He urged the stallion into the river, but the rising current was too strong. He could not get to the bridge. Gandalf, clutching Dudo, spared a glance at Aragorn, relieved for once that he remained unconscious. Long seconds passed, with nothing moving on the bridge except the relentless rush of murky water. Then, just when Gandalf feared that both Elrohir and Halbarad would be lost, Elrohir broke the surface, a limp figure tucked under one arm. He cut himself loose from the anchor rope, heaved Halbarad and himself over the back of his horse, and charged into the river.
Halbarad was still draped over Elrohir's arm, limp and white as a fish, when the stallion crested the bank near the improvised campsite. Elladan, on an intercept course, dismounted and pulled Halbarad off the horse like a sack of grain. Sparing a mere second to listen for breath, he rolled him over and began pumping on his back, while Elrohir stumbled from to the ground and sank to his knees, blood streaming from a wound in his scalp.
"Halbarad!" Dudo cried, breaking Gandalf's grip and rushing to the still Ranger, lying askew on the ground with water still dripping from his clothes and hair. His boots and cloak had been ripped away by the force of the water, and the friction of the rough stones had shredded his shirt and left his entire right side scraped and bleeding. There was a darker bruise on the side of his chest in the shape of a horse's hoof.
Gandalf lifted the struggling hobbit from the Ranger's side. "Let Elladan help him, Dudo," he urged.
"Breathe, Halbarad!" Elladan shouted, pumping with all his might.
"No! You're hurting him!" Dudo cried, struggling against Gandalf's restraining arm.
Breathe!" Elladan shouted again. For too long, Halbarad's body remained limp beneath Elladan's hands, his face slack and pale. Dudo, who had finally stopped struggling, buried his head in Gandalf's robe and collapsed in helpless sobs. Gandalf wrapped his arms around him and stroked the damp curls as Elladan's brutal ministrations continued for…how long? It seemed as if hours had passed since Halbarad had gone under the water, but what had it really been? Two minutes? Three?
A choked, half-strangled cough finally erupted from Halbarad, and Elladan quickly rolled him to his side, holding him as he fought to clear his lungs. Dudo released a breath that sounded as if he'd been holding it almost as long as Halbarad, and Gandalf smiled down at his tearful face, feeling his own breath escape in a long, slow rush. "You see?" he said. "Rangers are not so easy to kill. Especially not this one."
Halbarad's sputtering slowly subsided, but as awareness returned, he curled protectively inward and wrapped his arms around his midsection. Ribs, Gandalf suspected, remembering Daisy's flailing hooves. "Halbarad, let me see," Elladan ordered, prying Halbarad's fingers from their protective grip and gently prodding the tender area. "Broken," he pronounced momentarily. "One rib, maybe two."
"I'm all right," Halbarad grunted.
Dudo shrugged free of Gandalf's hold and went to kneel by Halbarad. "I thought you were dead," he said, tears running freely once more.
Halbarad freed one hand from his ribcage to take Dudo by the hand. "Aren't you glad… you didn't cross with me?" he wheezed.
If he had, he would almost certainly have drowned, Gandalf realized. He turned to Elrohir, holding him still to examine the bleeding gash on his forehead. It was superficial but long, and it was still bleeding freely. Gandalf went to his pack for a bandage, while Elladan gave Halbarad a pat of reassurance and his twin a frown of concern.
"It is nothing," Elrohir said to them both, glaring for emphasis and attempting to block the damp cloth Gandalf was aiming at him. Successfully taking possession of the cloth, he gained his feet, pressing the cloth against he wound. "You two, see to Halbarad and Estel while I go for the horses." Only then did Gandalf realize that Star and Daisy were missing, swept away somewhere downstream.
"Let the horses go," Elladan said. "We do not have time to look for them."
"With a hard ride ahead of us, we cannot afford to leave sound horses behind," Elrohir argued. "If I cannot find them in an hour, I will return without them."
"Very well," Elladan said. "But let me go instead. You are hurt."
"And you are the better healer," Elrohir countered. "This is nothing but a scratch. Estel needs you." Without waiting for argument, he leapt onto his horse and galloped away.
Elladan turned back to Gandalf with a look of resignation. "There are bandages and medicines in the packs. If you will heat some water and keep an eye on Halbarad, I will do what I can for Estel."
"Dudo," Gandalf said, kneeling beside Halbarad. "Get some water boiling."
An hour later, there was no sign of Elrohir, but Halbarad had announced his intention to ride to Rivendell, broken ribs or not. Gandalf scowled at him skeptically. "It would be better if you remained behind and followed more slowly. Elrohir and Elladan will set a murderous pace, and your ribs will not take it."
"They will take it," Halbarad said, wincing and clutching his side in what Gandalf assessed as a very unconvincing demonstration of his fitness to ride. "I have not come this far with Aragorn to leave him now."
Aragorn would be in good hands, Gandalf was tempted to point out, while Halbarad was white as a sheet and still trembling with the shock of near-drowning. Gandalf doubted he would last ten miles, but there was no arguing with him. "You are as stubborn as Aragorn," he said. "Lie down and rest for a little longer, then. You will need all your strength if you are bent on such foolishness." He stood over the Halbarad until the Ranger eased himself back down onto the blanket, then turned to Elladan, sitting with Aragorn's head pillowed on his thigh. "And what of Estel?"
Elladan was holding Aragorn's hand between his own. "The herbs I have given him will make him more comfortable, but that is all I can do." His face was grim, and Gandalf heard regret in his voice. This eldest child of Elrond had inherited the greatest portion of his father's healing touch, but the choice of the sword had burned it out of him long ago. Only the knowledge of healing remained, and there was no comfort in it.
Seeing Elladan sinking into despair, Gandalf searched for all his usual words of comfort, only to find them hollow and false. Had his wisdom always seemed like such foolishness? He sat down before the fire and stared into the flames. Fear, deadlier than arrows, was creeping up his spine like frost on a windowpane, and he would be useless until he quenched it. Reaching beyond the thin skin of Arda, he sought out the peaceful realm from whence he had come, seeking the forgiveness and grace of the Valar. Gradually, the fear began to dissipate, lifting like the morning fog struck by the sun's rays, and he felt a measure of peace suffuse the brittle, fragile shell he wore. From beyond a gentle curtain came the tinkle of laughter, and a familiar voice: Be at peace, Olorin, and remember that everything is not in your hands. The laughter faded and he resisted the urge to follow it, to the place where his being was not shackled to this rickety, foolish shell; perhaps even further, to steal a glance at the forbidden realm of the future, where formless shadows swirled in a teasing dance at the edges of light. Clenching his jaw, he shuttered his mind against the temptation and opened his eyes to the worried gaze of a being who was so much older than Aragorn and yet still so very, very young.
"Are you all right, Mithrandir?" Elladan asked. "Elrohir is back, and we must leave."
Gandalf smiled, and for the first time in days he did not feel like a fraud for doing it. "I am fine, Elladan. Do not despair. I do not believe it is Ilúvatar's will that we lose Estel."
"I care little for the will of Ilúvatar at the moment, but I would rather face a Balrog than walk into my father's house and tell him Estel is dead." Elladan got to his feet and went to Halbarad. "I will wrap your ribs, foolish Dúnadan, but I cannot give you anything stronger for the pain or you will not be able to sit a horse. Are you sure you want to do this? We will not stop until we reach the Bruinen."
Halbarad groaned. "If the Hoarwell is flooded, so will be the Bruinen. Both rivers spring from the same mountains."
Elladan exchanged a glance with Gandalf. "We need not fear the Bruinen," he said simply, and went to help Elrohir prepare Aragorn for the ride.
The day that had been young when Gandalf left the Hoarwell behind him was waning as he caught sight of the Bruinen. It, too, was flooded; less wide but more furious than the Hoarwell had been. They had been expected; a party of mounted Elves waited on the opposite bank. Their leader was Glorfindel, easy to spot even at a distance. Gandalf's heart sank at the realization that Elrond was not with him. Aragorn, slumped in Elrohir's arms, had not regained consciousness since crossing the Hoarwell, and there would be another hard ride from this crossing to the Last Homely House. Halbarad, somehow, had managed to stay atop his horse, but he was doubled over, unable to straighten and nearly insensible with pain. He sat atop Daisy; Star had gone lame forty miles back and been left behind. All the horses were exhausted; even Elladan's and Elrohir's stallions were lathered, wheezing, and stumbling with weariness. Gandalf's insides felt as if they had been worked on by a gang of quarrying Dwarves. Never in his two millennia of incarnation had he been forced to ride a galloping horse for twelve straight hours, and he sincerely hoped he would see the Blessed Realm without ever doing it again.
"There's no bridge," Dudo observed, leaning around him to get a better view. "How are we going to get across?"
Gandalf was fairly sure he knew. "Be still, and watch," he answered. As if in response to his words, the roar of rushing water began to subside, and the water level began to fall as if a spigot had been turned off somewhere upstream. Drowned grass began to appear on the banks as the water receded.
"What's happening?" Dudo whispered.
"We are crossing a river. Would you care to cross it in the same fashion you crossed the last one?"
"I thought not." Gandalf looked up at the cloudless sky and winced slightly. It would have been better to cross at night, to conceal the river's movements from curious eyes. But Aragorn could not wait for darkness.
Elrohir was gauging the river's depth with a studied eye. "It is almost time." He glanced to his side. "Halbarad, are you still with us?"
Halbarad grunted and braced his side. Raising his head, he frowned at the stream, trickling gently now around rocks that had been submerged mere moments before. "Where did the water go?" he rasped.
Elrohir managed a thin smile. "It is waiting for us to pass; so let us go quickly." Leading the way down the bank, he rode easily through the shallow water and mounted the far bank.
Waiting on the far bank, grim and straight-backed, Glorfindel did not bother dismounting. Nor, it was clear, did he intend to waste time on pleasantries. "Elrohir, give me Estel," he commanded. "Gandalf, take Lindir's horse and come with me. Elrond may have need of you. The rest may follow when they have rested a little; we have brought food and drink for you."
"I need a fresh horse as well," Elladan said. "I am going with Estel."
"As am I," said Elrohir.
"Don't leave me!" cried Dudo, stricken at the thought of being abandoned with these strange Elves.
Glorfindel looked as if even the urgency of the situation might not prevent him from asking what in the name of Elbereth a hobbit was doing here. Elrohir exchanged a resigned glance with his brother. Handing Aragorn to Glorfindel, he dismounted, stumbling a little as his stiffened limbs made unaccustomed contact with the ground. The cut on his forehead had finally stopped bleeding, but there were dark circles under his eyes and he looked almost as weather-beaten as Halbarad. He lowered Dudo from Gandalf's horse and put an arm around him. "No one is leaving you, small one. I will stay behind with you and Halbarad."
"Where is Elrond?" Gandalf asked.
"He awaits us at the house," Glorfindel said, though the worried gaze he fixed on the blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms betrayed unease at the decision. "Opening the ford will have cost him greatly, and he will need all his remaining strength for Aragorn."
"Let us be off, then," Gandalf said, "or his strength will be for naught." He dismounted, making Elrohir's pained movements look like the graceful flight of a swallow. He did not think he had the strength to haul himself up onto another horse. Then a set of reins was placed in his hand and he did just that.
It was dark before long, and Gandalf once again rode blindly, this time not even caring if Lindir's horse stumbled and sent him into oblivion. Oblivion was beginning to look fairly attractive, in fact, by the time the Last Homely House, the most welcome sight of Gandalf's earthly existence, came into view. On the porch stood Elrond, stiff as one of the statues that graced his gardens. He had been standing there for hours, Gandalf realized, consumed with worry; and only the knowledge that the upcoming ordeal would require every ounce of his strength had kept him there. Glorfindel spurred a lathered Asfaloth to the very base of the stairs and swept up them like an onrushing tide. Dodging Elrond's reach, he barked a sharp, "I have him! Save your strength!" as he carried Aragorn into the shadows of the house.
Elladan stumbled up the stairs and fell face-first onto the landing as his father turned to follow. Shrugging to escape Elrond's steadying hand, he pushed himself to his feet. "I am all right, Father," he gasped. "Help Estel! He is nearly gone."
Elrond's glance raked across the dirty, pale, and shaking figure of his son, and then he tightened his grip on him and steered him towards the doorway. "Come."
Gandalf handed the reins to the first person who offered to take them and trudged up the stairs with more care than Elladan, thankful for the support of his staff. He couldn't have run if Arda depended on it. An Elf was at his side to guide him, or, he supposed, to pick him up if need be, but he needed no guide in these halls. Anyhow, even a stranger could have followed Elladan's muddy footsteps on the polished floors. Gandalf followed the muddy trail down a short side hallway to a small room Elrond kept equipped for emergencies such as this one. Aragorn was lying on the bed, its blue covering smeared with mud from his boots. No one had removed his dirty clothes, though Glorfindel was working on his sword belt. Elladan was hovering near a table holding tools, medicines, and bandages, but Elrond, bent low over Aragorn, made no move to retrieve or ask for them, nor was he busying himself with Aragorn's wounds. With mounting dread, Gandalf recognized the posture and the struggle he was witnessing, and last of his strength drained from him like the water from the Bruinen. Swaying as the room around him seemed to tip, he grabbed for the nearest chair and collapsed into it. Glorfindel glided over, wrapping Aragorn's worn sword belt around the scabbard with unconscious precision. "Are you all right, Mithrandir?"
Gandalf raised a hand in dismissal. "Weary only," he replied. "And Estel?"
Glorfindel hesitated before answering, fair features that were built to express joy chiseled instead with the lines of worry. "I do not know if he was still breathing when I brought him in," he confided softly.
Gandalf's heart nearly stopped. Using his staff to lever himself to his feet, he moved to the side of the bed opposite Elrond. Though confident that he would have sensed Aragorn's passing, and wary of interfering with Elrond's efforts, he nonetheless braved a surreptitious touch to the Ranger's still-grimy hand. As his fingertips brushed the bare skin, he felt Elrond's healing force surge through Aragorn and into him like water rushing over the top of a dam. Gandalf pulled his hand back quickly lest he distract Elrond from his task. He could see now that Elrond was stretched so far outside himself that his own native light was already diminished to a flicker. Gandalf kept this to himself as he withdrew to the corner. Though Elrond's steadfast protector and friend was one of few who fully understood what Aragorn meant to Elrond, Glorfindel's loyalty would not permit any threat to his lord's well-being. "He still lives," whispered Gandalf, pressing his forehead wearily against his staff. "But I fear it will be a long night."
Glorfindel gestured to the vacant chair without taking his eyes off Elrond. "Sit, Gandalf, you are exhausted," he urged. "I will not waste my breath persuading you to rest, but you must at least take the weight off your legs for a while. Elladan, sit down before you fall. There is nothing we can but wait until it is finished."
Elladan had availed himself of a washbasin in anticipation of assisting his father. Now, wiping his hands dry with a towel, he looked up in confusion, as if just noticing the conspicuous absence of sickroom bustle. An urgent stillness lay over the room, a stillness that Gandalf recognized but Elladan clearly did not. He had not been here, in this room, watching a scene tragically similar to this one unfold. "Come," Gandalf said, nodding to the chair beside his own. "Sit down. You cannot help your father now, but he will need you later."
"But Aragorn…" Elladan allowed Glorfindel to guide him to the chair.
Glorfindel pressed him into it and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder to guide him into it. "Estel is beyond all aid but your father's now."
Elladan looked around at the assemblage of herbs, bandages, powders, and surgeon's tools that had been carefully laid out on side tables, and then to the pair of motionless forms at the bed. Aragorn's face was still coated by layers of mud and grime, and the leg wound lay untouched, still concealed by layers of dirty bandages that showed through the ragged rent in his trouser leg. His muddy cloak still lay partially beneath him, spilling over the edge of the bed onto the floor.
Finally Elladan settled back in the chair and let out a great sigh, as if at last comprehending what he was witnessing and how little he could do to help. The callused hands, stained by the blood of too many orcs, tightened on the arms of the chair.
As the hours wore on, Elladan's eyes clouded with sleep and Glorfindel covered him with a blanket, but Gandalf forced himself to remain alert. Elrond's face had grown grey with strain, and every so often he swayed slightly, as if blown by a breeze. Eventually, Glorfindel forced him into a chair that he carried to the bedside, and thereafter Elrond sat unmoving, his left elbow propped on the edge of the bed and his right hand was stretched over Aragorn's brow. It was after midnight when a bustle in the hallway signaled the arrival of Lindir's party. The sound of Elvish voices and the short, light footsteps of a hobbit echoed through the empty halls. Gandalf listened for heavier, Mannish footsteps, limping and slow, but there were none. Halbarad was being carried.
Elrohir's head peered through the doorway, and his wordless presence roused his twin. "You made it," Elladan whispered, groggy from two hours of sleep when twenty were needed.
Elrohir's hand was on his brother's shoulder, but his eyes were on the bed. "Estel," he whispered. He glanced to Gandalf, then Glorfindel. "Has he been like this the entire time?"
Glorfindel took a twin in each hand, levering Elladan to his feet and steering them both toward the door. "Both of you, see to Halbarad and the hobbit, and have someone fetch Saerbellas to look after your injuries. Take a bath and eat something. Your father will have need of you later."
Elrohir nodded but Elladan hesitated, reluctant to leave his father. Finally he went wordlessly to the table, gathering a sampling of bandages, herbs and medicines and placing them on a tray. He stopped on the way out and looked at Glorfindel imploringly. "Please call for me if anything happens."
Glorfindel pulled Elladan close. "All will be well, child," he said. "Do not fear." He waited until Elladan had left the room before locking his gaze once more upon Elrond, slumped so low now that his head rested on the mattress beside Aragorn's chest. Only his outstretched hand, tense with effort against the Ranger's brow, gave any indication that he was still conscious. "It is just as well they have left," Glorfindel said in a low voice. "I cannot allow this to go on much longer. Elrond is endangering himself."
"He will not allow you to interfere," said Gandalf. "You remember how he was with Celebrían." For three days he had fought for her life, swooning at times only to fight off the hands that tried to pull him away. When it was over, he had saved her life, but not her love of it, and for many long years Gandalf had feared that Elrond Peredhil was lost to both hope and joy.
"I remember," Glorfindel said grimly, and Gandalf saw in his face the torture of watching a younger, grief-stricken Elrond cling desperately to Celebrían until all hope for her full recovery was gone, until finally it was clear that there would be no comfort for her in Middle Earth. "After she left," Glorfindel said softly, "he wandered these halls like a wraith. Empty and formless, like a sea without a shore. Nothing here brought him comfort – not the children, not the beauty of the gardens, not the brilliance of the stars. There is nothing more sad, Gandalf, than an Elf without joy, and she was all the joy in his life. I could not bear to see him so despondent, but I was helpless to comfort him. I could not understand why he did not sail, why he did not release himself from his torment. I asked him, finally."
"How did he answer?"
Glorfindel nodded toward the bed. "He said that he would stay as long as there was hope for Middle Earth. He foresaw that someday, one would come out of Elros's line, to restore the kingdoms and make right Isildur's failure, and he was determined to wait for him. For all these long years he did not stay for himself, Gandalf, or for this place, or even for his children. For five hundred years, he waited for Estel."
"But Elrond did not foresee that he would love him so dearly, I think," Gandalf said.
"No. I fear for him, Gandalf, if Estel dies."
"Estel's journey is not over yet, I think," Gandalf said. "Elrond has foreseen much of his future."
"Then I hope that his foresight was true," Glorfindel answered, and fell into silence.
When Elladan reappeared some time later, Gandalf realized he had been dozing. It was still dark outside, and it did not look as if Elrond had moved. Elladan sighed and lowered himself into a chair. "Halbarad will be all right. Erestor is helping him bathe and will put him to bed. Your little hobbit friend would not leave him, so we have settled him on the couch in the sitting room."
Gandalf smiled. "You will be hard pressed to pry Dudo from his side, I think."
Glorfindel raised an eyebrow. "I cannot wait to hear what you are doing here with another hobbit, Gandalf."
"This is no ordinary hobbit, Glorfindel," Gandalf said.
"No, indeed, I am given to understand that he saved Estel's life from a wolf," Elladan added. "With Elrohir's dagger."
"Really?" Glorfindel said, smiling wanly. "That is a tale I look forward to hearing sung in the Hall of Fire."
From the bed came a soft gasp, and all eyes turned to Aragorn. He moved slightly beneath Elrond's hand, and Elrond heaved a long sigh. Glorfindel rushed forward like a flash of light, catching him as his knees buckled. With ease, he heaved Elrond's limp form into his arms and carried him across the room to a chaise. One flailing hand gripped his wrist as he lowered Elrond onto the cushions. "Let me sleep only until dawn," Elrond murmured as his eyes slipped out of focus. "There is more to be done."
Glorfindel grunted a reply and drew a blanket over Elrond, while Gandalf joined Elladan at the bedside. Aragorn's eyes remained closed, but his skin looked less grey and his breathing was steady. Elladan brushed matted hair back from his forehead. "He is warm again," he said. "His breathing is steady. Is Father all right?"
"He needs to sleep for a time, but he will be all right," Glorfindel answered from across the room. "And Aragorn?"
Elladan dipped a cloth into the basin on the washstand and began wiping dirt from his foster-brother's face. "He is very weak, though I think he is out of danger for now." Making short work of stripping Aragorn's clothes and boots and depositing them into a pile on the floor, Elladan sliced through the filthy bandages on his leg with a small knife and carefully probed the puckered and inflamed skin around the old arrow wound. "There is still some infection here, but I think the worst of it is past. In the morning Father will want to see this wound, and the hand."
Pulling a clean blanket over Aragorn, Elladan straightened stiffly and passed a hand through his disheveled hair. "Thank you, Gandalf, now please go, and take your rest. I will stay with Estel and Father until morning."
Gandalf tried to remember how long it had been since he slept. A day? Two? It mattered little, as long as Aragorn was out of danger. "No, my boy. It is you who will be needed in the morning. I am just a tired old man, and my weariness is of no consequence. I will wake Elrond if there is need."
A large hand came down on his shoulder. "Both of you will rest," Glorfindel said firmly. "I will keep watch over these two until morning."
Gandalf shook his head in surrender. "Foolish would I be to oppose a Balrog-slayer."
"You are wise, indeed," the Elf answered with a dangerous smile.
Gandalf chuckled. "Then if you will excuse me, I will take my leave."
As he moved to go, Glorfindel clasped his arm. "Thank you for bringing Estel home to us."
Gandalf found Halbarad in a guest room. A single lamp burned low on the bedside table, softly illuminating the Ranger's battered but peaceful face. Clean and damp-haired, he was dressed in a blue tunic that lay open to reveal the white of a bandage around his ribs. His breathing was quiet and even, and a light touch on his brow revealed no sign of fever. Through an open door in a side chamber Gandalf could see Dudo, curled up in a soft blanket like a cat before a fire. He, too, had had a bath, it seemed. Soft tendrils of hair curled about his forehead and the hands pillowing his face were scrubbed clean. The weather was warm enough that a window had been left partially open, and a soft, cleansing breeze drifted through it, carrying scents of pine and spring flowers. Gandalf breathed deeply, feeling the last of the tension and worries of the past weeks subside, and he swayed slightly as exhaustion threatened to claim him where he stood. He closed his eyes and leaned on his staff for a moment, resting to gain the strength necessary to drag himself off to bed. Finally he straightened and retreated silently, careful not to disturb the sleepers. He made his way down the silent corridors to the room Elrond kept prepared for him. Someone had lit the lamp and set out a washbasin and a covered plate of food. Though the scent of cheese and bread brought forth ominous rumbles from his stomach, he did not feel up to the exertion of eating, settling for splashing his face with water. Then, with a sigh of contentment, he stripped out of his filthy robes, pulled back the crisp white sheets, and plunged into the softness of the feather mattress, asleep in moments.
The bridge collapse Elladan refers to occurred in Nilmandra's "History Lessons: The Second Age" on StoriesofArda.com. Used with permission.
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