1. Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The East Road, Spring, 3008
Halbarad dragged a hand through his greasy hair and mopped his forehead with a grimy sleeve. Hazy air smothered the Lone Lands like congealed gravy, without even the mercy of a breeze. For three days now, since a day out of Bree, there had been no relief from this strange early heat wave that made the northern Eriador plains feel like the bowels of Harad. Halbarad slipped a hand beneath the sodden saddle blanket, frowning at the heat emanating from the horse's flank. Up ahead of him, the back of Aragorn's shirt was dark with sweat. Halbarad squinted past the low hills and scrubby oak groves to the shimmering, tauntingly faint scallop of the far-off mountains. They stubbornly refused to get any closer, no matter how many times he rubbed his grainy eyes. Hearing a muffled sigh behind him, he twisted in the saddle, scanning the western horizon as he did so to reassure himself that Weathertop, at least, had finally dropped from view. He looked down at the hobbit seated behind him. "What's the matter, Tillfield? Tired?"
The round, youthful face that peered up at him was as damp and sunburned as his own, though the resemblance suffered from the halfling's lack of unkempt whiskers. "I'm tired and I'm hot," Tillfield complained. His sandy curls were plastered to his forehead and his neck was peppered with heat rash, but Halbarad couldn't help but envy the hairy toes swinging blessedly bare in the open air. His own feet felt as if they were sprouting mushrooms, and he tried to remember when his boots had last been off. Three days ago? Four? Wanting nothing more than to plunge, head-first and naked, into the refreshing waters of the Hoarwell, he settled for a swig of tepid water. At this pace, the river still lay a day to the east, beyond the great bend of the road, and neither the horses nor Aragorn could take any faster pace.
"Yes, Tillfield." Halbarad reminded himself for the fiftieth time to strangle Aragorn for instigating the bestowal of Bree names.
"When are we going to stop?"
"I don't know," Halbarad answered honestly, wearily eyeing the two riders ahead, whose twin clouds of pipe weed smoke drifted lazily at shoulder height, adding a pungent, spicy tang to the gritty mélange of road dust, sweaty horses, and unwashed clothing. He wondered how Aragorn had convinced Gandalf to let him smoke. "We have been lucky with the dry weather, but it can't hold forever. Gandalf probably wants to make as much distance as he can while we have a hard road." He twisted in his saddle again. "And Dudo?"
"You can stop calling me 'Bob' now. We're not in Bree anymore."
Tillfield grumbled something about there being not nearly so many rocks and thorn bushes in Bree. "Are we ever going to sleep inside again?"
"Of course we are," said Halbarad. "When we reach the Last Homely House in Rivendell."
"Rivendell had better be nicer than that last place we stayed," Tillfield muttered.
"The Forsaken Inn?" Halbarad snorted. "Don't let Elrond hear you comparing Rivendell to that flea-infested hovel. Rivendell is the most beautiful place you'll ever see - full of beautiful waterfalls and gardens and sweet-smelling flowers. The beds are plumped so high with pillows you'll think you're swimming in a sea of feathers. There will be more food than you can eat, more wine than you can drink, and all around you, beautiful people singing lovely songs. How does that sound?" Halbarad turned in the saddle to catch Tillfield's reaction.
The hobbit made a face. "And this is where you live?" he asked skeptically.
Halbarad snorted. "Eru's eagles, no, I don't live there!"
"But I thought you said…" Tillfield's voice trailed off in confusion and he crossed his arms impatiently.
Not for the first time, Halbarad questioned the wisdom of telling Tillfield that Rivendell was a Ranger village. Despite his own mortification at the thought of enduring an Elf-obsessed hobbit all the way from Bree to Rivendell, he was beginning to think the truth might have been simpler.
Gandalf pulled back on his reins and brought his mount abreast, sparing him the dilemma of a reply. The wizard's face, tanned from long days in the sun, contrasted sharply with the white hair he had pulled haphazardly into a queue. Road grime darkened the furrows creasing his brow as he frowned at Tillfield. "Master Dudo," he said gravely, "you will find Halbarad's description of Rivendell to be entirely accurate. Halbarad simply harbors a healthy suspicion of luxury."
"I simply remember the lesson of Númenor, Gandalf," Halbarad retorted as good-naturedly as he could manage. He liked a good featherbed as much as the next person, as long as his backside didn't get too accustomed to it.
Gandalf's raised eyebrow said he hadn't figured Halbarad for the philosophical type. "And what would that lesson be, dear Ranger?"
Halbarad grunted. "Know your place."
Gandalf released a cloud of pipe-weed smoke that drifted aimlessly in the still air as he considered Halbarad's answer. "Fair enough. Think you know it then, do you?"
"I always have," Halbarad replied, deliberately planting his gaze squarely in the middle of Aragorn's back.
"Halbarad's place is wherever the rocks are hardest, the flies the hungriest, the trail the steepest, and the game the toughest," the object of his attention interjected. Aragorn turned to reveal an impish smile on his drawn face. Halbarad froze his scowl to mask an upsurge of worry at the sight of Aragorn's pallor, so grey that even the sunburn and road grime could not hide it. He had been barely fit to travel when they left Bree, and the hard days of travel were rapidly sapping his strength. The hand the Dunlending dagger had crushed was held protectively against his chest, and the leg that had taken an orc arrow was badly infected, wracking him with waves of pain and chills that not even the heat of the midday sun could dispel. He should not be in the saddle, Halbarad thought for the hundredth time. He should not be out here, on the road, under the broiling sun, at all. It had been madness to think he could make the trip across Eriador on horseback. Belatedly realizing Aragorn was expecting a retort, Halbarad forced himself to rise to the occasion. "There's a pot calling the kettle black," he dutifully shot back. "I believe it is you whose absence the vaunted halls of Imladris have bemoaned these all these past years, not I." He cringed even as he said it. Rivendell was off-limits, even on a good day. And this was not a good day.
"My duty called me elsewhere," Aragorn replied soberly. Well, that killed the conversation, Halbarad reflected, guilt mingling with annoyance that Aragorn still stubbornly refused to admit what Halbarad had long suspected – it was more than mere duty that had kept him far from his boyhood home for so long. Aragorn's relations with his foster-family were complicated by factors that would confound a Vala, and for more than 25 years, ever since Aragorn's return from the far countries, tension crept into his face at the mention of Elrond. His visits to Rivendell were rare, and brief. Since Gilraen had moved back to the Angle, he had not been there at all, to Halbarad's knowledge.
Trying to salvage the light mood, Halbarad made a lame concession. "Lord of the biting flies I may be, but I will never be so glad as when I lay my eyes on the Last Homely House."
"How much farther is Rivendell?" asked Tillfield.
"A little less than two hundred miles," Gandalf said. "It should take us no more than four more days, as long as the weather holds and the river crossings are unimpeded."
Halbarad grunted. "And as long as it lets us find it."
"I thought you knew where it was," Tillfield said. "I thought you had been there."
"I have. But Rivendell lies in a secret valley, you see, shrouded in enchantment and hidden from the eyes of mere mortals. Sometimes even Aragorn has trouble finding it."
"I do not," Aragorn answered, affronted.
Halbarad chuckled, optimistic about re-kindling Aragorn's playful mood. "Perhaps you would care to explain our three-day detour on the way back from the Ettenmoors the year my daughter was born. And me with a broken wrist."
"If you had let me take the shot before the troll threw you to the ground, you would not have had a broken wrist," Aragorn replied.
"Let you take a bow-shot at a moving target with me in the way? Thank you, no. With a sword you are unsurpassed, my lord, but you are a hazard with a bow. You could have been more help, though; since it was you who attracted the troll in the first place."
"Pray tell how that is so."
"Trolls are drawn to you as moth to a flame, Aragorn. Never, in my long years in the wild, have I encountered a troll except when I was with you. Perhaps it is your scent. If you bathed a bit more often…"
"And I suppose your well-ripened aroma has no effect on them."
"Ah, but it is well-known throughout Eriador that it is maidens and not trolls that find me irresistible, dear cousin," Halbarad replied.
Aragorn managed a hoarse laugh. "That I do not dispute. If only you took better care not to attract their irate husbands as well."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," replied Halbarad indignantly.
"I seem to recall fleeing to Fornost barefoot with an enraged Bree farmer in pursuit, after he returned home to find your clothes drying before his hearth."
"That's not fair!" protested Halbarad indignantly. "Gandalf, he slanders me ruthlessly. We were not barefoot. At least, we were not once we got our boots back."
"And our clothes."
"Gentlemen!" Gandalf barked, aiming a reproving look at each of them in turn. "Are you certain this story is fit for Dudo's tender ears?"
"Well put," Aragorn replied with mock gravity. "Maybe this is the wrong venue for a story of a naked Ranger, a farmer's wife, and a goat."
Halbarad scowled at Aragorn, this time only partially in pretense. "You're awfully cheeky for an invalid!" He turned to Gandalf, busy suppressing his laughter. "Gandalf, I swear to you, I never touched the woman. Or the goat."
Gandalf shot him a frown of skepticism, but Dudo laughed out loud. "Tell the story, Aragorn!" he pleaded.
Halbarad had been a warrior long enough to recognize a lost cause when he saw one. Leaning back in the saddle, he crossed his arms in surrender. "If you must, Aragorn."
Aragorn shot him a mirthful glance and allowed Daisy to drop back to join him. The road was wide in this spot, and the three horses easily walked abreast. "Well, you see, Dudo, many years ago, when Halbarad and I were very young Rangers, patrolling north of Bree, we were caught in an early winter storm. We took shelter in the hollowed-out bole of a tree, but by morning we were freezing, and Halbarad had developed a worrisome cough."
"Aragorn," Halbarad interrupted. "Forgive me, but it is my firm recollection that it was you who had the worrisome cough."
"On the contrary, Halbarad, I quite clearly recall the sound of your cough. It sounded like a Mumak gagging on a Warg. I was quite concerned for your health."
"What an interesting observation, since at that time you had never heard the sound of a Mumak, warg-eating or otherwise – "
"Gentlemen!" Gandalf snapped. "Enough. Finish the story before the day grows older than I."
Aragorn cleared his throat somewhat indignantly. "Thank you, Gandalf. Our wet clothes had frozen to our backs, and we could no longer feel our feet or hands. Realizing our desperate situation, we made for a nearby farm, hoping for permission to shelter in the barn. As we drew near, the dogs began to bark and the door of the house swung open. A woman came to the doorway and hailed us. Would you care to describe the woman, Halbarad?"
Halbarad grimaced, questioning the wisdom of reviving Aragorn to full tale-telling mode. "I'm afraid I don't remember what she looked like."
"I do," Aragorn continued, clearly just reaching his stride. "The last drops of sweet youth still clung to her like morning dew. Her hair was the red of a winter sunset, and it flowed loosely about her shoulders like ribbons of flame. She wore a blue dress that stretched tight across her bosom, and her eyes were the green of early pears – are you sure you don't recall, Halbarad?"
"Vaguely," he muttered.
"We asked to sleep in the barn, expecting no warm welcome," Aragorn continued, "but to our astonishment, the woman opened the door and beckoned us inside. In our misery and our shock, we accepted without question. Only when we got inside did we realize the woman was alone. She told us that her husband was away in Bree, selling lambs, and that he would sooner let us freeze solid on his porch than give us so much as a cup of broth. She also warned us that she was quite capable of cutting off our – "
"Noses," Halbarad interjected.
"Noses," Aragorn continued, "with her kitchen knife, and that the dogs would rip our throats out if we so much as looked at her the wrong way."
"Charming woman," Halbarad scoffed heartily, suppressing a winsome smile. Aragorn had it partly right: he did indeed remember the copper tresses and pear-green eyes, but it was the Bree-wife's plucky spirit that had soured forever his taste for tamer lasses.
"The woman bade us lay our cloaks and boots by the fire," Halbarad roused himself from his memories, realizing Aragorn was continuing, "and she served us a meal, spinning while we ate and talking with us of little things - the harvest and the weather and the price of wool at market. When we had eaten our fill, she laid blankets out for us on the floor. So tired we were from exhaustion and cold that we were asleep in no time. But barely an instant later, it seemed, the woman woke us, in a panic. 'My husband has returned!' she said frantically. 'Run, quickly!' That was all the urging we needed. We lurched to our bare feet just as the door opened and the farmer lunged through, brandishing a pitchfork. He was a stout and sturdy Breelander, and having already noticed our boot prints outside in the snow, he was ready to slaughter the intruders who had invaded his home. Behind him stood a teenage boy holding a scythe with somewhat less malicious intent. As soon as the farmer's eyes lit on us, he uttered a roar a warg would envy and lunged at Halbarad, barely missing him with the pitchfork. Halbarad and I snatched up our sword belts and ran out the door in our bare feet, with the farmer, his son, and three dogs in pursuit."
As Tillfield gazed up at him, captivated, Aragorn paused to take a drink. He was flushed and breathless, but clearly enjoying himself. "Somehow," he went on, "we managed to get inside the barn ahead of our pursuers. We barricaded the door, but quickly realized our options were grim. The snow had stopped, but it was even colder than before. Our packs, boots, and cloaks were still inside the house, and as we watched through a crack in the door, the farmer sent his son to fetch help from the neighboring farms. Facing the prospect of being pitch forked to death by an angry mob of Bree farmers, I proposed that we make a run for it."
Halbarad snorted. "Fortunately for us, even then I had more sense and knew the value of a good pair of boots. I shouted to the farmer through a crack in the door, offering to leave peacefully, as long as we got our clothes and boots from the house."
"Did he agree?" asked Tillfield.
"No," Aragorn said dryly. "He threatened to burn the barn down around us."
Halbarad smiled. "Ah, but that was his mistake. At hearing these words, the farmer's wife burst into hysterics, screaming something about Buttercup."
"Buttercup?" repeated Tillfield. "What was Buttercup?"
"That was exactly what we wondered," answered Halbarad. "Clearly the woman was quite upset at the thought of the barn being burnt down. We thought it would be in our best interest to find out why. So while the farmer was busy trying to calm his wife down, Aragorn went to search the barn. Soon he reappeared, leading a little brown goat by a rope. It was tamely munching grain from his hand. I petted it on the head and it butted against me just like a cat."
"Buttercup, I presume," said Gandalf.
"Buttercup," reminisced Halbarad fondly.
"So you traded the goat for your clothes?" Tillfield asked, looking impressed.
"Clever lad," Halbarad said. "No wonder you made such a good outlaw. That is exactly what we did."
"But what if the farmer hadn't agreed? You wouldn't have killed the woman's pet goat!"
Halbarad exchanged a wounded look with Aragorn. "You don't think so?"
"No!" Tillfield laughed at his affronted expression.
"Well, maybe not. But that doesn't matter," he answered. "It only matters that the farmer thought we would."
"Of course, the reputation of the Dúnedain suffered in those parts for many years hence," added Aragorn. "The farmer spread the story far and wide of how a pair of motley Rangers broke into his house and took his wife hostage. He saved her by chasing them off with his pitchfork."
"Aragorn, didn't I hear that in some versions he chopped us up and threw us into the Brandywine?"
"Why, yes, Halbarad. In fact, I believe that version is still widely circulating in Staddle to this day," replied Aragorn.
"What happened to the farmer's wife?" Tillfield asked. "Was her husband angry with her?"
"I don't know. We made sure never to go near that farm again!" answered Aragorn with a short laugh. "But the wife more than likely told her husband what he wanted to believe – that two menacing Rangers broke into the house and helped themselves to her provisions while she begged them not to hurt her. It would not be a difficult tale for a Breelander to believe."
"Husband and wife are both likely dead now," said Halbarad wistfully. So it was with the Bree-folk. How much shorter still the lives of even the Dúnedain must seem to Gandalf and the Elves, he thought, wondering how many generations the wizard had seen wandering this barren stretch of Arda.
Aragorn's shoulders had slumped again and his eyes had drifted closed; the burst of energy had cost him. Gandalf reached a hand to take his reins but the chieftain straightened and smiled self-consciously. "Stop worrying, Gandalf."
A wry smile deepened the creases of the wizard's face. "If you did not ever give me so much cause to worry, dear Ranger, this white beard of mine would yet be black."
"Your beard was never black."
"And how would you know, young one?" Gandalf challenged. "Elrond has wine in his cellar older than you."
"Cirdan himself told me so."
Gandalf feigned indignation. "Impertinent scamp. Even Cirdan does not know everything. You would do well to respect your elders."
Aragorn managed a hoarse laugh. "That would leave me the most respectful man on Arda. What have I, dear friend, except elders?"
Gandalf cocked an eyebrow. "Well, there is Halbarad, and this young Dudo rascal, but other matters are your own affair, Dúnadan!" Chuckling at the dark look Aragorn shot him, he turned his gaze westward. "It will be warm again tomorrow."
"The weather is too warm, too fast," said Aragorn. "The snow pack in the mountains is the deepest since the Fell Winter. That year the floods in the spring kept the Last Bridge impassable for weeks, so I have been told."
"That bridge is old, but it's solid as a Dwarvish anvil," Halbarad said. "It will hold." He scanned the rolling landscape, studded with stunted, scrubby trees and overgrown thorn bushes. Wilted flowers clung to the side of the road, withering in the heat, and in this dust-choked afternoon it certainly did not look as though a flood was imminent.
Tillfield tugged on his sleeve. "I have to get down for a minute."
Halbarad obligingly brought the horse to a halt and lowered the hobbit to the ground. He dismounted and bent to stretch the cramps out of his back and legs. When Tillfield reappeared from behind a clump of boulders, he was scowling irritably. "Why is it so ugly here?"
"Do you have to complain about everything?" Halbarad asked, feeling a proprietary surge of pity for the unloved landscape. "There is much beauty here in the wild, if you care to look."
Halbarad supposed on further consideration that he might have chosen a better stretch of the East Road with which to demonstrate the hidden beauties of the wilderness. He looked about at the rangy scrub and ragged hills. "All right," he said, finally. "Take the wildflowers, for example."
Tillfield cast a disparaging glance at the scrawny daisies dotting the meadow on the south side of the road. "Mrs. Butterbur has much nicer flowers in her garden that that."
Halbarad sighed. In truth, it was not the presence of something admirable that he valued about this barren place, but the very absence of things that demanded admiration. The unexpectant plainness of the land seemed to still all voices except land, sky, and stars. "Listen," he said.
"Listen to what?" Tillfield asked, annoyed.
Halbarad smiled and ruffled his hair, knowing he hated it. "Exactly." He looked ahead to the pair of horses that had progressed a furlong down the road while he and Tillfield relieved themselves. He sighed unhappily. The figure atop the chestnut mare was beginning to sway in the saddle, and enough was enough. "Aragorn," he called, getting the attention of both riders and making a show of examining Star's left front hoof. "My horse is coming up lame. His foot is bruised from a rock, I fear. What do you say we make camp? Up ahead a mile or so is the campsite by the stream. It will be shady there, and the horses can drink."
"But your horse isn't –"Tillfield protested
Halbarad silenced the hobbit with a glare. "Do you want to make camp or not?"
"Then be still."
The campsite he referred to was used with some regularity by the Rangers, being situated beside one of the few usable streams between the Hoarwell and Weathertop. Relieved to have convinced Aragorn to camp, Halbarad followed him down into the protected dimple of land beside the stream, breathing deeply of the refreshing, humus-scented fragrance of the shady grove, noticeably cooler and less dusty than the lung-scorching air by the road. Depositing Tillfield on the ground, he eased his leg over the saddle, looking forward to, if not a plunge into the Hoarwell, at least a splash of water from the nearby brook. A low gasp behind him brought his head around. Leaping to the ground, he saw that it was Aragorn, leaning against Daisy's flank and white with pain, groping for the support of the saddle with his only good hand. Rushing to his side, Halbarad pulled the good arm over his shoulder, taking as much weight as he could off the bad leg.
"Aragorn?" Gandalf was on his other side, leaning close. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Aragorn ground out through clenched teeth. "It's nothing." He forced himself to straighten, choking back a groan.
"My granna's gooseberries," Halbarad muttered. All but carrying Aragorn and ignoring his protests, he pulled him to the campsite and lowered him onto the cloak that Gandalf laid down, alarmed at the heat radiating from his body. Quickly dispatching Tillfield to gather water, Halbarad unsaddled the horses and took them to drink, turning Aragorn over to Gandalf's care. He had already seen the wound causing the fever – had seen Aragorn take it, nearly a month ago. The arrowhead had been small, making a narrow entry wound but penetrating too deeply into the knee joint to be cleaned thoroughly in the field. Elladan had warned of the consequences if Aragorn refused treatment in Rivendell, but Aragorn, citing an urgent need to meet Gandalf, had ignored him and set off for Bree alone. It was not Gandalf he met there. Instead, he had walked into a trap designed to elicit his most carefully guarded secrets – secrets even Halbarad did not know. When at last Halbarad and Gandalf had rescued him, with a sword hand smashed into splinters and the leg wound festering deep in the bone, Aragorn had finally agreed to travel to Rivendell. But now, Halbarad feared, time was running out.
By the time Halbarad finished with the horses, Gandalf had several pots bubbling over the fire, and Aragorn was stretched out on his bedroll, his eyes closed and his face relaxed. Gandalf looked up and answered Halbarad's unspoken question. "He will sleep now; rest is what he needs the most. Ah, very good, Master Dudo," he said, smiling as Tillfield dumped a third load of firewood on the accumulated pile. "I think that will be enough wood to get us through the night. Would you care for any turnips?"
Tillfield groaned. "If I eat one more turnip, I'm going to turn into one. And I don't want to sit. I've sat so long today my bum is numb. I don't know why I ever thought riding a horse would be fun." Despite the numb backside, he dropped down onto the ground dramatically, as if crushed by the weight of Caradhras. "I'm tired of being hot," he grumbled. "And I'm tired of sleeping on the ground and eating dried meat and turnips and waybread."
"Spoken like a true hobbit," Gandalf chuckled.
Halbarad reached over, remembered not to ruffle the hobbit's hair, and instead laid a comradely slap on his shoulder. "Even a Ranger would weary of the pace we have kept," he said. In truth, he was not disappointed - Tillfield had avoided complaining for far longer than he had expected. "Still certain you want to be a Ranger?" he asked.
"Not if I have to sleep outside in the rain for the rest of my life and eat old sausages," Tillfield answered ruefully, chewing on a sausage. "I guess being a Ranger is harder than I thought. I thought it would be exciting; but really it's just smelly and wet most of the time. With bad food."
Gandalf laughed out loud. "Be patient a while longer, Dudo. In a few days you will enjoy comforts such as even a hobbit could only dream of."
"Rivendell," Tillfield said wearily. "I don't know what's so special about Rivendell."
Halbarad smiled. "You will see. Rivendell is no crossroad of leaning cottages like Bree, Master Hobbit."
"I would be happy to see Bree now. At least there are houses there," Tillfield said despondently. "With roofs on them."
"Leaky roofs, if I recall," Halbarad said. In truth there had been no choice for Tillfield but to come with them to Rivendell. Left in Bree, he would have been at risk of retribution from the bandits he betrayed. One way or another, Butterbur would have to find another kitchen boy.
Even with the sun long set, the heat was slow to dissipate. In the star-studded sky there was still no sign of rain, but the blowing dust would have worked itself inside their scabbards. Halbarad reached carefully over Aragorn's prone form and unbuckled his sword belt. "Be still," he said softly as his chieftain's dark head shifted groggily. "I will care for your sword. Rest." He was not sure Aragorn heard him, but the chieftain settled again and his breathing deepened. Sitting down cross-legged on the ground beside him, Halbarad laid the weapon across his lap and fished a rag out of his pack. He had repaired the blade while Aragorn lay recovering at the Prancing Pony and brought the marred surface back to a brilliant shine. It would take but a few minutes to clean and oil it now. He nodded at Tillfield's scabbard, hanging at his waist. "You had better tend to that fine Noldor dagger as well, young hobbit. You would not wish such a fine blade to become tarnished and rusty."
Tillfield dutifully withdrew his dagger, but he handled it hesitantly as he followed Halbarad's instructions to clean and oil the blade. In the days immediately after he killed the wolf that would have ripped Aragorn's throat out, he had seemed proud of his accomplishment. But as time passed, he seemed to avoid touching the weapon. Tillfield must have seen hundreds of animals slaughtered at the Prancing Pony, Halbarad reflected. He could not believe the death of one wolf could haunt him so; but Tillfield had also seen the wolf kill a boy in front of his eyes in the moments before he plunged the Noldor dagger into its neck. Halbarad remembered the first time he saw a man killed. An orc had done it. In the decades since, he had seen many more men die; but he would never forget what it felt like to see for the first time what a man's head looked like, cleaved open. He leaned over Tillfield, squinting to inspect his work in the firelight. "You missed a spot, there."
Tillfield flinched from his hand and threw the dagger to the ground with a sob of frustration. "I don't care! I don't want to be a Ranger anymore! I just want to go home!"
"Don't tell me you miss Bree," Halbarad started to say, but Gandalf shot him a look that could have frozen a troll at twenty paces.
"He has every right to miss Bree," the wizard said, taking the shaking hobbit into this arms. "It is his home, after all."
Halbarad suppressed a groan of shame. Tillfield, despite his uncommon valor, was no Ranger to be made to feel like a weakling and a coward for wanting to sleep under a sturdy roof with four walls around him, even if they were the four walls of a storeroom in the back of a harness-maker's shop. Halbarad met Gandalf's eyes and mouthed an apology. He picked up the dagger and ran his hand along the blade. "You know, Dudo, if we are lucky you will get to meet the person who gave me this dagger when we get to Rivendell."
Tillfield pulled his face out of Gandalf's cloak. "Aragorn's brother?"
"That's right. His name is Elrohir."
"Elrohir," Tillfield said, trying out the name.
Halbarad flinched with gleeful horror at the prospect of Tillfield doling out Bree names to the sons of Elrond. "If you stop crying, I'll tell you a secret about Elrohir," he promised.
Dudo's eyes lit up just as Halbarad had expected. Nothing could distract a crying child like the promise of a secret. "What?" he demanded.
"Elrohir is not a Ranger."
"He's not?" Tillfield's eyes darted between Halbarad and the sleeping Aragorn in confusion. "But he's Aragorn's brother. You said." Tillfield looked disappointed. He still thought Rangers were the most exciting creatures on Arda.
"Aragorn calls him brother, because he was reared as a son of Lord Elrond, but the fact is, Elrohir and his brother Elladan are Elves."
Tillfield stared in drop-jawed amazement. "Elves?"
Halbarad was not sure that Tillfield even knew what an Elf was, but clearly he had heard tales of them. "Yes. Everyone in Rivendell is an Elf."
Gandalf looked like he was trying to decide whether to enjoy the hobbit's stunned wonderment or be mortified at the prospect of containing it. "There, now," he said finally. "Now at least you have something to think about besides the poor quality of the rations. Are you sure you still want to go back to Bree?"
"Milly says there's no such thing as Elves," Dudo mumbled.
"Who's Milly?" Halbarad asked.
"Butterbur's cook," Gandalf answered. "The thin one."
"Well, Milly's wrong," Halbarad said.
"What do they look like?" Dudo asked, perking up. "Do they have wings? Do they have silver hair? Do they ride flying horses?"
Halbarad looked at Gandalf. "He'll never get to sleep now. He's a bundle of energy."
Gandalf smiled. "With a little help, he will. I have a few tricks up my sleeve that are good for getting excited young hobbits to sleep."
"Like what?" Tillfield asked, tense with anticipation.
"Lie down and I will show you," Gandalf said. He urged the hobbit into his bedroll. "Now close your eyes and think of something very pleasant."
Gandalf waited until Tillfield's eyes were shut tight before reaching over to push sandy curls gently from his forehead. True to Gandalf's word, the hobbit's breathing slowed, and within moments he rolled to his side with a contented sigh.
At times, Halbarad came close to forgetting that Gandalf was not an ordinary old man. Sometimes he thought that was for the best. "What about Aragorn?" Halbarad found himself asking, with an edge of accusation. "Don't you have any tricks for him?"
Gandalf's face tightened, correctly guessing that Halbarad did not mean sleep. "I have done everything I can, Halbarad. Only Elrond can do more."
"What if we can't get him to Elrond?" Halbarad asked. "It's too far to go back to Bree. He can't ride for four more days."
The wizard leaned close to Aragorn and felt his forehead. Aragorn did not stir at the gentle touch and Halbarad supposed it was just as well he did not hear this conversation. Gandalf's pipe glowed in the darkness. "Halbarad," he said finally, "remember what I told you, in the forest, south of Bree. You must have faith. Now let us all get some sleep. Tomorrow will be another long day."
With that, Gandalf laid his pipe aside and settled himself down on his bedroll. In moments, the camp fell silent, but Halbarad sat awake for a long time, staring into the fire.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.