2. Race to the River
A scream pierced the forest, and Dudo stumbled backwards against a tree, the dagger Halbarad had given him sliding from his nerveless fingers. There it stayed, useless and forgotten, as he gripped the bark in terror, waiting to feel hot breath against his neck and wondering if he, too, would scream as the fangs closed on his neck. He felt relief, and shame, at the sight of the Ranger pulling himself up onto his elbows and crawling, unarmed and barely conscious, across the clearing with only a fallen branch as a weapon. The dagger lay useless on the ground as Strider swung the branch in a weak, glancing blow that succeeding only in distracting the wolf from its prey. Dudo clenched his eyes shut as it tensed and lunged for Strider's throat.
Blood hissed against the hot coals of the campfire, and Dudo opened his eyes to see the wolf give the Ranger's body a last, impatient shake before dropping it to the ground beside the boy. For just an instant, its yellow eyes swung toward Dudo as he clung to the tree. Then, with a contemptuous blink, the wolf turned away.
"Aragorn!" Halbarad crossed the clearing in two strides and took the wolf's head off with a violent swing of his sword. Falling to his knees at Strider's side, he tried to close the gaping wound with his hand, but blood washed between his fingers like a fountain of red. It covered both Rangers, saturating the ground beneath Halbarad's abandoned sword. Dudo's mouth filled with the taste of it, hot and metallic. Halbarad, who had given him the dagger lying at his feet so he could save a friend, now looked up from the torn body of his chieftain, contempt and despair written on his face. "Coward!" he screamed at Dudo, rocking Strider's body helplessly in his arms, the limp hands dragging in the dirt. "How could you do nothing? How could you let this happen?"
With a sobbing gasp, Dudo sat up, wrestling free of his blanket. Freeing his shaking hands, he buried his face in his palms and fought for breath. Large hands wrapped around his wrists and he struggled in panic, twisting to wrench himself free. "Calm down, Tillfield," a rough-textured voice whispered, just as he opened his mouth to scream. "You're going to wake up the whole camp."
With a mixture of relief, helpless sorrow, and dawning confusion, he recognized the voice. "I'm sorry!" Dudo cried, plunging his face into the Halbarad's shoulder. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
"Sorry for what?" Halbarad asked, gently pushing him to arm's length. In the moonless dark, his face was a featureless blur but for the glint of starlight in his eyes.
"Strider's dead! I let the wolf kill him! I'm a coward!"
Halbarad's hands instantly relaxed. "Strider's not dead, Dudo. You were just dreaming."
Dudo rubbed his face, struggling to dispel the lingering images that told him differently. "He's not dead," he repeated hesitantly.
Halbarad patted his shoulder reassuringly. "You killed the wolf, remember? We are on the East Road, on the way to Rivendell. Look, Aragorn is right over there, sound asleep."
Dudo emptied his lungs in one prolonged exhalation. "I killed the wolf," he said out loud.
"Yes," said Halbarad, ruffling his hair. "It was just a nightmare, Dudo, and nightmares cannot harm you." He sat back on his heels and for an instant his face tilted toward the hovering mass of silent, shrieking stars that were just beginning to fade in the east. "At least not the ones from the past."
Dudo was certain he did not want to know what other kind of nightmare there was. "I was scared. I couldn't move."
"But you did move," Halbarad said wearily. "You saved Aragorn's life. You're a very brave hobbit."
Dudo frowned skeptically. Ranger name or no Ranger name, Dudo Tillfield knew exactly what he was - a bastard from the backside of Bree who'd inexplicably managed for once in his life to stick a wolf instead of a chicken. He twisted out of Halbarad's comforting grip. "I wasn't brave. I was afraid!"
Halbarad reached for a log and threw it on the fire. "What are you afraid of now?"
Dudo realized with surprise that it was not the memory of paralyzing fear that scared him, but the terrifying, exhilarating moment when he had picked the knife up off the ground with perfect resolve. "I'm afraid of having to be brave again," he said with dismay. Being brave, he was slowly realizing, was not so much about being, after all, as doing. Having managed to do one brave thing in his life, he would now be forever haunted by the precedent.
Halbarad rested his forehead on the steeple of his fingers and peered sideways at him. In the grey light creeping into the clearing, Dudo could see that the Ranger's eyes were bloodshot and his was creased with lines of fatigue and worry. It seemed doubtful that he had slept at all. "Why did you kill the wolf?" Halbarad asked.
That was simple, Dudo thought. If he hadn't, it would have ripped Strider's throat out, just like in his dream. But that was just an explanation, he realized a moment later, one born of hindsight. The real reason, the unfamiliar, primal impulse that gave him the courage to pick the dagger up off the ground and plunge it into the back of the wolf's neck, was something much less reasoned than that. "I had to," he said finally, frowning. "I just had to. That doesn't make sense, does it?"
The stubble around Halbarad's mouth parted in a smile. "It makes perfect sense. You'll be all right, Dudo, as long as you listen to that voice."
"The one that tells you what you have to do."
"Is there a voice to make me not be so afraid the next time?"
Halbarad chuckled lightly. "If there is, I have never heard it."
"You're not afraid of anything!"
"Oh, but I am. Everyone is afraid of something, Dudo."
"What are you afraid of, then?"
Halbarad unfolded his long legs and stood up, stretching as he turned to face the blossoming red band across the eastern horizon. "I am afraid that it will be another hot day." he said. "We might as well get an early start."
Lightning ripped across the blackened sky, and Dudo shrunk into a hobbit-sized ball between Halbarad and Aragorn, jamming his back as tightly as he could against the rock wall. Just beyond the narrow overhang, rain fell in sheets, pounding the parched ground like an army on horseback.
"I hope you're happy, Tillfield," Halbarad grumbled, brushing dripping hair from his forehead. He was soaked to the skin, having been the last to duck under the shelter of the rocks. "You wanted it to rain."
"I didn't say I wanted it to rain," Dudo said. "I just said I wanted it to cool off."
"Be careful what you wish for," Halbarad answered. "It'll probably be snowing by sunset." He leaned across Dudo and scowled worriedly at Aragorn, resting with his head tilted back against the rocks. He had not moved since Gandalf had led him to shelter as the first pellets of hard rain began to fall. "Aragorn, are you all right?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the rain.
When Aragorn did not answer, Gandalf exchanged a dark look with Halbarad and shook the slumped shoulder gently. "Aragorn, are you awake?"
With visible effort, Aragorn forced his eyes open. "Can't a Ranger even appreciate a storm in peace?" he muttered.
Halbarad loosed a half-hearted snort. "You? Appreciate a storm? That would be a first. And to think it took only a half century to undo your sheltered Rivendell upbringing!"
Dudo raised his head from the shelter of his knees. "Don't they have storms in Rivendell?"
"Not like this," Aragorn answered; his voice fading to barely a whisper. "Rivendell lies in a steep valley. The hills protect it from the worst weather."
"Then I hope we get there soon," Dudo answered, ducking at an especially loud crack of thunder and leaning closer to Halbarad. "At least in Bree there was a roof over my head."
"A leaky roof," Halbarad reminded him. He grunted and shifted position. "Master Tillfield, your fine hobbit skull is hard as rock. Might you kindly remove it from my ribcage?"
Dudo grumbled and sat up straighter, noting that the rain had subsided to a steady patter, and the sky was brightening a bit in the west, though where the clouds were clearing the sky showed orange.
"It's nearly sunset," Halbarad said. "We might as well camp here tonight."
"Can't," Aragorn muttered, his eyes falling shut again. "No water for the horses."
"There will be enough standing water from the storm to satisfy them until morning," Halbarad argued. "They can drink their fill once we reach the river."
"If we ride hard…make the river tonight," Aragorn insisted, though his speech was slurring and he was listing sideways against the rock.
"The horses are exhausted already, the road will be a quagmire, and you can barely sit a horse," Halbarad countered, scowling worriedly as Gandalf reached to brace Aragorn. "Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to get across the river tonight, but that is no longer feasible."
"Halbarad is right," Gandalf echoed in a tone that brooked no opposition, though by Dudo's estimation, Aragorn was already past the point of coherent argument. "We will camp here."
Aragorn mumbled something unintelligible and slumped forward into Gandalf's arms and Halbarad expelled a sigh that was part relief and part worry. "A plague on the stiff necks of Dúnedain chieftains," he muttered, retrieving a ground cloth from his pack and shaking it out. Apparently deciding that there was no better spot to bed down than the one they already occupied, he threw it down at his feet and went to fetch the horses.
Gandalf had lowered Aragorn to the ground and was rummaging through his pack. "Dudo, please get a fire started," he said quietly, and Dudo saw that Aragorn was already shivering in his wet shirt.
Aragorn's cloak was soaking wet, still draped across Daisy's back where it had been forgotten in the rush to take shelter from the storm, so Dudo handed Gandalf his own blanket. As the wizard stripped off Aragorn's wet shirt and wrapped the blanket around him, Dudo collected what kindling he could find lying about and swept clear a small fire ring.
"Find some more firewood, and then put some water on to boil," Gandalf instructed him. "And get me another blanket." He was frowning as he felt Aragorn's forehead, and Dudo wondered if the Ranger's fever was higher again.
Having tended the horses, Halbarad dropped a load of firewood beside the fire and stripped off his wet shirt. "Is he all right?" he asked Gandalf, fishing a dry shirt out of his pack. Laying his sword belt aside, he knelt to unbuckle Aragorn's. As his hands touched the Ranger's bare arm, he looked up in alarm. "Gandalf, he's gone clammy."
This came as no news to Gandalf. His face was grim. "I know. The infection has spread into his bloodstream."
Halbarad stiffened. "We have to do something."
"I have already done all I can," the wizard said.
"You have done all you can, or all you will?" Halbarad shot back angrily.
"I have done all that is within my authority."
"To Mordor with your authority, Gandalf!" Halbarad spun around and strode to the far end of the shelter. Slamming his hand hard against the wall, he propped an arm against the rock and leaned his head against it as if seeking to absorb the strength of the stone.
Dudo started to get up. "No, Dudo," Gandalf said quietly. "Let him be."
Dudo had seen plenty of people die, back in Bree. People who died of the fever and people who died of wounds that got infected, and people like his mother who just got sicker and weaker until there wasn't much left of them to die. He had never seen anyone get better who looked as bad as Aragorn did now. Even a week's worth of dirt and sunburn could not mask the gray in his skin, and tiny red spots had blossomed on his exposed chest and neck. Dudo swallowed hard, glancing up to make sure Halbarad was out of earshot. "Is he going to die?"
Gandalf rested a weathered hand on Aragorn's head and closed his eyes. "He is failing. But if anyone can save him, it is Elrond. He is the greatest healer of this age, and he loves Aragorn as his own son."
"But what if we don't make it --" Dudo began, stopping himself as he saw that Halbarad had pushed himself away from the wall and was returning to them.
"I'm sorry," Halbarad said simply, dropping down cross-legged beside Aragorn and resting his forehead in his hands. "I have no authority, Gandalf; over life or death or anything in between. But I know this. I will not let him die."
"I have no intention of letting him die, Halbarad."
"But you will accept it if he does," Halbarad said bitterly. He laid a hand on the blanket covering Aragorn's shoulder and stared into the fire. "I will not. I was born into a world without hope, Gandalf. The Dúnedain have lived for a thousand years amidst the ruins of our past glory, haunted by ancient failures; every year losing ground against the onslaught of evil and decay. We learned to seek our comfort in the past, daring not to place our trust in the future. That was all I knew; until one day, when I was sixteen years old, my father came home with a stranger he told me was Arathorn's son."
Gandalf frowned. "You did not know he had survived?"
"Let it never be said that the Dúnedain cannot keep a secret," said Halbarad with the barest shadow of a smile. "My elders knew the truth all along, of course, but it was carefully guarded from the ears of the young. The day Aragorn returned to us was the day I first believed that our legacy will be more than crumbling ruins on an empty plain." Halbarad straightened his back, with an effort that betrayed utter weariness. Weariness, Dudo now knew, from a month or more of endless toil, grief, fear, and worry. But there was still defiance in his bloodshot eyes. "I will not let him die, Gandalf. If we ride without rest we can reach Rivendell by tomorrow night."
Gandalf shook his head, just as weary. "Aragorn is far too weak to ride now, and the horses are spent. The road will be nearly impassable after the rain, especially in the dark. It would be madness to ride this road tonight."
It was a hint of madness, perhaps, that lit Halbarad's eyes. "Then we ride the horses until they drop and after that I'll carry him on my back," he said.
Gandalf shook his head. "And after you drop? What then? Time and distance are bent against us, and we are out of favorable options." He sat looking at Aragorn for a long moment. Then, pulling a knife from his belt, he bent down to cut through the bandage covering Aragorn's knee. He probed the swollen flesh gently, bringing a faint moan of pain from Aragorn. "Halbarad," he said calmly, "have you a very sharp knife?"
"Are you going to cut out the infection?" Dudo asked. "I thought you said it was too deep inside."
"It is," Gandalf said. He looked at Halbarad. "I did not want to consider this. But it may be the only way to save his life."
"No," Halbarad said.
It was the fury in his voice that told Dudo what it was Gandalf meant to do. "You're going to cut off his leg?"
"No, he isn't," Halbarad snapped. "Gandalf, are you out of your mind?"
On the contrary, Gandalf looked perfectly, ruthlessly sane. "He can fight with one leg, Halbarad. He can ride, he can lead men, he can rule, and he can bring hope to the Dúnedain. But he can do none of those things if he is dead."
"He is too weak to survive it. He'll bleed to death."
"He may be too weak to survive the journey to Rivendell. If the infection has gone into his blood, he has little time. You must choose which risk to take."
Fear, finally, was in Halbarad's face. "I can't do it."
"Then I shall." Gandalf held out his hand. "Your knife, Halbarad; for I trust your blade is more finely honed than mine, and I would not use his for this."
Halbarad closed his eyes and exhaled a shuddering breath. It was a long time before he took another. Finally, he swallowed hard and removed the dagger from his side. He knelt by the fire and held it to the flame. Gandalf turned to Dudo and handed him his own dagger. "I will need yours as well, Dudo. Put the blades into the fire. We will need them to cauterize the wound." The wizard rummaged through Aragorn's pack, removing bandages, gut, and needles. He set them aside, then sat back and waited for Halbarad to finish sterilizing his blade. "Have you ever done this before?"
Halbarad looked ill. "I watched Aragorn sew up Ranuil after an orc took his arm off. I wasn't much help."
"I have seen Elrond do it, several times," Gandalf said quietly, and Dudo noticed that nobody seemed able to put a name to what they were about to do.
Halbarad removed his dagger from the flame and stood gazing at the blade. Using a weapon against a wolf was easy, Dudo realized, next to using it on a friend. Halbarad glanced at Aragorn, who still seemed mercifully unaware of the brutal decision that was about to change his life, or end it. "Will he feel it?"
"He may react to the pain, but without waking, I think."
Halbarad locked eyes with Gandalf for moment longer; then with a final anguished breath he handed over the knife.
There were no cloths long enough for a tourniquet, so a piece of rope padded with a spare shirt was put into use. Halbarad's hands were shaking as he pulled it snug around Aragorn's thigh at the midpoint, his face frozen in a wince. He looked as if he were an instant from fleeing. "Steady, Halbarad," Gandalf murmured, as he scored the leg lightly with the dagger to mark his incision. "I will need your help. You must cauterize the blood vessels as soon as I cut through them. Can you do that?"
It was obvious that Halbarad would rather cut his own beating heart out with a hoof pick, but he nodded shakily. "Just get on with it," he said through gritted teeth.
Gandalf bent over Aragorn, grim but resolute. "Forgive me, my friend," he whispered. Knuckles tensed on Halbarad's dagger hilt, and he carefully poised the blade.
An instant before it touched flesh, an arrow flew past his nose.
It slammed into the rock with a crack, inches above his head. Halbarad was already diving for his sword as it clattered to the ground, and Gandalf turned, putting himself between Aragorn and the front of the shelter. Dudo took Halbarad's cue and scurried for cover, pulling his red-hot dagger out of the fire on the run. Peering out from behind a rock, he scanned the nearby trees for movement, as Halbarad was doing. Dudo's breath came in harsh gasps and his blood pounded in his temples. His fingers gripped the dagger handle so hard they hurt. Now, he realized, he would find out if he could be brave twice in his life.
"Unhand my brother, Gandalf," a voice called mildly.
To Dudo's surprise, Halbarad expelled an oath and got to his feet, sliding his sword back into its sheath. With a backward glance at the fallen arrow, he stepped out from behind the rocks. "Pray tell what that was for?"
Dudo caught a flash of movement in the trees and saw a hooded figure step out, leading a tall bay stallion. A strung longbow was in his hand, and a sword swung from his hip. He strode toward the shelter with a casual stride and clasped Halbarad's arm briefly. "I wanted to make sure I got your attention," he replied, pinning his gaze on Gandalf. "It looked as though you were about to do something dangerously permanent." Ducking his head to clear the overhanging rocks, he knelt on the ground and laid a hand on Aragorn's chest. "What has happened?"
"We ran into a little trouble in Bree," Halbarad said.
"We have been trying to get him to Rivendell, but he took a sudden turn for the worse," Gandalf added. "Infection from a wound has spread into his blood, I fear."
"We," Halbarad said with a slight glance at Gandalf, "decided that taking the leg was his only chance."
With a brush of his hand across Aragorn's pale brow, the man dismissed the strategy. "It would not have helped, now that the infection has spread throughout his system. If he were awake he would have told you that." Gingerly, he examined the Ranger's sword hand, swathed in bandages and obviously broken, and cast a wry glance up at Halbarad. "You call this a little trouble?"
As the man's cloak hood fell back, Dudo gasped in amazement. From Halbarad's obvious familiarity, Dudo had taken the newcomer for a fellow Ranger; but that, it was now plain, was a mistaken assumption. Though similar in height and coloring to the Rangers, this man's face was beardless and smooth-skinned as a maiden. His features, though not unlike Aragorn's, were finer of bone and much less careworn. His movements were deeply fluid and his eyes were brighter. Even his voice was as smooth and flawless as the black hair that hung down his back. It seemed to Dudo that this was Aragorn as he would be if washed clean of all stain, scar, and imperfection.
Sensing the stare, the man caught his gaze and held it. "Well met, young hobbit," he said. "I am Elladan, son of Elrond." His smile, though strained and tense with worry, seemed to bathe Dudo with shafts of sunlight, and he suddenly remembered what Halbarad had told him about Aragorn's brothers.
"You're an Elf," he whispered.
Elladan's smiled widened just a bit. "Near enough," he said. "And what is your name?"
"Dudo," he answered.
"How did you find us?" Gandalf asked.
"Word came that Estel was hurt, and you were making for Rivendell," Elladan said, shifting his gaze to Gandalf, even as his hand lingered on Aragorn's brow. "There is little time. The Hoarwell was already out of its banks when we crossed it, four hours ago, and it is rising fast. With the rain, the bridge will be under water by morning. If we are not across by then, we will be trapped west of the river for at least a week."
Without a word, Halbarad strode off toward the clearing where he had left the horses. It was plain that Aragorn didn't have a week. He might not have a day. Gandalf sighed. "Our horses are spent, Elladan. They have carried us from Bree without rest. None is fit to bear two riders at speed all the way to Rivendell."
"Mine is," announced a new voice. A second man – Elf, Dudo corrected himself – stepped out the trees, leading a black stallion that might have been the most beautiful horse Dudo had ever seen. He was a mirror image of Elladan, right down to his shiny cloak pin and fine, straight brows. Only his hair distinguished him from his brother; swept back and knotted intricately where Elladan's was gathered into a loose queue at the base of his neck. Dropping the reins as he neared the shelter, he ducked inside. "Gandalf," he said by way of terse greeting, taking in the blanket-wrapped form on the ground and the air of tension permeating the shelter. "What happened?"
"Estel ran into a little trouble in Bree," Elladan answered with a glance at Gandalf. "There is no time to waste, Elrohir. He is very sick. Help Halbarad ready their horses." As his brother moved off, he unclasped his cloak and lifted Aragorn to wrap it around his shoulders.
Roused to consciousness by the movement, the Ranger moaned softly. "Elladan?" he murmured, struggling to focus on the figure crouching before him.
Elladan worked to fasten the cloak. "Do you have any idea how worried Father is?" he admonished softly.
Aragorn blinked, fighting for consciousness. "What…did you tell him?"
"Nothing," Elladan answered. "I didn't have to." Cupping the ashen, stubbled face between his hands, he bent close and spoke softly in some melodious, incomprehensible language that Dudo realized must be Elvish. Producing a silver flask from a pouch at his waist, Elladan held it to Aragorn's lips and coaxed him to swallow a few drops before turning to pass the flask to Gandalf. "Miruvor," he said simply. "Give some to Dudo as well."
Gandalf passed the flask to Dudo. "Drink this, Master Dudo. It will warm your bones and give you strength for the ride ahead."
Dudo took a hesitant sip from the flask, blinking at the heat that seemed to flow down his gullet and spread all the way to the tips of his toes. Some of the weariness of the long day lifted, and the achiness in his shoulders and back eased. He handed the flask back to Gandalf. "Aren't you going to drink some?"
"Save it for Halbarad," Gandalf said. "He needs it more."
"I already gave him some," Elrohir said, kneeling beside Aragorn and maneuvering a shoulder under his arm to lift him to his feet. Together he and Elladan carried the Ranger to the black stallion and lifted him onto its back. Elrohir mounted behind him with the grace of a cat and held him securely. "We will not stop until we reach Rivendell, Gandalf. If you can keep up, stay with us. If not, we will send help once we arrive." They were still over a hundred miles from Rivendell, Dudo knew. And up until now, the only discussion of night riding had put it firmly out of the question – 'Sheer folly,' Halbarad had scoffed. But the look in Elrohir's eyes was not one of folly, Dudo judged, but of grim determination, and he had no doubt that the black stallion would not stop until it reached the Last Homely House.
Halbarad, having saddled the horses and crammed the contents of the camp haphazardly into packs, stood beside Gandalf, fastening his damp cloak. "The horses are ready," he announced tersely. "It will be dark soon. We will have to stay close behind Elladan and Elrohir."
"The moon will not rise until late tonight," Elladan said. "We will see you safely to the other side of the bridge, at least. After that - "
"We will keep up." This came from Halbarad, atop Star. "Even your horses will be slowed by taking on a second rider."
"Gentlemen," Gandalf interrupted. "Let us make it past the bridge, and then debate what comes after."
Halbarad nodded. "Agreed," he said, though Dudo suspected he had no intention of conceding custody of Aragorn, spent horse or no spent horse. He reached down and lifted Dudo onto Star's back. "Hold on tight," he said. "This is going to be a rough ride."
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.