Author's Notes: Story sparked by Meckinock's casual comment some time back about Aragorn and Gandalf's closeness, and the fact that she'd been having trouble getting Halbarad to talk to her lately. Happy belated birthday, Meckinock!
The Bree-land hill rose gently over the patchwork fields of farms, with their autumn wheat hanging ripe and ready for harvest. No rain in the past week, which was good, and farmers could be seen whetting their scythes, while children roamed the fields, throwing stones at hungry birds. The air was clear, with just that hint of cool to it, herald of the season to come. No sign of trouble. No sign of fear. Just a curious glance to greet an old, grey wanderer, and then the concerns of hearth and home prevailed.
Ah, Bree! Gandalf thought, appreciatively, and quickened his pace.
The sun was sinking by the time he reached the town, and Mr. Goatleaf, who watched the gates, greeted him and absently waved him within without looking up from the lantern he was repairing. "You have a good night, Mr. Gandalf—don't mind me any, I hope, I've got to get this hinge working right!" he grunted.
"A very good night to you, as well, Mr. Goatleaf, and a good watch," Gandalf replied, tipping his hat slightly before continuing on his way, heading for his haven of choice: The Prancing Pony.
Butterbur's inn had light blazing out all the windows on the first floor, and wizardly ears picked up the sounds of merriment well before he reached the door. The porch was packed with Bree-land grandfathers and their chairs, and the door opened to a merry haze of pipeweed and laughter.
"Why it's Mr. Gandalf come back to see us!" exclaimed a voice from somewhere about waist-height, or a little lower, and the wizard smiled as Tobbard Bybrooks came trotting over, bearing a huge basket of bread that had to be nearly half as large as he was.
"Hello Toby," Gandalf replied. "How are your lads this year?"
"They're well, quite well. Timo's done me and his mum proud, he has—got himself apprenticed to the fuller this last year. And my Tib's still working here, likely will follow me," Tobbard said, beaming. "Well, sir, I'll just go fetch Mr. Butterbur. You wait right there."
With that, the hobbit trotted off, hefting his basket, and disappeared in the direction of the kitchens. Given the season, and Butterbur's fondness for ale, it was not unlikely the innkeeper was keeping an eye on the kegs between runs to the common rooms or parlors. Gandalf removed his hat and leaned upon his staff, letting his gaze wander over the room. There were Bree-landers aplenty in the common room tonight—Men and hobbits from Combe and Archet, and of course from Bree itself—a number of Dwarves on their way to the Blue Mountains, no doubt, or else returning from them. He spied a few merchants that he recognized from the village about the Forsaken Inn, and even a party of Brandybucks.
And as he squinted a bit into the darker corners, he caught sight of a few men clad in green and brown and black and grey, smoking their pipes and eyeing the company out of watchful habit. Rangers, of course, and Gandalf made a note to see whether he could not get a word with them and catch up on the news, though he did not immediately recognize any of them. Is Pelhar still captain of the Sarn Ford guard, I wonder? Gandalf thought, musing on the possibility that the Ranger had gone to another post. Of course, they might also be with the North Greenway guard…
But all such musings were interrupted by a loud hail, and then Balibar Butterbur was shaking his hand. "Long time away again, eh, Gandalf? What's it been, two years? More? Seen enough of the world yet?" the innkeep asked.
"It has been two years and a season more, and there's yet more of the world to see," the wizard answered.
"You ask me, it's a shame it's as big as all that, and mostly filled with wastes and strangeness," Butterbur declared, shaking his head. "But I suppose a wizard knows his own business, which ain't that of regular folk. You'll be wanting a bath, I'm sure—the mistress is seeing to it. And I'll show you your room—upstairs, I hope you don't mind. It's just that with harvest coming on, we're busy, and then there's the Heathertoes wedding set to go in a couple of weeks…"
"No trouble at all, Bali," Gandalf assured him, as he followed the man up the stairs. "'Tis good to be back."
Butterbur showed him to a small room at the end of east wing. It had a little round window in it, and Gandalf, depositing his pack in the corner, opened it and looked out. The room itself was partly under the hill, and he had only to reach down a short ways to touch the grass.
"Here's the key. Now, if any of the lads give you trouble, coming up to rap on the windows or make faces or what not, you just let me know, or throw a stone, and we'll take care of it. Just, um, no magicking them, if you would—wouldn't be very good for business," the innkeep said, just a little nervously. For all he and Gandalf had known each other for many years now, there were times when Butterbur was uncomfortably reminded that his old friend was a wizard.
"My dear Bali, have I once turned any of your lads into frogs?" Gandalf replied, serenely, and smiled at the other's discomfiture. "Now, about that bath…?"
Perhaps an hour later, having taken a late afternoon's tea in his room, and eventually followed Tobbard down to the wash room where a tub and hot water and soap and towels had been laid out for him, Gandalf, feeling much improved for having rid himself of the Road's leavings, returned up the stairs to fetch his pipe. He fished the key out of his scrip, unlocked the door, then stepped into the room and frowned.
There was a Ranger in it.
Having been a wanderer all his long years in Middle-earth, Gandalf had certainly been the unexpected guest of many, and had had all manner of unexpected guests in his camps, and he fortunately knew the ways of Rangers, and so did not immediately reach for the knife he kept tucked in the back of his belt. Nor did he immediately level his staff at the fellow, and it seemed the Ranger was not inclined to reach for his weapons either.
And so, after a moment's silent staring at each other, Gandalf cocked his head, and asked, "Window, or did you pick the lock?"
"The locks here are easy," the Ranger replied, and the wizard raised a brow. Though certainly man-grown, the voice sounded still young to his ears, and familiar, too.
"Have we met?" Gandalf asked. At that, the Ranger pushed his hood back, though he said nothing, waiting on recognition. And it did not take long. "Halbarad?"
"Aye," Halbarad replied.
"I had no idea you had been sent out this way."
"The captains thought it the wisest course—a tamer posting, less likelihood of hot-headed ventures," the young man replied, a bit sourly.
"I'd not have thought you hot-headed from our travels together, you and Aragorn and I."
"Well, that's the point of it, you see," Halbarad replied, folding his arms across his chest as he paced a little nearer. "When we parted ways, and I ended with Celenor's band, and Aragorn continued on with you to bring word to the Angle, no one knew Aragorn would be leaving for Rohan by spring. It was something of a shock, you might say. Some of us were a bit upset by it."
Which was hardly news to Gandalf, who had weathered the outburst in the Angle that Aragorn's announcement had inspired, and no few dark looks for supporting the Heir of Isildur in his aims. Judging from the way Halbarad was looking at him, he had yet to redeem himself in the eyes of at least some of the Dúnedain, and he supposed he ought not to be surprised in this particular case.
The older men, who had known him longer, had eventually, grudgingly accepted that a wizard had his reasons for supporting—mayhap even suggesting, though no one had quite dared to voice that question—such a journey to the last remaining scion of the House of Isildur.
Halbarad, however, knew far less of Gandalf than did others. What he knew was his duty by his cousin, whom he quite clearly adored. And now Aragorn is in Rohan, and Halbarad is in the Bree-land. Like parting a bear from her cub! He sighed. "Out of curiosity, do the others know you are here?"
"I said I was going for the latrine."
"And how long do you think they shall wait before they come looking for you?"
"It has already been a quarter hour."
Gandalf raised a bushy brow. "Not one to fear your captain's wrath, are you?"
Halbarad grunted. "My captain says meddling with a wizard's affairs is not wise. But the way I see it," he said, eyeing Gandalf sharply, "you meddled first. I trusted you when we parted to see Aragorn safely home—that was my charge, 'til we found Celenor and his lads. I still would have left them had it been just the two of us on the Road, but you said you would see that help was sent, and walk home with Aragorn."
"And we did that."
"And then you sent him off on this venture into Rohan!"
"Aragorn took that task for himself," Gandalf replied. "I did not 'send' him anywhere."
"He never spoke of wanting to leave Eriador before we met you."
"Might he not have desired to, but kept it secret?"
"Not from me!" came the quick, certain response. "He would not have kept such from me."
Which might well be true, from all that Gandalf had seen of the pair in the little more than four months he had spent on the road with them, coming back from Lake-town. The wizard gazed upon the worried, angry young face before him, with its scraggle of beard, and all the angles sharpened by a hungrier season abroad than would have been had at home, and he sighed once more.
"What is it that you want, Halbarad?" he asked quietly. "The deed is done—you cannot go charging into Rohan to drag him out, though play your cards right with your captains, and you may end up his contact from time to time. I will suggest it to them, if you wish."
"I'll earn my own way with the captains, thank you," Halbarad said, stiffly, and shook his head. "I do not wish for your help in that."
"Why did you do it? Was it some—vision? Some wizardly knowing?" the lad demanded, and there was a note of desperate hope twisting in that undertone.
Gandalf gazed at him for a long moment, before he answered: "If you like, it was a 'wizardly knowing.' There are things, Halbarad, that Aragorn cannot learn from Eriador, or from message runs and trade-runs to the Lonely Mountain, and yet learn them he must. A moment!" he cautioned, when he saw the relief in the other's face. "You have asked for an answer, and like it or not, lad, you have meddled in a wizard's affairs—and that means you should be prepared to know something of that in which you have entangled yourself."
He paused, waiting until Halbarad nodded, and then continued: "A wizard's sight tells him only what must be done, if he is wise enough to discern it. That is all that it tells him. You do not know, young man, how many have died under the yoke of necessity, whether foreseen by a wizard or not. But you were not long ago in Dale, beneath Erebor—the Dwarves and the Bardings prosper now because Thorin and many others did what was necessary, at my prompting. You know how their tales ended. For that matter, you know the tales of your own people, the long line of Lúthien's children. You know what necessity demanded of them, and how their tales ended. Wizardly knowing does not guarantee anything to the one who listens—not one single life."
And all the while that he spoke, Gandalf watched Halbarad's expression grow taut, and the worry twist in him. Poor lad! he thought, feeling pity and compassion stir. And no sooner had he ceased to speak than the other murmured, "But we need him. We need—"
"I know. And for what it is worth, I have hope. I do not believe he shall come to harm. He has been well-trained, and he is a canny fellow—looks down the road a ways even now, as many of so tender years do not. And Halbarad," the wizard said, and risked to lay a hand upon the other's shoulder, "though he may not be in your care, he will be in the care of many others, more than all the Rangers together. Trust them! Let them see him through this thing that has come to him, and you will find, unless I am much mistaken, that what you need is not the Ranger, nor even the Chieftain, but the man he will become."
Halbarad bit his lip, and he lowered his eyes, staring down at the floor for a little while, ere, abruptly, he nodded. "Thank you, sir," he murmured, and then coughed to clear his throat.
"If you are answered, then let us return." In response, Halbarad nodded once more, giving himself a bit of a shake ere he raised his head, and the dour Ranger's mask was back in place.
"Good," the wizard said. But he stayed the lad when Halbarad would have made for the door, and at the questioning looks, said: "I have answered your question, but I wonder: what were you planning to do had I not done so?"
At that, the faintest hint of pink touched the other's cheeks, and Halbarad looked once more away, down at his hands this time, which he rubbed in an almost-idle fashion against each other. Then: "I do not know, in truth. I thought you would answer, or you would send me away—maybe with some spell on me. Either way, there was nothing more for me to do but come and ask."
Gandalf laughed at that, and he gave the young man a clap on the back. "Well," he said, "there's hope for you yet. Come along then. Let's be going. You can introduce me to your captain—tell me something of your ventures as we go, and I shall have my questions ready. No one need know more than that we met each other on the way back from the latrines."
"Thank you, sir."
"'Gandalf' was good enough, once," the wizard said mildly. And with that, they were off, Halbarad speaking low and swift of his company's doings as they went, and Gandalf, absorbing it all, looked appraisingly upon the young Ranger and smiled to himself.
Oh yes, he thought, there is hope for you. For as much as we shall need Aragorn to be the scion of kings, greatness is not in the end a lonely endeavor. You should do for him, my friend; aye, you shall do indeed…