Summary: Estel must draw upon all of his hard-won skills when he receives an unexpected and frightening introduction to the world beyond Rivendell.
Category: Lord of the Rings
Word Count: 72,795
“I know he’s here, I know you’re keeping him from me!”
The accusation burst from behind the door of his father’s study as Estel’s first knock landed, and he pulled back quickly, dropping his hand to his side. He hadn’t expected that Elrond would be otherwise engaged—whenever possible, his father reserved these afternoon hours for private meditation and study. Estel hesitated, uncertain whether to wait or to go back to his room and finish packing before trying again. Elrond’s voice drifted out as well, his words too low for Estel to hear but his soothing tone unmistakable. Estel began to back away but the first voice came again, halting him in his tracks.
“I won’t forget this, Elf.” Estel tensed, feeling the hostility directed toward his father even through the wall and door. “I see now the skills and hospitality of the Lord of Rivendell for what they really are, and I’ll not be silent about it. I—”
Elrond’s voice rose, not agitated—his father rarely became agitated with patients, and Estel had finally realized who it was in the study with the Master of Imladris—but loud enough that Estel could now hear his words. “Sir, I wish you to understand that I and all of Rivendell grieve for your loss. It is always a tragedy when one such as your son loses his life at an early—”
“What would you know about it?” A thump and a crash followed this cry, and Estel jumped. He wasn’t permitted to interact with strangers who came to the valley, but he was unwilling to abandon his father to a possibly violent situation. He might be only twelve summers, but he knew enough to be of use if Elrond needed him. “Elves don’t die! No one dies here! My son—”
“I assure you, you are mistaken.” Elrond’s voice was tight but controlled. Long accustomed to his father’s tones, Estel pictured the expression that would accompany these words as he pressed against the door, gripping the ornate handle. “Elves do not die of natural causes, but we do fall to accident and injury. We too know the pain of—”
“Why would you keep my son from me?”
Another crash, and Estel could no longer be still. He jerked at the handle and pushed against the heavy door. “Ada?”
Elrond stood back beneath the open arch of the window, eyes following the distraught Man who strode the length of his study. Two vases lay shattered against the front of the desk, quills scattered the desk and the floor, and ink pooled across the smooth wood. Both heads snapped toward the door as Estel entered, and Elrond held up a quick hand.
“Estel, go. Now.”
Estel hesitated, eyeing the broken vases. If this Man was throwing things at his father …
“Estel.” Elrond’s voice snapped out. “Go. I—”
“Are you all right, Ada?”
Understanding sparked in Elrond’s eyes. “I am well, and the situation is in hand. Go now. I will—”
“No need, I’ve had enough of your hospitality.” The word twisted in the Man’s mouth, as his face twisted with a wrath Estel had seldom seen. Dark eyes speared him, sweeping from his head to his boots, and after a moment Estel dropped his gaze, uncomfortable with being the focus of such intensity from a stranger. Elrond moved forward, but the Man shook his head and turned away. “I’ll not stay here another night. I—”
“Jerold Ferrier.” The Man halted, but did not turn back. Elrond approached slowly, leaving several arm’s lengths between himself and his guest. “You are ill yet, injured and in need of care. I ask you to reconsider this—”
“I’ll not stay here.” Ferrin swept his dark gaze onto the Elf. “And this isn’t the end. I’ll have my son back, no matter how you try to hide him. You won’t have him, not my boy.” His eyes snapped again to Estel, and then the Man turned abruptly and stalked into the hall, leaving an open door and a heavy silence in his wake.
Estel shuddered and edged toward Elrond. “Ada, I’m sorry. I only—”
“I understand, Estel, and I thank you.” Elrond crossed to Estel and squeezed his shoulder. “Know, however, that even if you believe me to be in danger, you must not enter this room without my permission. If you truly feel I am in need, fetch Glorfindel or one of your brothers.”
“Yes, Ada.” Estel sighed, torn between chagrin and irritation. What if there hadn’t been time? What if the stranger had grown violent before—
“You needn’t worry, my son.” A weary half-smile played upon his father’s lips. “I am well able to defend myself until aid arrives.”
Estel flushed. Of course Elrond could defend himself. He had heard all the stories … “I am sorry,” he mumbled again, and Elrond pressed his shoulder once more before releasing him.
“Enough. I appreciate your intentions.” Elrond sighed deeply, eyes turning once more toward the open door. Estel eyed the empty hallway as well, and the Man’s accusations rang in his ears again.
“Ada, why did he think you were hiding his son?” Estel skirted around his father and bent to gather pieces of broken pottery. “Elladan said he was dead, drowned in the accident. He told me they couldn’t find his body and he never even came here.” He stopped his task and looked back up to the Elf, eyes narrowing as another thought struck him. “And why would he even think you would do something like that?” Forgetting the mess, he rose swiftly. “You helped him, how could he—”
“Peace, Estel.” Elrond shook his head and moved slowly to the nearest chair, settling himself with a weary sigh. “Grief may do terrible things to the mind and heart, and I fear that Jerold Ferrier has had more than his share in the past months.” Estel drifted closer, forgoing for the moment his cleaning efforts. “From what we are able to understand, his wife and young daughter died of illness some months past, and he himself had not fully recovered from the same infirmity when a chance lightning strike burned a good deal of his farm holding. He chose to relocate rather than rebuild, given the memories associated with his current home, yet tragedy struck again in the form of the rains which have been long upon us this spring.” Elrond motioned absently to the window and the grey, wet day beyond. “Their path crumbled beneath them, pulling wagon and horses into the nearby stream, and his son was swept away before your brothers came across the scene.” Estel’s father rubbed at his brow. “I fear that he has gone mad with injury, illness, and grief. As we cannot produce his son’s remains, he now believes that we have hidden the child from him, for reasons known only within his own mind.”
Estel stared, horrified to hear of all that this unfortunate Man had endured. “But Ada, you won’t let him leave, will you? Not if he is still ill.”
Elrond smiled faintly. “Rivendell offers hospitality and peace, Estel, not a prison sentence. I may advise him against this course, but given his current feelings toward us, I do not know if it would be best to force him to remain. Perhaps more harm than good may come of it. In any event, it may be that removal from this place to more familiar surroundings will help him to reorient his thoughts.” He stood then, and crossed to gather the fallen quills. “I will send herbs and instructions, and perhaps one of the twins or some other to ensure him safely onto his road.”
He fell silent then, eyes far distant, and together they cleaned the broken pottery and spilled ink, leaving the refuse in a pot by the door for later disposal. Estel’s own mind was busy with all that he had learned, weighing sympathy for their guest’s plight against the still ringing accusations leveled at his father. Elrond was forced to nudge him and repeat his name to gain his attention.
“Estel.” Estel looked quickly around, and his father smiled. “This is not for you to worry over. Come. You will be leaving soon for your next hide and seek, will you not?”
Estel straightened, excitement pushing away all thoughts of grief and illness. “Aye, Ada. It is why I came, to wish you farewell. I will be going within the hour.”
“You have taken leave of your mother as well?”
White teeth flashed. “Of course.” Estel’s grin widened. “She said to have fun, and that Glorfindel told her he thinks I may remain uncaptured for up to two days this time.”
Elrond’s eyebrow rose. “Two days?”
“Who will be your pursuer?”
“Elrohir.” Estel couldn’t quite hide his anxious bounce. Elrond nodded slowly, studying again the wetness beyond his study window.
“Well. Glorfindel expects much from you.” His father tilted his head toward the sodden out-of-doors. “I think that I will not extend an opinion in your hearing, and I suspect Glorfindel did not intend for you to hear his, either. I will only say this—the rains will be both a blessing and a hindrance in this endeavor. Take care you do not become overconfident.”
“I won’t, Ada.”
“And be cautious, my son.” Elrond’s hand rested briefly upon his head. “I do not wish to lose you to a crumbled creek bed or a chance lightning strike.”
It was a sobering reminder. Estel nodded. “I will. Mother already made me promise, as well. I’ll not take any chances.”
His father’s lips tipped into a smile. “Well. Not too many chances.”
Estel grinned again. “Yes, Ada.” He circled Elrond and all but skipped for the door, his mind already on the path he would take away from the House in order to lure his brother onto a false trail. When he reached the doorway he turned back for a moment, tossing a careless wave toward his father. Elrond nodded and raised a hand in return, settling again behind his desk. Estel slipped through the doorway and disappeared from sight.
His head hurt, and his arms were … heavy, and his mouth was dry.
So dry. As if he’d been chewing on wool, or powder.
He tried to move, and suddenly hands were there, and a voice.
“Shh, son. It’s not safe yet. Shh.”
A hand held his head, and a waterskin pressed to his lips. He gulped the wet, bitter liquid, and the pain and heaviness and awareness faded.
His stomach lurched and he rolled over, heaving. The world spun and the nausea rose, sharp and overwhelming. He curled around himself, confused and sick. His gut cramped again and he moaned—or whimpered. Hands gripped him, brushing sweaty hair gently back from his face.
“Ah, I’m sorry son, I’m sorry. My fault, I think I gave you too much that last time.” Another spasm overtook him, and the hands braced him, held him. “That’s right. Get it out, get it out.”
He was … sick. He must be sick. But why? What had happened?
“That’s right, son. Your da’s got you. Just breathe. In and out, just breathe.”
The voice wasn’t right. He swallowed against another cramp and tried to open his eyes, but the light blinded him and pain lanced through his head. The voice wasn’t right, and the words weren’t right, and the … the hands weren’t right—short, calloused fingers instead of long, cool, slender hands.
“That’s right. You’ll be all right, I’ve got you. Nice and slow, just breathe.”
His head spun again, like that time he’d snuck into the wine cellar and spent all day testing the various bottles. Blackness painted his awareness, hazy spots swam before him even with his eyes closed, and he sank gratefully back into sleep.
Estel opened his eyes, and for a moment wished he hadn’t. His head throbbed and his stomach rolled slowly, gently, and he could barely lift his arms. His mouth tasted as though a mouse had died in it. He blinked up at the pale sky, squinting even against the overcast day. He fingered the coarse material beneath his fingers, felt the grain of cheap wood planking beneath, and wondered vaguely just what had happened.
His brain didn’t seem to be working properly—it took him far too long to focus. When he finally managed, confusion and fear nibbled at him through the heavy sluggishness. Hide and seek. He was supposed to be on a hide and seek.
This didn’t … Estel tried to raise his head, but the attempt cost far too much effort. He relaxed again, feeling only thin layers of rough cloth between his head and the wood, and drew in a long breath. What did he remember? He searched back through the muddy layers for something solid.
He had been delayed getting out of the House. He had finished packing quickly after leaving Elrond’s study, but as he gathered his final gear he had stumbled across several history tomes stacked toward the rear of his desk and remembered with something like panic that he was to have finished his essay on the rise and fall of Annúminas before he set out. Erestor would not be best pleased that he had forgotten. Still, he was half-finished, and Elrohir wasn’t due to set out until nightfall. He had decided the bit of delay would be worth it. It ended up taking nearly three hours, and by the time he finished Estel was beginning to wish that he had simply left the essay until his return, regardless of the displeasure his carelessness would inspire. Erestor hadn’t been at his desk, but Estel had left the completed essay for him and scurried toward the rear stable exit. The stables were usually not terribly busy in the early afternoon—at least, not like they were in the mornings and approaching dinner—and with luck no one would take notice of him. There was no need for Elrohir to know that Estel didn’t have quite the head start he’d been planning.
In fact, the only person he saw as he slipped out the door was the unfortunate Man, Jerold Ferrier, marching with a large pack toward the stables. As Estel watched the Man stumbled and his pack went flying, scattering its contents. Estel hesitated, for he was not to interact with the strangers who came to Imladris. Remembering his father’s words about all that the Man had suffered, though, he could not simply watch him stagger about gathering his things. He approached on soft feet, scooping up a packet of wound powder and a bundle of bandages.
“Are you certain you should be going? Master Elrond is the best healer there is—he can make you well much faster than if you leave and try to tend yourself along the way.”
Ferrier jumped and swung around on him, and Estel danced quickly back, hoping that he hadn’t made the Man angry. The intense dark gaze softened as it beheld him, though, and Ferrier reached out to him, gripping his shoulder tightly.
“No, no. Can’t stay here.” The Man’s face was flushed, and Estel wondered if it was from activity or fever. Perhaps both. He was certain that his father would include an analgesic with whatever herbs he sent with Ferrier—if the Man chose to even take them, once away from Imladris—but wondered if he shouldn’t have a dose even now. Whatever the case, Estel didn’t much care for the hand on him, and sank down away from it to gather a simple tunic from the grass. Ferrier nodded. “Yes, that’s good. Bring it to the stables, will you? They’ve given us … given me a wagon. Bring it.” He turned and moved away, leaving Estel to stare in disbelief after him. He’d meant only to help, not do it all himself. Shaking his head, he scrambled around collecting the rest of Ferrier’s supplies, stuffed them without order into the pack, and ran the rest of the way to the stables.
Elrond had apparently authorized a small, light wagon for Ferrier, as the Man had lost his own in the accident which had taken his son’s life. Estel found it and the Man on the far side of the building, and hurried over to toss the pack into the open bed. Then …
He thought hard, but couldn’t remember anything after that, and his heart jumped with dread.
Fear lent him the strength that he’d been lacking. Estel forced himself up, clawing at the low upright boards that formed a corner just behind his head, and stared over them at a broad, overgrown, empty plain. Dread blossomed into full-blown panic.
Where was he? This was surely nowhere in Rivendell …
A creak and a scrape sounded behind him, a soft “Whoa,” and he whipped around, coming face to face with Jerold Ferrier. All thought left him.
Estel dove over the near sideboard, landing hard from the back of a wagon that hadn’t even stopped moving. If there was any pain he didn’t notice it. He scrambled to his feet and weaved frantically down the shallow dirt track, back away from the direction the wagon was pointed. He heard a voice calling and heavy footsteps following, but he ignored them, scrabbling back up when he pitched forward over a hidden rock, diving off of the track into the high grass for better cover. How long he might have gone on like this Estel had no idea, but Glorfindel’s voice snapped in his ear.
“Where are you going?”
He slammed to a halt, panting. Where was he going? His tutor in all things tactical had scolded and at times bodily held him back time and again during their training exercises, when Estel would have hared off into the unknown without surveillance or plan. Now, Glorfindel’s voice continued.
“It is possible you may find yourself in a situation where running without any kind of a plan might the right option, but they’re not as common as you seem to believe. Mostly, it will just cause more trouble than you were in at the start. Now think!”
Where was he going? He swung around hard, and Ferrier, who had been following, slowed. Estel eyed the vast open land around them and realized with a sinking dismay that he had no idea where they were. He would be able to determine east from west easily enough, but he had no idea how long he’d been asleep or what direction Ferrier had taken them.
They could be anywhere.
“Where are we?” he demanded, hating the high pitch of his voice. Ferrier held out his hands, perhaps making an attempt to be soothing, and took a cautious step forward.
“You don’t need to worry, lad. They won’t find us. That Elf he sent along, he never saw you. Never knew you were there. I kept you safe. They won’t—”
“Where are we?”
Ferrier took another step forward, and Estel stumbled back. At this movement, the Man’s hands dropped and his shoulders slumped. “Ah, Nate.” Sorrow laced his words, and Ferrier shook his head sadly. His eyes glittered wetly. “I hoped you’d see, once we were away. Thought the sleep would be good for you.”
Nate? Estel sucked in horrified a breath. This Man thought that he was his dead son … “I’m Estel,” he snapped, and wished that his voice didn’t shake. The Man shook his head and moved forward again, slowly, as if calming a spooked horse.
“Lad, I don’t know what they did to you, but can’t you see? They’re tricking you, Nate, they’re—”
“I’m not Nate.”
“Surely you can see.” Ferrier was close enough now that Estel could make out his flushed features, the sweat trickling from his brow. It was warm out, but not that warm … “Remember what they looked like, lad, remember what they talked like and how they dressed, then look at us. They’re Elves! We’re not, boy. We don’t belong—”
“I’m not your son!”
Ferrier flinched as though Estel had struck him and stopped moving forward, but he also didn’t back away. For the moment, it was enough. Estel wrapped his arms around himself and wished he wasn’t shaking, that his head and stomach didn’t hurt, that he could think …
He wished he was home.
“But you are not,” Glorfindel reminded him.
Estel took a long, deep breath. He was not home, and now he had to deal with what he had, not what he wished he had. He surveyed their surroundings again, the flat country rolling endlessly away on every side. There were no structures to be seen, and very few trees. It was barren and strange to him, after the deep forests of Imladris. The ground was damp from recent rains but not overly wet, so at least the past day must have been dry. If the clouds building to the west were any indication, it might not remain that way long. Whatever tracks they had left might easily be washed away.
Tracks. At last, Estel’s thoughts focused on his family. Glorfindel and his brothers would be looking for him, of course, and they would find him—there was no way that this Man could outsmart Elves, no matter how hard he tried—but how long would it take them? How long before they even started to look? They weren’t expecting to see him for the next two days, at least. And how long would it take them to figure out where to look? There were other reasons he might have gone missing, most of them probably far more likely than what had actually occurred. The realization chilled him even in the warm, damp air, and he shivered, tucking his cold fingers against his sides. With a late start and all the rain, it could be weeks …
“So. What is your first priority?”
Estel was grateful when his mentor’s voice once again stalled the encroaching panic. He set immediately to the question. He needed to find out where he was. That would mean finding people, or some sort of landmark at the very least. Of course, a landmark probably wouldn’t help him here, since he wouldn’t know what it meant anyway. And he couldn’t very well just walk off onto the plains and hope that he came across a farm or a town. He could follow the track, but he had no idea where it led, or if it even led anywhere—it was possible that Ferrier had known of it and cut cross-country from some other road, or had even stumbled over it by accident. He eyed the Man, who was hovering in place watching him. Glorfindel’s voice came again.
“Good, but even before that?”
Before that? Estel drew in a breath. His own safety. He needed to make himself as safe as possible.
But, how could he do that? He wasn’t safe. He was lost in the middle of nowhere, with a Man who was ill and crazy with grief, who had hidden Estel from his family because he thought that Elrond had been hiding his dead son from him …
No! Estel forced his mind back to his task. Make himself as safe as possible. Very well. What were his options? How could he do that? He was unfamiliar with this land, he didn’t know where to find food or shelter, he didn’t know what kind of predators might make this area home. He didn’t know what direction to go, or how to find people…
His eyes fell on Ferrier again, and he sucked in a breath. The Man knew (presumably, at least) where they were. Ferrier had food, and the horse and wagon—although it seemed that at some point he had traded the Elves’ light wagon for a smaller two-wheeled cart. Estel refused to think about the fact that it would make it that much harder for his family to track him. Ferrier would also have to stop for supplies at some point, and that meant people. Maybe even a town or village. Someone, at least, who might tell him where he was and what direction was home.
But, he drugged you! his mind screamed. Without conscious thought, he took another step back. Ferrier had taken him away from home, and he had drugged him for probably days on end. Estel forced those thoughts away and made himself survey the Man more closely. Ferrier, noting this, straightened, holding out a hand.
Estel noted the Man’s flushed face and swaying stance. He definitely wouldn’t be trapped with Ferrier, then, when he finally decided that it was time to leave. The Man was ill, and even in good health he was unlikely to be anywhere near as fast as Estel. He would have to be careful that Ferrier didn’t try to drug him again … but somehow, he didn’t think that would happen. The brown gaze pinned on him now was nothing but gentle and regretful, and a faint touch of sympathy rose despite his fear and anger. Ferrier had been trying to save his son. Once out of danger, he surely wouldn’t keep him drugged and unconscious.
Besides, Ferrier might not even have any of the drug left. If he had been using something that Elrond had sent for his own illness and hurts—Estel didn’t know all of their names, but he knew that there were analgesic herbs that acted as sedatives at higher doses—he might have run out already, using them at doses to keep Estel asleep. It also meant Ferrier wouldn’t have been using it for himself, which probably explained the Man’s flushing and sweating.
When it came to it, though, he didn’t have any answers about what Ferrier had done or would do. He would just have to be watchful, careful to taste a tiny bit of everything before eating.
He would have to be watchful. Estel shivered again. Did that mean he was staying? He stared once more into the lands around them, then looked back at Ferrier, silent and sad and hopeful. As unlikely as it seemed, he thought maybe he really was safest for the moment with Ferrier.
At least, he could think of no better options.
Estel scrubbed at his itching cheeks and sniffed, only just realizing that his eyes and face were wet. He wiped angrily at them both then moved forward slowly, giving the stationary Man a wide berth as he approached the cart. Ferrier stayed back, patient now that Estel was joining him again, even if not full willing. Estel scrambled over the sideboard into the back, huddled in the corner, and rested his head on his tucked-in knees.
Please, come find me. Please, come find me.
Making himself remember his father’s words about all that this Man had suffered, Estel forced himself not to flinch away when Ferrier ruffled his hair once before silently climbing onto the seat and setting them off down the track again.
The inn … smelled. When they had first entered, the wave of smoke and grease and (Estel reluctantly sniffed at himself) people and other unidentified scents had been overwhelming. He couldn’t remember ever having gone for so long without a bath—even camping or training they would jump in the river once a day with a bar of hard soap to scrub away the dirt and sweat. He wondered if maybe Men didn’t worry about such things, because no one else in the inn seemed to notice or mind. After about a half an hour, though, it didn’t really bother him anymore either. Estel wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but at least it meant that he could use his mouth for eating rather than breathing. The stew was greasy, but he had only recently regained his appetite. He was so hungry that he gulped it down all at once and asked for seconds. Ferrier was quick to agree, ruffling his hair in what Estel had quickly come to recognize as the Man’s preferred gesture of affection. The jerky, nuts, and bread they carried on the cart were growing quickly stale.
Not that Estel had eaten much of it. After the raw energy from his first surge of panic, the post-sedative hangover had crashed back down, leaving him drowsy, sluggish, and nauseated. He spent much of the following days dozing in the nest of blankets that Ferrier had made for him, thankful he hadn’t tried to run. He would have starved or been eaten by predators in very little time. The nausea lasted the longest, lingering even after he was able to remain reliably awake for any length of time. The swaying, bumpy cart made it worse—they had left the track for a wide road several hours after Estel woke, and Ferrier was making all speed toward their destination, wherever that might be. Fear and tiny insects and a wet, rotten smell when the wind blew from the north added to it, and in the end he ate only because he knew that both Elrond and his mother would insist on it. Also, Ferrier seemed distressed by his lack of appetite. “I know you don’t feel well, son, but you’ve got to eat!”
Ferrier himself didn’t seem to be getting any better, if his continued flush and the dry rasp in his voice were any indication. Once he had recovered sufficiently, Estel rummaged through the bags in the cart, only to confirm his fear that whatever his father had sent with Ferrier at the start of his journey was either used or discarded. He did find a single small bag of chamomile tea at the bottom of a pack, accompanied by detailed instructions in Elrond’s flowing script. The sight of his father’s handwriting nearly brought him to tears. He wiped his eyes dry and detached the paper gently from the pouch, slipping it into a pocket before returning the tea to its home.
So, he could do nothing for the Man. Still, even if all he wanted was to flee and hopefully never see Ferrier again, Estel found himself worrying for his companion. He remembered Elrond’s words—“I fear that Jerold Ferrier has had more than his share in the past months”—and was strangely reluctant to leave the grieving man alone. He had heard from his father and his mother, his brothers, Glorfindel, Erestor, Tasala the cook and Faurín the horse master and many of his friends and teachers in Imladris about the terrible loneliness and pain that came from the death of loved ones. Surely there must be some other way than to just abandon this Man to his illness and heartache.
Surely his father wouldn’t approve of such a thing …
No plan presented itself, though, and Estel was quick put such thoughts aside for later. He had made another discovery during his search of the packs—a crude map that detailed (as far as he was able to tell) Ferrier’s travel route. On its own, he might not have been able to make anything of it, but it was enough to verify for him what he had already guessed about their location.
“In central Eriador,” Erestor’s voice lectured smoothly, “the Great East Road runs between the Weather Hills and then the Midgewater Marshes to the north before entering Bree-land, and a range of hills known as the South Downs to the south.” When Estel had questioned the loremaster further, Erestor had described a marsh as something of a stagnant pool on a larger scale, filled with soft, treacherous ground and, in this case, tiny biting insects.
Estel suspected that this marsh lay now to the north, given the rotten smell and the little insects that kept snacking on him. To the south lay a long line of hills that he had somehow, in his first panic, either completely missed or had possibly mistaken for cloud buildup. Either thought made him flush with embarrassment, and he was thankful that neither his brothers or Glorfindel had been witness to such an error. Their road, then, must be the Great East Road. When Estel pictured Erestor’s map in his mind he was frightened and disheartened to think how far they had already traveled. He wondered how far behind them his family might be—they might have spent several days looking for him in Rivendell, fearing a fall into a stream or cave or some other sort of weather-related accident—and then forced himself to think about something else instead. He didn’t want to cry again, it would only make his dry, gritty eyes even worse.
He was reviewing the map again—absently tracing the cross-cuts drawn in places where the Road took a particularly wide turn, attempting to read the undecipherable scribbles that lined the margins and underscored a few of the longer detours, wondering if this had been Ferrier’s planned route even before the accident that had taken his son’s life—when the inn appeared. Early evening was upon them, and Ferrier called back, “Think we’ll stop here and get supper. I want to talk to the stable master too.” Estel nodded silently. He tucked the map away into Ferrier’s pack and eyed their destination, nervous to be meeting others for the first time since … Well. He wasn’t sure what to do. Ferrier had stolen him, but had not harmed him—he had been kind and affectionate, in fact, and Estel thought the Man had probably been a good father. Also, Ferrier was still sick. Anyone in this inn, however, would be a complete stranger. Estel couldn’t be certain that telling his story would make things better. His father had always kept him sheltered from the eyes of outsiders, and although he didn’t know why, he did know that it was better not to be seen by some people.
How could he know who to trust?
The question sat uneasily as they entered, and remained as Ferrier ordered food and drink and Estel sat down to his first meal since babyhood in a structure built by Men. It was lower than anything in Imladris, darker and smokier and more cramped. The ceiling was stained, and the tables and chairs were sturdy but battered. It held nothing of the airy grace of Rivendell, but the talk and laughter, the shouted orders and insults, the ease between the innkeeper and the entering customers were welcoming. He had expected … he wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but he had gotten the sense from many Elves—though not his family or teachers—that Men were an angry, violent lot. Estel knew a moment of relief that this sample, at least, did not seem to fit that description. Then, his attention was distracted by a completely different sight.
Men he had seen. His mother’s cousins and some others of her people came regularly to Imladris—though he had met only a few—and even if Estel was not allowed near the infirmaries when strangers were present, he had nevertheless at times been exposed to his father’s patients. Other than his mother, however, Estel had never (to his memory) seen any girl of his own race. He watched the young waitress cross the room, delivering bowls of stew to one table, gathering empty mugs at another, laughing with a third. He had little to compare, but thought that she was possibly only a few years older than him. Her hair was straight, an odd light-brown color that lacked the brilliant sheen of Elvish locks. Her face was rounded, her figure full with soft curves that he had never seen on any Elf maiden. Her manner was easy and friendly, not formal. Both the innkeeper and the customers spoke to her with far less deference than would be shown in Rivendell to even the humblest of maidens. She did not seem offended, however, and Estel supposed that this must be usual behavior. He wondered if all girls were treated this way. He could not imagine his mother, always gracious and friendly, responding well to some of the things that made this girl laugh, even if none of it was quite improper.
The waitress noticed him looking and flashed a grin as she passed. Estel blushed and pretended to be fascinated with his stew.
“I’m going to go out back and find the stable master.” Ferrier pushed back his chair and stood. “You stay here and finish up if you want.”
Estel nodded, his stomach tightening. This was his chance, then—but his chance for what? What should he do? Ferrier patted his shoulder and walking away. Estel watched him as he approached the innkeeper and spoke briefly. The other Man nodded and motioned toward a low door at the rear. Ferrier ducked out the door, and then Estel was alone. He took another bite and chewed slowly, trying to work up the courage for … well, anything. Would anyone believe him if he told them? And what would happen to Ferrier if they did? The Man was sick, not bad … He was startled and nearly choked when Ferrier’s chair abruptly scraped back beside him. The young waitress dropped into it, and her face was serious, a startling change from the laughter of only a few minutes before.
She just looked at him for a long moment, and Estel fidgeted uncomfortably, wondering what she wanted. Before he had made up his mind to ask, she spoke. “Is your da all right? He seems … don’t know, but he seems not well.”
Estel was surprised. She had been busy with her duties. He saw, but then, he already knew. He had almost decided that maybe it wasn’t so obvious as he thought, since neither the innkeeper nor their own server had commented. Estel shrugged. “No, he’s been … sick.”
She frowned. “So, he’s getting better?”
He hesitated. “No.” Her eyebrows rose, and Estel had a sudden urge to confide in her, if only about Ferrier’s condition. “He has a fever. I don’t know how bad it is, but we don’t have any medicine, it’s … gone. And he doesn’t … think he’s sick, anyway.”
Her lips pursed. “How far are you going yet?”
Estel shrugged again, making a guess based on the scrawls on Ferrier’s map. “To someplace called Archet, I think, or around there.”
“A couple of days on the road still. But you’ll be going through Bree, no doubt. They’ll have a healer there, and you can get some fever powders.”
“I don’t think he wants them.” Estel sighed and pulled his feet up onto the chair, tucking his chin onto his knees. That was the problem, really—or, one of many. It would be different if Ferrier knew he was sick, but as it was he was likely to just keep going until he collapsed.
The thought was not comforting, either for his sake or for Ferrier’s.
The waitress frowned for a moment, but then suddenly grinned. “Don’t you go anywhere.” She stood quickly, gathered Ferrier’s empty stew bowl, and whisked away, leaving Estel feeling a little stunned by the abruptness of it all. Across the room, the innkeeper back out of the kitchen door laden with plates, then turned and delivered them onto the bar for the servers. Estel watched the scene for a moment, gathering his courage once more. Surely he had to try … something.
He slid off of his chair before he quite knew what he was doing and approached the bar. The innkeeper was filling mugs, and looked up as he approached. “More? Where’s your bowl?”
Estel shook his head. “No, I … my da’s sick.” The word felt bitter and strange in his mouth, but there was no time to think about it. The innkeeper nodded.
“I saw he didn’t look quite right. Marsh fever? It’s been bad this year.”
He had seen. Estel suddenly felt entirely lost, and frightened, and alone. If he had seen, why hadn’t he said or done anything? In Rivendell, illness was treated with speed and skill. Did they not care about such things in the world of Men? The innkeeper filled another mug.
“Lad, this is an inn, not an infirmary, and there’s no healer this side of Bree. Unless your da wants to rent a room and rest up, there’s nothing I can do for him here.”
Suddenly, the homesickness overwhelmed him. “Can you send a message?”
Another full mug hit the bar. “If you keep on, you’ll hit Bree about the same time a messenger would. Maybe before, as I’ve no one to send until tomorrow. Anyway, the cost for—”
“To Rivendell,” he blurted desperately.
The innkeeper actually paused in his work to stare over the bar. “Is this a joke?” Estel shook his head, and the Man snorted. “Lad, I don’t know what’s in that mind of yours, but the Elves are not going to come and heal your da. You’d best just go along to Bree and—”
Now, the innkeeper was becoming annoyed. “I’ve not got time for this. Go back to your da and—”
“Can you at least keep a message from me, in case they come?” He was beginning to panic again, despite his attempts to stay calm. Estel tugged frantically at his hair, pulling out the fine silver-tipped tie that had once belonged to his brother Elladan. “If they ask, can you give them this and—”
A call came from beyond the kitchen door. “Sorry, lad. Don’t think the Elves are coming. Go on now.” The Man shook his head and turned, disappearing into the next room. Estel watched him go, then gulped back tears and scurried back to his table, flinging himself into the sturdy chair. He had been stupid, and he’d messed it up. He shouldn’t have talked about Rivendell. He should have—
A hand appeared before him. Estel looked up into the waitress’s face then quickly away again, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his arm. She shook her hand impatiently.
“I’ll take it.”
Estel sniffed. “What?”
“I’ll take it.” She gently extracted the hair tie from his grip. “Uncle Darl’s a good man, but it’s suppertime and he’s busy. Got no time for anything else.” She sank into Ferrier’s chair, examining the fine silverwork with wide eyes. “Why would Elves be looking for you?”
It had sounded ridiculous in Darl the innkeeper’s mouth, and Estel didn’t want to see the same laughter behind her eyes. Anyway, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He shook his head and hugged his knees to his chest, avoiding her gaze. Her voice was soft.
“Are you all right?”
He had never been less all right in his life. Estel buried his face on his knees and tried not to think about Ferrier or home or his mother or father or …
“Kerra! Up, girl! There’s plates to take!”
Her chair scraped quickly back. “I’ve got to go.” She touched his shoulder, and the simple gesture sent a shiver through him. When Estel looked up, she was holding out a powder packet. “Here. I use this for my …” The girl—Kerra—blushed suddenly. “Well, you never mind what I use it for, but it helps a bit for fever too. Not very strong, but it might help some, and it don’t taste like anything.”
If it didn’t taste like anything, then Elrond couldn’t have heard of it—which also probably meant that it wouldn’t do much. Estel was so grateful for her kindness that he didn’t care. He snatched the packet from her and nodded, tucking it into his pocket.
She squeezed his shoulder again and hurried away, slipping the hair tie into a pocket of her apron. Ferrier’s voice called out behind him. “Nate! Let’s go, boy! We’ve got time yet before dark!”
Estel located the Man in the rear doorway, gesturing for him. He sighed and hugged his knees tightly to himself once more, then unfolded and went to join Ferrier. Kerra hurried past bearing three full plates, and she gave him a sad, sympathetic smile and a friendly little wink. He stopped for a moment to watch her go, her laughter rising and full hips swaying as she plunged back into the growing crowd, then slipped out the rear door into the inn yard.
Estel was not much surprised when they reached the stables to find that Ferrier had traded their cart for a wagon and their horse for a sturdier farm-type animal. After the scene in the inn, he didn’t have room for any new discouragement—he understood that this would be yet one more set of tracks for Glorfindel and his brothers to pick up, if they had managed to follow this far, but the thought stirred only mild interest. He crawled over the rear boards and settled into a corner as Ferrier exchanged a last word with the stable master, took the reins, and guided their new horse out of the stable yard. Estel pulled his knees up, rested his chin on the upright board, and stared dully at the passing scenery. It was several minutes before he noticed that they were not making their way back to the Road, but were instead following a good-sized track that ran on a more northeasterly course.
He lifted his head, eying the new surroundings. Not far from the inn, the track turned slightly and plunged into a wide wooded area. Having grown up in the forests of Imladris, it was an unexpected comfort to be surrounded by the trees. He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, inhaling the dusty wood smell, the perfume of fading tree flowers, the sharp scent of the unfurling green leaves. He could almost pretend he was home.
Almost. And now he didn’t know what they were doing—this detour was not marked on Ferrier’s map.
Estel sighed and opened his eyes. “Where are we going?”
“The Chetwood,” Ferrier proclaimed, waving vaguely around them. “Talked to a man in the stables who said there was good farmland cut into some of these woods, especially once you get past Staddle. Said this track is well-kept, and joins up with a road again at Combe, if we still want to go on.” If they wanted to go on? Estel sat up straight, his dull façade fading. He had told Kerra that they were going to Archet. If she did somehow speak to his family, that would be where she sent them.
“I thought we were going to Archet.”
“Maybe.” The Man nodded slowly, rubbing at his brow. “Maybe. But, I think it’ll be worth it to see what’s out there. You know we don’t have money for land of our own yet. I’m hoping to hire on somewhere and save up for the next few years. Might be someplace to do that before we even get to Archet. Worth checking out, I say.”
It was a good plan, for Ferrier’s purposes, and there was nothing that Estel could say against it. He nodded and returned his chin to the wagon board, drinking in the woodlands as they passed. He had not realized just how alien the flat grassland around the Road had seemed to him until now, surrounded by the familiarity of the trees. The passage of time blurred, and the evening gave way to a quiet, still dusk. He was watching two chipmunks chase each other around the trunk of a venerable old oak when the wagon suddenly slowed to a halt right in the center of the track.
Ferrier did not speak or move, and after a moment Estel sat up, uneasy. “Da?” The word still stuck in his mouth and made him feel vaguely disloyal to Elrond. He was unsure how else to address the Man, though, and had no wish to upset him further—for either of their sakes. His tentative query was met with silence, and Estel rose to his knees. Ferrier had never just ignored him. Estel’s mouth dried and his stomach twisted. If Ferrier became truly ill, what would they do out here in the middle of a strange forest, where he knew neither the land nor the people? Estel shuffled closer, eyeing the bowed head and slumped shoulders. “Da?”
“Head hurts,” the Man mumbled, releasing the reins to dig at his temples with the heels of his hands. Estel caught a glimpse of one sleeve with the movement, and of the damp pinkish patch spreading on the light fabric. He had not known where the Man had been injured during the accident that had brought him to Rivendell, or if he had suffered more than one hurt, but it seemed that whatever dressing or stitching Elrond had applied to his arm was no longer holding.
“The dressing must be changed and the wound cleaned often at the first, several times per day even, in order to ensure that infection finds no hold.” Estel remembered the words vividly, hovering beside Elrond as his father cleaned a gaping wound in the leg of an outer scout who had been caught up in a rockslide coming out of the mountains. “If left to grow soiled, the dressings themselves may encourage and nurture the spread of any fledgling infection.”
That likely explained the fever and the headache, then—Estel very much doubted that Ferrier had given the dressing a second thought since departing Imladris. He had not tended it since Estel had wakened, certainly. His heart sank. Could he clean and redress an infected wound? He had never done so, and had never even watched very carefully during his father’s demonstrations. The process and the sight itself had always been too distasteful, the blood and pus and torn flesh and soiled dressings. Now, he regretted behaving as such an infant.
Estel fumbled Kerra’s powder from his pocket, turning the small packet in his fingers. She had said that it wasn’t strong, and it would likely be useless against infection. It was all they had, though. If it helped even a little against Ferrier’s pain and fever, it would surely be better than nothing. He dug their large waterskin from beneath the baggage and unearthed a battered cup from one of the packs. Estel filled the cup and then, checking to be sure that the Man wasn’t watching, dumped half of the powder into the water, swirling until it was no longer visible. Kerra said nothing about how much to give, but the packet was small and could surely hold no more than one or two doses.
“Da?” He crept forward again. When Ferrier looked around, he held out the cup. “Have a drink. Perhaps you need more water.”
Ferrier shook his head. “No, lad. My stomach’s not right, I don’t—”
“But you’ve not been drinking enough water.” Estel pressed against the rear of the seat. So near to Ferrier, he could smell the sickly sweet scent of the Man’s wounded arm. He tried to ignore it, forcing his own rolling stomach into submission. “Please try.”
Whether it was the forced pleading in his tone or whether Ferrier was too weary to argue, the Man relented. He took the cup and drank down the water in two quick gulps. “You’re a good lad,” he murmured, ruffling Estel’s hair as he handed back the cup. Estel bit his lip, set the cup aside, and forced himself to focus on the injury. Up close, he could see the stiff dried material, dark and reddish in patches, that told of previous seepage as well. He swallowed hard.
“Da, should we look at your arm? We could rewrap—”
“I’m just going to sleep for a while. I think a night’s sleep will do me good.” Ferrier thrust the reins toward Estel, who grabbed at them without thinking. The Man climbed painfully over the seat into the rear of the wagon, stretched out amid their baggage, and was still. In moments, strained shallow breathing filled the air.
Estel stared at the sleeping Man, running the reins absently through his hands. What now? They were sitting in the middle of the track. If anyone else came … The horse flicked a fly absently from his ear, drawing Estel’s attention. If anyone else came, he would worry about moving at that point. It was nearly dark already, the light from the waxing moon filtering in pale patches through the trees. Surely it was unlikely that there would be much traffic throughout the night.
He hopped from the wagon and spent a moment considering whether he should try to unhitch the horse. He had some experience with both horses and wagons, of course, but the Elvish versions were generally smaller and lighter. At least, Elvish horses might be as tall, but in sheer bulk this was the largest horse he had ever seen. He inched close to the wagon poles, but as he reached out the horse flicked his tail at another fly and stamped one massive hoof. Estel skittered back, hovered for another moment, and decided the horse would be fine as it was. He did urge the gelding closer to one side of the trail, staying as far from the massive animal as possible, and tied the reins around a low-hanging tree branch. The horse came quietly, and Estel risked a pat on its nose before retreating to the edge of the track and stretching out on the cool ground.
It was long before he slept, his mind whirling around a thousand different thoughts and fears. The woods quieted with the coming darkness, then after a time came alive again with the night noises so familiar from years of camping and training. They were both comforting and painful. He watched for a time as a possum nosed through the underbrush, then disappeared quickly as a deer with two fawns picked her way through the trees. An owl’s bass call sounded behind, and a short screech as some rodent lost its life to the predator. He saw a bobcat, its eyes glinting in the moonlight. The cat paused for a brief moment, eying either Estel or the horse, and the gelding stamped uneasily, snorting. The bobcat wandered back into the underbrush, and the owl hooted again overhead. Ferrier’s strained breathing rose in background refrain.
Eventually, exhaustion and loneliness pulled Estel down into sleep.
Ferrier slept until the early morning hours, alternating through the night between drawing his cloak tightly around himself and throwing it fitfully off again. The Man began to toss more forcefully as the first hints of color intruded upon the blackness of night, muttering a refrain that Estel, awakened by the creaking of the wagon, could not quite hear. Ferrier did not fully wake for another hour or so, however, and so Estel dozed too as the forest grew light around them and the morning birds joined together in their daily chorus.
When the Man did finally rise, he stumbled off into the woods without a word. Estel stood quickly, wondering if Ferrier might be hallucinating and if he should follow. The Man returned in short order, however, weaving slightly on his feet. “Get in, lad. Time to be off.”
Estel hesitated. “Should we not eat first?”
“You can eat in the wagon. I’m not hungry—my stomach’s not quite settled.”
Anxiety, always so near the surface now, surged. “Da, you need to eat.”
“Nate!” Ferrier clambered onto the seat, attempting the feat twice before he finally managed. “Get in the wagon now, boy!”
It was the first time that Ferrier had shouted at him. Despite the Man’s weakness, despite his generally amiable ways, Estel’s mouth dried. He scurried to obey, scrambling over the rear boards and scraping his shin along the way. He ignored the brief flare of pain, settling into his accustomed spot in the rear corner of the wagon.
He didn’t want Ferrier to be angry with him.
He huddled silently as they started off, knees hugged tightly, and remained so for nearly half an hour as they wound along the track through the spring-washed forest. Finally, however, Estel crept forward to their food pack and extracted a bit of jerky and a handful of nuts. He was hungry—starving—even if Ferrier was not. He considered asking again if Ferrier would have something to eat, but decided not to risk it. It was probably best not to ask about the arm again, either, as badly as it needed to be cleaned and rebound. He eyed the last bit of powder in Kerra’s pack. The Man had been rubbing at his brow already this morning and probably needed it—but Estel was not ready to draw attention to himself even for that. Perhaps if Ferrier allowed them to stop for lunch he could sneak it into the Man’s water then. Estel slouched back into his corner, stared blindly into the surrounding trees, and wished that he was either brave enough to make the attempt now or brave enough to just run.
He was neither, though …
They left the trees after a time, driving along one edge of a wide flat area that had been cleared for farmland. Estel had not often visited the farms of Imladris, but he saw that this field had been recently plowed, deep rows scored across its length in the rich dark soil. At the far side of the field, three figures moved around a low, pony-drawn wagon. They were planting—not seeds, but leafy seedlings. On another day he might have asked Ferrier what kind of field this was. Given the events of the morning, however, he remained silent, watching. One figure went slightly ahead of the others, apparently making holes in the soil. One took the seedlings from the wagon and placed them in the holes, and one seemed to be watering and … something else that Estel could not make out. He focused avidly on the work, losing himself in the repetition of it all. They were halfway to the woods again before Estel saw what he had been missing.
“Halflings!” he breathed, and his heart leapt. A Halfling had come to Imladris a couple of years ago, but Estel had not been allowed to see him or any of the Dwarves who were his companions. He had resented Elrond’s protectiveness then more than usual, for when would he have another chance to see a Halfling (or Dwarves, for that matter, although for some reason that hadn’t seemed as important at the time)? Now, he scrambled to the near side of the wagon and stared openly. The Halflings were indeed short—shorter than him even, he thought, although it was difficult to tell for certain from across the field. Curly brown heads bent to their task, and Estel saw that they wore no shoes or boots. Otherwise, however, their dress appeared much like that of the Men they had left at the inn. Troubles for the moment forgotten, he gaped unashamedly until their wagon reached the tree line and plunged in, blocking the small farmers from sight. “Halflings,” he whispered again, and grinned as he settled back again despite his fears of the morning.
It wasn’t long before they came out again on the edge of another field. Estel was rising to his knees to search for more Halfling farmers when a sharp, close movement caught his eye. He turned quickly, in time to see Ferrier list slowly to one side and lay slumped across the wagon seat.
Panic stole his breath. Estel dove for the reins, still held loosely in the Man’s hands, and pulled the gelding to a halt. Then he grabbed Ferrier’s shoulder and shook. “Wake up!”
The Man responded to neither the voice nor the shaking. He lay still, face flushed, breathing shallow and raspy. Estel tried again, but when it brought the same results he looked desperately around, praying that this field, too, would be occupied.
It was. He rolled off of the wagon seat, landing hard, then picked himself up and flew across the well-plowed earth. “Help!” The farmers looked up as he approached, two Halflings and a Man. The Man moved to meet him. “Help, please,” Estel gasped, half-sobbing with fear and exertion. The Man put a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Slow down, lad. What’s happened?”
“My … my da.” He could barely pant out the words. “His arm … infection … won’t wake up.” The Man followed his wild gesture across the field, then nodded.
“All right, lad. Don’t fret, we’ll get him.” He looked around. “Arti, head for the house, tell the missus we’re coming.” One of the Halflings nodded, dropped a tool like a wooden peg into the seedling wagon, and started off across the field. The Man looked to the other Halfling. “Horlin, don’t know how long this’ll be. I hate to—”
“You just take care of that boy,” the Halfling nodded toward Estel. “I’ll have a bit of elevenses, then see what I can do out here. Won’t be much, but it’ll be better than nothing, aye?”
The Man nodded. “Thanks, Horlin.” He gripped Estel’s shoulder then, turning him back toward Ferrier’s wagon. “Let’s go then, lad.”
The farmer examined Ferrier briefly when they reached the wagon, shaking his head. “He’s down, right enough.” He motioned for Estel to help, and together they moved the unconscious Man over the back of the seat and into the wagon bed. “My missus is a right good hand as a nurse, lad. Knows what she’s about. Let’s just get your da to her and see what she has to say.”
Estel scrambled into the rear of the wagon and stared blindly out, purposefully avoiding the sight of the insensible Man beside him. He just wanted to go home… The farmer settled in the seat and clucked to the horse. In very little time, he was pulling the gelding up before a small, low wooden home. The Halfling, Arti, was there, as was a tall, spare Woman who approached the wagon with firm steps even before it had fully halted.
“What’s this, then?”
The Man swung down. “Infected wound, looks like. He’s fevered and passed out.”
The Woman hitched up her skirt and climbed onto the seat, then over onto the bed, crouching beside Ferrier. Estel stirred. “It’s his arm.”
She looked around, startled, then nodded and moved to examine Ferrier’s arms. She located the problem area quickly and ripped open the sleeve, exclaiming at the odor which burst forth. “How long since this dressing’s been changed, lad?”
Estel shrugged, then ventured. “A week?”
She shook her head, muttering beneath her breath. “It’s not a wonder that he’s in this state, then, that’s for certain.” She motioned to her husband. “Marks, you get him into the house. Put him in the second bedroom, I’ll have the children sleep in the main room.” She looked around at Estel. “Are you hurt anywhere, lad?” When Estel shook his head, she nodded briskly and climbed down from the wagon bed. Marks and Arti climbed back in. Estel huddled into the corner while they lifted Ferrier over the side of the wagon—the Halfling must be stronger than his stature would suggest—and bundled him into the cabin between them. The Woman motioned to Estel as she followed. “Come on, then.” He trailed her into the house, and she motioned vaguely as she followed her husband and the Halfling into a back room. “You stay here out from underfoot, lad. I’ll let you know when there’s something to hear.” Then she was gone with the others, closing the door behind her, and Estel was left hovering the doorway of an unfamiliar home, unsure what to do next.
A rustling sounded to one side, and he looked around. A tiny girl sat at a scrubbed wooden table before the half-eaten remains of a meal. She stared at him, and Estel stared back. There were no other children in Rivendell at this time—no children of Men, certainly, but no elflings either. He had never seen such a small person, and had no idea what to say to her—or if he should even say anything. Estel lingered on the threshold, waiting for his heart to slow, wondering what was happening behind the rear doorway. He could hear the Woman’s voice, and the Man’s, but not their actual words. The door opened and he straightened, but the Man hurried past Estel without a second glance, disappearing into the yard. A small voice interrupted his musings.
“I’m Cora. I’m …” she paused, and held up four fingers.
“Ah … hello, Cora.” Estel paused, then added, “I’m Es … Nate. I am, um, twelve.” Cora nodded, seemingly satisfied, and another voice spoke from behind him.
“I’m Sander. I’m six.” Estel turned and found a young boy on the other side of the room, holding a broom. Apparently the boy—Sander—had been cleaning when they arrived. Sander looked toward the back room. “Is that your da?” Estel hesitated, then nodded. It seemed easiest. “Is he sick?”
“He’s … hurt, and it’s making him sick.”
Sander nodded gravely. “My da was sick, but ma made him better.”
Ah. Unsure of an appropriate response, Estel nodded and drifted into the room. There didn’t seem to be anything for him to do, and the Woman obviously didn’t need him. He located an out of the way corner and curled into it as Marks returned, bearing a pitcher which slopped water as he passed. Arti hurried out past him as he opened the rear door, searching the room with a quick brown gaze and sending a sympathetic smile to Estel as he, too, slipped outside. Cora slid off of her stool and approached, hunkering down on the floor to watch him with wide eyes. Estel looked away. Sander continued an unenthusiastic sweeping of the far side of the room.
Arti hurried back in, bearing several bottles and a stack of linens. Estel watched him vanish into the rear room, then buried his face in his knees.
He wanted Elrond, he wanted his mother, he wanted—
“Do you know any stories?”
Estel raised his eyes, baffled. “Stories?” Now wasn’t a time for stories … Cora nodded. From the corner of his eye he noticed Sander waiting for his answer as well, and realized that they didn’t know Ferrier, they didn’t know him, and they didn’t understand most of the situation. They had simply met someone new and were looking for entertainment while their mother was otherwise occupied. He took a long breath. Stories. Unbidden, Elrond’s voice rose into his mind, smooth and soothing, and his mother’s, laughing over some silly tale told by her own people. The knot in his chest loosened, just a bit, and before he knew what he intended, he was nodding.
Cora grinned and scooted closer. She wrinkled her nose as she came near, reminding him again how long it had been since he had bathed. The child wasn’t deterred, however, and settled firmly against his arm, staring up with wide eyes. Estel was startled—were all children this friendly?—but her warm weight was comforting and he did not pull away. Sander abandoned the far side of the room, drifting over with his broom to sweep aimlessly at a small area before the hearth. Estel hid a wan grin, remembering such actions of his own, then closed his eyes. He had not often heard this story in his mother’s tongue, and never the shorter version with which Elrond had regaled a small boy of Cora’s age. The Elvish chant rose swiftly from his memory, though, and if tears sprang to his eyes, the translated words also followed easily from his lips.
“The leaves were long, the grass was green, the hemlock-umbels tall and fair, and in the glade a light was seen of stars and shadows shimmering.” Sander abandoned all attempts to look busy, dropping both himself and his broom onto the hearthstones. “Tinúviel was dancing there to music of a pipe unseen, and light of stars was in her hair, and in her raiment glimmering.” * Cora sighed happily, burrowing closer, and Estel lost himself in the tale.
Estel finished the Lay—the carefully shortened child’s version which overlooked dungeons and werewolves and lost hands—and moved on to one of his mother’s stories, this one about a prince of Men who had been cursed to become a frog by the evil Witch King and the Elvish maiden who was reluctant to offer the kiss that would return him to his rightful form. The children were giggling with abandon, Sander clutching his stomach and Cora rolling on the floor at Estel’s feet, when Marks reappeared out of the back room. The farmer carried two bags, and he motioned the little ones to follow as he crossed to the outer door.
“Come. You’re going to your grandmother’s.”
“Nooo!” Both children howled a noisy denial. Cora, to Estel’s dismay, flung her arms around his ankles and burst into a spate of noisy tears. “Nate is telling us a story!” she wailed. Their father was unimpressed by the drama.
“Now then.” He shoved one bag at a pouting Sander then bent, hooked an arm beneath Cora, and pulled her bodily away. “Enough of that. We’ve got no time for this, miss—I’m to bring Healer Camellias to help Nate’s da once you’re settled. You’ll not want to hold that up, right?”
This objection was clearly not something for which the girl was prepared. She hung limply in Marks’s grasp, sniffling but otherwise quiet. Sander, however, rose quickly and took the second bag from his father. “I hope your da’s all right, Nate,” he murmured. The child’s brown eyes were warm and sincere, and Estel nodded. “Thank you for telling us about Lúthien and all the rest.”
The Woman appeared in the rear doorway. “Cora!” she snapped. “Get you going now, child!”
Cora huffed, but scrabbled to find her footing. Marks took her hand, nodded Sander toward the outer door, and looked around at his wife. “I’ll be back as soon as may be.”
“Sooner, if you can.” She pressed her lips together, and Marks nodded, grim-faced, before following his young son into the yard. The Woman watched them go, eyes softening, then turned her gaze on Estel. He straightened and did his best to meet her eyes. Fetching a healer only made sense, given the severity of Ferrier’s illness, but still he wondered what it might mean. “Come, lad.” Estel scrambled up and joined her before the door of the sickroom. “Now.” She placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “I am Luanna, and you are … Nate?”
“It’s not fair! Why can’t I see the Halfling? I never get to see anyone!”
“Estel.” Gilraen pulled him close, drawing him up onto her lap despite his lanky frame. “You know your ada loves you.” Estel nodded reluctantly, relaxing into her embrace. He was too old for such things anymore, but out of the public eye he still craved the comfort of his mother’s arms. “Then you must also understand that he does not make these decisions to be unfair or because he does not know how difficult they are for you. He thinks only of our safety.”
“Safety from what? I know he doesn’t like Dwarves, but the Halfling isn’t bad, is he?”
“Of course not!” His mother stroked his hair. “The Halfling is not bad, and neither are the Dwarves. For that matter, most people are not.” She frowned. “And, it is untrue to say that your ada dislikes the Dwarves.” Estel lifted an eyebrow, and Gilraen laughed softly. “Mostly untrue.”
“Then why can I not—”
“Oh, child.” Gilraen sighed. “It is the nature of people to talk, and the nature of Rivendell to be remembered and discussed. That’s not wrong, of course not—but one word to the wrong person about the child of Men that Master Elrond loves, and people may begin to wonder …”
His mother had never actually explained why this might be dangerous. Estel had pondered the question for himself over the next several days, though, and had decided that perhaps Elrond was afraid an enemy might try to use Estel to hurt him somehow. His father was powerful and wise, and surely had enemies. Estel still didn’t like having to miss out on the Halfling and other visitors, but having a reason made it easier to obey.
This situation, though, was completely different. How was he to ask for help without explaining to this Woman who he was?
“Lad?” Luanna placed her hands on her hips, brows rising. Estel looked away and nodded. For now, until he’d had some time to think, it was probably better to just agree. Luanna frowned, studied him for a brief moment, then moved on. “And your da’s name?”
Estel couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Jerold. Jerold Ferrier.”
She nodded. “All right, then. Can you tell me what happened here?”
What had happened? Estel thought back to Elladan’s words. “The … the track washed out near a stream, and pulled the wagon down in. Da … Da went with it.”
The Woman glanced toward the yard. “That wagon?”
“No. We got a different one.” That was true several times over, in fact.
“When was this?”
“Two … weeks ago?” It sounded about right.
“And there was no place to have his wound treated properly?”
“It was treated properly!” Estel protested. This wasn’t Elrond’s fault … Luanna held up one hand.
“Lad, I’m not saying that—”
“It was, but he didn’t think he was sick and didn’t want to stay. And he didn’t ever look at it or change the dressing.” Estel hunched his shoulders. “He wouldn’t let me either.”
“Hmm.” Luanna looked back toward the sick room. “What did he tear it on?”
“I don’t know.”
She studied him again, then sighed. “Have you eaten today?” He shook his head—the jerky from that morning surely didn’t count—and Luanna motioned him toward the door. “You can go in and sit with your da for a bit if you like, and I’ll make you up a bit of something. Supper will be mostly catch as catch can tonight, I think.”
Estel shied away from that thought. He wanted Ferrier to get better—he did—but that didn’t mean he wanted to spend the day in the Man’s sickroom. Luanna pressed his shoulder.
“The arm’s covered, lad. You’ll not have to see it.”
She didn’t know, and if he was really Nate he surely wouldn’t refuse. Estel took a deep breath and slipped into the back room.
It was small, with a single bed pushed into one corner and a long high window. The air was close and still, and smelled strongly of blood mixed with the sharper tang of some disinfectant. Ferrier lay upon the bed, bare-chested, with his injured arm stretched out alongside him. As promised, it was draped with a light cloth, though already a red stain was starting to seep through. The Halfling, Arti, was bundling a pile of soiled cloths into a tub set on the floor, and looked up as Estel entered. His gaze was compassionate, and Estel looked away. It felt … almost like stealing, somehow, to accept sympathy meant for the real Nate Ferrier.
“And how are you, lad?”
“Fine, thank you.” Estel eyed Ferrier for a moment more, then retreated to the opposite corner and slid down to the floor, tucking his knees to his chin. Arti looked from Estel to the sick man and back again, brow furrowed, before gathering up the tub of cloths.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, thank you.”
The Halfling hesitated. “Well, I’ll be back, or Luanna. And if you need anything, just poke your head out the door. We’ll not be far away.” Estel nodded, and Arti moved past him. Estel leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, wishing for a familiar voice to rise suddenly in the outer room.
None did, of course.
He was dozing when Luanna reappeared, frightening him out of half-formed dreams filled with rivers and wagons and strange Men. “I’m sorry, lad, I didn’t mean to startle you.” She lowered her voice and pressed one long finger to her lips. “Let’s not wake your da, yes?” Estel nodded and stood, rubbing at his eyes. Luanna turned him toward the door. “There’s food waiting on the table for you. You can eat and come back after.”
He had no intention of returning, not if he could help it. Estel ducked through the door and started across the outer room, but as the latch clicked behind him he suddenly started to shake. He stood still for a long moment, unsure what was wrong with him, hugging himself tightly and fighting back unexpected tears. Finally, the shudders stilled and the tears dried. Estel took a long, shaky breath, straightened, and crossed to the table. Gathering the bread, meat, and cheese, he decided that he would rather be outside—even the large room felt as if it was closing in on him—and stepped out into the yard. Ferrier’s wagon had been pulled to the side yard, against the barn. The horse, he suspected, was either stabled within or pastured somewhere. Somehow, Estel didn’t really care. He crossed to the wagon and climbed in, comforted by the solidity of the stone structure at his back. He nestled into his corner, nibbled at the cheese, and turned absent eyes toward the darkening sky.
Night was upon them when Marks returned, but the sky was clear and moonlight washed the yard in a silvery glow. Estel saw two more Halflings, a male and a female, climb down from the wagon and approach the house while the farmer urged the horse on toward the barn. The door swung open before they could knock, Luanna silhouetted in the doorway. All three disappeared inside, and within minutes Marks joined them. Estel slouched back into his shadowy nest. He wondered what was happening—how Ferrier was doing and what the healer could do for him that the farmer’s wife and the Halfling hadn’t already—but he was not yet ready to go back inside.
He wasn’t sure if he would ever be.
Perhaps a quarter hour later, Luanna, Marks, and Arti reappeared. They stood together on the porch for a time, speaking in low voices and occasionally glancing in his direction. Estel knew they must be discussing him, and was not surprised when Arti finally crossed the yard toward his hideout while the farmer and his wife went back into the house. The Halfling stopped before the wagon, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his trousers.
“Come on, lad. Get your things and come with me.”
Reluctantly, Estel crawled out of the wagon. He wondered what new questions the healer would have, or if she would just ask the same ones over again. He was prepared this time, both to talk about Ferrier’s illness and with a slightly altered version of his own story, but he was also nervous, and tired, and still hungry. He wished it could all wait until morning. The thought of facing the farmer and his wife and the healer and the other Halflings all at the same time left him queasy.
Arti lifted an eyebrow. “No bag?” Estel shook his head. The Halfling nodded, almost to himself, then patted Estel’s arm gently. “Well then, come along then.”
He didn’t take them toward the house. Instead, they walked around the barn to the foot of a shallow hill which rose sharply and then gentled out again before the cleared land faded once more into forest. As they approached, Estel was surprised to see what looked like a round wooden door nestled right into the hillside. Arti walked up to it, pulled it open with a grunt, and motioned Estel inside.
For a moment, Estel hesitated. Was this … was it a cellar? Why were they taking him to a cellar? Would they let him out again, or …
“Get you in, lad. This is my home, you’re to stay with me for the night.”
Arti lived in a cellar? Estel glanced uncertainly at the Halfling, who nodded, then he cautiously approached the opening. Once at its edge, he saw well-cut stairs leading down into the hole, a faint orange glow outlining the steps and softening the darkness beyond. Behind him, Arti sighed and the door hinges creaked.
“Never seen a Hobbit hole before? We live underground, lad, at least when we’re able. I’ll be right behind you. Nothing to be frightened of, I promise.”
Underground? He didn’t know that about Halflings. Then again, he didn’t know much of anything about Halflings—they had not, as a people, been included to any great extent in his studies. Slightly reassured, Estel crept forward and carefully navigated the stairs. He heard Arti behind him, heard the door thump shut, and then light flared as the Halfling lit a lamp set into the stairway wall. Estel stopped, blinking against the sudden brightness, and Arti moved past him, lighting two more lamps at the base of the stairs and then crossing the room to stir up the fire.
The fire. There was a fireplace underground! Estel looked around him, and forgot his fear in a rush of delighted awe.
It was a whole little set of rooms, all under the hill. The sitting room was cozy but not cramped, with a couch along the rear wall and two armchairs set near the fireplace. A colorful braided rug covered most of the stone floor. The warmth from the newly stirred fire reached him even across the room, and Estel shivered suddenly. He had not realized how chilled he’d become, sitting for so long in the early spring evening. Doorways, each rounded, were set on either side of the fireplace, and an open rounded arch led into another room—though it was dark and Estel was not able to see what lay beyond. The ceiling was low, barely higher than Estel’s head, and planked with well-polished wooden beams of a warm honey coloring. The whole hole was simple and inviting.
Estel took a long, deep breath, and for the first time in over a week felt himself relax a little. Perhaps things would be all right after all.
“Well, lad? Not as frightening as all that, is it?”
Estel offered the Halfling a shy grin. “It’s wonderful.”
Arti snorted. “Don’t know about that, but it’ll do.” He beckoned Estel and moved toward one of the low side doors. Estel followed, trying to see what might be past the darkened arch.
“What is a Hobbit?”
“What?” Arti frowned back at him.
“You said a Hobbit hole. What is a Hobbit?”
“Why, it’s me! It’s us, I mean. It’s what we call ourselves.” Arti lifted an eyebrow. “You come from folk who call us Halflings, I suppose?” Estel nodded, and the Halfling—Hobbit—snorted. “Half of just what, I’d like to ask.”
Put that way, it did seem … wrong. Estel bit his lip. “Sorry.”
Arti patted his elbow. “Don’t be, it’s neither here nor there.” He opened the door and lit a lamp just inside, and Estel found that they had entered a small bedroom. A bed sat against one wall, covered with a warm quilt and with a low trunk at its foot. A stand stood against the opposite wall, holding two pitchers, a large bowl, a cut of soap, and several thick hand towels. Arti motioned to it. “You get yourself cleaned up a bit, and I’ll see about finding you something to wear overnight.” He eyed Estel. “You’re a tall youngling, aren’t you?” Without waiting for a response the Hobbit hurried away, leaving Estel alone.
So great was the comfort and safety of this simple room that Estel might have cried, had the thought of the waiting water not driven all else from his mind. He scrambled across to the washstand and found both pitchers full, one with cold water and one … He actually groaned out loud as he stripped off his soiled shirt, then seized the pitcher of warm water—not too hot but not tepid either, and it didn’t occur to him to wonder how there happened to be water of just the right temperature waiting for him—and poured some into the bowl. He grabbed one of the towels and the block of soap and thrust them both into the water.
Halfway through his wash, Arti knocked. “You decent, lad?” Estel called an affirmative, and the Hobbit entered with a folded garment. “I think this’ll do it. Let me know when you’re done.” He disappeared again into the sitting room, and Estel returned to his scrubbing.
It was not as good as a bath or a dunk in the river, of course, but when Estel was finished he felt better than he had since waking a week ago in the back of Ferrier’s cart. He unfolded the garment that Arti had provided and found it to be a nightshirt. It would likely have reached the floor on a Hobbit, although it fell barely past his own knees. His exposed legs and feet were a bit chilled, and he tugged the quilt off of the bed, hoping that Arti wouldn’t mind. Wrapping it around himself, he opened the door and slipped back out into the sitting room.
The second room was lit now, and he heard Arti moving about there. He crossed to look inside. It was a kitchen, and the Hobbit looked up from stirring a steaming pan. “There you are! Shirt fit all right?” Estel nodded. “Good! Why don’t you go sit by the fire, and I’ll be out in a bit?”
He obeyed, settling on the rug as near to the fire’s warmth as he could manage. Arti appeared a few minutes later. The Hobbit raised an eyebrow to find him on the ground rather than in a chair, but said nothing. Instead, he held out a large mug.
“Careful with that now, it’s hot.”
Estel took the mug and sniffed at it, smelling the tang of cinnamon. He took a cautious sip. The flavors of warm milk and honey and cinnamon filled him, warming a path down to his stomach. He sighed and closed his eyes, taking another sip. Arti moved away, and Estel realized suddenly how rude he had been. His mother would be horrified.
“Thank you,” he called into the kitchen. The Hobbit reappeared, bearing a tray.
“You are most welcome, lad.” He crossed to Estel and sat the tray onto the rug before him. Estel stared. It held two meat pies, several thick slices of bread, a hunk of white cheese, and several glazed scones. “I know there wasn’t much for supper, with all that was happening. Thought you might want a little snack.”
This was what the Hobbit considered a snack? Estel didn’t stop to ask questions. He nodded, mumbled another ‘thank you’, then dove into the food. Arti watched him for a moment, chuckling softly, then disappeared into Estel’s room. For a few minutes all was silent as Estel ate and the Hobbit cleared up the remains of Estel’s wash. That finished, Arti took Estel’s mug and refilled it, then settled into one of the armchairs. He took out a pipe—from the windows and balconies of Imladris Estel had seen visiting Men with these, and had pestered his brothers until Elrohir had finally explained—filled the bowl, and set a match to it. Smoke rose up, a spicy and—despite his brothers’ opinions—not altogether unpleasant scent. Estel finished the second meat pie and the cheese, then sat back with one of the scones, nibbling as he gazed into the flames. His stomach was full to bursting, and drowsiness was settling hard upon him.
Arti stirred. “Now then, lad. Let’s talk a bit.” The pleasant sluggishness evaporated. Estel looked around quickly, and the Hobbit held up a hand. “Don’t be getting upset, now. We need to know what’s happened, though. I think you’ll agree with that, aye?” It was true. Estel nodded and pulled his knees to his chest, huddling inside the quilt. Arti eyed him for a moment, then sighed. “Well then.” The Hobbit leaned forward. “Now. We’ll want to know details of the accident, of course, if you can give them. They’ll make no difference tonight, though, so that can wait until morning.” Estel nodded again, and Arti continued slowly. “There’s something else I need to know from you, though, and you must not be angry with me for asking, if it turns out that all is as it should be.”
“What do you mean?” Estel frowned, uneasy.
The Hobbit held his eyes with a firm, gentle gaze. “We—Luanna and Marks and meself—would like to know how the two of you came to be together.” Estel blinked, startled, and Arti smiled softly at his surprise. “You’re no more a born son of that Man in there than I am, lad, that’s for all to see, and while that’s well and good on the surface, something doesn’t seem … quite right, if you understand me. So.” The Hobbit nodded, encouraging. “You tell me if it is.”
They knew. He didn’t know how, but they knew, and Estel felt the first surges of panic. He had to make them understand …
“He’s not bad, he’s just sick.”
Arti’s expression stilled. He eyed Estel and nodded slowly. “All right. I believe you.”
Estel stared down at the cheerful rug, twisting the quilt in his hands, and suddenly it was all pouring out of him. “He was sick, and his wife and his little girl died from it, and then his farm burned. And he was going with his son to someplace new, and then there was an accident and his son died. My brothers found him and brought him home, because Ada is a healer, but he was hurt and sick and so sad about his family that he thought his son didn’t really die but that Ada and my brothers were hiding him, which doesn’t make any sense, but Ada told me that you never know what grief and sickness will make someone think or do. Since he was angry with Ada he wouldn’t stay to get better, and I saw him on his way out and stopped to help him when he dropped his bags, and …” Tears swam at the edge of his vision, and he swiped at them angrily.
Estel sniffed, refusing to meet the Hobbit’s gaze. “My father.”
Arti sat back, and his eyes were bleak. “Lad, do your folks have any idea where you are?” Estel shook his head and rubbed at his eyes again, though it was fast becoming a losing battle. The Hobbit closed his eyes briefly, then took a long breath and stood. “All right, then.” He approached, and laid a comforting hand on Estel’s head. “It’ll be all right, lad.”
“He’s not bad,” Estel insisted. Somehow, it was important to make them understand. Arti stroked his hair back, the gesture awkward but comforting.
“I know, lad. I know. We’ll get this all figured out.” The Hobbit gently ruffled the hair he had just smoothed, then patted Estel’s shoulder again. “It’ll be all right, it will.”
Estel nodded, but even with Arti’s reassurance, he still wasn’t certain. He hunched beneath the warm quilt, blinked back tears, and stared into the crackling flames, grateful that someone knew but wondering how these people, nice as they were, could help him get home when he couldn’t even tell them where home really was.
It was dark when Estel woke, which meant nothing in an underground room. He pushed himself up from the feather-stuffed pillow and mattress, squinting in the faint light that filtered from the partially open door. He still wasn’t able to see much, so he climbed off the bed (which had not quite held the whole length of him but had been deeply comfortable all the same) and crossed to the doorway. He expected the light to come from a torch or maybe the fire, but when he stepped into the sitting room he saw that it was daylight, shining from a small, round window high up on the wall that he had not seen the night before. The light was bright yellow, not the softer light of morning, and he wondered how long he had slept. A quick search of the sitting room and kitchen and a tap on the second door brought him no closer to an answer. He was alone.
In the absence of direction from Arti or anyone else, he returned to the bedroom to dress for the day and discovered that his clothes were missing. On the stand beside a full pitcher of water, clean basin, and new towel was a folded shirt, trousers, and undergarments. On top of the pile was an odd bit of leather that he didn’t understand—it looked a bit like two belts crossed and sewn together at one point, though instead of buckle and holes a large button was sewn at each end. Estel studied it for a moment, then laid it aside to pull on the new clothes. They were too large, though not by much, and he wondered whose they were. He had not seen anyone the day before who might fit them. Holding up the pants with one hand, he returned to the leather piece. It took several minutes before he discovered corresponding holes in the trousers themselves. He tried a couple of different configurations before he managed to attach all of the buttons so that they lay smoothly, then pulled the long loops over his shoulders. He stood there for a moment, feeling ridiculous with the overlarge pants hanging from his shoulders on this … not-belt. There was nothing else for it, though, and finally he went in search of his boots. Those at least were where he had left them. He put them on and slipped out of the room, wondering what he should do next.
His stomach rumbled, and Estel decided not to stay in the Hobbit hole alone. For all he knew, he might be waiting for hours. He crossed the sitting room, climbed the steps, and let himself out into the farm yard, shading his eyes against the blinding daylight. A quick glance at the sky told him that it was past noon, and he blushed, embarrassed. He hadn’t intended to sleep for so long.
The yard, too, was empty as he crossed toward the house, but he saw his clothes hanging out with other wash on a line and their—Ferrier’s—horse grazing behind the barn. He stepped onto the porch and the door swung open. Luanna stood with her hands on her hips, studying him.
“Estel, is it?” Arti had told them, then. He had said he would. Estel wondered if the Hobbit had even waited until morning, or if he had returned to the house with all he had learned as soon as Estel had fallen asleep. He nodded, and Luanna motioned him inside. “You’ve slept through breakfast and lunch, but I put some back for you.”
Estel ducked his head, stepping past her. “Thank you.” Luanna steered him to the table, then went to retrieve a covered plate from an open cupboard. She plunked the plate down before him and rubbed his back briefly before moving off to pour a cup of water from a clay pitcher. “Estel.” He looked up, but she was merely repeating. “What manner of name is that? It sounds …” She paused, frowning. “It sounds like something Elvish, almost.”
He wondered what people knew of Elves here, so far from Rivendell. It mattered not. Estel nodded, looking away. He generally preferred the truth, and disliked lying even when it seemed his only choice. “It is. My … my family lives very near the borders of Rivendell. We … we are neighbors and friends.” Indeed, his brothers spoke fondly of the few nearby villages of Men, and Estel knew that some of the children in those villages had been named for Elvish scouts who were particular friends or who had aided the family in some way. “Some of us are named for them.”
Luanna’s eyebrows rose. “I see.” She sighed, sitting across from him. “You are truly far from home and family then, child.”
He hunched his shoulders, understanding what a nuisance he and Ferrier must be for these people. “I’m sorry.”
“No.” The farmer’s wife stood quickly, shaking her head. “Lad, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.” She came to him and squeezed his shoulders gently. “And from what I hear, you deserve a good apology yourself.”
“I don’t care about that,” Estel whispered, and was embarrassed anew when more tears swam into his eyes. He had cried enough over the past days, and he forced them back, angry. “He’s sick, he didn’t know. I just want to …” He couldn’t finish, couldn’t say it out loud without the risk of sobbing like a little child. Luanna seemed to understand. She squeezed his shoulders again, then dropped a light kiss on his head before moving away. He was thankful, but he wished that she was Gilraen instead.
“You finish your food.”
Estel sat still for a moment, then took a deep breath and obediently returned to the pile of bread and ham and fried potatoes. It was different from what he was used to—the bread was coarser, the ham slices thicker, the potatoes greasier—but simple as it was, it tasted wonderful and filled his stomach with a warm, heavy fullness. He might have gone immediately back to sleep in the nearest corner or chair, regardless of his late rising, had Luanna not sat down again across from him, watching him expectantly.
“Now, you tell me what’s happened.”
He hesitated. “Arti …”
“Arti told us what you said last night, but I’d like to hear the tale from your own mouth.” It occurred to Estel suddenly to wonder where the Hobbit was. He looked around, but they were alone in the room. Luanna smiled faintly. “Arti and my husband are back in the fields, lad. It’s planting time, and that pipeweed’ll not be putting itself in the ground.”
“Oh. Of course.” Estel flushed, but before he could feel embarrassed the rear door swung open and another Hobbit entered from the sick room. The Hobbit executed a brief, shallow bow when he saw Estel at the table.
“Ah. Your other guest is awake, then.” The Hobbit crossed to the table and climbed onto one of the high stools that had been pushed up between the chairs. “I’m Creston Sandheaver, at your service. My wife Camellias is the healer for these areas south of Staddle, and we’ve been here through the night with …” he hesitated, then finished diplomatically, “with your companion.” Creston accepted a cup of water from Luanna, nodding his thanks. “It’s good to see you up and about, lad. It was quite the tale old Arti had to tell us.”
Luanna nodded. “Estel was just about to—”
“How is he?” Estel blurted. Luanna’s were not the only raised eyebrows, and Estel shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “He … so much bad has happened to him, I just … Will he get better?” He focused on Creston, just come from Ferrier’s room. The Hobbit exchanged a glance with Luanna, and after a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. Creston turned back to Estel and sighed deeply, clasping his hands atop the scrubbed surface of the table.
“That arm was the worst of it. He had a few other bumps and bruises, but most of those were half healed … might have even been full-healed in some cases, if his body didn’t have the fever and that arm wound to fight.” Creston exchanged another glance with Luanna, and Estel’s stomach tightened.
“Will he get better?” Estel demanded, his voice rising. Something like panic was beginning to set in, and he didn’t know why … Luanna crossed to Estel again, pulling him tight against her.
The Hobbit nodded. “He’ll be well.” Cres offered a wry smile. “The arm, though …”
“What about his arm?” Estel tried to rise, but Luanna held him in place. The Hobbit’s voice was gentle.
“We had to take his arm, lad.”
Estel stared, then shook his head. Surely he had heard the Hobbit wrong. So many awful things had already happened to Ferrier, surely this couldn’t … “You were supposed to help him,” he whispered, and Luanna’s arms tightened around him. “No!” He tried to pull away. “Nothing else bad was supposed to happen! Why did—”
“Estel, shh.” Luanna knelt and turned him into her, holding him tight. A little voice in Estel’s mind reminded him that it was stupid to be upset—this was only the way things worked, and even Elrond himself had been forced to take a limb at times—but he was sobbing into Luanna’s shoulder and trying to push away from her at the same time, and then another, smaller pair of hands turned his head and he found himself staring into the eyes of a Hobbit female. She gave him a little shake.
“Enough, lad.” Camellias, for this must be the healer, held Estel’s gaze. Her voice was soothing. “Calm down. Deep breaths.” She drew in a long breath, and unconsciously Estel echoed her. Camellias nodded, encouraging, and repeated the process. Slowly, Estel felt the panic drain away, replaced by a deep weariness. Finally, he relaxed against Luanna. Camellias nodded and gently released him. “Good, lad. Very good.” She smiled and squeezed his arm. “Now, I am Cam, and I am the healer. I understand your da is a healer as well.” Estel nodded. Luanna’s hand stroked his hair. “So. You’re a good lad to want the best for Master Ferrier. Since your da’s a healer, you must know that this sometimes happens, yes?” Estel nodded again, reluctantly. “Master Ferrier will be well, though, do not doubt it. With the infection in his arm gone, the rest is not so severe, I think, that he won’t recover. He will need to relearn how to live, with only one arm, but it can be done, and he will have help.”
Estel looked to Luanna, who nodded her agreement. The farmer’s wife glanced toward the two Hobbits, who seemed to acknowledge some unspoken request and both withdrew across the room.
“Estel.” Luanna gently reclaimed his attention, drawing away in order to face him. “These clothes you’re wearing?” Puzzled by the shift in topic, Estel looked down at the too-big shirt and pants. Luanna smiled faintly. “They belonged to my son.” Estel frowned, picturing little Sander crouched on the hearth. Luanna shook her head, guessing the direction of his thoughts. “Not Sander, of course. I had a son with my first husband. He was a good boy, and not much older than you are now when he and his da were killed in an accident at a neighboring farm.” Estel sucked in his breath, and she nodded. “Marks and his wife lived nearby—she passed away in childbirth only a few weeks after mine were taken from me.” The farmer’s wife took Estel’s hand and squeezed it. “If not for each other, who knows where either of us would be now … but we learned to lean on each other, and we survived. So you see, we here understand Master Ferrier—not his particulars, perhaps, but we know what it is to lose so much and be all that’s left. He’ll find all the help he needs with us, never fear.” Estel stared into her eyes for a long moment, horrified and yet also strangely relieved. It was, somehow, as if a giant weight had been lifted from the center of his chest. He still felt bruised, but he could at least breath again. Finally he nodded, calm enough now to feel a stirring of regret for his earlier behavior.
“I’m sorry.” He looked around to Cres and Cam, who were standing together across the room. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Of course not, lad.” The Hobbits took his words as their cue, returning to the table once more. Cres patted Estel’s shoulder as he passed, and Cam squeezed his hand. Luanna, too, returned to her own chair, delivering Estel’s empty plate to a wash tub along the way.
“So.” She smiled at Estel, and her gaze was reassuring. “Let’s look to helping you as well, now. Go on, lad, and tell us all you can. We’ll get you home, never fear—even if it does take some doing.”
In the end, it was decided that Estel would leave with Cres the next morning for Staddle.
“But … I told Kerra that we were going to Archet. If she tells my brothers that, they won’t go to Staddle,” Estel protested. “It’s not on the Road at all. They won’t know to—”
“But if they don’t, if they haven’t managed to track you that far—and I have to say I think it unlikely, even if they’re as skilled as you say—what then?” Marks, who had returned with the onset of twilight and was eating supper at the table with Arti, shook his head. “Darl’s not got anyone he can spare for a long trek, he keeps only one runner and that for short messages to Bree or Staddle. If it turns out no one’s come looking for you, we’ll be needing to start with you back east, and we won’t be finding anyone at Darl’s inn for that kind of journey.”
Estel wanted to protest that Elladan and Elrohir were that skilled, that Marks didn’t understand the abilities or the determination of Elves—but he couldn’t, and suddenly he was tired and lonely, even in a roomful of people. Perhaps Marks was right. Surely even his brothers or Glorfindel had not been able to track him so far in a week’s time, especially along the Road. It wasn’t highly travelled—in fact, he had seen no other travelers during their whole journey—but between the partially-paved Road and their several detours, it was difficult to believe that anyone from Imladris could be so close behind. Estel sighed, hugged his knees to his chest, and nodded.
Cres smiled sympathetically. “My cousin has an inn in Staddle. He’ll know how to find someone trustworthy who can take you all the way back, if need be. The Road will be the easiest way toward the east in any case, whether you come down this way again or go over the hill and start from Bree. That means passing Darl’s inn from wherever you start. If anyone’s been there looking for you, you’ll either meet them on the Road or hear about it when you reach the inn.”
It seemed the their best choice—their only choice—and so Estel ate an early breakfast with Cres, Luanna, Marks, and Arti the next morning before the sun even rose. Only Cam was absent, keeping her watch over Ferrier. Estel wondered briefly if he should ask to see Ferrier before they went. It felt like it would be the right thing to do, given all that they had been through. He didn’t really want to see the Man, though. He wanted Ferrier to get well, but he truly didn’t care if he never saw the Man again. No one else suggested it either, so in the end Estel kept silent. This seemed vaguely cowardly, but he pushed that thought away, accepted a lunch pack and a kiss from Luanna, then trailed out the door behind Cres without looking back. Ferrier was in good hands now. There was no reason that Estel should feel responsible for him anymore.
The Hobbit, with Estel close behind, turned north along the main track as the sun made its appearance over the eastern trees. The morning was pleasantly cool, with a hint of heat to come, and the air was ripe with the scents of grass and heavy spring flowers and rich plowed soil. Birds chattered around them, and small animals rustled through the trees. Slowly, the tight knot in Estel’s chest began to ease. He was free of Ferrier, and even if he was still lost and without his family, he had found people to help him—both him and Ferrier. Surely he would be on his way home soon.
The Hobbit, striding steadily along with one hand clutching a stick and his own lunch pack swung over his shoulder, lifted his voice in a walking song.
To Bree I go,
It’s on the Road
twixt East and West
is their abode.
Once there, I’ll sup and
ale will flow,
but until then
to Bree I go.
To Staddle I hie,
It’s on the Hill
Behind which Bree
is standing still.
Once there, I’ll prop me
feet up high,
but until then
to Staddle I hie.
To Combe I trek,
the southern towns
and forest green.
Once there, I’ll light
my pipe and rest,
but until then
to Combe I trek.
To Archet I hike,
It’s in the woods
off to the North
for years it’s stood.
Once there, I’ll sleep me
but until then
to Archet I hike.
It was nothing like the music of the Elves, which was always lyrical and stately even at its lightest, but it was very like the silly songs that his mother had always spun as she straightened their rooms or worked her embroidery or planted in one of the gardens ringing the Last Homely House. Despite a pang of longing, Estel’s spirits sluggishly rose. Cres’s gravelly voice was cheerful and spry, and the tune was easy to follow. Before they had traveled too many miles, Estel found himself humming along.
Staddle was … amazing.
It was his first town, and Estel gaped openly as he followed Cres through its streets. He had never seen such a jumble of buildings, and so close to each other! He recognized the purpose of a few of the structures as they passed—smithy, stable—and guessed others from painted pictures hanging outside the doors—butcher, seamstress. For some, there was no way to determine what manner of labor or craft they might house. Accustomed as he was to the Last Homely House, Estel wondered at the purpose of so many separate buildings. In Rivendell, the sprawling House was the center of all activity—not only government and entertainment and living quarters for many, but day to day work as well. Tasks such as smithing and farming and the like were relegated to their appropriate places, of course, but even those outer laborers often came to the House to offer reports and discuss needs. Here in Staddle, Estel saw no large building that might serve as a center for the town, and he wondered how all these people in their separate buildings ever coordinated themselves.
Set back outside the town’s center, and also scattered in a few places among the larger buildings themselves, were smaller structures that he guessed must be homes. Some were of a size with Luanna and Marks’s farm house, but most were smaller—or shorter, at least. Estel guessed that his head would nearly scrape the ceilings in some. The hill that settled its firm bulk against the western edge of the town also held two rows of round doors—the first row near the base of the hill and the second higher up. Well-worn paths led up between them and branched out to the very doorsteps of the colorfully painted doors, which spread out along the entire length of the town and stretched past its outskirts. All these holes and small houses had been built with Hobbits in mind, for Staddle, Cres had informed him, had been primarily settled by Hobbits.
And Hobbits were everywhere. It was like walking into one of his bedtime stories from when he was small—he was surrounded by small curly heads and large hairy feet scurrying every which way in the falling dusk, and despite his general anxiety he couldn’t help grinning from the sheer wonder of it all. He had never been the tallest person anywhere before. Actually, he had rarely been taller than anyone before—only his mother and a few of the Elf maidens were short enough that he had recently surpassed them. Of course, he wasn’t really the tallest now, either. He saw a large Man across the way in the smithy, and a Man and Woman crossed one of the side streets with a basket and a baby as Estel followed Cres past, but for the most part Estel towered above the crowd. It seemed that in the end-of-day bustle no one was much interested in the newcomers. Cres received a few calls of greeting, and waved a few times himself, but none stopped them or tried to talk. It was just as well. Cres hurried through the streets with barely a pause.
“We’ll want to get to The Dusty Mathom as soon as may be. Darlo will be busy once the usual supper crowd descends, and I’d like us to have a room and a meal by then.”
They finally reached the inn, which was set off the main road near the hill, and stepped inside. The building itself was of a size which would easily fit Men, but when they entered Estel saw that the bar and many of the tables were much shorter than the ones at the last inn. There were a few tall tables, though, and already a group of Men sat around one, pints before them. The inn itself smelled better, or perhaps he was just becoming accustomed to all the new scents that seemed to go with Men and Hobbits. Cres hailed a Hobbit behind the bar and was greeted warmly.
“Creston!” The portly Hobbit rounded the bar and embraced Estel’s companion. “I didn’t know you was coming. How’s Cam? What’s news?”
“Cam’s fine, just fine.” Cres motioned to Estel. “Darlo, I’d like you to meet Estel. Estel, this is my cousin Darlo Sandheaver, the owner and proprietor of The Dusty Mathom.”
Darlo offered a bow, which after a brief hesitation Estel returned. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the gesture and felt a little silly, but he wasn’t certain how else one was supposed to greet a Hobbit. Darlo turned a raised eyebrow to his cousin. “And where did you pick up this lad? There’s a story here, I’m thinking.”
Cres sighed. “Indeed there is, and we’re hoping you’ll be able to help. We’ll have a room, and supper up in it, and I’d be right grateful if you’d come by for a spell after the rush.” Estel was briefly disappointed that they would be eating in their room, but decided it was just as well. The long day’s trek had left him exhausted, and he truly wasn’t sure if he would rather eat or sleep.
“I will.” Darlo nodded, rubbing at his chin. “That I will. Got Lily and Tam both tonight, so I should be able to slip out right enough.” He waved toward a door at the back of the main room. “Take your usual, it’s open. I’ll have a cot sent up for the lad, and Lily’ll be up with some supper soon enough.”
“Thanks, Darlo.” Cres patted the other Hobbit’s shoulder, then led Estel across the room and up a set of stairs. Down the hall and to the right, they entered a small but cozy room furnished with a Hobbit-sized bed, a table and two small chairs, a fireplace, cheerful rug, and water for washing. Cres motioned Estel toward the pitcher. “You first, I’ll get the fire going.”
Estel obeyed with alacrity, eager to wash away the dust and sweat of travel. When the fire was lit he exchanged places with the Hobbit, dropping to the rug to pull off his boots. He wrinkled his nose briefly at the smell, but it couldn’t be helped. He tossed them into the far corner and stretched out on his back, basking in the growing warmth of the flames. Almost immediately, however, a knock sounded and Cres opened the door to admit a Hobbit lass who held a tray heaped high with food. Estel jumped up to take it from her, bowing over the top of it. She blushed and giggled, then whirled and disappeared into the hall in a flash of skirts and curls. Cres snorted softly.
“It isn’t as if she’s never seen a child of Men before.”
Estel had not even noticed—he had eyes only for the feast before them. All thoughts of sleeping instead of eating quickly vanished. There was a loaf of bread, lightly buttered, a thick beef stew, a lump of white cheese, roasted potatoes, and berry tarts with a thick cream. For Cres there was a pitcher of ale, and for Estel a pitcher of milk. He set the tray onto the table, dropped into a chair, and fell on the food as though he had not eaten since before leaving Rivendell. Chuckling, Cres joined him. Estel ate until he was stuffed, and then ate two more tarts—only so that they would not go to waste. Then, barely able to move, he crept over to the rug, curled up in front of the fireplace, and was asleep in moments.
He knew not how long he slept before Darlo knocked on their door, but the sky outside the small window was dark and scattered with stars. Estel sat up, rubbing his eyes as Cres helped Darlo to set up the cot and then the two Hobbits settled into the chairs.
“So.” Darlo rubbed at his knees, his gaze moving between his cousin and Estel. “What is this tale you wish me to hear, and what manner of help can I offer?”
Cres glanced to Estel, who shook his head and looked down, scratching aimlessly at the rag rug. He was tired, and full, and he didn’t want to have to remember what he had told them at Marks and Luanna’s farm and what he had … glossed over in his attempt to hide the entire truth. The Hobbit seemed unsurprised, and didn’t push. He turned back to Darlo, and in a few brief minutes—showing remarkable restraint for a Hobbit, had Estel known it—Cres explained the situation to his cousin. Darlo whistled and sat back, shaking his head.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Nor I, nor any of us.” Cres took a long drink of ale. “It’s a sad situation, for all involved.”
“Aye, indeed.” Darlo leaned forward. “But what I can be doing about it?”
Cres motioned to Estel. “Someone … needs to take the lad home. As I said, he lives near to the Elves at Rivendell. We thought, Cam and I, that you might know of someone who would be willing to make the journey. Perhaps two, for I cannot imagine wanting to make the return alone.”
Silence fell. Darlo turned his gaze into the fire and stared, rubbing at his chin. Trying not to be obvious, Estel held his breath. If no one could take him … if no one would take him … what would he do? He would have to try to make his own way home. The thought sent an unpleasant shiver through him. He knew enough of woodcraft and the hunting of small game, but the journey from the Bree-lands to Imladris was utterly beyond him. What else could he do, though?
“Perhaps Tanner’s son would be willing … or at least know of someone who might be.” Estel looked up at the Hobbit. “The smith’s son,” Darlo clarified, then sighed. “I don’t know … they’re a long way, are the lands near Rivendell, and there’s some dangerous road in between. Even our more adventurous lads don’t generally get beyond the hunting grounds up north of Archet.” Darlo shook his head at whatever he saw in Estel’s face. “Now, don’t be giving up yet, lad. Even if Dalton’s not willing, he’s got friends over in Bree. I know he’d be willing at least to take you over the hill and see what help can be found there.”
Cres nodded. “All right, then. We’ll go talk to him at first light. I—”
“That’s the only trouble.” Darlo sighed. “He’s away, up to Combe with his ma’s folks. He’s not due back until day after tomorrow.”
“Two days!” Estel burst out, dismayed, and then his face flushed a fiery red when both Hobbits looked toward him. He ducked his head quickly. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, and Darlo shook his head again.
“Don’t be, lad. I understand, and I just wish there was aught else I could do. Most of us around here are Hobbits, though. We’re just not made for adventures and long travels.”
“No, I …” Estel shrugged, trying and failing miserably to hide his disappointment. “It’s all right. If he’s the only one you think can help, it’s all right.”
Cres leaned over to grip his shoulder. “That’s the way, lad.” He settled back again, and his face grew serious. “I can’t be away for that long, though. I need to be getting back. When Cam and I came to aid Master Ferrier, there was no thought that I’d be—”
“I’ll watch over him, no fear.”
Cres was relieved. “Aye?”
“Of course.” Darlo waved a vague hand. “He can stay here, help me sweep up and wash down tables and such.” He sent a grin and a wink Estel’s way, and the boy managed to smile back. Cres may have noticed his lack of enthusiasm, for he seemed suddenly concerned.
“Are you all right with that, lad? You don’t know Darlo, I know, but he’ll treat you right. We grew up together, I’d trust him with my life. He’ll see you looked after.”
The Hobbit seemed anxious that Estel should accept the situation, and in truth, Estel was not particularly concerned about being left in Staddle. After the past week and more, he was becoming almost numbed to the idea of depending upon strangers. They were, after all, all he had. No, he was busy worrying about what would happen if he waited for Dalton Tanner to return from Combe, and then found that the smith’s son would not help him.
Well. There was nothing he could do about that now—it was better to try to forget about it, for the night at least. He could pick it up again the day after tomorrow. Estel smiled up at the Hobbits again, and he knew that this time it looked better, even if it didn’t feel better.
“No, that’s fine.”
Cres left at first light, with thanks for his cousin and a last pat on Estel’s shoulder. After he had gone, Estel asked Darlo what tasks the Hobbit might have for him. It really was only fair, he supposed, to work for his keep. The innkeeper, however, shooed him outside. “Time for that later. Go take a look around now. You can’t get lost, no worries—we’re too small for that, but I’m sure you can find something to keep you occupied. Here.” He pressed a meat pie and a sticky bun into Estel’s hands. “Come back for lunch, and we’ll see then if we can find you something to do.”
Not inclined to protest either the lack of work or the opportunity to see more of Staddle, Estel thanked Darlo, took a large bite of meat pie, and wandered away from the inn. Instead of going back into the center of the town first, he climbed the large hill, curious if he would be able to see Bree. The climb took longer than he had expected, and he was hot and wished he had brought water when he reached the top. All he saw to the west were trees. Whether or not he might have been able to see Bree without them remained a mystery, but he had a nice view of Staddle and the trees to the south, as well as the first approaches of the thicker Chetwood to the north. Already the streets were bustling—it seemed that Hobbits as well as Elves rose with the sun, although perhaps for different reasons—and Estel finished the last of the sticky bun, wiped his hands on the grass, and made his way back down the hill and into the town.
He wandered the streets aimlessly at first, for he didn’t know enough of Staddle or its people to have any real destination in mind. Unlike the night before, most of the Hobbits spoke to him or at least gave him a curious glance as their paths crossed. Estel returned the greetings shyly, and was just as glad that no one made any effort toward a sustained conversation. He wouldn’t know what to say, and didn’t really feel like saying anything, anyway. The one place he made sure to visit was the smithy, and he spent a while hovering across the street, watching the smith work. It was difficult to tell anything about the Man this way except that he was industrious, and he seemed pleasant enough the few times people approached, laying aside his work and offering each his full attention. Estel finally turned away, hoping that Dalton Tanner was somewhat like his father.
The sun was halfway up the sky by this point, and Estel wondered what he would do until lunchtime. He would never have imagined that, in a town full of Hobbits, he would be ready to go back inside and sleep again before noon, but he was. It wasn’t as fun alone as he had been thinking, and his anxiety of the night before was back, gnawing at the pit of his stomach. He wondered if Darlo would send him away again if he went back—often his mother or father (or any other Elf in the vicinity) would force him back outside if he tried to spend his time indoors on a sunny day. He was walking in the general direction of The Dusty Mathom, unsure yet of his actual plans, when he turned a corner and found a group of boys squatting or sprawled in a circle between two buildings.
There were six, and they were mostly Hobbit lads, although two were children of Men. They each had several small, smooth little balls of stone piled beside them, and were playing a sort of game that involved flicking one of the little stones at others, apparently in an attempt to knock them outside of a crudely drawn circle. Laughter and general chatter rose from the circle, and Estel drifted closer, intrigued. He had never seen this game before, or boys this close to his own age. He had been watching for several minutes, listening to their conversation (which shifted so often that Estel wasn’t sure how they could keep up) and trying to figure out the game (which seemed simple enough) when one of the Hobbits looked up and saw him.
Estel tried on a smile, and found that it came easily enough. “Hello.”
“You want to play?”
He was startled by the abrupt offer—they didn’t even know him. In fact, he did want to try, but he shook his head. “I don’t know this game.”
“Marbles?” The lad was incredulous. “Thought everybody knew about marbles.” He shook his curly head and motioned Estel closer. “Don’t matter, we’ll show you. It’s not hard.”
Still, Estel hesitated. “I don’t have any … marbles, though.”
One of the other Hobbit lads snorted, sitting up. “You can take my place. I’m not doing any good here, can’t get any worse.”
The boy beside him laughed. “You never do any good, Nob.”
“Well then, this is my chance, isn’t it?” Nob scooted out of the circle, pointing toward the open spot. “Here, I’ll tell you what to do. Come on.”
“Might not want to listen to Nob, there.” The first Hobbit laughed, not unkindly. “He’s losing.”
Nob sniffed, apparently unconcerned. “I’m a better manager than player.”
This drew a general round of laughter, and Estel slipped into the open spot under its cover. He smiled shyly at the small Hobbit beside him. “I’m Estel.”
A flurry of introductions followed, none of which he remembered, and then Nob moved up to peer over his shoulder. “Now, see that big orange and white one? That’s me shooter. Go ahead, pick it up.”
The rest of the morning passed in a blur of lessons and laughter and general forgetfulness, and Estel was surprised to find the sun past its high point when the other boys began to pack up their marbles. He had done well for himself—his hand-eye coordination was quite good, given his extensive training with a hunting bow—and he handed his newly captured marbles over to Nob, to (mostly) good-natured grumbling from the others. “I don’t have anywhere to keep them,” he insisted when the Hobbit protested, and finally Nob agreed.
“All right, then.” The Hobbit extracted the orange and white marble from his pile and held it out. “You take this one, though.”
“That’s your shooter!” Estel objected, but Nob shook his head.
“It’s not doing me any good. I’ll find another here, maybe have better luck. You keep that one.”
“It’ll take more than a new shooter for you, Nob lad,” one of the other boys snorted, and even Nob chuckled as they all began to move away. Estel hesitated, then accepted the marble, rubbing it between his fingers as the others finally disappeared around and behind the near buildings. He stared after them for a long moment, then gripped the marble, shoved it into his pocket, and turned back toward The Dusty Mathom. It had been … a good morning. A fun morning even, despite everything. For the first time, Estel truly regretted the lack of other children in Rivendell.
Darlo greeted him cheerfully when he entered, asking after his morning and providing a lunch repast that would have served as dinner for two in Imladris. Estel ate quickly, then spent the rest of the afternoon assisting the innkeeper and his staff with sweeping and washing and the general upkeep required between the lunch crowd and the supper rush. When evening drew near, Darlo fed him again—Estel was beginning to feel quite full even between meals, and only managed about half of his supper, to the dissatisfaction of the Hobbit—and then positioned him at the kitchen door.
“Tam’s out tonight. Usually when we’re one short the servers have to take in the orders, then go back in and get the plates themselves. What you’ll do, though, is pass orders from us to Barry in the kitchen, and bring plates out to the bar when they’re ready. Think you can do that?”
Estel nodded, and Darlo bustled off to greet the first of the new arrivals.
Supper was busy, and for a long while Estel forgot his troubles. They soon developed a working pattern—Estel and Darlo, Lily and Barry—and Estel scurried quickly back and forth between kitchen and bar, calling orders, carrying full plates, and returning used to a set of tubs near the large sinks in the back. Once or twice, when he knew that the order came from a close table, he took it himself, and he was returning from one such when he crashed straight into a patron, who was turning from the bar with a brimming mug. “Your pardon,” he gasped, looking up at the Man—and he kept looking up, for this Man was far taller than anyone else in The Dusty Mathom. Dark hair liberally streaked with grey, lined face, square jaw and grey eyes looked back down at him, and Estel momentarily froze.
This was a Man of his mother’s kindred. There was no doubting such features as those.
He did not recognize the Man, and was certain that this was not someone to whom he’d been introduced at any time over the years. Remembering that he had not been allowed to meet all those of his mother’s people who visited Rivendell—for what reason he wasn’t certain—Estel looked away and ducked back behind the bar, catching a flash of widened eyes and raised brows before he slipped through the kitchen door. He stood against the wall for a long moment, hoping that the Man would lose interest and return to his own table and his own business, ignoring Barry’s questioning gaze. Finally, he took a long breath and ventured out again into the main room.
The Man was gone, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Estel soon spotted him, though, at a table near the hearth, eating a bowl of stew and watching him. The grey gaze made him uncomfortable, and he could not help but send quick glances toward the Man as he worked, wishing he would look away. Darlo caught the direction of his gaze and shook his head.
“That’s old Scowler, it is. In here from time to time. He’s a Ranger, but he’s always been harmless enough. His money’s as good as any other’s, I say, and he’s never caused any trouble about town that I’ve heard of.”
“Scowler?” Estel repeated soundlessly, glancing back at him. The Man’s expression was grim, but he wouldn’t have called it a scowl. Glorfindel, now, knew how to scowl …
The Hobbit snorted a laugh. “Well, I’ve never heard his true name. It’s just what we call him around here, as no one’s ever seen him crack a smile.” Darlo snatched up two plates and hurried off. Estel looked again at the Ranger—what was a Ranger, he wondered, and what did they do—accidentally meeting his gaze. Estel looked quickly away, and spent the rest of the evening purposefully not looking in … Scowler’s … direction.
Darlo sent Estel up to bed before the common room emptied, which was just as well. Estel was dead on his feet. He fell bonelessly onto his cot, too exhausted to do much in the way of washing up before he was fast asleep. Consequently, he stunk of smoke and food when he woke, and spent a good while trying to scrub the odor from his skin and hair. When he had done as much as he was able, he stumbled downstairs. Darlo was waiting for him with another meat pie and sticky bun.
“You’ll not want to go far today. I don’t know when Dalton’s planning to get back in—I’ve talked with his da, who says it’ll probably be late afternoon, but if he’s in sooner you’ll not want to be out and about.” Estel nodded agreement, feeling his stomach cramp with anxiety. He put down the rest of the sticky bun. “Until then, though … I have an order in with the baker this morning—maybe you’d go pick it up for me. Do you remember the bakery from yesterday?” Estel nodded and stood, glad for some distraction from his suddenly whirling thoughts. Darlo pressed a few coins in his hand and he was off, around the front of the inn and toward the center of town. He had barely passed two buildings, however, when a hand seized his arm, pulled him roughly into the shadow of the weaver’s shop, and stilled his startled yelp with a quick shake.
Estel gaped up at Scowler, realizing now why the name fit. The Ranger leaned over him, resting on one hand against the structure behind, and gazed impassively down upon him. “Now, then,” he said, in a calm voice which belied his fierce expression, “perhaps you’ll tell me what a lad of the Dúnedain is doing by his lonesome here in Staddle, acting as errand-boy for a Hobbit.”
Estel gaped up at the Man. His mind seemed to have shut down, faced with this unexpected challenge, but his lips worked at the word. “Dúne…”
Scowler snorted. “Dúnedain,” he drew out slowly. The effect was rather sarcastic, and indignation shook Estel from his stupor. “Don’t think you can hide it, lad.” The Ranger stepped back and motioned vaguely up and down Estel’s length. “Not with looks like those.”
Dúnedain. It was what Erestor had called the remnant of the fallen Northern Kingdom, Arnor. Usually, his family and the other inhabitants of Imladris referred to his mother’s people (at least, within Estel’s hearing) as … well, ‘your mother’s people’. He had heard, over the years, a few conversations not meant for him that had made him suspect that he and his mother were perhaps of the Dúnedain, but this meant little to Estel and he had soon forgotten. Now, though … Scowler recognized him as he had recognized the Ranger, by his resemblance to Gilraen’s kindred.
What if the Man tried to take him back to where the Dúnedain lived?
Panic surged, and Estel swallowed hard. “No, I …” His mouth was dry, and the words would barely come. “I’m not …”
“Oh you’re not?” Scowler raised one brow and straightened, so that he was no longer looming over Estel. Instead, he folded his arms. “This I must hear. What are you, then?”
Estel scowled, pulling together the fragments of his story. “I am from a village near … to the east of here. My a … my da is a healer there.”
“Aye?” The heavy brows drew down. “And what are you doing here, then?”
“I … one of his—my da’s—patients thought I was his son. He was sick, and his family had all died, and he was mad with grief, and he thought I was his son and he gave me a drug to make me sleep and then brought me here with him.”
The frown had steadily disappeared during this recitation, replaced with an expression of amused incredulity. “And this man … he’s here now?”
Estel hesitated. “No, I … he collapsed on the road. A farmer and his wife—Marks and Luanna—took him in, and the healer’s husband brought me here to look for someone that can take me home.”
It all sounded … utterly ridiculous, even to Estel, and he wasn’t surprised when Scowler didn’t appear to believe a word of it.
“So … you say that you were stolen from your family and village by an ill man who believed you to be his son and who brought you to the Bree-lands, where the man finally succumbed to his illness near a helpful farm and you were able to move on.” It was a semi-accurate description of events. Estel nodded, despairing. The Ranger’s lip curled, and he shook his head. “Come now. Let us be realistic. Would it perhaps be more accurate to just say that you left your home, wherever that might be, and somehow ended up here, in the employ of Darlo Sandheaver?”
“No!” Estel tried to duck away, but Scowler moved to block him.
“I did not run away!” Estel tried the other direction, only to find it blocked as well. Angered to the point of uncaring, he struck out at the Ranger. Scowler captured his wrist and held it, staring down at him. Estel glared back, forcing away the furious tears, and finally the Man sighed.
“If I let you go, will you run?” Estel considered. It wasn’t as if he would truly be able to get away from the Man, and even if he did, Scowler knew he would eventually go back to The Dusty Mathom. “Will you?” the Ranger insisted, and Estel shook his head, staring at his feet. The strong hand released his wrist, and Scowler sighed. “What is your name?”
“Nate.” The word was out before Estel even knew he intended it. When he sneaked a glance up, the Ranger’s eyebrow had risen again.
“Yes, Nate!” It was stupid, and he didn’t know why he insisted. All Scowler had to do was talk to Darlo to discover that it was a lie—and Estel had no doubt that was coming. He scowled up at the Ranger. “What is your name, then? Not really Scowler, is it?”
A twitch of something like irritation crossed the Man’s face, and the barest hint of an eye roll. He stared down at Estel for another moment, then stepped back. “Dorhaur.” The Ranger took a long breath and looked toward the sky, chewing at his lip. Finally, he returned his gaze to Estel. “I should perhaps not have put you on the spot, and for that I apologize.” His eyes bored into Estel, until the boy finally nodded. “That said, you are of the Dúnedain, whatever and wherever else you might claim, and as such you are now my responsibility, alone as you seem to be.”
Estel glowered. “I am not—”
“You are, though, whether either of us wishes it.” Dorhaur shook his head. “The Dúnedain take care of their own.” That sentiment Estel understood, as the Elves of Imladris also lived by such a code. Reluctantly, he nodded—not in agreement with the Ranger’s claims of responsibility for him, but in acknowledgement of the words themselves. He cared not whether the Man understood the difference. Dorhaur swept an arm back toward the inn. “Does Darlo know of your … misfortunes? Perhaps we should have a seat and talk.”
Anxious to return to the Hobbit, who at least believed his story, Estel nodded. Dorhaur motioned for him to lead the way, and fell into step behind as they approached the inn. Despite himself, Estel was faintly amused. It seemed that the Ranger still didn’t quite trust him.
The feeling was more than mutual.
Darlo, who was restocking the bar when Estel slouched in, came to meet him, surprised. “You couldn’t have been there and back already, I …” His words trailed away when Dorhaur entered, eyes moving between the two. The Ranger nodded to the innkeeper.
“Ranger, sir.” Of course, Estel thought. The Hobbit wouldn’t call the Man ‘Scowler’ to his face. Darlo returned Dorhaur’s nod, then looked back around. “Estel, what is this, then?”
“Yes, Estel.” Dorhaur moved into the room, raising an ironic brow at Estel as he passed. He pulled out a chair from the nearest table and dropped into it. “Why don’t you explain?”
Estel sighed, cast another glance toward Darlo, who was looking more puzzled by the moment, then trailed after the Ranger. Darlo set his rag down on the bar and joined them at the table, scowling suspiciously at Dorhaur.
“Now then, you haven’t been bothering this boy, have you? I’ve always treated you Rangers fairly, seeing as how you’ve never caused any problems that I know of, but if you’ve been—”
“Hold, Sandheaver.” Dorhaur held up a hand to still the flow of words. “I’ve done nothing to the boy, other than question him. He appears to be of my people—you may notice a resemblance.” Darlo’s eyes flickered between Estel and Dorhaur, then again, and he nodded slowly. The Ranger seemed almost amused by the Hobbit’s reluctance. “That being the case,” he continued, “I am understandably curious regarding how he came to be here in your employ. His story was … rather fantastic.”
“Who are you to know whether or not the lad’s story is true?” Darlo demanded, stabbing a finger at the Man. Then he sat back, shaking his head. “He ain’t in my employ, anyway. Just helping out for the night until we can get his situation sorted out.”
“And just what is his situation?” The Hobbit narrowed his eyes, glancing from the Ranger toward Estel, but Dorhaur reclaimed his attention. “He has given me a story, such as it is. I would simply like someone of my own acquaintance to verify, if you will.”
“And why should I?” Darlo stood, bringing his eyes more on a level with the seated Man. “What business of yours is any of it? This boy—”
“Is of my kindred.” The Ranger, Estel noted with some surprise, remained steady in the face of the Hobbit’s onslaught. “Surely you accept my interest in seeing him properly looked after.”
It was, perhaps, a reasonable argument. Still Darlo hesitated, but finally Estel shrugged, catching his attention. “It’s all right. As he said, I already told him most of it, anyway.”
Darlo settled back, looking none too happy, but spoke willingly enough. “As I understand it, the lad came to one of the pipeweed farms south of here, in a wagon with a man who was ill with injury and fever. He approached the farmer and his people for help …”
Dorhaur sat silent throughout the Hobbit’s narrative, nodding briefly when called upon to indicate that he had heard or understood, watching not Darlo but Estel as the tale unfolded. The intensity of the Ranger’s grey eyes, so like his own, was unnerving, but Estel forced himself not to look away. When Darlo stopped speaking Dorhaur was silent, until the Hobbit shifted irritably.
“Well then, you’ve heard it. What now?”
The Ranger pursed his lips. “You say you heard this directly from your brother-in-law, who saw this Ferrier with his own eyes.”
“He helped take the man’s arm off, he did!”
The reminder was … unpleasant, but Estel hid his flinch. Now was not the time. Dorhaur seemed to see it anyway, for his voice softened a touch. “And your home is a village near to the Elvish haven of Rivendell?” Estel nodded, confirming again what the Man had already heard. Dorhaur rubbed at his stubbled chin, eyes still fixed on Estel. The boy remained silent, trying to give nothing away. His mother’s people came to Imladris regularly, if not often, and probably knew far more about that area than any Hobbit or farmer of the Bree-lands. It was possible that the Ranger still sensed something off in his story—but like himself, Dorhaur gave nothing away. Instead, the Man sighed and turned back to the innkeeper. “Well then. I’ll take charge of seeing he gets home from here.”
Shocked silence greeted this pronouncement, then Darlo shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”
Dorhaur responded immediately, leaning forward to punctuate his point, but his words, and the Hobbit’s next rejoinder, were lost on Estel as he pondered this unexpected new possibility. He was a bit frightened of the Ranger—there was no denying it. But given the Man’s words and actions over the course of the morning, he didn’t really feel that Dorhaur meant him any harm. No, he rather thought the Ranger saw him as a sudden unwanted burden. Of course, there was that to consider as well. It could be that Dorhaur might say that he would take Estel home, only to change course once they were well away from Staddle and return him to the nearest hold of the Dúnedain people. Estel wasn’t sure where in the North lands the bulk of the Dúnedain might reside—it was not something that Erestor had covered in his surprisingly brief follow-up to the fall of Arnor. It might be much farther away from Imladris than he was right now.
It might also be much closer.
Aside from that, though, Estel understood that the chance of finding someone here in Staddle or even from Bree to take him most of the way to Rivendell was remote. He could tell, although the Hobbit tried to hide it, that Darlo was not hopeful that even Dalton Tanner or his acquaintances would be able or willing to make the trek. And if that was true, where did that leave him? There was always the hope that Glorfindel or his brothers would find him, but if they didn’t—if they weren’t able to follow Ferrier’s trail and then his own admittedly erratic track after—he could be stuck here for …
Estel sucked in a breath. That possibility was far more frightening than a grumpy Ranger and an uncertain path.
“I’ll go with you.”
Both of them turned on him at once. “Now lad,” Darlo began, “that’s not a good—”
“Sandheaver, if the boy’s made up his—”
“He’s twelve years old! He doesn’t—”
“It’s not the same as for a Hobbit child. He’s perfectly—”
“I know the difference between—”
“I’ll go!” Estel cut them both off, gritting his teeth against the tension. His hands were starting to shake, but he ignored them, and ignored the glares as well. “I’ll go.” He looked toward the Hobbit. “I know you don’t really think Dalton Tanner or any of his friends will take me.” Darlo sighed heavily. “And if they don’t, I don’t know how else I’ll get home.”
“It will be all right.” He cast a tentative glance toward the Ranger, who returned it with a nod that was surprisingly solemn.
“Estel!” The innkeeper took his arm and shook. “You don’t even know this Man! He—”
“I don’t know you, either!” The Hobbit stepped back, eyes widening, and Estel bit his lip. Tears formed, but he roughly swiped them away as he had been doing for days. “I’m sorry,” he apologized miserably, but stepped away when Darlo reached for him. “Thank you, I know you gave me a room and food and you’re trying to help me, but I don’t know you either, or Cres, or Arti or Luanna or Marks or …” Estel shuddered, and shook his head. “I don’t know anyone, and I just want go home!” He cast a pleading glance toward Dorhaur, who was watching the exchange silently, an unreadable expression in the sharp grey eyes. “I want to go home,” he whispered, trying very hard not to think of his mother or father or anyone else who would make it impossible not to cry. The Man nodded.
“We’ll see you there, lad. You have my word.”
“The word of a Ranger,” Darlo sniffed, and Dorhaur turned on him.
“And what would you know about that?”
“Nothing!” the innkeeper snapped. “And that’s just the point, isn’t it?”
The argument continued as Darlo rose abruptly and began to bustle about the inn, filling a bag with more food than Estel and Dorhaur would ever be able to eat (‘Don’t argue, lad, what’s in my pack is barely worth having’). It was more than half an hour before they were able to depart. Estel accepted a brief embrace from the distinctly unhappy Hobbit, assured Darlo that he would watch out for himself while in Dorhaur’s company, and then trailed the length of Staddle in the Ranger’s wake. Dorhaur’s pace was ground-eating, and Estel’s own long legs stood him in good stead as they left the boundaries of the town and disappeared into the trackless underbrush beneath the trees.
They traveled for nearly an hour, and Dorhaur sent a couple of surprised and approving glances in Estel’s direction as they slipped silently through underbrush and downed leaves. Estel was just beginning to relax into their pace, thankful for the forest atmosphere and the lack of conversation, when Dorhaur made a hard turn toward the north. Estel froze, his heart racing. The Ranger was nearly out of sight before he realized that Estel was no longer following him. He scowled and started back, but Estel scrambled away and Dorhaur halted.
“You said you would take me home.”
The Ranger frowned. “I said we would see you home, aye.”
Estel pointed toward the east. “Home is that way. Going north will not take us there.”
Dorhaur grimaced. “We have to meet up with my captain first. It will—”
“Where will we meet my captain?” Estel nodded. “East of Archet is our meeting place. It is—”
“Archet?” he exclaimed, dismayed. “That’s days from here!”
Now, the Ranger seemed annoyed. “Only a few. Bree-land’s not that large, you know. In any case, I’ll not be able to …” He had started forward again, but Estel scrambled back. Once they reached this meeting place, with Dorhaur’s captain and possibly other Rangers there, it would be easy enough for them to try to make him go to a Dúnedain settlement … “Estel!” Dorhaur’s voice snapped out. “You cannot question every turn I make. We will never reach …” He strode forward, obviously intent on dragging Estel after him, and Estel broke, dashing back the way that they had come.
He shouldn’t have trusted this Man. He should have …
Strong arms seized him. Estel shrieked, beating on the Ranger, and Dorhaur cursed. He grabbed at Estel’s wrists and shook hard, until Estel’s teeth rattled and he bit his tongue. He spat blood onto the Man and stopped struggling, only just aware that tears were tracking his cheeks. Dorhaur glanced down at his tunic, raised an eyebrow at Estel, and then stepped back, raising his hands.
“Calm, lad. Be calm.” The grey eyes swept him, lingering on his face, and then Dorhaur crouched slowly, resting his arms on his knees. “I am not attempting to force you anywhere that you don’t want to go. I don’t believe for a moment that you’ve told me—or Darlo Sandheaver, for that matter—the whole truth,” Estel blinked at that admission, and the Ranger offered a wry grin, “but I begin to believe that you were in fact taken from your home, wherever that may be.” Estel drew a long, shaky breath and remained still. After a moment, Dorhaur added, “It must be so. If you believe that the two of us can simply pick up and walk off into the wilds of Eriador for such a journey with nothing but my pack and a Hobbit’s picnic lunch, you couldn’t possibly have survived on your own for any length of time.”
Estel scowled, and the Ranger laughed, standing. Realizing that Dorhaur had been teasing him, hoping for such a reaction, Estel relaxed slightly. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and eyed the Man, playing restlessly with the orange and white marble he discovered there. “You believe me?”
“I believe that,” Dorhaur corrected, “and I’ll take it as enough to go on for now. But we must go to meet my captain. I have not the supplies for such a journey, not least of which is a horse. I would not want to walk such a length if it could be avoided. Also,” he started slowly back along his northern route, and after a brief hesitation Estel followed, “it may not be I who takes you.”
“But you said—”
“I said we would see you there. The Rangers.” Dorhaur halted and swung around once more to face him. “Others there are who know the eastern wilds better than I. Depending upon who is available, I may not be the most obvious choice.”
He was to be shuffled off again to yet another stranger. It was becoming the only routine thing about this awful adventure. Estel took a long breath and nodded. It was his only choice, really, other than returning to Staddle—and he already knew that would lead nowhere. The Ranger held Estel’s eyes for another moment, then nodded and resumed his trek. Estel followed, and as they picked their way through the Chetwood, he began trying to picture Erestor’s map of the Bree-lands in his mind. They would be near to Archet in a few days, and it was well to have a back-up plan. If it became truly necessary, surely he could manage to slip away somehow without being caught.
They took two full days and a half to reach the meeting place, just to the northeast of Archet. Estel suspected that on his own, Dorhaur would have arrived more quickly. Although he managed to keep pace for several hours’ time, however, Estel quickly grew weary—as gangly as he was, his legs could not match those of the tall Ranger, and he was unused to days filled with nothing but travel. His walk to Staddle with Cres Sandheaver had been leisurely by comparison. Dorhaur eventually noted Estel’s flagging energy and stopped to rest, insisting that the boy drink and have a quick snack from Darlo’s well-stocked bag. When they moved on, the Ranger set a significantly slower pace. Estel was grateful, though he was also vaguely ashamed at the necessity. For his part, Dorhaur did not evidence any obvious annoyance at the change, and so they continued to work their way slowly north.
Estel kept a close eye on their surroundings as they travelled, trying to impress the feel and shape of their path in his mind and how far they might have come, both to the north and to the east. He questioned Dorhaur during their brief breaks about the specifics of Bree-land geography, hoping that his questions sounded casual and not calculating.
“How far from Staddle to Combe?”
“How far from Combe to Archet?”
“How far from Archet to Bree?”
“How close to Combe are we now?”
“How far to the north and east of Archet will we be?”
Dorhaur responded patiently enough, even to sketching a crude map of the Bree-lands in the damp dirt beneath a large-ish rock, pointing out locations of the various towns and other landmarks—the hill, the Road and its tributaries, various bodies of water, the shape of the Chetwood around it all. Finished, he scuffed away the shallow drawing and rolled the rock back over, leaving no sign. Estel was an avid student, storing all new information away for future consideration. The more he learned, however, and the farther they traveled together, the more he began to question whether he would truly need it. Nothing about the Ranger offered indication that he intended anything other than the help he had promised. It could be that Dorhaur was attempting to lure him into a sense of trust, and it would not do to lose all caution. Still, Estel began to warily hope that his mother’s people, far more widely traveled than the Bree-landers, would indeed see him safely home.
Or, as near to home as he could allow them. It would be foolish to abandon all vigilance.
Darlo’s food lasted them until the final morning, and when they reached the meeting site just after noon they were forced to lunch on the jerky and hard bread in Dorhaur’s pack. The Ranger had been right, Estel thought with distaste—it was barely worth having. He lingered over the last of it, absently tearing the dried bread to shreds as he studied the little camp.
It was a little clearing, scraped to earth in the center and obviously much used, tucked amongst the trees on a gentle slope that ran eventually down into the village of Archet. The town was not visible from their site, but a brief walk brought them to a small rise from which the outermost of its wooden and stone structures could be seen.
“A little privacy from curious eyes is oft a much needed blessing,” confessed Dorhaur, his tone both sour and amused. “We are near enough here to gain some advantage from the settled land, such as it is, yet out of sight of suspicious eyes.”
“Are all the people of the Bree-lands suspicious of you?” Estel asked, remembering Darlo’s reaction to the Ranger.
Dorhaur laughed shortly. “They are suspicious of all they do not know or understand.” He shrugged, moving back toward the camp. “It is as well, truly. Terrors there are in the northern wilds, and creatures not to be trusted. Such things are not as far from this place as one might hope—frighteningly close, at times—and it behooves townsmen such as these to put up a guard against all, rather than make any attempt to pick and choose.”
It made sense, Estel supposed, but still it seemed somewhat unfair.
The camp itself was empty, though evidence in the fire ring, still warm at the very center, and fresh scuffing about the packed earth spoke of recent occupation. “I was not to arrive for another day, so my captain will not yet expect me,” Dorhaur confessed. “I do not believe he will have gone far, as we were to travel out together from here. Still, it may be tomorrow before we see him—I know not his intentions in leaving camp.” The Ranger, finished with his own meager meal, leaned back against a tree, stretching his long legs with a sigh of content. “I’ll not protest an opportunity to sit for a while, I confess. We will rest, then see about tracking down something for supper.”
Estel’s entire body ached, and the thought was indeed attractive. More attractive, however, was the idea of something other than a repeat of the same disappointing meal. He approached Dorhaur cautiously, and when the Man raised an eyebrow at him, nodded hesitantly at the small hunting bow strapped to the Ranger’s pack. “I can hunt for supper.”
The eyebrow climbed higher. For a long moment Dorhaur surveyed him, and Estel stood still beneath his gaze, trying to appear patient. Finally, the Ranger nodded. “This immediate area should be safe enough. Go no farther in any direction than the overlook by which we viewed Archet.” Estel nodded agreement, and waited for Dorhaur to unstrap the bow and hand it over, rather than reaching for it himself. This earned him a brief look of approval, and Dorhaur offered a small quiver. “I do not carry many arrows—be sparing with them, and return them if at all possible.”
Estel nodded, slung the quiver over his shoulder, and strung the little bow with quick, practiced movements. Dorhaur watched him, expression unreadable, but he nodded again when Estel had finished and settled once again against the tree.
“I wish you luck, for both our sakes.”
No one direction seemed more likely than the others, and so Estel chose at random, slipping into the trees toward the North. Once out of sight of the clearing he halted, slowed his breathing, and listened for a long moment, opening himself to the sounds of the forest. Birds chattered. Old leaves rustled. Wildlife, smaller than that he sought, scurried among the leaves and grasses. Gradually he began to move forward, keeping his step light and silent, eyeing the brush and other growth about and between the trees.
“Rabbits will prefer an area of deep cover,” Elladan’s voice reminded him, though it was scarcely necessary any longer to consciously remember his brother’s teaching on this subject. “Once you find a place with close, thick growth, be still. Wait. It will take time for any that heard your approach to venture from hiding.”
He was familiar with many of the good hunting spots in Rivendell, and did not often need to exert much effort in finding a likely patch of brush or bramble or weed. It was a good exercise for him, here in this strange forest. After twenty minutes or so of creeping in a wide arc toward the southeast, slipping around rocks and over the occasional fallen limb, Estel came upon a low, thick tangle climbing over and around the fallen trunk of a great oak. He halted and brought an arrow to rest lightly against the bow, feeling fletching and undrawn string with his fingertips, then settled in, waiting.
The vast, soothing silence of the Chetwood worked on him, giving ease to the tension in his muscles and the tight knot that had resided in his chest for so many days. Estel reminded himself that he was hunting, not napping, and refocused, turning sharp eyes on his chosen overgrowth.
“Do not spend your time looking for an entire rabbit—you may miss many opportunities,” Elladan continued. “Look for an ear sticking out, or light glinting against an eye, or a splash of white that is the tail against wood or leaves. Rabbits are often not as hidden as they believe, and you are—hopefully—much smarter than they.”
Estel grinned faintly at the old joke and let his eyes roam about the area even while his body remained motionless, searching for signs that a better supper than stale jerky and old bread was near.
He returned with two rabbits, a cluster of mushrooms, and several handfuls of early berries wrapped in the hem of his tunic. Dorhaur accepted the offering with a bemused cant of his head, inspecting the mushrooms and berries carefully while Estel skinned the rabbits. Finally the Ranger nodded, eyes glinting once more with unspoken approval as he popped a berry into his mouth. Estel paused, looking up from his task.
“I can survive on my own.” It was something of an exaggeration, even he knew, but the successful hunt had done much to assuage his bruised pride.
Estel turned back to his task too quickly to see the amused smirk aimed in his direction.
Dorhaur built up the fire and cooked, producing a meal that was slightly dry but far more palatable than another from his pack would have been, especially when the mushrooms and berries were added in. After, he gathered their waterskins and motioned for Estel to follow. “You did not hunt in the direction to find the stream, but I will show you it. It will be good for you to know, for the time we are here at least.”
It was a cheerful, swift-moving brook, larger than the word ‘stream’ would suggest but too small to be thought of as even an undersized river. They filled the skins and then sat for a while on a large, smooth rock overlooking the water, silent as the light dimmed and the shriek of cicadas replaced the birdsong about them, before returning to their camp.
“From whom did you learn your woodcraft?” Dorhaur asked, shaking out their single bedroll and laying it near the fire.
Estel, who had been feeling sluggish and almost peaceful after the interlude at the water’s edge, tensed as thoughts of his family returned. “My brothers.”
The Ranger nodded thoughtfully. “They taught you well. You know much, for one of your age.”
Estel shrugged, embarrassed now that Dorhaur openly spoke a word of praise. “They are the best,” he declared, remembering their many lessons and camping trips. “They are great hunters and trackers and …” he avoided adding ‘warriors’ at the last moment, not wishing to stir Dorhaur’s curiosity too far, “and I always wanted to be with them.” That, at least, was the utter truth.
“I see.” Dorhaur smiled faintly, barely visible against the orange fire. “It is well when our brothers are of a kind to be emulated.”
“Do you have brothers?”
Teeth flashed, gleaming in the flickering light. “Aye, two. And a sister.”
“Are they older than you?”
“Nay, younger all.” The Ranger shrugged, and motioned Estel toward the bedroll. “I know not, but perhaps my siblings have spoken well of me to others. I hope I may have earned the same manner of praise from them as your brothers have from you.”
Estel grinned shyly, slipping under the blanket. Dorhaur stirred up the fire, then turned back toward him, silhouetted against the flames.
“I do not believe that we will have trouble from any creature tonight—you say you saw nothing to give warning while you hunted, and we are nearer to Archet than true danger is likely to come. It is one of the reasons we chose this place.” The Ranger belted on his sword as he spoke. “I intend to make a sweep of the area, nevertheless. It is wise to always be cautious in a new place.” Estel nodded, though it was unlikely that Dorhaur saw. He had been told the same often, and by many. “I do not know how long I may be gone, but I will take care not to move beyond shouting range. If you need me, you need only call and I will come as swiftly as I may.”
Estel nodded again, not terribly concerned about the possibility of attack by any unknown woodland creature. The small forest noises continued undisturbed, and the fire was near. Dorhaur settled his sword with a final jerk, checked his knife, then melted into the tree line. Estel curled into the blankets, his face toward the warmth of the fire, and stared into the glowing embers.
He missed his brothers. He missed his home. He was starting to worry about his mother, now without any notion of his whereabouts for more than two weeks, and he wanted her to know that he was (for the most part) well. How long would he have to wait before he could finally be on his way?
He had been trying to reach Archet for most of the night. He could see it down the hill, hidden under the leafy boughs of the flowering spring trees, but no matter how he ran, it never seemed to come any closer. He was not entirely sure why he needed to go there—he had some vague idea that his brothers might be waiting for him, but surely that was a fruitless hope. Why should Elladan and Elrohir be in Archet when they lived in Imladris? Surely he should be going to Rivendell instead …
Voices echoed in the trees around him, overlapping and confusing.
“Estel!” That was his mother, and she too seemed to be in Archet, although this made even less sense than would the twins’ presence there.
“Estel!” That was Dorhaur, and Estel bolted from the Ranger. He would not go with him, to live among strangers on the banks of the nearby stream. Dorhaur pursued him, demanding that he return the portion of Darlo’s picnic lunch that he had eaten, accompanied by a large, ghostly form that Estel knew somehow to be his captain. He dove behind the nearest tree, but a rabbit chased him away from its hole and he was forced to run back the way he had come.
“Estel!” He turned, and Arti motioned him into a cellar dug in the center of a grove of trees. Estel started toward the Hobbit, but balked when Sander and Cora climbed out, insisting that unless he told them the story about the boy who had been stolen from home and wandered in lost circles for the rest of his days, they would not let him in. He wasn’t certain he knew this story, and was trying to remember it when a crash shook the bushes behind him.
“Estel!” Elrond appeared, shaking his head. “You were not to speak to any strangers. Now that you have done so, you must remain with him.” He motioned to the bush, and Jerold Ferrier stumbled out, holding out his single hand
“Nate! Come on, boy! We’ll find someplace to grow pipeweed, and work there until we have money to buy Combe. It’ll only be a few years.”
“Estel!” It was his mother again, but this time she did not seem to be in Archet. She appeared behind him, shaking her head. “Why did you worry me thus? You must stay in Archet now.” He tried to protest that he didn’t want to, and that Elrond said he must stay with Ferrier in any case, but was interrupted by Cora and Sander, who had come again begging for their story.
“Estel!” Glorfindel shook his head, and Estel wondered where the Elf-lord had come from. “You ran without thinking. Why do you always do this?” Erestor stepped up beside him, adding, “The Marshes. You should be going to the Midgewater Marshes.”
“But,” he protested faintly, backing away from them all toward the only open spot that seemed available to him. “I don’t want to go to Archet, or live with Ferrier, or go to the Marshes. I want—”
“We’re in Archet.” Elrohir crossed his arms, and Elladan looked down his nose at Estel. “Why should you not want to go there?” Elrohir shook his head at his twin. “In any event, it’s taken me entirely too long to find him. Perhaps he does not wish to train with us anymore.”
“You’re not …” Estel protested, trying to make sense of it all. “I do! But I …” He backed away, and his foot came down suddenly upon empty air. He shrieked, falling, and clutched at a root growing out of the bank. His arm jerked and his shoulder twisted, but it broke his fall enough to leave him in an uncontrolled slide rather than a head-over-heels tumble. He crashed through small brush and slammed into a wall of dirt, weeds, and small rocks. For a moment Estel lay motionless, aching, then he opened his eyes to the silvery, moon-washed dark.
Where was he? He pushed himself up, noting the twinge in his left shoulder and thankful that his head didn’t seem to hurt much. He squinted around, noting the steep-ish banks to either side, the trees overhead, the rocks and scrub scattered along the sides and unlevel ground upon which he sat. He seemed to have fallen into a ravine of some sort.
How …? Understanding washed over him, along with a surge of shame. He had not sleepwalked for years, except for that one time he had been so nervous about his first solo recital in the Hall of Fire …
Estel had no idea how far he had come from their camp, or in what direction he had traveled. He sighed, sat still for a long moment more, then slowly pulled himself up, using a twisted bush for balance. Standing, rubbing at his sore shoulder and stomping his scraped leg, he peered first one way and then the other, trying to decide his best course of action. Nothing jumped immediately out at him.
Now, he thought, might be a very good time for Dorhaur to come looking for him.
“What are you doing down there?”
Estel jerked out of a light doze. He blinked, then glared up at the dark figure crouched on the upper edge of the ravine—though Dorhaur wouldn’t see it in the dark. His entire body hurt. He was scraped in a dozen places from his attempts to scale the crumbling bank, his shoulder throbbed, and a long, sharp thorn had stabbed through the sole of his boot and into his foot. The spring night wasn’t actually cold, but it was cool, and a chilly damp had settled into his clothes and fingers. He tucked his hands beneath his arms and squinted at the Ranger.
“Can you get me out?”
Dorhaur shifted. He peered one way along the rift, then the other, then leaned out and over to inspect the bank below. Finally, he grunted a negative. “I don’t think so, not here. This gully becomes shallower several miles to the south, but here the banks are high, and the soil not hard-packed enough to hold firm its rocks and bushes.”
“I noticed,” Estel grumbled, and what might have been a soft huff of laughter drifted from above.
“You are fortunate to have fallen in this spot. Only a little to either side, and you would have landed on rock rather than brambles and bare earth.”
“I saw that, too.”
In truth, it had frightened him to see how close he had come to cracking his head, or perhaps an arm or leg, on sharp rock instead of the dense scrub in which he had landed. He had tried to use those rocks to his advantage, climbing upon them to bring him closer to escape. They did not add much height, however, and the banks rising above them were damp and crumbling. After the first bush uprooted in his hands, Estel moved back to his original landing spot. The bank was not so steep there, which had given him some hope. He managed to make his way about halfway up at this site, but with each try a root or rock or bush upon which he had been depending gave way, or the soil itself crumbled from beneath him. He had continued with his efforts until his arms and legs shook, and his grip was no longer strong enough to support him. Filthy and exhausted, he huddled at the bottom between rocks and bushes and hoped that the Ranger would be able to track him in the dark.
“Are you well?” Dorhaur’s voice drew him back to the present.
“Mostly. I’m bleeding in a couple of places and my shoulder hurts.”
“Hmm. You are fortunate you took no further hurt.”
“I know.” Somehow, he didn’t feel fortunate.
Estel sighed, embarrassed anew, but there was no way to avoid the truth. “I … was sleepwalking.”
It was a difficult thing to admit, but Dorhaur seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps he’d known others who had done so. Perhaps it simply wasn’t quite the curiosity among Men that it was for the Elves, among whom it was not known.
“All this way?”
Estel glanced around, though another look at the same ravine and the same sky was unlikely to tell him anything new. “How far did I go?”
“Far enough,” Dorhaur muttered. He stood, rubbing at his jaw. “And away from civilization, such as it is, rather than toward it.” Estel looked away. He blew on his fingers, then tucked them beneath his knees. There didn’t seem to be much he could say to that. The motion, however, seemed to shake the Ranger from his bemusement. “In any event,” Dorhaur continued briskly, “I suspected that something must be amiss. You left a trail even a blind Hobbit could follow, and if I’ve learned anything of you in the past days, it’s that you’ve no interest in being followed by blind Hobbits.”
The comparison—analogy? metaphor? Erestor would be in despair if he knew how little of his grammar lessons Estel truly retained—was so ridiculous that it surprised a giggle out of Estel. Dorhaur’s answering chuckle joined his, and Estel suddenly felt a little better. The Ranger paced along the edge.
“I have a rope in my pack, we will be easily able to pull you out with that. It is still at the camp, though, and I don’t like to leave you here alone.”
“How long will it take?”
“An hour, there and back. Perhaps less. It would be quicker in the daylight.”
Estel was silent, surprised. He really had gone a long way. In the past, his sleepwalking routes had always been short and had remained safely within the family wing. Of course, as Dorhaur said, he could not travel as quickly in the night-darkened forest. Estel considered. He was not anxious to sit alone in the dark for another hour, but doing so knowing that the Ranger was working to free him was better than huddling at the bottom of the ravine for the rest of the night and then yet having to wait longer while Dorhaur retrieved his rope.
The Ranger demurred. “Estel …”
“Please! I’m cold, and I don’t want to stay down here all night!” Judging by the moon and stars, it was barely past midnight. Many long hours yet stretched before him.
This seemed to be upon Dorhaur’s mind as well, for he wavered. “It will not be comfortable—I do not dispute it. We are farther out than I prefer, however.”
“We can’t be that far, can we?”
The Ranger sighed. “It does not require much distance. There is little buffer between the settled Bree-lands and the northern wilds.” Dorhaur hesitated, then shook his head. “No. I will remain. It is not unknown that dark creatures may venture into this area, even so near to the Bree-lands. When the sky begins to lighten I will return for my pack. Most creatures of the wild seek their rest at that time, and I believe you will be safe enough then.”
It was not what Estel wanted to hear. As much as he disliked the idea of spending the night in the ravine, however, Dorhaur’s caution had made an impact. He mumbled unenthusiastic agreement and settled back against the damp earth of the bank.
“I am sorry,” the Ranger added sincerely. He folded to sit near the edge so that Estel could still see him.
The boy sighed, tossing a small rock across the narrow distance. “It’s not your fault.”
“Neither is it yours.” Estel looked up from his study of the opposite bank. He could just make out Dorhaur’s shrug. “It is not something you may control. My cousin often sleepwalked when he was young—my aunt and uncle found him outside of their home in the night more than once.”
“Really?” Estel’s heart lightened. “Did it … did he stop, eventually?”
“Oh yes. By the time we were adults and he joined his first patrol, it was many years behind him.” The Ranger chuckled. “I was under strict orders, on pain of a severe beating, that no one should ever know of it from me.”
Estel laughed softly. He was silent for a long moment, picking leaves off the bush he had landed on, then admitted, “It’s embarrassing. I don’t know anyone else who does it.”
Above him, Dorhaur stretched. “Well, think of it in these terms, perhaps. It may be uncomfortable, but if it is the worst problem you ever face, you will be the most fortunate Man in Arda.”
Put that way, it did seem something of a minor issue. Other than the fact that he was stuck in a ravine in the northern wilds in the middle of the night. Estel leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Thinking about it all night would only make the hours creep by more slowly.
The night was still dark when he jerked awake. He sat up slowly, trying to understand what had disturbed him. A glance showed Dorhaur still above him, facing now toward the south. Estel slowed his breathing and sat in silence. For a long while he heard nothing, and he was about to lay back again when brush crackled. There was no chance that it was the wind—the night was still and heavy. He froze, his heart racing, ears straining. Another rustle, and the snap of a breaking branch. His breathing came quickly now, and he rose to a crouch.
“Dorhaur?” The Ranger turned, and as he did so the sound of a faint, undulating growl reached Estel’s ears. He shot to his feet. “I think there’s something down here!”
As Dorhaur rose swiftly, cursing, a large, hairy form leaped easily onto the nearest rock. Estel stared into the glinting eyes for two heartbeats that felt like forever, noting almost absently the rustling behind it that meant more were still to come, then he flung one of the sharp smaller rocks directly into the warg’s face—from his brother’s descriptions, he guessed these could be no other than the evil wolves of the Enemy—and scrambled the other way. The creature yelped in pain, growls exploded into snarling and barking, and Estel scraped both of his knees scrambling over the rock behind him.
A roar of a different sort distracted the wargs, and a shower of loose rock and earth as Dorhaur scrambled down the steep incline and crashed into their midst. “Estel, move!” he snapped, crouching low as the wargs turned their attention to this new, more immediate threat. The Ranger ducked one’s leap and struck out with his sword at the legs of another. A yelp and a thud, and one of the wargs scrabbled backward off the rock. It tried to rise again, but Estel, hovering still just beyond the next rock, flung a fist-size stone at its eye. The blow did no more than stun it, but Dorhaur was able to work himself between Estel and the others, yelling.
“Go! Keep moving!”
It was difficult to tell, in the darkness and tight quarters, how many there were, but as Estel scrambled back across the uneven terrain he counted at least three separate creatures—possibly four, if the one they had struck down still lagged behind. Dorhaur struck at one, kicking a second back as well before diving to join Estel among the more jagged landscape to the south. The wargs sailed over the rocks, and Estel continued his backward flight, tripping over obstacles and throwing any missiles near to hand over his shoulder at their pursuers.
“Keep them away from my head!” the Ranger snarled as one skimmed his ear, but took advantage of the confusion caused by a rock in the nose to surge forward and slice at the creature’s neck. It did not move in time, and the pack was one down. The others paused, sniffing at the body, and Dorhaur hustled Estel farther along their only available path, clutching the boy’s collar tight in his free grasp. “Go, go!” he urged, and looking around, Estel saw that the pursuit had resumed.
A weird howling rose as the wargs leaped again after them, chilling Estel’s blood. Dorhaur’s breathing was heavy at his back, his silence broken by muttered curses as he too stumbled over rock and downed branches. The Ranger shoved Estel once as the wargs drew near. “Keep going!” Then he pivoted, meeting the closest with a fierce yell and ducking to strike a blow beneath as the creature rose to strike. Shrill yelping rose, then cut off as the warg fell away, but Dorhaur cried out as well. Estel pulled up and darted back, fear choking him.
“It’s nothing, go!” The Ranger seized him by the collar, nearly lifting Estel from the ground with the force of his momentum. They rounded several smaller rocks and climbed a larger one, more of a boulder really, but before Estel could jump down the other side Dorhaur pulled him to a halt. “Look there!” He pointed, and in the moonlight Estel saw dark slashes against the ravine wall. “Roots! The tree is large, they may hold. Climb, we cannot outrun them forever.”
Estel balked. “What about—”
“Now! Up!” Dorhaur snarled, and heaved Estel toward the wall. Estel scrambled to obey, afraid to distract the Ranger now that the remaining wargs were upon them. He leaped, grabbing for the first dark rope of wood, and relief turned his knees to jelly when it held. He braced against the soft incline and reached for the next. It too held, but the third was smaller and ripped away in his grasp. Estel seized the solid one again as he slid down and clung tightly, unaware that he was sobbing in terror as the battle rejoined below. The wargs were snapping and snarling, and Dorhaur was yelling, although from pain or exertion or to frighten his foes it was impossible to tell.
Estel tore his gaze away and searched frantically for another root, digging in with his toes for balance, but a familiar deep thrum and hiss distracted him. Below, one of the wargs yelped, and the cacophony fell to a single snarling creature and Dorhaur’s intermittent shouts. Bodies broke smoothly over the ravine edge, sliding past him in a rush of glittering steel and flowing hair, dark and bright in the moonlight. They fell upon the remaining warg and Estel gaped after them, too baffled by the shock and confusion to fully understand what was happening.
That voice he recognized. He whipped around again, clinging frantically to his root and staring past the outstretched hand that hovered above him. “Ada?”
He could not see the face beyond, but the hand shook impatiently. “Estel, take my hand!”
“Ada!” he shrieked, and leaped for Elrond’s grasp. He nearly missed his father, even as close as he was, but both of Elrond’s hands closed around his, hauling him up. Estel did not wonder at this, though his father seemed to be hanging over the edge without even bracing himself. He scrabbled to find holds in the soft soil, lurching upward even as Elrond’s hold drew him steadily toward the surface. When he reached the edge, another hand seized his garments and helped to draw him over. He flung himself across Elrond’s lap even as the Lord of Imladris pulled away from the edge, and the strong, slender arms closed tight around him.
“You are safe, I have you.” The sounds of battle below had ended, but Estel had ears only for his father’s soothing words. “I am here, you are safe.” Estel buried his face in Elrond’s neck and clung to him, feeling the gentle kiss pressed to his temple and the shift of Elrond’s body as his father moved them both away from the edge. Beyond them, voices called, and the sound of something heavy—perhaps a pack—thumped onto the ravine floor. Then another hand cupped his head, drawing him away from Elrond’s embrace for a solid kiss on the brow.
“Estel.” Elrohir was laughing, but his voice trembled as well. “You need not go to such lengths next time to win our game.”
Tears were still tracking down Estel’s cheeks, but he hiccupped a laugh at his brother’s words. “I didn’t win, though. You found me.”
“Yes.” Elrohir pressed his forehead and nose fiercely against Estel’s, and the hand cupping the back of Estel’s head tightened. “We did.”
Estel sighed and nestled back against Elrond’s shoulder, relishing his father’s arms and his brother’s embrace. He heard Dorhaur’s voice below, mingled with Glorfindel’s and Elladan’s, and was relieved that he need not be worried for his friend’s life. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Estel closed his eyes and, despite the rush of activity around him, was almost immediately asleep.
It took a moment for him to realize that the battle was over, and another for him to realize that he was no longer alone. Dorhaur lowered his sword, suddenly dizzy and overwhelmingly weary as the rush of battle faded. His leg throbbed where the warg had gotten through his guard, but things could have been far worse. He shook his head, reaching for the strands of his scattered wits—until he surveyed this new situation, he could not afford to lower his guard—and jumped slightly as a hand closed around his upper arm.
“Are you injured?”
He blinked in the direction of the new voice, and then truly did need to sit.
The hand steadied his descent, wise given their precarious position upon the fallen boulder. By the time he eased his injured leg out the dizziness had passed, and he squinted again at his companion.
No, he’d been right. It really was an Elf.
Today, apparently, was a day for shocks.
The Elf was already poking around at his leg, and Dorhaur winced. The pain sharpened his thoughts, however, and with that he remembered Estel. He looked quickly around. Another Elf crouched over the dead wargs, this one with hair the golden color of ripened wheat in the sunlight—blond was too dull a word, even in the dark, and perhaps his wits were not as gathered as he imagined, if he was waxing poetic. He had, after all, given that up years before, after his wife had lovingly but laughingly informed him that his attempts were worse than awful. Roughly, Dorhaur dragged his mind back to the present. The walls and floor of the ravine revealed no trace of the boy, and he started up abruptly. The hand pressed down on his shoulder.
“Not yet. Let me see this—warg scratches will be none too clean.”
“My charge,” he growled, batting the Elf away. “There was a lad with me …”
The Elf pressed him down again, then looked up. “Elrohir!”
For the second time in as many minutes, Dorhaur gaped. He had never met the sons of Elrond personally, but every Ranger knew of them. A dark silhouette appeared immediately over the edge of the ravine.
“Estel?” the Elf beside him queried.
“Well,” replied Elrohir, then chuckled softly. “And asleep.”
Worry surged. That made little sense, and if the boy was unconscious he had been injured in some manner Dorhaur knew nothing about.
“Already?” The Elf beside him—this must be Elladan, then—was both incredulous and amused.
“Indeed. And yet squeezing so tightly that I know not how Adar draws breath.” A soft murmur reached Dorhaur’s ears, and Elrohir laughed again. “Adar also says that if Estel does not shift soon, he will entirely lose the use of his left leg.”
Elladan laughed as well, though there seemed more of relief and less of amusement in the sound. For himself, Dorhaur was beginning to wonder if he was truly more addled by the fight than he had realized—it was difficult to follow this bizarre exchange. Two realizations, however, were slowly beginning to impinge upon him. One, these Elves knew the boy’s name, and he had certainly not been the one to tell them. And two … if Adar meant ‘Father’ among the Elves, as he was nearly certain it did, that meant that Elrohir’s companion above was—
“Come, let us finish this so that we may leave this ravine.” The blond Elf crouched beside them, eyeing the ravine floor in both directions. “We cannot be certain this was the entire pack, and I do not wish to be trapped here if more arrive.”
Dorhaur scowled. “We’ve not seen wargs in this area for some time, though there has been an increase on this side of the Hithaeglir since the Necromancer was driven from Dol Goldur in Mirkwood. Still, I would hope that had a large pack taken up residence so near the Bree-lands, we Rangers would have seen some sign ere this.”
The blond Elf nodded. “Perhaps. Your numbers are spread thin, though, and it does not do to take chances where there is no need.”
That was difficult to argue, so he didn’t try. Instead, he held out an arm. “I’ve been remiss in my gratitude. I thank you for your aid—I doubt not I would have taken further injury without your assistance.” The Elf gripped him with a warrior’s clasp. “Dorhaur, son of Dedhalin.”
“Glorfindel, of the House of the Golden Flower.” Bemused yet again, Dorhaur simply nodded. This, too, was a well-known name among the Rangers, though it was more the stuff of story and legend than the solid memories and tales of those who had ridden with the sons of Elrond. “And, you are most welcome.” The Elf glanced up, toward the ravine edge. “More, indeed, than you know.”
Dorhaur had no time to puzzle over this, for Elladan looked up. “Elladan Elrondion,” he announced, and Dorhaur simply nodded, as Elladan’s hands were gory from contact with his clothing and leg. “It is deep, but I do not believe that you will take any lasting hurt.” That was something, at least. Elladan rose swiftly from his crouch to rummage in a pack that Dorhaur had not seen before. “We will clean it when we reach the top.”
“The Rangers have a campsite not too far distant.”
Elladan nodded. “We are familiar with it. It will do well.” He returned to Dorhaur’s side and began to wind a wide bandage tightly around leg and clothing both. It was … uncomfortable, and Dorhaur bit back a hiss of discomfort, watching instead as Elrohir lowered a rope to Glorfindel. The Elf spent a moment testing its sturdiness, then returned to them. He hauled Dorhaur to his feet as Elladan wiped his hands and gathered their pack, then the three gathered at the base of the rope. The pack went first, then Dorhaur tied the rope on, eyeing the steep bank without enthusiasm. This, he had a feeling, would not be pleasant.
Indeed, the climb was painful, even with Elrohir pulling on the rope from above and Glorfindel ascending beside him with disgusting ease, protecting his leg from additional strain. He was panting when they reached the top, and blood soaked Elladan’s makeshift bandage. Still, he rolled immediately to his feet, scanning the area until he laid eyes on Estel.
The boy had indeed curled his lanky frame almost entirely into the lap of yet another Elf, arms locked around the Elf’s torso and eyes closed. His breathing was deep and even, not the painful or shallow breaths of unconsciousness, and from what Dorhaur could see, Estel was entirely relaxed. He was indeed, it seemed, asleep at this bizarre time, and far more deeply than Dorhaur had ever seen him. Dorhaur turned his narrowed gaze upon the Elf, who had tucked the boy’s head beneath his chin and was stroking the tangled hair, rocking them both gently. It was a strangely … paternal gesture—Dorhaur, who with his wife had reared two sons to manhood and was yet in the process with a third, knew well such actions—and given Estel’s behavior, it suddenly came to him that the boy’s claim to live near Elves was perhaps an entirely different evasion than he had assumed.
That was surely reading too much into things, and yet …
The Elf caught his eyes then. A small, unreadable smile flickered, followed by the faintest of sighs. “I am Elrond Eärendilion, and I thank you.” Elrond closed his eyes briefly. “He is more precious than you can know.”
The Lord of Imladris. Here, in the northern wilds, on the edge of the Bree-lands, sprawled back against a tree like any weary Ranger.
He needed to sit down.
A hand gripped his arm, and one of the twins helped to lower him. One—now that they were side by side he was unable to make out in the dark which was which—began to pull at his hastily-wrapped bandage, while the other dug into their pack for another long roll. Dorhaur sat quietly and allowed them to work, eyeing the dark shadow to one side that was a combination of Elrond Half-elven and the boy Estel.
There was something here that he was missing. Perhaps, once his wound was tended and his mind again working properly after his battle high, he might impose upon the Elves to offer further explanation for both their presence here and their familiarity with Estel.
Or perhaps it would come to him on his own.
Grey dawn was beginning to tinge the sky when they rode into camp. Dorhaur was unsure where the night had gone, but was just as glad that it had. The camp was empty yet—Baradhald had yet to return from whatever errand had taken him away—and the Elves set about building up the fire and tending to Dorhaur’s wound. Elrohir spoke briefly to Elrond as his father slid off his horse with Estel still in his arms, but Elrond shook his head.
“Sleep is best for him now. His hurts, whatever they may be, do not seem significant, and will be better tended after he wakes.”
Elrohir nodded and led the horses away as Glorfindel set about feeding kindling into the fire and Elladan helped Dorhaur limp across to his abandoned bedroll. As Dorhaur lowered himself, he saw that Elrond had settled cross-legged near the small blaze with the boy again in his lap, his cloak drawn around them both. He looked back around to Elladan, but the Elf only smiled tightly and directed Dorhaur’s attention to his wound.
“I will need to cut this leg from your clothing and clean the wound. It will not be pleasant, I fear.”
Of course not. Well, it wasn’t the worst hurt he had ever taken. Dorhaur sighed and lay back on his bedroll, letting rest for the moment the mystery on the far side of the fire. “I understand.”
It did hurt, and by the time Elladan, with the assistance of his brother, had finished, Dorhaur no more cared for anything but the herbal pain tea they offered and a nap of his own. As he lay back, drowsiness from the herbs fast taking hold, he murmured, “Captain Baradhald will be here at some time today. We were to meet and travel north to join with the larger part of our group.”
Elladan’s hands stilled. “Baradhald, son of Gerhale?”
“Aye,” Dorhaur nodded. “You know of him?”
Had he not been looking directly at the sons of Elrond, Dorhaur might have missed the faint grimace that passed between them. Interesting, he thought, closing his eyes. He himself knew very little of his captain, having only served under him for a year and that mostly at a distance. From what he had seen, the man was a bit self-important—he was younger cousin to their former chieftain on Arathorn’s mother’s side, and took that role more seriously than it seemed to warrant—but Dorhaur as of yet had no real complaints about the man’s captaincy. It seemed that the Elves were perhaps not quite as ambivalent about him, and Dorhaur wondered what history they had.
It was his last thought, before he drifted off to sleep.
Commotion awoke him, though for a long moment Dorhaur couldn’t place its source. Near to hand, he heard an annoyed voice—Glorfindel’s?—hiss, “Keep your voice down! He sleeps, and your own man is injured,” and the stride of quick steps across the campsite. Dorhaur slitted his eyes open, careful not to draw attention to himself. He spotted Baradhald rounding the fire, and Elrond’s sons appearing as if by magic on either side of their father, and Glorfindel heading the Man off before Baradhald could draw near to his still-seated lord. Dorhaur remained silent, scarcely daring to breathe.
What was this, then?
Baradhald made no attempt to move past Glorfindel, but pointed accusingly past the Elf. “What is he doing here?”
For a moment, Dorhaur thought that his captain meant Elrond, and he winced. It would not do to insult the Dúnedain’s closest and longest-standing ally. Surely Baradhald realized this. Elrond shifted, glanced down at the dark head against his chest, then looked toward Glorfindel. The blond Elf crossed his arms and rose to his full height, seeming almost to grow and loom over Baradhald. Dorhaur wondered that the man didn’t see the sense in retreating at least a few paces.
“There was an incident, but he is, as you see, safe and well.”
He … was Estel. Baradhald was angry about Estel?
How did Baradhald even know Estel?
“An incident?” Baradhald crossed his own arms, snorting something reminiscent of a laugh. “An incident. And he somehow ended up all the way here, in the Bree-lands.” Now, Baradhald did move around Glorfindel. At Elrond’s nod the blond Elf allowed it, but the twins shifted slightly in front of their father. Baradhald rolled his eyes, stopping several paces away. “Be realistic. I have no intention of causing a scene, especially with him present.”
One of the twins—Elladan, Dorhaur thought—lifted an eyebrow. “You are already causing a scene.”
The Dúnedain captain ignored him. “Might I point out, however, that you are supposed to be keeping him safe? This incident, whatever it was that ended with him all the way on the borders of Archet rather than tucked safely away as promised, does very little to inspire confidence.”
Tucked safely away. Something stirred in Dorhaur’s mind, the beginning of a wild thought that suddenly seemed somehow more than possible …
Elrond sighed, and spoke quietly. “It is … regrettable.”
“Regrettable.” Baradhald lifted his brow. “And just what did happen here? What is your excuse?”
The Lord of Imladris might have been carved from stone. “I owe no explanation to you, Baradhald son of Gerhale, and the one to whom an explanation is owed longs only for his return.”
“He is our chieftain!” Baradhald hissed. “You owe explanation to all—”
“Quiet!” Glorfindel seized Baradhald’s arm, glancing toward Dorhaur’s bedroll. Their eyes met, and Dorhaur knew that his were wide with all that he had heard. Their chieftain … The Elf sighed briefly, his jaw tight, before returning his attention to Baradhald. The ancient eyes hardened. “Your own tongue will betray us sooner than such a series of events shall occur again.”
Baradhald extricated his arm, sparing only a brief glance for Dorhaur before returning his glare to Elrond. “You know my feelings on this matter. I have made them only too clear. It is not meet that my cousin’s son is reared not only away from his people, but from Men as well.”
“Indeed.” Elrohir left his father’s side to stand before the captain. “You have made it only too clear that you would ignore the choices of Estel’s mother in this matter. You are, however, alone in this, as you are well aware. Your leaders choose to support her decision. It is only you, who has no say in this matter, who objects.”
A sneer crossed Baradhald’s lips. “Estel.” His eyes locked on the figure in Elrond’s arms for a long moment, then he stalked across the clearing, flung his pack at the edge, and disappeared into the trees. Elrond looked to Elrohir.
“Keep an eye on him, but stay away.”
Elrohir snorted softly. “Gladly.” He, too, slid beneath the leafy boughs, and Dorhaur fell back, mind reeling.
Our chieftain. Rumor abounded among the Dúnedain regarding the absent son of Arathorn and his mother. Most—Dorhaur included, until this moment—believed them to be deceased, though tales varied as to the cause. Some said illness, others accident, yet others that they had been attacked and slain soon after Arathorn’s death. In any event, the Dúnedain leadership carried on well enough on its own, the only difference being the loss of any future hope for the return of their king and the restoration of their kingdom.
The only difference, but a devastating one.
Some yet insisted that they lived still in hiding, but Dorhaur had always discounted such as desperation rather than legitimate possibility. It seemed he had been incorrect.
A foot scuffed near his ear—deliberately, he was certain—and then Glorfindel crouched beside him. Dorhaur focused on the Elf, and spoke the only words that would come to him.
A faint smile crossed the fair face. “He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, though he knows it not.”
Dorhaur nodded, both understanding and acceptance. “Then he and his mother have been in Rivendell all this time.”
“Indeed.” Glorfindel shrugged easily. “Elrond has fostered many young Dúnedain over the years, though only Estel has he truly reared. It seemed to the Lady Gilraen to be the safest option, given the many dangers which lurk in these times within the remains of the northern kingdom.”
Dorhaur nodded, considering. Yes, given the handful of imperfect options which sprang to mind, it did seem perhaps the safest bet. He glanced toward the woods where Baradhald had disappeared, suddenly glad that they had not met his captain before the arrival of the Elves. Without any background, it would have been difficult to know how to react. Glorfindel sighed, shaking his head.
“He will not cause true trouble. He speaks much, and to the regret of all present, but he would not fight your leadership in this matter.”
That, he supposed, was a relief, although it should have been only expected. Dorhaur turned a raised brow on Glorfindel, careful to keep his voice curious rather than accusing. “How did he come to be stolen from Imladris, if such care was being taken?”
Glorfindel thumped heavily onto the ground, a surprisingly ungraceful move, and shook his head wearily. “We still do not know the entire tale—it will not be known until we hear from Estel what truly came to pass.” He rubbed at his jaw. “Suffice it to say, a truly incredible series of circumstances came together at exactly the wrong moment, it seems.” His smile was somewhat bitter. “One can guard against many things, but random chance is not one of them.”
Dorhaur huffed a soft laugh. “Very true, my Lord.” He had learned it many times over the course of his life, and despite what might have been dire consequences, it was good to know that their Elvish allies sometimes fell victim to the same. Glorfindel spoke again, his voice solemn and earnest.
“You have our wholehearted gratitude, Dorhaur son of Dedhalin, for your care of him. He is dear to us, far beyond what he means to your people and ours.”
Dorhaur looked again to Elrond, still curled around the sleeping boy, and nodded. “I have seen it.”
“Then you must understand why we ask your silence in this matter. Not even your closest kin may hear it from you—it is a secret too great to dilute so.”
The Ranger studied the sleeping boy. This child—Aragorn, Estel, his name mattered not at this time—meant so much to so many, and his destiny—or his doom—may be great indeed. It was a heavy burden for a child, especially without Arathorn to shoulder it until he was grown. Perhaps it was indeed best that for a time he was unaware, free to learn and grow unhindered by it. Beyond that, however … Estel was a good lad, and Dorhaur had grown fond of him during their days of travel. He was polite but forceful, overly self-confident in the way of all twelve-year-olds but willing also to listen, self-contained and friendly even in his anxiety and loneliness.
It would be difficult to not share such news with even Haletha—he would have much regarding this matter to sort through in his own mind, and even from the time they were children, he and his beloved had done their best thinking together—but it was truly not his choice to make. If complete silence was what had been asked of him, he could offer nothing less. Perhaps at some later time that stricture would be lifted, but he would not expect it. Dorhaur took a long breath and looked again at the sleeping child, catching Elrond’s eyes and nodding before he turned back to Glorfindel.
“My Lord, I vow it.”
Estel tried to ignore the gentle shaking that interrupted his dream. It was a much better dream than the last. Rather than scolding him for disobeying, his father had come and was taking him home. He was not ready to wake and leave it—he had no wish to return to whatever new crisis or dilemma might appear today. Life had become confusing and frightening. The nudging grew more insistent, however, and finally he sighed, dragging himself out of the depths of sleep. Before he even opened his eyes, however, he felt the warm, gentle embrace enclosing him. The events of the night flooded back to him, and Estel sucked in a quick breath.
The embrace tightened, and a hand brushed at his hair. A familiar, beloved voice chuckled softly above him. “Good morning, my son.”
“Ada?” Estel pulled back to stare into Elrond’s face, tears springing immediately to his eyes. His father was here. It was no dream. Elrond smiled and pulled him close again.
“Although, it is just past noon now. Morning has passed while you slept.”
Estel breathed out in a rush and nestled in, brushing away the tears. He didn’t even care that he was far too big to be sitting in Elrond’s lap. “I knew you would find me.” He blinked. “But, I didn’t know you would come.” The words made little sense, spoken aloud, but Elrond understood.
His father, Estel had discovered, usually did.
“How could I not? You are so very precious to me.” Estel smiled faintly, blinking and swiping away more wetness. Elrond sighed then, straightening out of their embrace. “I regret waking you, but I believe it is time you ate, and I wish to see whatever hurts you may have. It will not do to leave them to become infected.”
The word ‘infected’ brought a quick flash to Estel’s mind of Jerold Ferrier, senseless and sweating. He shivered, and Elrond frowned down at him.
“Estel?” He shook his head, but Elrond pressed him. “Come. What troubles you?”
He sighed, scooting off of his father’s lap to sit beside him. “Master Ferrier’s arm was infected. He … we found a healer, but it…” Estel couldn’t seem to say it, but Elrond nodded gravely.
“Ah. Yes, I know.”
Estel stared. “You do?”
“Indeed. I expect that all of us have much to share of the last weeks.” Elrond rubbed Estel’s back briefly. “For now, however, I will only say that I regret very much that you were made to face such an ordeal.” Estel nodded, sifting the gritty dirt between his fingers. His father squeezed his shoulder once, then rose smoothly. “Come. Let us eat, and then we will talk.” Estel nodded again, more enthusiastically, and followed his father to the pot of soup steaming over the banked fire. They seemed to be alone in the clearing, except for Dorhaur, who slept in his bedroll beneath one of trees. Estel looked quickly to his father, but Elrond had seen the direction of his gaze. “He is well—a deep scratch in the thigh that should heal without incident. He sleeps off the pain herbs now.”
Estel swallowed hard and nodded, grateful that the Ranger had taken no worse hurt in saving him. He wondered where the others might be—he remembered speaking to Elrohir last night (really this morning, he supposed), and had heard Elladan and Glorfindel in the ravine with Dorhaur. He wondered if Dorhaur’s captain had ever arrived. He wondered how his family had finally managed to find him. Indeed, so many questions circled in his head that he could not imagine waiting to talk until after they had eaten. The rich scent drifting from the kettle, however, reminded him suddenly how long it had been since his last meal, and all thought of questions fled. Estel fell to the food in earnest, only looking up again when his second bowl had been wiped clean.
Elrond had been sitting silently, watching with a faint smile, but now he gestured to Estel’s foot. “I see a hole in your boot, and you have torn up your knees and palms. Are these the worst of it, or—”
“Ah! The sleeper awakes!” Estel spun around and launched to his feet, flinging himself the few steps into Glorfindel’s embrace. His teacher—his friend—laughed, squeezing him tightly. “It is good to see you, youngling. We have been much concerned for your safety.”
Estel squeezed tighter. “Thank you.”
Glorfindel dropped a kiss on the crown of Estel’s head, then ruffled that area vigorously. “You are most welcome.” He stepped back then and Elrohir took his place, embracing Estel again though they had already greeted each other. Glorfindel spoke to Elrond. “I saw no sign of additional wargs in any direction. Nor did I see sign of the ones that we slew, other than in the ravine itself. It is possible that they were trapped as well, and were travelling its length in search of escape.”
Elrond nodded, then looked to his son. Elrohir spoke over the top of Estel’s head. “He brought two horses with him. They are tethered outside the campsite, opposite ours, and he has spent all the morning in their company. I do not believe that he will venture much beyond—certainly he seems to have no plans to leave this area.”
This time, Elrond sighed. “Very well.” Estel wondered who ‘he’ might be, but Elrond shook his head at Estel’s curious glance and motioned for him to sit. Sighing—no one ever told him anything—Estel thumped down and worked his boots off his feet. Elrohir picked up the damaged boot, examining it as Elrond turned his attention to the damaged foot itself. He rose and crossed to rummage in one of the packs, then returned, carrying boot, pack, and a wickedly sharp hunting knife. As Elrond examined the deep, narrow gouge in Estel’s sole, Elrohir measured the boot against the flap of the pack and began cutting a temporary inner boot sole from the sturdy leather. When Estel hissed with discomfort at his father’s manipulations, his brother looked up.
“Come. Tell me how you would mend this boot were you alone in the wild, without my pack to mangle for your purposes.”
It was the type of surprise question that he normally disliked, but Estel was thankful for the distraction as Elrond finished with his foot and moved on to his knees, his palms, and his shoulder, which had twisted and been bruised in the fall. The shoulder was a bit of a surprise—he had forgotten it until Elrond pressed gently in the hollow between arm and chest, eliciting a gasp and a flare of pain. Even with that, however, Elrond looked pleased as he finished and sat back.
“You have taken very little damage for your adventures, and none of it serious. I am relieved.” He smiled, and Estel saw the truth of that assertion on his father’s face. Elrond continued. “I believe a good cleaning will suffice for most of the scrapes—there is a small river nearby which will certainly do for that task. We will wrap your foot so that it does not rub when you walk, but I think that as long as they are kept clean, the rest can be left to heal on their own.”
More than willing for a wash and a swim, even though it would further delay his questions, Estel reached for his boots. Before he could grasp them, however, Elrohir ducked under his extended arm and rose smoothly, dangling Estel over his shoulder. Estel coughed out a surprised shriek and struck at Elrohir’s arm with a balled fist. “Put me down!” His brother ignored him, however, and Estel was just as happy that he did.
Elrohir turned his nose into Estel’s side, sniffing ostentatiously. “You are overripe, brother mine. Let us see what may be done about that.” Glorfindel tossed them another pack as they passed, which Elrohir snatched from midair with his free hand as he strode out of the clearing toward the stream. Estel was dizzy but laughing as they reached its banks, hanging limply as Elrohir trailed along its edge. He realized too late what his brother intended, and was unable to put up much of a fight when Elrohir heaved him bodily into a deeper hole. He surfaced sputtering, and sent a useless wave of water splashing toward the bank before he set about stripping his sodden clothing.
His brother tossed him soap and he washed twice, then scrubbed his hair three times before he was satisfied. The soap was nearly gone by then and Estel let it drift away, laying back in the chilly current and paddling slowly. The trees rustled, and a jay squabbled about something off to the side, and a squirrel darted along one of the branches that stretched over the water. The ripple of the water was soothing, and he was safe.
He was safe.
Estel didn’t even realize that he was crying until Elrohir called to him. “Estel, come back.” Embarrassed, he ducked his face into the water and rubbed at his eyes as he splashed back.
“Sorry,” he muttered as Elrohir met him, holding out a large, clean tunic (probably Glorfindel’s) that he was meant to use as a towel. His brother shook his head.
“You have no reason to be.” Elrohir wrapped the tunic around him and embraced him tightly, then moved off to give Estel some privacy as he dried himself and dressed in the clean clothes he found waiting. They were soft and felt like they had come straight from the Valar themselves. He pulled on his newly repaired boots, then walked with Elrohir back to the campsite.
Elladan was depositing several rabbits and a cloak full of berries near the fire as they entered the clearing. Estel grinned, quickening his pace.
“You missed the mushrooms.”
Elladan turned, grinned, and bounded across the clearing to lift Estel off his feet in an enthusiastic embrace. “Estel! You’ve led us on quite the chase, brother!”
“Mind his shoulder, Elladan.”
Estel managed a tight squeeze before Elladan set him down. His brother lifted one eyebrow, returning to his scattered offerings. “And I did not miss the mushrooms. I do not care for them, and I therefore did not bother to gather any as I passed.”
Elrohir snorted, moving past to spread Glorfindel’s wet tunic out on top of a pack. “He missed the mushrooms, Estel. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.” Elladan pulled a face at his twin. Elrond rolled his eyes at both of them, then beckoned Estel toward him, holding out a wrapped square.
“I believe the topic of mushrooms is irrelevant in the face of maple candy.”
Estel gaped, then scurried around the fire and snatched the bundle from Elrond’s hand. His mother’s maple candy was his very favorite treat, sweet and gooey and filled with walnuts, and it was difficult now not to gulp the entire piece in two quick bites. Elrond watched him, smiling.
“There is more for later, never fear.” His eyes softened. “Your mother sends her love.”
The reminder of Gilraen sobered Estel, and he folded to the ground beside Elrond. “How is she?”
“She is frantic, of course, and misses you deeply.” Estel looked down, stricken, and Elrond gently squeezed the back of his neck. “She is a strong Woman, Estel, and does not easily lose hope. She will be well and waiting when you return.”
Estel nodded, still studying the glowing ash deep in the fire. He knew that Gilraen was strong as well as beautiful, but that did not make him feel any better about worrying her. Finally, he drew in a deep breath. He could not do anything for her now, but he could make amends with his father.
“I am sorry I disobeyed you.”
A moment of surprised silence followed his words, then, “In what way did you do so?”
Elrond’s voice was gentle, and Estel found it easier than he had expected to tell the tale of his encounter with Ferrier in Rivendell. When he had finished, Elrond was silent for a long moment, then sighed deeply.
“It is true that I have set this rule for your protection—though I do not believe I could truly have anticipated such an event as this. It is indeed for the best that you remain hidden from outside eyes until you are grown.”
Not for the first time, Estel wondered why. This did not seem the time to ask. Instead, he mumbled, “I understand, Ada.”
“I know you do.” Elrond pressed Estel’s shoulder. He looked up into his father’s grave eyes. “But you have a good, kind heart, my son, and neither do I wish for it to become buried beneath fear and mistrust. It is not wrong to show pity and compassion.”
Estel frowned. “Then what should I have done?”
Elrond laughed softly, wry rather than amused. “If I one day stumble upon the correct answer, you will be the first to know of it.” He squeezed Estel’s shoulder again, then released it, sitting back. As if on cue, the twins and Glorfindel settled around the fire, and for a time they all rested silently in its cheerful warmth. Estel pondered his father’s words, more unsettled than he would have admitted that even Elrond seemed to have no answers for some dilemmas. Finally, he turned his mind away from the question and asked another.
“How long did it take before you knew I was not in Imladris anymore?”
As one, the Elves winced.
“Longer than we would have liked.”
“The entire valley has been searched, my Lord.” Glorfindel’s voice and expression were tight. He neither liked the news nor cared to be presenting it to the Master of Imladris and the Lady Gilraen, but the task must fall to someone. “He has not been found.”
The group gathered in Elrond’s office was grim and weary, and though none would admit it, disheartened. The hunt had been ongoing for two full days, as the entire valley of Rivendell had been scoured and then searched again. Most of those before him now had led a team of Elves, and it was quite likely that no one here had slept in that time—excepting Gilraen, who had snatched only a few fitful hours in bits and pieces since Elrohir had returned a day and a half into the hide and seek to report his growing conviction that something had gone amiss with Estel. The rivers and caves had received special attention, given the copious rain and soft ground of late, but they revealed nothing—even as the forests, the pastures, and the multitude of riding and walking trails had revealed nothing.
Despite the continuing uncertainty, Elrond could not find it in himself to be sorry that nothing had been found in their depths.
“We are missing something!” Elladan burst out suddenly, straightening from his place against the wall beside his brother. Elrohir’s attention remained focused not so much on the discussion at hand as upon the vast valley which stretched away beyond the window. He had been quiet over the past days, and Elrond knew that his son had spent much time second-guessing the length of time he had allowed to pass before his initial return. Elladan paced restlessly. “We’ve not only not found Estel, but we’ve found no trace of him.” He stopped, shaking his head. “That cannot be right. Even if he fell into a river or a cave …” he cast an apologetic glance toward Gilraen, who seemed unaware that she had even produced any sound, “… even if it rained for days and rivers of mud covered every path in Imladris, with so many of us searching we should have found some sign of his passing.”
“What is it you are suggesting?” Glorfindel demanded, and Elladan pivoted away, frustrated.
“I do not know. But something about this entire scenario is wrong.”
Low murmurs were beginning to run throughout the room, and Elrond spoke before others could become involved in any manner of debate over his son’s proclamation. They did not have the time, and could not afford to allow short tempers to flare.
“I agree.” All eyes returned to him. He nodded to both Elladan and Glorfindel, then returned his gaze to the broader gathering. “The fact remains, however, that we do not know what that may be.” Elrond rested his forehead upon steepled fingers and took a long breath, attempting to focus his rather scattered thoughts. Sighing deeply, he admitted, “It can be truly said that we do not know anything beyond his movements on that first day, correct?” Glorfindel nodded agreement, reluctant and embarrassed. Elrond massaged his temples, sparing what he hoped was a sympathetic glance for his friend. “So. He left the House just past noon. He was …”
From the corner of his eye he observed Erestor stir, but before his advisor could speak, Faurín stepped abruptly forward. “Forgive me, my Lord, but that is incorrect.”
Elrond gaped briefly, then straightened. “Explain.”
“Estel left the House at mid-afternoon. I witnessed him from across the stable yard, assisting the Man Ferrier with his packs.”
“Ferrier?” That made little sense. Estel knew that he was not to approach strangers from outside the valley and had always obeyed this stricture to the best of his ability—little though he liked it. Elrond frowned, attempting to reconcile this piece of information with his own last encounter with his son. “Just past lunchtime he told me that he was nearly ready to depart. That was hours before Ferrier began loading his wagon.”
The horse master shrugged diffidently. “To that I cannot speak, my Lord. I only know that Master Ferrier dropped his belongings and Estel helped him to gather them. Ferrier went ahead then, and Estel carried his pack down to the wagon.”
“I know nothing of any interactions Estel may have had with Master Ferrier,” Erestor added quietly, “but I can verify that his essay on the fall of Annúminas did not appear on my desk until mid-afternoon. I was not in my office when he left it, but—”
“I am a fool.”
Every head in the room swiveled toward Elrohir, whose face had drained of color. Elrond began to stand, alarmed, but Elrohir pushed away from his place on the wall and, before any could question him, strode from the room.
Startled silence reigned for the space of several heartbeats, then Elladan swept after his brother. Elrond followed on his heels, which seemed the cue for a general exodus from the office. They wound through the halls of the House, out a rear entrance, and across toward the stables, where Elrond found Elrohir crouched at the far rear of the structure, gazing with unseeing eyes across the a patch of ground near the side wall. He waited only a moment before speaking.
His son rose abruptly, expression bleak. “He is with Ferrier. At least, he was in Ferrier’s wagon.” Elrond felt his mouth actually fall at this outrageous pronouncement, and a swift buzz exploded from the gathered Elves. Elrohir shrugged, ignoring all but his father. His jaw was tight with strain. “It is the only explanation.”
Elrond managed to find words, if not equilibrium. “Perhaps you would care to share this explanation?”
Elrohir gestured curtly to the ground. “The wagon that we provided to Ferrier was set here, correct?”
“Aye.” Arila, one of the stable Elves, stepped forward. “I put it there myself, so that the Man would not be required to go all the way to the sheds with his belongings.”
Elrohir nodded a terse acknowledgment. “Estel’s path when I set out from the House led here, but no further.” He stood. “I assumed that he had used the wagon to boost onto the stable roof, and had gone from there to one of the trees.” Elrohir looked to Elrond. “He has done it before—several of these larger trees overhanging the stable are easy enough for him to navigate without returning to the ground, and from them he is able to find purchase on the rocks there,” he gestured to a rocky outcropping in the hill that rose behind the stable, “or there, or there.” Elrond lifted an eyebrow. It was a risky endeavor for a child of Men, even with the solid branches so near the rock. He had been unaware of the extent of Estel’s climbing activities, and from the soft gasp beside him, it was safe to assume that Gilraen had not known of her son’s acrobatics, either. Elrohir grimaced. “I did not follow him onto the roof. I went around and up the path, to pick up his trail when he reached the top.” His glance was pleading and apologetic. “There are only a few places above that he would have been able to come out from here …”
Elladan shook his head. “I would have done the same.”
“And I,” Glorfindel admitted reluctantly. Elrond wondered briefly if the whole of Imladris other than himself and Gilraen knew of this habit of Estel’s. It was, he supposed, not the time. “He does tend to find himself on top of any roof he can reach,” the blond Elf sent a quick glance at Elrond, as if aware of his Lord’s thoughts, “and after the first few, tracking him across them becomes … tiresome.”
Elrond brought the subject back around. “So. We may have found no sign because there was never any to find.”
“The ground where his tracks ended was scuffed and unclear, but Ferrier was not stable on his legs and could easily have fallen, or dropped a pack.” Elrohir’s face was drawn. “I did not even think …”
A hand on his arm interrupted him, and Elrohir looked down into the face of the Lady Gilraen. Her face was pale, but for the dark circles beneath her eyes, and her hand trembled. Her eyes, though, were determined and her voice firm. “Who would have, my Lord?” She waved a hand toward the gathered Elves. “None of us here. It is far beyond what anyone could anticipate.” Gilraen drew a deep breath then and looked to Elrond, though her hand still gripped Elrohir’s arm. “You will follow this man?” It was a question, but only just.
Elrond nodded, plans already half-formed in his mind. Over the gathered heads, he could see Glorfindel already on his way back to the House.
“Indeed.” He pressed his lips together. “It is our only course, truly.” He looked toward Elladan. “You escorted him to our borders, yes?”
Elladan nodded, his face twisted. “Aye. I saw no sign that anything was amiss, but I did not inspect the supplies in the wagon …”
Elrond waved an abrupt hand. “And you had no orders to do so.” He grimaced. “Elrohir did not check the roof, you did not check the wagon, I did not insist that the Man remain to be treated. None of those actions were necessarily inappropriate at the time, though they may seem so to us now, and a dozen other circumstances added in as well. Self-recrimination is pointless and will only hinder us.” He glanced toward Elrohir, who drew a slow breath and nodded once, eyes settling from distress into determination and calm. Elrond nodded, approving, then returned his gaze to Elladan. “But you will best be able to pick up his trail.”
His son nodded. “Aye, Adar. We will be ready within the hour.” Elladan touched Elrohir’s arm briefly, some signal that only the two of them recognized, then followed Glorfindel toward the House. Elrohir paused before following, lifting Gilraen’s hand from his arm to squeeze it gently.
“We will not fail, my Lady.”
Her return grip was firm. “I trust you, and I believe you.” Her back was straight and her eyes determined, and Elrond thought again that Arathorn had chosen his bride well. Gilraen’s voice quivered only on the final words. “Bring him back.” Elrohir nodded, released her, and went after his brother. She watched for an instant, then looked to Elrond.
“I will gather fresh clothing to send along—who knows what state his will be in when he is found.” Without waiting for a response, Gilraen picked up her skirts and hurried toward the house. Elrond turned back to his audience, searching until he found the horse master at the rear.
“Faurín.” The Elf moved quickly to his side. “We will leave within the hour.”
“We, my Lord?”
Elrond managed a curt nod, rather than a snappish reply that he would later regret. He had not left Imladris for many years—it was unsurprising that Faurín should be startled.
“Glorfindel, Elladan, Elrohir, and I. Have our mounts prepared.”
“Of course, my Lord.” The horse master bowed and pivoted toward the stable, motioning to two others who had been drawn by the commotion. Elrond took a long breath, already working mentally through the list of supplies that he would need for this journey. They still did not know how his son had been taken, though he could guess why—Ferrier’s illness and his insistence that his own son had been hidden away did not bode well for the only child of Men in Imladris. Elrond hoped desperately that Estel was well—frightened, undoubtedly, which tore at his heart, but well. Still, he knew from long experience that he must prepare for anything.
“Here, my Lord.”
Indeed, his advisor and friend was already at his side. Elrond gestured for him to follow, and ignoring the others who still lingered, they made for the House to prepare for his absence.
Elrond pulled up his horse as Elrohir, currently tracking, signaled for a halt and leapt from his own mount. Only ages of practice kept him from voicing his frustration in a string of language of which Celebrían would certainly not have approved as his son examined the narrow track and the overgrown plain surrounding it. Their pace since leaving Imladris had been agonizingly slow, given Ferrier’s tendency to wander from the Road, and their stops many. At times the Man’s reasoning was clear—certain larger loops of the Road could be avoided by branching out on less-defined paths and tracks that had long been cut into the surrounding wilds. At times, however, Ferrier’s departures made little sense, and they had been forced to conclude that either Ferrier was lost in fevered confusion, or the Man was attempting to confound any pursuers.
The thought that Ferrier might be thinking clearly enough to put forth such an effort did not bring him comfort.
In truth, they had learned very little to comfort them over the past days, and though he knew no answers would be soon forthcoming, Elrond found that his mind and heart still seethed with the unanswered questions. Had this Man stolen Estel out of some misplaced sense of retribution, because in his madness he believed the Elrond and his people had taken Ferrier’s own son from him? Or had his illness provided some other reason, some vague notion which would make sense only within the confines of his own mind? It mattered not, Elrond supposed—at least, not at this time. What mattered was whether Estel was well, whether he was frightened. What mattered was finding his son, and returning him safely to his home and his mother. What mattered was the great hope which would be shattered if by some chance the child came to harm.
What mattered was that his own heart, so reluctant at the start to open itself as father to a child of Men, could not now easily bear that child’s loss.
Elrond took a firm grip upon himself, turning away from fruitless speculation and instead to what they did know. They knew that Estel had likely been drugged during those first days (and with herbs you gave the Man!), and that Ferrier no longer drove the wagon the Elves had provided him. That discovery had provided a moment of anxiety, until they had indentified the man’s next conveyance.
“It is ours.” Elladan leapt lightly into the wagon bed, examining the wood. “See?” He looked up at his brother, who peered over the sideboard. “Here is the burn mark from when that spark caught the hay ablaze.” Elrohir nodded, and Elladan turned a frown to their surroundings. The wagon sat behind the blacksmith’s shed in a small village which lay roughly ten miles south of the Bridge on the banks of the Mitheithel. Its presence explained Ferrier’s deviation, at least in part, but opened a new host of speculation. “Could they still be here?” The doubt in Elladan’s voice was, Elrond felt, justified. They had questioned a number of residents as they followed the tracks through, and no one remembered a Man who matched Ferrier’s description, or a boy who matched Estel’s. Given this find, however, they would need to engage in a more systematic questioning, which would take time. Elrond bit back his irritation and was dismounting when a voice rose behind them.
“Here now! What are you—” A large man rounded the structure. He took in their party at a glance, and when he spoke again, his tone was conciliatory. “Lord Elladan. Lord Elrohir.” He shoved two massive hands into his pockets, nodding. “I am sorry. Never can tell who might be poking about where they don’t belong.”
“Indeed.” Elladan hopped back to the ground, and the brothers greeted the smith. Elrond’s sons were known in the village, as they had often over the centuries detoured from their path to and from the northern wilds to ensure that these people were well. It was, Elrond had always felt, the least they could do as neighbors. The smith returned their greetings, then glanced toward the remaining members of their group. The request for an introduction was plain, and Elladan obliged. “Karvin, this is Lord Glorfindel. Glorfindel, Karvin son of Kalvin.” Glorfindel, who had not dismounted, nodded, and Karvin returned a brief nod of his own. Glorfindel was known among some Men, but apparently not these. Elladan moved on. “And this is my father, Lord Elrond.”
That, of course, was a name the smith did know. His eyes widened, and the Man executed a clumsy bow. “Lord Elrond. It is an honor, sir.” Elrond returned the greeting, hiding his impatience with practiced aplomb. As it often had in the past, this simple courtesy served him well—no sooner had the exchange ended than Karvin queried, “I expect this is no stopping off point for you. Is there something you need?” He gestured toward the wagon. “I’ve only had it a couple of days, so I can’t speak to its soundness, but if you’re in want of a—”
“Actually, we are more interested in the Man who left it with you.”
Karvin snorted, shaking his head at Elrohir. “Ferrier, he said was his name? An odd one, that, and no mistake.”
Relief hailed the smith’s acknowledgement, if not the words themselves. “In what way?”
“Well …” Karvin frowned. “He wasn’t well, he or his boy—that was plain as day.” The smith, clearly unaware of any reaction among his listeners, continued on. “He wouldn’t take any help, though, or stop off for any length of time. My wife tried, of course, but he was set on getting back to the Road as quick as could be.” The smith raised an eyebrow. “You know this man?”
Elladan responded, for which Elrond was grateful. He was still attempting to move past the Man’s casual implication that his son was not well. Ai, Estel … “He was in Rivendell for a time, and left against my father’s best judgment. For himself, of course, he may make such a decision, but we worry for the boy.” Elladan hesitated. “What can you tell us of him?”
Elrond silently applauded his son’s discretion. Karvin crossed his massive arms. “Not much, really. I didn’t even know he was in there until the very end, after all the packs were moved over.”
“Oh, aye. He wanted something smaller. Saw I had an old two-wheeled cart off to the side and offered to trade for it. Said they were in a hurry—didn’t say why—and that they would go faster in it.” That, unfortunately, was likely to be true. The smith shrugged. “I got it in trade, never really had much use for it, so I didn’t see any reason not to do the swap. The wagon I can haul supplies in, at least.”
“Where did the cart sit?”
Karvin motioned toward a spot not far from their current position. Elladan and Elrohir drifted off to study the ground around it, though much of their attention was clearly still focused on the smith’s words. Elrond prompted the Man.
“Right. At the last, after his packs, Ferrier climbed up into the wagon and asked if he could hand his son out to me.” His son. Elrond wondered if those had truly been Ferrier’s words, and what implications they carried, if so. There was, unfortunately, no way to ask without drawing more attention to Estel than they had already been forced to do. He let the question lie. “I said yes, of course, and he handed him over, then took him back and settled him in the cart. The lad never woke. Never even stirred.”
His gut tightened. Elrond pursed his lips, exchanging a glance with Glorfindel. “Did he seem flushed or feverish?” It was an impossible question, he knew, as the Man had known of no reason to pay attention to such things. To his surprise, however, Karvin shook his head.
“Not that I could tell. I’ve had three of my own,” he responded to Elrond’s glance, “and I know a sick child when I hold one. He was heavy asleep and limp as a rag doll, but no warmer than he should have been.” The Man shrugged. “I figured he was on the mend, maybe, sleeping it off.”
Drugged, then. The thought of the Man Ferrier, himself ill and not in his right mind, dosing Estel with pain and sleep herbs left Elrond cold.
“Adar!” Elladan caught his eye and gestured briefly, indicating that they had found the new trail. Elrond nodded, then returned his attention to the smith.
“We must be off, but if we may, our—”
“Adar!” Elrohir’s voice cut through his contemplation, and Elrond blinked, returning his mind to the present. The other three had all dismounted, and were gathered at a single point. His sons were crouched at ground level, but Glorfindel stood, eying him. Elrond could see the vague concern in his friend’s expression, but he ignored it as he slid easily down and approached. Elladan motioned to the packed earth as Elrohir began to creep slowly along a line away from the track. “Estel.”
He did not ask if they were certain—his sons had been trackers for nearly three thousand years and had long ago surpassed him in that particular skill. Instead, Elrond eyed the earth to which Elladan pointed, noting the faint signs, then looked after Elrohir. His other son had halted some yards away, and now stood, gazing not back toward them but out across the open land.
“He was running.” The words were flat, and sent a shiver through Elrond. A wave of anger, too, swept him—how dare this Man steal his son, drug him and frighten him and take him into the wild? Elrohir was speaking again, and Elrond forced himself to focus. “The path weaves, as though he was unsteady on his feet.” Elrond exchanged a disbelieving glance with Glorfindel. Could the Man possibly have kept Estel drugged for so long? There was a little comfort in the knowledge that the herb supply Elrond had prepared for Ferrier could not have lasted much longer—but only a little. “He stopped here, then turned back.” Elrohir finally turned back as well, rejoining them. “He returned more slowly, but he got back into the cart before it moved away again.”
Glorfindel nodded, murmuring, “Well thought, youngling.” He scanned the barren land, then added what they all knew. “To set out on his own from here, without supplies or protection or means of conveyance, would have very likely meant death.”
And so Estel had been forced to return to his abductor. From the expressions upon the faces of his sons and his friend, Elrond was not the only one to find such a situation intolerable. As one, they remounted and took again to the trail.
The inn sat on the Road at the eastern border of the Bree-lands, and Elrond was not surprised when the trail led them around into its stable yard. It was the first structure or sign of habitation for days, and Ferrier would be low on supplies, even if he had purchased additional in the village where he had traded out the wagon. A cart such as the one the Man now drove simply didn’t hold much, not alongside both a driver and a passenger. The Elves drew up in the yard, catching the attention of several Men who loitered near the stable door. The Men exchanged long glances then ambled slowly over, one muttering something that sounded like, ” … have a fit when he sees this,” before falling silent. Elladan and Elrohir ignored them entirely, splitting off the moment their feet touched earth to search for sign of the cart’s passing in the hard-packed, well-traveled yard. Elrond and Glorfindel moved to greet the yard’s occupants.
“Can we help you with something?”
The Men were wary, their stance and expressions tight. It was, Elrond thought, understandable, if regrettable. Elves spent little time in this portion of Eriador, and the residents here had quite possibly never seen one of his kind. Perhaps it would be best to simply move along with their business, trusting a matter-of-fact approach to set these Men at ease. He nodded briefly. “I am Elrond Eärendilion. My companions and I search for two people, a Man and a boy travelling together in a two-wheeled cart. Their trail leads here. Have you perhaps seen any sign of such a pair in the past days?”
The Men glanced at each other again, then one shrugged and nodded toward the inn. “Darl’s the one you want—he owns the place.”
It was not an answer, but for the moment it was enough. Elrond nodded, turned, and made for the inn, Glorfindel at his heels.
“I hope this Man does not indeed ‘have a fit’ when he sees us,” Glorfindel murmured. “We have little time for such things.” Elrond shook his head. He assumed the phrase to be a figure of speech, but in the end it mattered little. They needed answers, and if these people were required to suffer some discomfort in order to provide them, then so be it.
This was taking entirely too long, and he wanted his son back.
They did not pause at the rear door, but pushed it open and swept inside. Business was slow in the mid-afternoon, with only a few occupied tables to gape at them as they crossed to the bar. A Man bent behind it, wrestling with the tap of a large wooden keg.
“Be right with you,” the Man puffed without looking up. Glorfindel leaned against the bar, eying the Man’s progress. Elrond turned his own attention to the main room. It had been many centuries since he had last been in such an establishment, but the basics did not appear to have greatly changed. The rough-hewn tables, low stained ceiling, and odor were all as he remembered, as were the furtive glances cast by the patrons. At one time he might have found it amusing to return their stares and watch them scramble to look at anything else, but that too was many years past. He allowed his own gaze to slide past them, completing his survey of the room before looking back to the bar. Glorfindel, apparently through with waiting, straightened and addressed the struggling Man.
“May I offer any assistance?”
The Man glanced up then, already shaking his head, and stopped abruptly upon sight of them. His face drained suddenly of color, turning such an alarming shade that Elrond feared for a moment the Man might swoon. It was … an odd reaction, even for a Man not expecting Elves to appear in his bar. Elrond made ready to catch the Man if he did go down, but thankfully the barkeep gathered himself and straightened. He cleared his throat, then again, before speaking.
“Are you here after that boy and his da, then?”
It was … not what he had been expecting. Elrond turned raised eyebrows to Glorfindel, then looked back to the Man—Darl, he presumed. “What can you tell us?”
Darl ran a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly. “I didn’t believe him, I thought …” He turned a pleading glance upon the Elves. “Why would I have believed him? It didn’t seem possible.”
It seemed that Estel had asked for help of some sort, then, and been turned away. Elrond understood the logic of the Man’s words, but found himself uninterested in soothing Darl’s guilt. “What can you tell us?” he repeated.
The barkeep shook himself. “They were—”
“Adar!” Elrond looked around. Elladan and Elrohir strode quickly to join them, nodding briefly to the Man, who managed a stricken nod in return. Elrohir spoke. “The cart is here, and the horse—the stable master says that Ferrier traded them for a wagon and a sturdier farm animal.”
Elrond resisted the urge to scream. “Have you found the track?”
His son nodded. “Aye. The Man indicated that—”
A sharp gasp cut him off. They turned as one to see a young Woman hurrying across the room, plucking frantically at her bound-back hair.
“My hair tie!” Estel exclaimed, bouncing a little. Elladan produced it with a grin and a flourish, handing it over.
“Your hair tie.”
Estel returned the grin, excited that his idea had actually worked and pleased to have his tie again. He seized it and began to pull his hair back. He had missed it over the past days—hair in his face had become a constant annoyance, and he had already decided that he would always carry a spare, just in case. As he worked, a thought occurred to him.
“I told her Archet, though.”
“Indeed, and she repeated all that you had said—the young Woman was quite concerned for you—but the stable master told us of a conversation he had with Ferrier regarding the woodland track, and we were able to find tracks that we were confident belonged to the wagon he described.”
Estel nodded and looked down, suddenly shy. “She was nice. She listened to me.”
His father sighed. “The innkeeper was a good Man too, Estel. He was simply too busy to pay attention to what was before him.” Elrond rubbed Estel’s back gently. “It will be some time before he does such again, I believe.”
Glorfindel tilted his head. “Did Ferrier discuss his final plans with you, then?”
None of them had yet asked much about his time with Ferrier, and Estel saw concern creep into Elrond’s expression. He didn’t mind talking about it, though—now that it was over and he was safe, it was easier to feel sorry for the Man.
“No, but I found a map in one of his packs. At least, it was more of a drawing, but I remembered the maps Erestor showed me and it made a little sense to me.”
“Ah.” His father smiled. “Erestor will be pleased.” He lifted one eyebrow. “He did ask me to tell you that your essay on the fall of Annúminas seemed … rushed.”
Estel gaped. How Erestor could even … He suddenly saw the twinkle in Elrond’s eyes, and realized that he was being teased—by his father, or by Erestor, or possibly both. He giggled, and his father’s rich chuckle joined him. Estel pulled up his knees and rested his chin on them, content in the presence of his family, and was about to ask more about their journey when another voice spoke from behind.
“He’s awake, then.”
Estel twisted around, and his heart fell.
Was this Dorhaur’s captain? Why else would he be here?
It didn’t really matter. If he was here, there was nothing Estel could do about it. Still, Baradhald was one of his mother’s people he had been allowed to meet a few times in the past, and Estel couldn’t help wishing now that the Man crossing the clearing to join them at the fire was anyone but him.
“You’ll be taking the Road back?”
Dorhaur looked up, turning his attention from his stew and from the chattering boy sprawled on the ground at his side. As he had suspected, Estel was an engaging child when he felt safe and was surrounded by those he considered family—polite and brash and earnest in turns. He reminded Dorhaur much of his own youngest son, and the thought had crossed his mind more than once that the two boys would get on well together. He banished those musings almost immediately, of course. He and his were but common folk of the Dúnedain. Even did Estel not live in Rivendell, this boy was their Chieftain. His compatriots would be drawn from among their leadership and the children of their leadership, the other important Dúnedain families.
People like Captain Baradhald.
His skin crawled. Perish that thought.
The atmosphere in the little camp still held all the dark expectancy of an approaching storm, even hours after he had awakened in the mid-afternoon. Its source was easily apparent. The tension between his captain and the Elves had not noticeably eased since their first confrontation. It crackled yet in the air, evident in their every exchange. Dorhaur was grateful for his relative safety on the edge of the camp, where he might observe without taking part. He was in turns fascinated and horrified by his captain’s seeming intransigence in the face of their Elvish allies. For their part, the Elves appeared to be doing their best to simply ignore Baradhald, to varying degrees of success. Even more interesting, however, was Estel’s reaction to the other Man. It was quite clear that their young Chieftain held no love for his father’s cousin. Any time Baradhald moved or spoke, the clear grey eyes would fix him briefly with a dark glare before returning to whatever tale or task had previously held the boy’s attention.
Dorhaur wondered what lay behind those burning glances. It could be simply the obvious grudge between Estel’s Elvish family and Baradhald—but he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Eventually. We will take a straight path from here to Amon Sûl, then will join with the Road to the east of the watchtower.”
Elrond, Dorhaur had noticed, seemed to be doing most of the speaking when it came to his captain. The others paid heed, but mostly kept their silence. The Ranger wondered if it was because the Lord of Imladris was leader of their small party, or because he was the most patient.
This was, he was coming to see, a necessary trait when dealing with Captain Baradhald.
Baradhald frowned. “You would take him through the wilds?”
Elrond’s jaw tightened, but his voice remained mild. “We will make better time in the open than in any attempt to retrace our route through the villages of Bree-land. Truly, at current time the Road is no more or less safe than the wilds for those who come prepared and vigilant.”
Baradhald apparently disagreed.
“It is foolish to take such a risk.”
Dorhaur almost choked on his stew. Was the man insane, or merely dim-witted? It was of course Baradhald’s duty as a captain of the Rangers to offer opinion and concern regarding travel through the northern wilds—assuming he had a legitimate concern, of which Dorhaur was at this point by no means certain. For himself, he believed Lord Elrond to have the right of it. Wargs might be common still in the wilds of Eriador, but the orcs’ numbers in the north had been low since the White Council’s action at Dol Goldur and the battle at the Lonely Mountain. For a party comprised of members such as Lord Elrond, his sons, and Lord Glorfindel, a journey from Archet to Weathertop should prove little challenge. No one had asked him, however, and he had no intention of drawing attention to himself at the current moment. Even if his captain truly did doubt the safety of such a route, however, Baradhald might have approached it differently. One did not simply say such things to those who had been battling the forces of the Enemy for so many centuries longer than they—not without a far greater familiarity than he understood his captain to have with these people.
One of the twins—Elladan, he thought—stepped to Elrond’s side, scowling. “And yet, it is ours to take.”
Glorfindel slid smoothly in front of Elladan, nudging him back with one foot. The son of Elrond obeyed, though his frown did not ease. “Come. You surely understand, Captain, that we would take no unnecessary risk in this?” Confidence and calm radiated from the blond Elf in waves, such that even Baradhald could not remain unaffected. The captain only grimaced in response, then glanced across the camp toward Estel.
Beside him, the boy stiffened.
“Captain Baradhald.” Elrond’s tone was tight, and Dorhaur sensed that even Rivendell’s Lord was at the end of his endurance. “Your concern as Estel’s kindred is noted and appreciated.” Baradhald raised a sardonic brow. “Yet, decisions regarding his safety were given over to me long ago. I do not deem this to be an excessive risk, and I would not keep Estel from his mother, who grieves his absence, any longer than necessary.” The message was clear, if couched in polite words—this discussion is closed. “You are welcome to disagree privately, if you choose.”
The two surveyed each other for a long moment, and then Baradhald nodded once. “My man and I will accompany you until you reach the Road.” He grinned sourly. “I’m sure you won’t mind the additional swords, on the off chance that your … assumptions prove inaccurate.”
Dorhaur flinched, and a soft growl of protest drifted from beside him. He laid a light hand on Estel’s shoulder, felt the muscles rock-hard with tension.
Elrond only inclined his head. “As you wish.”
Dorhaur gaped as the little knot in the center of the camp broke up, various combatants—it was a strong word, but none other came easily to mind—drifting off to their own pursuits. He had not been planning for any sort of excursion to the eastern portions of Eriador. Indeed, he had been hoping for a quick visit home before setting out upon his next patrol. A glance at the child beside him stilled any stirrings of protest. Such an opportunity would not present itself again, and in any event, he wished Estel to remember the Rangers well from his brief foray into their lands. He knew not how many others of the Dúnedain the boy had met, in what circumstances or for how long, but he would not leave this cousin of Arathorn as the boy’s final memory of his own people before returning to Rivendell.
Elladan flung himself down beside them. “You,” he pointed to Dorhaur, “will stay on your horse if we do meet with any manner of danger between here and Amon Sûl. I will not have that wound torn open again unnecessarily.”
Dorhaur exchanged a quick glance with Estel, whose expression had shifted from scowl to smirk in the space of a heartbeat. He quirked a brow, and the boy smothered a giggle as Dorhaur then looked back to his healer.
“As you say.”
Elladan flopped back, full length upon the ground, and heaved a long sigh. “The Man irks me.”
There was nothing to say to that. Even Estel, who had been talking nonstop in some capacity since Dorhaur awoke, remained silent, rolling a round orange stone—or, was that a marble?—on the packed earth before him. Elladan apparently required no response, however. He closed his eyes and relaxed with a sigh against the cool, shadowed grass beneath the tree. Slowly, his jaw relaxed and the rigid tension left his frame. Estel shoved the marble into his pocket, ducked around Dorhaur, and stretched out beside the Elf, resting his head on Elladan’s shoulder. A strong arm pulled the boy tight against his brother, and then both were silent.
His brother. It was odd to think of them in those terms, Elf and child of Men, but it was clear to him that they did indeed view each other as such. Dorhaur eyed them again before leaning back against the solid trunk and closing his eyes. He understood in a general way his captain’s concern. It was, after all, truly no easy thing to accept that other than the Lady Gilraen, this boy—the Chieftain of the Dúnedain people—knew only Elves as his close kin and companions. How would Estel manage himself among them when he returned? The lad had done well enough among the people of Staddle, as far as Dorhaur had been able to see, but two days was not a year, or ten years, or fifty. It was an entirely different thing to visit among a people than to take them for one’s own. Would Estel be able to do that? Would he be able to form a true kindred bond with the Dúnedain, having been raised away from their race, their land, and their travails?
It was a disturbing question, and one with no ready answer.
He opened his eyes. “Captain?”
“We will escort Lord Elrond and his party to the Road at the east of Weathertop. Be ready to leave at first light.”
Dorhaur nodded. “Yes, Captain.”
Baradhald returned the nod briefly, then disappeared again into the woods. It was just as well—perhaps the atmosphere would ease in his absence. Dorhaur closed his eyes again, flexing his injured thigh. In the end, such speculation mattered not. The Dúnedain leadership had obviously felt that Rivendell was the safest place for their young Chieftain, and most importantly, the Lady Gilraen had felt so as well. As Dorhaur understood his captain’s concerns, he also understood the fears that could have lead to such a decision. The remnant of the northern kingdom was beset by ever increasing dangers as the years passed, and no child could be guaranteed safety from either the Enemy’s forces or the hardships of the land itself. It was possible that the lad would have reached manhood safely, but with the doors of Rivendell open to them, why take such a chance? In any event, he was certain that neither he nor Baradhald was the first to ask such questions. Estel’s mother and the Dúnedain leadership, as well as Lord Elrond himself, would surely address any issues surrounding their Chieftain’s reintegration into his own people when the time arose.
Baradhald would do well to realize the same, as he obviously held no sway over matters. Dorhaur wondered, in fact, why his captain persisted. The man was not stupid, of that Dorhaur was—nearly—certain. Baradhald knew that his grousing would change nothing. What, then, did he hope to gain by this constant sparring with Estel’s guardians?
Could it be that the man was simply set on making as miserable as possible those who opposed his own opinions?
Dorhaur shuddered. Surely there was some other explanation. Still, Baradhald had been recently transferred to captain a low-activity area with a patrol of highly experienced, solitary Rangers. It could easily be read that leadership wished to be free of him as well.
That would be … fantastic. Truly.
Dorhaur sighed, relaxing into the warm spring evening. One thing only was clear to him, as he drifted again into a light doze. He was thankful that most of his patrols were taken apart from Baradhald’s direct supervision. Respect for his captain would not come easily to him again.
Estel was excited to be off, and woke long before first light. He lay quietly for a while, feeling the heavy warmth of Glorfindel’s arm over him. He had awakened partway through the night from vague, disturbing dreams, and had rolled out of his own bedroll to nestle against his nearby friend’s back. Feeling him there, Glorfindel had rolled over, tucking both his arm and his blanket around Estel. Neither had stirred again that night. He knew not whether Glorfindel had truly slept or had only slipped into waking dream as the Elves did at times, but none had roused Glorfindel for a watch and Estel himself had slept soundly.
Now, however, he was awake and ready to leave. He had seen Men and Hobbits in the past weeks, Hobbit holes and inns, Women and children, and they had all been amazing—but he was ready to be home again. He wanted to put his memories of Ferrier, of their journey and of the man’s illness and sadness and lost arm, behind him. He missed his mother, and worried over Elrond’s admission that she was sad and missed him. He wanted her to know that he was safe and well. He missed his own bed, and food from the kitchens, and regular baths.
He wondered how long until daybreak.
A rustle sounded across the campsite, and in the moonlight he saw Baradhald appear from the woods in the direction the horses were picketed. The Ranger captain crossed to Elrohir, who was sitting guard, and the two spoke briefly for a moment. Baradhald nodded once, then disappeared back into the trees. Elladan stirred, then rose and began to build up the fire. Dorhaur too sat up and stretched, a long lean shadow in the flickering light. Estel let out a long, slow breath.
Soon. They would leave soon.
His eyes wandered of their own accord back to the place where Baradhald had vanished. Why did it have to be him? Of all the Rangers in the north, why couldn’t it have been someone else? He knew that his father and the rest of his family didn’t get along with the Man, and he knew why. Baradhald hadn’t wanted his mother to bring him to Imladris after his father—his mother’s husband, the Man who had sired him—had died. Estel didn’t know why. He loved Imladris, and he was happy there. Why did it matter whether he grew up with Men or Elves?
And why did he feel like it was any of his business, anyway?
What Elrond and his Elvish family didn’t know about, though, were the fierce arguments the Man had started with Estel’s mother both times he had visited, in the privacy of Gilraen’s own apartment. Gilraen had stood up to him, defending herself and her decision—Estel’s mother was a strong woman and not easily intimidated—but she had cried after Baradhald had finally stalked from their rooms. Estel had urged her to tell Elrond, but she had demurred.
“Baradhald is not often here, Estel. Better to just not make things more difficult for everyone than they already are. He will be gone soon.”
Estel didn’t understand, but he took her words to heart, and didn’t tell anyone—even her—about the times that the Man had cornered him during those same visits and had tried to convince him that he would be happier among his mother’s people. Baradhald hadn’t yelled at him, but had coaxed and bribed instead, spinning stories of family and holiday feasts and playmates Estel’s own age. His own children, the Man had said, would be more than suitable companions—his son was only three years younger, and his daughter was exactly Estel’s age. If Estel would only tell Gilraen that he wished to live among her own people, if he would press the issue, she would surely not refuse him.
He didn’t want to live anywhere else, though, and had told Baradhald so. It had not made the Man happy.
He didn’t understand it. The other Rangers Estel had met over the years seemed nice enough, though he had really barely spoken to them other than brief visits and maybe a meal or two. Baradhald, though … His mother had told him before the first time he had been introduced that they were allowing the meeting because his father’s cousin was concerned for him, and they wanted him to see that Estel was happy and growing up well. He supposed that made sense, but he wished there had been some other way.
Baradhald frightened him a little. Estel had always been more than glad when he finally left Imladris.
And now he was here with them for several more days. Still, his father and brothers and Glorfindel would be nearby the whole time. Surely there would be no time for the Ranger captain to harass him. Anyway, this meant Dorhaur would be with them for a while longer as well, and Estel was happy about that. He had grown to like the Ranger, and would be sorry to see him go.
He wondered if Dorhaur could ever visit Imladris. It would be fun to have someone come to see him rather than his mother or Elrond or his brothers. Maybe he would ask.
“Up, youngling.” Glorfindel shook him gently, then rolled to his feet.
They ate quickly, packed up, and doused the fire, then made their way to the horses. Baradhald had saddled and bridled his and Dorhaur’s already, and all that was left was to fasten their bags and be on their way. Estel was disappointed not to see his own little mare, but Elrohir shook his head.
“Brennil is not accustomed to the long days we must ride in order to return home swiftly. She would not have been able to keep up.” He patted the horse they had brought for Estel, a calm grey gelding who sniffed at the boy with interest. “Hethu will be pleased to bear you home.”
Estel rubbed the soft nose, then took the apple Elrohir offered. Hethu crunched it, then nudged him again, knocking him gently off balance. Estel laughed softly, then swung up and settled, working hard not to bounce with anticipation and confuse the horse. The others mounted as well, and then Glorfindel took the lead away from the little campsite and the Bree-lands.
Much of the morning was spent still within the trees of the Chetwood, though the forest thinned as they made their way toward the east. Just before lunch they finally broke free onto a wide grassy plain, rolling with low hills. Estel laughed as they sped up, allowing the horses to finally stretch their legs. The feel of the wind and the horse moving beneath him was wonderful, after the days of riding in a cart and walking, and he enjoyed every bit of their pace before they finally pulled up for a brief lunch.
“We are not yet in the Weather Hills,” Elrond responded to his questions as they ate. “These are not of their stature—they are simply an unnamed set of hills to the east of the Chetwood.”
“When will we reach them?”
Elrond laughed, dusting crumbs from his tunic. “Not today.”
It was an answer which Estel had come over the years to understand might mean anything from the next morning to the next week. Still, he supposed that his father couldn’t say with absolute certainty—they would surely need to take the wilds as they came. He fell silent, finishing his own lunch, and as the others began to remount, blurted a question that had been on his mind since the day before.
“Ada, how did you know that they had to remove Master Ferrier’s arm?”
The Elves halted, glancing at each other. Finally, Elrond sighed. “It is a somewhat involved piece of our journey, and I have no wish to shout it at you as we ride. Either you may wait for camp tonight, or you may ride with me for a time and I will tell you the tale as we go.”
Without hesitation, Estel reached up to be pulled onto his father’s horse. Elrond settled Estel before him, and together they started again across the plains.
It was soothing to be within the trees once more. These first vestiges of the Chetwood were not so large or so aware as the forests of Imladris, but still a tranquility shimmered within—sound muffled by leaves and undergrowth, scent rich and green, trunks strong and solid, roots stretched deep. A thread of calm stole into his fëa, and Elrond saw it mirrored as well in his companions’ postures. Intensity and purpose remained, but something brittle had bled away from them. It was as well. The tension which had driven them over the past days would eventually wear at their focus and edge if not countered, and they could not afford to begin making mistakes.
No. His son was depending upon them.
Yet again, he pondered the details they had learned at the inn. First and foremost, Estel was well—walking and talking and thinking, at least. Although … Elrond was not entirely certain what to make of the tale they had been told there. If the innkeeper and his niece were to be believed—and he saw no reason why they should not be—Estel had not reported to either of them that he had been stolen. He had not even given them his own name. Both had referred to him as Nate. No, he had only requested assistance for Ferrier, referring to the Man as ‘my da’. He had asked a message to be sent to Imladris, but again only in the service of Ferrier’s health. Even in handing his hair tie over to the girl, Kerra, he had reported nothing but what he assumed to be their final destination.
What was Estel’s purpose in this? Did he fear that he would not be believed, as indeed he had not been already? Or … or what? Was it possible he understood that it was unwise for him to be connected directly to Imladris? He knew, of course, that he was not allowed interaction with those who came to Rivendell from beyond its borders. He complained about it often enough, however, and Elrond had not considered that the boy had put any real thought into the matter, other than filing it away as yet another arbitrary parental restriction.
This, though, suggested otherwise.
That was an … interesting … thought.
Movement drew his attention back to the task at hand. Elladan had joined Elrohir on the ground, and they were consulting in low tones. Elrond kept one eye on his sons, and studied their surroundings. The track had been winding along the edge of several cleared fields—pipeweed fields, he thought—and they were on the edge of one of those now. Three farmers worked a patch of ground across the clearing, and he was unsurprised to see that two of them appeared to be Halflings. The little folk were numerous in this corner of Eriador, and it was difficult, or so he understood, to find a pipeweed venture without finding at least one Halfling alongside. Even as he watched, the farmers seemed to notice them, and after a brief consultation, the Man and one of the Halflings started in their direction.
His sons rose. “Something happened here,” Elrohir reported. “Estel ran from this point, but returned, along with another. Not Ferrier—the boots are not right, and in any case Ferrier does not appear to have left the wagon. This new Man seems also to have climbed aboard. At least, his tracks do not return to the field from here.”
Elrond nodded toward the approaching farmers. “Perhaps these will have some manner of news.”
His sons swung around to face the Bree-landers. Glorfindel remained upon his horse—an ingrained precaution, though one that Elrond thought likely unnecessary here. The Man and the Halfling puffed to a stop before them, eyes wide. Before Elrond could speak, the Halfling blurted, “Are you here after Estel, then?”
Elrond gaped for a moment, relief and surprise robbing him momentarily of speech. Could it be that their frantic search was at an end? “You have him?” he finally managed.
The Man shook his head, and Elrond’s heart sank. “Nay, but he was here.” He nodded down the far length of the field, where a house and barn were just visible. “Come up to the house, and we will tell you what we know and set you on the right path.”
Still righting his rapidly shifting equilibrium, Elrond nodded. The Elves fell in behind the Man and the Halfling as they made their way along the worn track toward the house.
“Marks Miller,” the Man introduced himself as they went, “and this is my partner in business, Arti Hilldweller.” Arti nodded up at them but remained silent, his energy bent upon keeping pace with their long strides.
“Elrond Eärendilion.” He paused briefly, and was relieved when the name brought forth only a polite nod, without recognition. Far better for these people to believe that a number of random Elves were searching for the boy, rather than the Lord of Imladris himself. “My sons, Elladan and Elrohir, and Glorfindel,” Elrond completed the introductions.
“Sons,” the Man murmured, eyes flickering between three. Ah, yes. Elrond had known enough Men over the ages to understand the difficulty and wonder of the Second-born, when faced with Elvish generations. For Men, who measured time in decades rather than ages, the concept that children, parents, and grandparents (many did not even think beyond) remained all of equal strength and vigor throughout the centuries was indeed nearly impossible to grasp. Elrond smiled gently, and Marks shook himself. “Beg pardon.” He picked up the pace again. “The lad said he was from a village near Rivendell. He said his brothers were trackers and would be searching for him, but I suppose his folks appealed to you as well?”
The words set off a flurry of glances among the Elves, which Marks was fortunately too far ahead and Arti too far behind to see. Elrond turned his gaze from an unreadable communication between his sons to lift an eyebrow at Glorfindel. Though these people had been given his correct name, it seemed that Estel was indeed purposely hiding his ties to Imladris—or softening them, at least. He was as disturbed as he was relieved. It was well that the tale of a child of Men living in Imladris was not being spread throughout Eriador, but this also meant that Estel understood a larger purpose behind Elrond’s admonishments to remain away from outsiders in Rivendell.
What did Estel believe that purpose to be?
Now was not the time, of course, and Elrond turned his mind firmly away from this new problem. Still, it would need to somehow be addressed after their return to Imladris. He had always known that Estel would begin to wonder as he grew older—the child was intelligent and curious, and would eventually demand explanations beyond ‘it is for your safety’. He hadn’t, however, expected it so soon.
Faced with this evidence, Elrond recognized his miscalculation for what it was. The boy was highly trained and educated, and had no companions other than adults. Estel was mature beyond his years, if Elrond’s memory of other fosterlings of Isildur’s line served him. Their secret would need to be handled with greater care as he progressed in age and wisdom.
For now, Elrond would merely be glad for a simple explanation in this situation.
“His mother was understandably distraught,” he hedged, and Marks nodded. “We set out in pursuit as soon as was possible.” As soon as they had realized that his son had not even been within Imladris for days. Even now, it stung.
The farmer nodded again, then drew up. They were near the house now, and the Man held up a hand to halt their progress, turning uneasy eyes to Elrond. Elrond straightened, disquieted by the sudden alteration in the Marks’s behavior. The knot of his sons and Glorfindel tightened around him, and a humorless smile touched the Man’s lips in response. The Halfling, Arti, joined them, and after a quick glance settled beside his business partner. Marks began to fold his arms, then caught himself and dropped them back to his sides. He took a long, nervous breath.
“I understand that Estel’s people will want some say in Jerold Ferrier’s fate. It’s only right, considering, but if I may, I’d like to ask you to hear us out before you try to take him—not least because he’s still very ill and in no condition to be moved, much less traveling any distance.”
Elrond blinked, startled. As one, his sons swept forward. “Ferrier is here?” Both Man and Hobbit nodded, easing back from the sudden brittle intensity. Seeing the farmers’ trepidation, Elrond took an iron hold on his own swirling wrath and called his sons back.
They turned on him, protest surging as a flame in their eyes. Still, his sons’ own long years had served them well. After a brief instant, they nodded and drifted back to him. Glorfindel touched Elrohir’s shoulder as the twins returned, and Elrond brushed Elladan’s arm, half support and half warning. He looked back to Marks and nodded curtly.
“It will be as you request.”
Marks and Arti exchanged a clearly relieved glance, then started again for the house. As they approached the porch, a Woman appeared from around the far side, drying her hands on her apron.
“Marks!” She altered her course toward them. “I’m just finished with the sandwiches, I’ll be bringing them out as soon as I—” Her words fell away as she caught sight of the Elves, and she looked quickly to her husband. “Ah.”
The Man put a steadying arm around his wife, kissing her cheek. “Luanna, these are Elves from Rivendell, come in search of the lad.” He looked back to the Elves, gesturing to the woman at his side. “My Lords, this is my lovely wife, Luanna.”
Luanna spared her husband an eye roll and a shake of the head as she stepped forward to greet them. “My Lords, welcome to our home.” She was visibly flustered, yet her hospitality remained unimpaired. She gestured toward the house. “We have more than enough to share. Will you eat our midday meal with us while we tell you what’s happened here these past days?”
Elrond inclined his head. “We thank you, mistress. We have not yet taken our own repast.” This might add time they did not wish to spare, true, but he did not wish to either frighten these people or to leave an ungracious memory of the Elves of Imladris. In any event, it would not do to prevent hungry people from their own meal for what may yet be a lengthy conversation. The Elves spoke briefly to their horses, then followed their hosts inside.
The home was small, but tightly built and scrubbed clean. At the edge of his senses, Elrond smelled the distinct odors of blood and antiseptic as he entered. These reminded him of who else awaited them within, and he forced himself to focus firmly on their hosts. His attention could not be allowed to wander from such news as these people had of his son.
Jerold Ferrier was, after all, secondary to their purposes.
As his gaze rested on the table, he discovered two small children watching them with wide eyes and open mouths. Without thought, his lips curled into a smile, and he offered a shallow bow. “Greetings, little ones. I am Elrond. And who might you be?”
Luanna cast him a glance, her face softening. She crossed to an expanse of smooth wooden counter and began to put together more sandwiches. After looking toward their father, who nodded, the boy replied, “I’m Sander, and this is my sister Cora.”
Elrond motioned to his companions. “These are my sons Elladan and Elrohir, and my friend Glorfindel.”
Their eyes remained wide. “You’re Elves,” Sander stated bluntly. Arti choked on the dipperful of water he had drawn from a pitcher against one wall, but Glorfindel grinned and moved to take a chair. As always, his joy lit the room.
“Indeed we are, and most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Arti finished his drink, and Marks and Luanna visibly relaxed. The others seated themselves as Luanna began to transfer food to the table. Marks turned to his children. “These Elves have come searching for Estel. You remember that he told us he lives near the Elves in Rivendell? His ma and da asked if they would come looking for him.”
“Nate told us stories!” the little girl crowed.
“His name is Estel,” her brother corrected, then looked back to their guests. “He told us about Beren and Lúthien.”
“And a prince who turned into a frog!” Cora piped up, not to be outdone. She giggled, and Luanna shook her head.
“Enough, children.” She looked to Elrond. “They only spent a few hours with the lad, but he was kind enough to entertain them while we worked with …” Luanna hesitated, as if suddenly realizing what she was about to say, then pressed on. “With Master Ferrier. As you see, they were much taken with him.” Elrond smiled at the image, accepting two thick slices of bread with roasted chicken between, and fried potatoes alongside. Estel had no chance to interact with other children in Imladris—something both Elrond and Gilraen routinely regretted—but he was indeed a kind boy, and Elrond had no doubt that he would be good with younger children if given the chance. The stories mentioned were certainly ones that Estel would have chosen. They had long been favorites. Luanna finished setting out the food and looked over the table. For the first time since they had entered, she hesitated. “I know it’s likely not what you’re used to, but it’s—”
“I’m certain we will be more than satisfied,” Elladan cut her off gently.
“Indeed,” Elrohir added, “it smells quite appetizing.”
She turned pink and nodded, then joined them at the table. Elrond favored his sons with an approving glance—he knew that both were still seething, and appreciated this effort—and for a few minutes no one spoke as they turned their attention to the meal. Finally, Luanna looked to her children, who had fallen to playing in the last of their potatoes.
“Sander, wash your sister up, then stay outside and play. Don’t go beyond the barn.” Both children seemed ready to protest, but a stern glance stilled them, and after a long moment’s glare, Sander grabbed Cora by the sleeve and hauled her toward the outer door. Elrond watched, lips twitching, as the little girl dragged her feet and whined. When the door closed behind them, Luanna sighed.
“I am sorry for that. They do dislike missing anything new.”
“You have no need.” Elrond turned a raised eyebrow upon Elladan and Elrohir. “They are not unlike my own sons, when small.”
Both of his grown sons rolled their eyes, and Luanna chuckled softly. “I do suppose all children have some similarities.”
“I assure you, mistress, they do.” Elrond smiled, then drew in a long breath. Around him, the levity drained from the room. He glanced at his companions, then back at their hosts. “Now then. What can you tell us of Estel? You say he is no longer here, but that Ferrier remains. How is this?”
The Elves listened then as the three detailed the events of Estel’s arrival—Ferrier’s collapse, the healer’s arrival, and their growing suspicions regarding the relationship between Estel and the Man.
“He wasn’t …” Luanna groped for some explanation, then sighed. “Despite that Estel called Master Ferrier ‘da’, the lad had no connection with him at all. It was very clear. Given also that they looked nothing alike, we decided that it would be well to be certain.”
Elrond nodded slowly. “I thank you. It is not everyone who would presume to question such a situation.”
“You are right, of course. As we discussed among us that night, though, we would hope that someone would ask if it were our children taken and alone, my Lord.”
“Indeed.” Elrond closed his eyes briefly, thanking the Valar for brave, perceptive people. Then, he nodded to Luanna, obviously the spokesperson for the three. “Please continue.”
She did so, detailing how Estel had confided in Arti—being careful, Elrond noted again, to paint no direct relationship between himself and Imladris—and how that same night, the others had aided the Halfling healer in removing Ferrier’s infected arm. The news cut him deeply, and he sat back, covering his face with one hand while he pondered this development.
It seemed that his decision to allow Ferrier to leave Imladris had gone wrong on any number of levels. It had been made after much deliberation, and with hopes for the Man’s best interests, yet in hindsight it had been the catalyst for much pain and suffering.
Well. He could not have known, and it would do no one any good to dwell on it now. No one, not even the Valar, could always make the correct decisions. Glorfindel touched his arm gently, and Elrond remembered where he was and who he was with. He removed his hand, sitting up quickly.
“My apologies,” he offered to the three watching him from across the table. He hesitated, but decided that no explanation was needed—fabricated or otherwise. “Please continue.”
They were clearly perplexed, but moved along with their tale.
“We had no idea his family would have come to you for aid, of course, and no real hope that his brothers, trackers though they may be, could find him across so many miles,” Marks finally brought the recitation to a close. “We thought it best to see what could be done about finding someone willing to take him home. Our healer’s husband has a cousin with an inn in Staddle, and agreed to take Estel there to ask after options.”
Elrond exchanged a glance with Glorfindel and his sons, chest tightening. If a person had been found in Staddle who had agreed to do this thing, as unlikely as it seemed given the reports of the Dúnedain regarding this area, they might yet be tracking for some time—and that was leaving aside the question of whether such a volunteer would be someone with his son’s best interests at heart. Elrond swallowed the impatience and paranoia. Halflings were careful of their children, or so he had always understood. Surely they would not send Estel off in the hands of someone less than trustworthy.
They nodded. Arti’s shrug was pained. “We’re that sorry, but we didn’t know how likely it were that anyone would really be coming for him all this way, and thought as this was best.”
“Cres—Creston Sandheaver, who took him—said his cousin had some ideas, but that it would be a few days before they could speak to the Man in question,” Marks added. “Cres couldn’t stay, but his cousin Darlo agreed to keep the boy and see that he got set off in the right direction.”
They seemed to think nothing of shuffling a distressed child from one person to the next. Still, Elrond reminded himself, it was more than many might have done, and it wasn’t as if this Halfling had left Estel with someone unknown to him. Family bonds among the Halflings were strong. Elrond took a long, deep breath, then nodded.
“Very well, then, and we thank you. It seems that Staddle will be our next destination.” And perhaps they would make better time, there being no reason to track this leg of the journey. The Halfling, Sandheaver, had verified that Estel had made it to the town, at least. He sighed then, leaning back into the solid wooden slats of his chair. “And now, it seems, to Ferrier. You removed his arm, you say. Did this arrest the infection? How does he now fare?” As he spoke, Elrond opened himself to the faint odors that he was certain their hosts could not detect, testing to see if he could learn anything of the Man’s condition by scent alone.
All three tensed, exchanging wary glances. Finally, Luanna spoke.
“My Lords, I understand that Estel’s family has every reason to demand justice. It is a terrible crime to steal a child. But …” she glanced to her husband, and Marks nodded, reassuring. Luanna caught Elrond’s eyes with her own, gaze firm. “I beg you to consider his condition. He has been so very ill. You may remember that Estel himself told us Master Ferrier believed him to be his lost son. He did not know what he was about. He did not hurt the boy, other than to frighten him. Surely … surely retribution would serve no purpose here.”
Around him, the twins and Glorfindel were still as stone. For himself, Elrond understood and agreed with everything that the Woman said.
And yet, this was his son …
“Ferrier drugged the boy.”
Glorfindel shot him a glance from beneath lowered lids. Luanna drew in a breath and sat back. Her eyes darted briefly again to her husband, then Arti, and she nodded slowly, biting her lip.
“To take him from home, I suppose? To keep him quiet during travel?”
Elrond merely nodded. There was little purpose in adding details. To his surprise, it was Marks who leaned forward, speaking earnestly.
“Estel is well, though, or he was when he left us.” The farmer motioned then to his wife and his business partner. “We understand that what Ferrier did was wrong, make no mistake about that. But, all three of us also know what it is to lose everything. There’s no describing the toll it takes. It’s … unimaginable, and if this is where his mind took him …” Marks shook his head. “Forgive us for asking this, my Lords … but please. If you think that his folks would be in any way understanding, please consider leaving him here with us.”
The Man was not eloquent, but his plea was heartfelt. For himself, Elrond was beset with a flood of images—Celebrían, Gil-Galad, Elros, his parents. Each of them had been like a dagger to the heart, and yet he had not been alone. Had he been ….
Had he been, he knew not what he might have done.
Elrond released a long breath and closed his eyes. “Yes. I believe his parents would be amenable.” He had not yet forgiven, and his anger remained, but surely this was right. And Gilraen … even if Gilraen could not make such a decision, she would wish to.
Yes, this was right.
Abrupt stirring sounded from all sides, yet he did not look to either his sons or Glorfindel. This was his choice to make. He opened his eyes, returning his stare to their hosts. Luanna’s eyes glistened, and Arti’s. Marks clutched his wife’s hand. “Thank you, my Lord.”
The decision was made and past, but he could not discuss it further, even to acknowledge thanks. Elrond returned to his original question. “How does Master Ferrier now fare?”
Luanna sighed and stood. “He has been better, and he woke for a while yesterday, but his fever is up again today and his sleep deeper. I fear another infection. I have been considering calling for the healer—I think she will need to see him again.”
Elrond stood as well. “I am a healer. I will see him, if you wish.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “I would much appreciate it. Sometimes it takes a while to track Camellias down.” Luanna motioned toward one of the doors at the back. “Go in, if you please, and I’ll follow. I need to bring fresh water and bandages.”
He took a breath and then, still without looking toward his companions, made his way to the sickroom. Behind him, Glorfindel’s measured tread followed. Elrond paused before the door, one hand upon it, smelling more strongly now what lay beyond. Without giving himself any more time, he pushed the door open and entered.
The scents of blood and antiseptic were overpowering within, and too the underlying thread of infection. Luanna was correct, then—some infection yet remained. Elrond turned toward the bed, and caught his first glimpse of Ferrier, lying still and pale, a bandaged stump where his arm had been. He was utterly unprepared for the wave of sheer, breathtaking fury that washed over him.
This Man had stolen his son.
This Man had drugged and frightened a child, and taken him far from his home.
This Man had ignored his healing advice, to the severe detriment of himself and others.
This Man might have destroyed everything—might have left the Dúnedain leaderless, the line of Isildur bereft, and the great Enemy unopposed by the single remaining Hope of Men—and it would not have mattered, when Sauron reigned over Middle Earth, that he was ill and knew not what he did.
He felt Glorfindel’s hand squeeze firmly upon his shoulder. Elrond was still shivering with reaction when Luanna bustled past him, arms full with pitcher, basin, and bandages.
“Estel really is such a good, sweet boy. He was so worried for Master Ferrier, so upset when he heard that we had to remove the arm. He just kept insisting that Ferrier was sick, not bad.”
Elrond drew a shuddering breath, and spoke tightly. “Forgive me, mistress. I will return shortly.” He spun on his heel and marched blindly through the outer room and outer door, into the yard. He was aware, on some level, of his sons beginning to rise and Glorfindel motioning them back down again, but could spare no thought for what his abrupt departure must have looked like. He strode across the yard and finally stopped at its edge, staring without sight into the encroaching woodlands. A strong shoulder that he recognized as Glorfindel’s came to rest against his, and for a long moment they simply stood in silence.
Finally, when he trusted his voice, he murmured, “My son puts me to shame.”
Glorfindel snorted softly. “Your son learned compassion from you.” Another moment passed, then his friend added, “You made the right decision. Still, it is far easier to forgive the one who harms us than the one who harms those we love. You know this.”
“I do.” Elrond took another long, deep breath. “I did not expect …”
“You cannot predict everything. Not even your own reactions.”
“Indeed.” How often over the past weeks had he reminded himself of that very thing? He stood silently for a while longer, soaking in the comfort and support radiating from Glorfindel, then sighed. “Very well. That infection will not, I think, heal itself.”
“Are you certain you are ready?”
Elrond offered a brittle smile. “I am.”
Together, they made their way back into the house and to his waiting patient.
“What are those?”
As the afternoon wore on, the open country which had been so disconcerting while traveling alone with Ferrier began to seem less so, safely surrounded by his family and the two Rangers.
“Those?” At his elbow, Dorhaur chuckled. “Those are called prairie dogs.”
Ever had Estel been curious, and surrounded by the untamed tangles of a wild new land, he found himself suddenly beset by dozens of questions. His companions were hard-pressed to keep up, though they made a game attempt.
“Why dogs? They look more like … like squirrels.”
His brothers and Dorhaur were free with their lessons, drawing his attention to various species of grasses and shrubbery not to be found within Imladris, describing tracking methods specific to areas of open plains, even once pointing out a warg print—days old, Elrohir first confirmed—and drilling the boy on the differences between it and that of a common wolf.
“How am I to know? I was not present when they were named, I assure you.”
For reasons unknown, Estel had expected the wilds to be barren—as devoid of color and life as they were of settlements and people. This was far from so. Patches of flowering grass stretched for great distances, staining the hills yellow and purple. Copses of trees and fruit-bearing bushes held birds and rabbits. Hawks stooped, grasses rustled as small creatures raced for safety, tracks of bear and elk wandered regularly across their path.
“They’re funny. Why do they stand up like that?”
Eventually, however, questions faded as the true vastness of the surrounding lands and the sky above wrapped itself around him, impressing deeply upon his mind and soul. The miles fell away beneath Hethu’s hooves, bracing wind whipped at his clothes and hair, scents of clover and skunk and dusty grass swirled over all. Despite the wind and the rustling grasses and the scurrying animal life, the wilds were still in a way Estel had rarely known in Rivendell’s forests—something about the immense open space seemed to soak up sound and movement, settling silence upon them like a warm, heavy cloak.
“They guard against predators and other danger. If threatened, that one will warn the others. The entire colony may then flee underground to safety.”
“So, they stand watch—like us.”
He felt small here—a speck against the tremendous reaches of Middle Earth—but not frightened. No, instead he felt … free, stirred by the brisk wind and a strange sense of … rightness. (Was rightness a word?) Somehow, in some way he couldn’t understand, he was connected to this grass and this sky and this sun. Estel took a long breath and wondered suddenly what it would be like to explore all he wanted here, to wander alone with only himself to depend upon and this land as a guide.
“Estel! Pay attention, else Hethu walks directly into one of their holes.”
“Baradhald or Dorhaur, know you how far these colonies extend?”
“The active areas vary from year to year, but old colony sites extend far in every direction through this area. We should slow, for the horses’ protection and ours.”
“Very well. We will continue until dusk, then stop. There is no call to risk a broken leg or neck traveling through such a warren in the dark.”
Maybe one day he would know. The thought sent Estel’s blood racing, and he hoped that it might be so.
“Glorfindel, take Elladan and scout the area.”
Beside Dorhaur, who had pulled his mount’s bridle and was in the process of unsaddling the gelding for the night, Elrohir paused in untangling his horse’s mane. The Elf glanced quickly around, then leaned closer. “I will wager my remaining maple candy that your captain suggests it should be he who does the scouting.”
As tempting as the offer sounded—the Lady Gilraen’s maple candy was indeed, Dorhaur had discovered, the best he had ever tasted—he knew better.
“My man and I will scout the area.” Baradhald’s voice carried across their chosen campsite. “I am certain you all have experience in the wilds, but we Rangers are more recently familiar with them.”
“No bet,” Dorhaur breathed, as Elrohir stifled a snort and turned back to his horse. Dorhaur shook his head and leaned it briefly against his mount’s shoulder before resettling saddle on blanket and reaching under to recapture the girth. He had, it seemed, moved too quickly. The gelding gave him a reproachful look, but he only patted its neck and tightened the buckle.
Lord Elrond’s voice was mild. “If you wish to accompany Glorfindel, I’m certain that Elladan will be more than happy to remain. However, we have been riding for many hours, and Dorhaur is injured. His bandage must be checked, and his leg rested.”
“It’s only a scratch. He will be fine to ride scout for a while longer.”
He had been wrong. The man was an idiot. Dorhaur shook his head, confident that his horse’s bulk hid the motion from Baradhald’s view. Maybe he hadn’t spent enough time previously with his captain to recognize it, or maybe their Elven companions brought out the worst in the man. Maybe he simply hadn’t been able to believe that Dúnedain leadership would truly appoint someone like Baradhald to a position of authority over other Rangers.
On the other hand, for all Baradhald’s brash tactlessness and lack of social graces, he was related to the Chieftain—and that counted. As much as Dorhaur would have preferred to believe such things didn’t exist among the Dúnedain, he knew that he would be fooling himself. He glanced across the site toward Estel, who was gathering branches and kindling from beneath a tangle of scrubby bushes. Had their current Chieftain known, he suspected the boy was highly unlikely to approve of any familial appeal to seal a promotion for his father’s cousin.
That was some comfort, at least.
“It’s deeper than a scratch—I cleaned it myself.” Elladan’s tone was sharp. “He’ll take no lasting harm, but after a day like today it will certainly hurt.”
And it had, several hours back. By this point, his entire thigh had gone numb. Though he might consider that somewhat preferable, Dorhaur suspected that his healer would not necessarily find it so.
“Very well.” Baradhald remounted, straightening in the saddle. “As you say, then.” He looked toward Glorfindel, who remained yet upon his own mount. “Come. I will take point.” He wheeled his horse and trotted out of camp.
Glorfindel followed with a twitch of his reins, turning raised eyebrows in an entirely too bland expression toward the Lord of Imladris as they went. Dorhaur pressed his head against the leather of his saddle and muttered, “Why is he like this?”
He hadn’t intended the comment to be overheard, but Elrohir snorted a laugh. “Do not ask that question in front of Elladan, lest you find yourself subjected to a well-practiced diatribe on that very topic for the next several hours. He can be quite eloquent regarding your captain, given opportunity and a listening ear.”
Dorhaur winced, turning his head to peer at the son of Elrond. “I offer my deepest apologies for my superior’s behavior, my Lord. I know it is not my place, yet—”
“You have no need.” Elrohir held up a staying hand. “We have known him for more years than you, and he has always been thus.” He shrugged. “He is a self-important braggart, with less reason to be so than many I have known, but we are not often forced to bear his company. We will survive.” The Elf moved closer, shooing Dorhaur away from the horse. “Go. I will care for your mount. Sit and allow my brother to see to your leg.”
He hesitated, but Elladan appeared at that moment, shaking his head. His expression was darker than that of his twin’s. “Does the man even know your name?” he grumbled, running a hand down the gelding’s neck and then moving to scratch between the dark ears. The horse flicked an ear and sighed contentedly. Dorhaur sighed as well, much less content than his mount.
He didn’t know why this habit of Baradhald’s should bother him—it wasn’t as if he saw his Captain often, and he knew well by this point that the man’s respect mattered little to him—but it did. It was, in fact … strangely disheartening. Dorhaur snorted. Well. He was not often forced to bear Baradhald’s company either. He, too, would survive. He shifted without thought, and his leg nearly gave way beneath him. Elladan swooped in to steady him, and guided him across to the fire that Estel was feeding with a small pile of kindling.
“Sit. I’ll get my pack.”
Dorhaur settled, stretching out his leg with a groan of pure relief. It was good to be on the ground for the night. Estel finished with the kindling and went to crouch near Elrond, who was laying out stores from one of the packs.
“Did you meet Darlo Sandheaver too, Ada?”
Elrond nodded. “Briefly.”
Estel bounced slightly, the twitchy energy a welcome reminder of the child he still was despite the somber maturity that Dorhaur had seen from him. “Well?”
An amused smile played across the Elf lord’s lips. “We were not long in Staddle, my son. There is not much for you to hear.”
“Then you can tell it while you prepare dinner, yes?”
Elrond chuckled outright, and Dorhaur heard as much relief and deep affection in the sound as amusement. It was obvious that his young Chieftain was well loved by these Elves out of legend. “Very well, then.” Estel settled happily. Elrond, too, folded to the ground with a pliant grace as he continued to delve through the pack. “We reached Staddle in short order from the farm, of course. There was little point in delaying once I had had seen to Master Ferrier’s well-being …”
It had been many centuries since he had seen so many Halflings in one place, and Elrond suspected that he was staring as openly as some of the townsfolk as they rode through Staddle. The little folk were rare, however, and rarer still was this minute corner of Middle Earth where Halflings and Men lived and worked in harmony. They made their way through the streets toward the hill at the western edge of town, for Arti had informed them that Darlo Sandheaver’s inn lay near to that area. Elrond marveled as they approached at the profusion of paths and colorful round doors cut into the earth itself, pondering anew Eru Ilúvatar’s wondrous designs in the creation of his Children. Though Halflings were of the Second-born, yet their ways were different from those of Men, and they offered variety and a set of gifts to Arda which were entirely their own.
The Dusty Mathom was easily found, and barely had they trotted into its yard when the door opened and a stout Halfling emerged. He stood gaping as they came to a halt, but even as Elrond moved to dismount he shook his head.
“Nay, if you’re after Estel, you’ll not be finding him here.” Elrond froze in mid-dismount, and the Halfling motioned to the building behind him. “You’re more than welcome to come in for a drink and a bite, of course, but the lad’s long gone.” Darlo Sandheaver—for Elrond suspected rightly that this was the inn’s owner and proprietor—shook his head. “If I’d known you were so close after him, I’d have fought harder to keep him here, that’s certain.”
Hiding a scowl of frustration, Elrond settled onto the ground and offered a shallow bow toward Master Sandheaver. “You found someone so quickly to escort him so far east?” He had hoped, given what he knew of the Bree-lands and its people, that Estel may still be here in this Halfling’s inn, attempting to find someone to take him back toward Imladris. It was, apparently, not to be. Uneasily, he wondered why Sandheaver might have felt the need to ‘fight’ to keep Estel in Staddle, and the Halfling’s scowl did nothing to reassure him. Sandheaver’s next words eased that worry, but added another.
“Aye, assuming he’s to be trusted. He went off with one of them Rangers.” Mistaking Elrond’s surprise, he held up both hands, hurrying on. “I tried to talk him out of it, that Ranger’s never been any trouble but you never know with drifters and the like, do you? Still, Estel wouldn’t change his mind, and they’ve been gone since yesterday morning.”
They were getting close. Elrond’s spirits rose slightly, even as he pondered this news. A Ranger added … unexpected complexity to an already tense situation. He made no attempt to correct Sandheaver’s misapprehensions involving the Rangers—it was an image the Dúnedain cultivated, much as at times they wearied of its effects—but wondered if the Halfling could tell him more.
“Can you tell me this Ranger’s name?”
“Name?” Sandheaver’s brow furrowed, and he thought for a moment before shaking his head. “He might of said it, but it didn’t stick. We around here have always called him Scowler,” he added, somewhat shamefaced, “on account of how sour he always looks.”
Well. That meant nothing, really. Elrond himself would likely be sour if he was forced to spend much time in a town of people who called him ‘Scowler’. In any event, this unknown Ranger’s mien, too, may have been as much image as reality.
“In which direction did they go?”
Sandheaver motioned vaguely back the way they had come. “Off to the west. Don’t know what the plan was after they left town—that Ranger just kept saying he was better suited to get the boy home than any of our lads, and that he’d take care of it.”
Likely, that assertion was accurate. It was not likely, however, that a solitary Ranger would simply take Estel in a straight line between Staddle and Imladris—or, wherever the boy had decided to claim as his home nearby. They would require supplies, and surely the Man could not simply disappear into the wilds without informing someone of his whereabouts and mission. He would need to report to a superior or partner before beginning the journey. And with Estel along …
Elrond nodded briefly to Sandheaver and swung back into his saddle. Elladan and Elrohir were already on their way back through the town, probably intending to get a start in locating the new trail. Tracking a Ranger and Estel through uncultivated land was an entirely different prospect than tracking an ill Man in a wagon or a Hobbit on a walking trip. Already Elrond chafed at the perceived delay, but he put that aside as best he could. There was no reason to beg trouble before it happened. Rangers were skilled, but Estel was still learning and his sons were more experienced than either. There was no reason to suspect that the trail would be hidden from them for long.
He politely refused Sandheaver’s second offer of food and drink, thanked the Halfling for both the information and for caring for Estel during the boy’s time in Staddle, and then returned with Glorfindel onto the town’s main thoroughfare. His sons had disappeared, but they would not be difficult to locate. Elrond sighed as they cantered out, annoyed beyond reason at this new twist. He should be proud that Estel was proving himself so resourceful—and he was—but at the moment, he was more concerned about his son in the hands of Rangers. The boy would be well looked after, no doubt, and the Dúnedain were more than equipped to bring him safely across the northern wilds, but the secret of Estel’s existence was not widely known and the Rangers were, as a whole, intelligent Men. Elrond prayed they were able to find his son before it became obvious to Scowler—whoever the Man might truly be—that Estel was more than simply a lost child.
Estel gaped. “That’s it?”
Disappointment edged his voice, but Elrond’s grin widened. “I told you that we were not there long.”
The boy sat still for a moment, then huffed softly. “I guess not.”
Elrond raised one eyebrow as he stood, collecting the cold supper he had prepared for all. “You expected more?”
Estel shrugged. “No, not really.”
It was an … odd reaction, as the boy had been unrelentingly cheerful throughout the day. Elrond sent a vaguely puzzled frown over his shoulder at Estel as he rounded the fire. Dorhaur, accepting his meal from the Elf lord, noted that the boy had again taken out the orange marble and was rubbing it absently, rolling it back and forth between his palm and his knee. Ah. Marbles was a common enough game in Staddle, and he wondered …
“What did you do there, other than play errand-boy to a Hobbit?”
Estel grinned, straightening, and Dorhaur knew he’d caught the right of it. In this instance, Estel was truly more interested in talking than in listening. He had likely, in fact, been waiting for an opportune time within Elrond’s tale of Staddle to begin his own. Elladan, who had returned to sit beside him after putting the healing supplies away and cleansing his hands, paused between bites of bread and snorted softly. “Now you have done it.”
Dorhaur shrugged. “Boys his age like to talk.”
Estel began a rambling tale about a free morning and group of Hobbit lads and children of Men who had taught him to play a new game, brandishing the marble as evidence.
“Don’t we know it.”
The grumbling was affectionate, though, and Elladan listened to the lad’s story as intently as his father, who had returned to his seat beside Estel.
“You draw a circle in the dirt, and put the other marbles inside …”
As the long-winded explanation of the game progressed, broken by regular side discussions regarding the other children who had played along with him, a pensive expression stole across Lord Elrond’s face—subtle, but undeniably present. It was fond and regretful at once, and Dorhaur wondered at it, until the next time Estel laughed about the rough joking between the other boys.
“All the others kept telling Nob he would never be any good, but they weren’t really saying it to be mean, and he didn’t care, anyway. He just laughed too.”
Elrond uttered a tiny hint of a sigh, unnoticed by Estel. “Yes, that is often the way of boys. Your brothers were much the same when they were young.”
Dorhaur surveyed the two across the fire from him, Elf lord and child of Men, and realized suddenly—truly, though he had known the fact before—that Estel had no friends his own age, and would not as long as he remained hidden away in Rivendell. It stole his breath away, to think of what the boy was missing. Estel surely had friends among the Elves, of course, and the Lords Elladan and Elrohir functioned as his brothers. No matter how the Elves teased, though, no matter how they played and laughed and spent time with the boy, it could not be the same between adult and child as it was among children of similar age. Dorhaur thought of his own sons. They lived on a rural farm and did not see others daily or even weekly, but they visited with cousins and friends for holidays and harvest and birthdays. They knew the joys and anger and anguish of friendly and not-so-friendly competition, of jokes meant only for young ears, of fighting and laughing, of getting each other into and out of trouble all far from the overseeing eye of any adult who ‘knew better.’
What would it be to grow up utterly devoid of such things? He would not wish it for his own sons, nor for any other child, in hiding or no. The Elves of Rivendell loved his young Chieftain, that much was certain, and Dorhaur was glad for it. Estel deserved such a devoted family. Still, it seemed … unfair, and Dorhaur silently cursed the evils that made such a sacrifice necessary.
He suspected, from the Lord Elrond’s expression and demeanor, that the Master of Rivendell, too, had already spent much time pondering this very thing, and regretted the fact deeply.
Well. Dorhaur finished his supper and leaned back, stretching his back and legs, feeling the warmth of the fire on one side and the crisp chill of the spring evening on the other. Estel chattered on, ignoring his waiting meal. Hoofbeats beyond their camp site announced the return of Glorfindel and Captain Baradhald. There was nothing for it, truly, and very little other option. The Enemy would not stop searching for the Heir of Isildur simply because he was only a child. Dorhaur watched as Estel sprang up and bounded over to Glorfindel, starting over his tale.
If nothing else, what should have been a routine patrol over the course of a few weeks had instead given him a new perspective on many things, and much on which to think.
He hurt. His arms hurt and his legs hurt and his back hurt and his backside hurt. They had been riding forever, and they weren’t getting anywhere, and they would never get where they were going.
“How far yet?”
The land stretched flat and featureless all the way to the horizon. Every now and again, a gust of wind from the southwest would carry with it the heavy, rotten scent of the Midgewater Marshes. He hadn’t even seen a stray prairie dog for hours … although, why a prairie dog would even want to live on this boring, stinking plain was beyond Estel. Even the line of the Weather Hills, a solid bulk off to the east, did little to break up the monotony.
“Half of an hour less than the last time you asked.”
They would never get there.
He had never realized that you could get so sore just riding a horse. Estel rode often, and he was a good rider, but he had never done nothing but ride for two days straight. How could his brothers and Glorfindel stand to do this for days on end? He supposed they just got used to it, eventually, but it seemed as though you had to go through a lot of pain to get there. Maybe he would just walk everywhere when he was grown.
At least his father seemed to be quite as uncomfortable as he was.
He should feel bad for thinking that, but he really didn’t. He would hate to be the only one who needed a break more often than the others.
Of course, if neither one of them needed more frequent breaks, they might get there faster. But, there was no use thinking about that, because it wasn’t going to happen.
They were never going to get there.
Estel fixed his eyes on Hethu’s shoulders, watching the muscles bunch rhythmically beneath the glossy coat. Thud of hooves, muffled by the long grasses, reached him from before and behind, and it was close work to pick his own mount’s out of the mix. Listlessly, he began to count.
He needed to get home to his mother. Gilraen probably thought something awful was happening to him.
He hoped Baradhald wouldn’t insist on coming all the way back with them. Not only did he dislike the Ranger captain, but he didn’t want the Man upsetting his mother.
He probably wouldn’t come, though. His family and Glorfindel were all annoyed with the Man—who was blind if he couldn’t see it—and probably wouldn’t let him. Maybe Dorhaur could, though. He enjoyed that Ranger’s company, and Gilraen would want to meet the Man who had saved him from the wargs.
That probably wouldn’t happen either, though. Not many Rangers came to Imladris, and he was used to seeing the same faces over and over—both those he had met, and those he just spied on. Maybe Dorhaur wasn’t one of the ones who got chosen for missions like these. He didn’t see why not, though. Maybe he could ask his father to ask whoever led the Rangers if Dorhaur could come next time they sent Men, now that he knew about Estel anyway. Elladan and Elrohir seemed to like him—maybe they could ask his father, too.
Wait. Had he messed up?
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d messed up.
Now he’d have to start over.
Estel dragged a sigh from the depths of his toes, and restarted his count.
He looked up, following Elrond’s gesture over the plain before them. In the distance, a single flat-topped hill rose before them, its surface jagged with what could only be the ruins of some high structure once built upon it. Estel looked back to his father, eyes wide.
“It is the watchtower of Amon Sûl, which Men call Weathertop.”
The northern wilds were so amazing.
Daylight was left to them when they reached the base of Amon Sûl, but as it was the likeliest campsite in the surrounding area, and as the Rangers would there be leaving their company, Elrond called the night’s halt. Estel was glad. He would be happy to be rid of Baradhald, for although the Ranger captain had barely spoken to him over the past days, the Man’s general attitude added a sour note to the excursion. He would be sad to part with Dorhaur, though. He wasn’t ready for their acquaintance to end, and resolved again to ask Elrond if anything could be done to allow Dorhaur to visit Imladris.
Also, he was desperate for a chance to explore the ruined watchtower.
Estel’s disappointment was keen when Glorfindel settled them in a flat, protected hollow against the hill’s northern base. “We’re not going to camp on top?”
Elrohir snorted a laugh, ruffling Estel’s hair. “Nay, little brother. We would be far too exposed there—any campfire, no matter how small, could be seen for many miles in any direction. It would be as a beacon to draw all comers, friendly or no.”
“If it would stay lit at all,” Elladan added. “The wind is strong upon its peak, even for such a relatively minor elevation.” He looked to Estel. “Think you it is called Amon Sûl* for naught?” To be honest, Estel had never pondered the fact. Elladan continued. “The tower ruins offer little shelter. In fact, they serve more as wind tunnel than wind block. We would need to guard the fire ceaselessly.” He glanced around their position. “Even here it is breezier than we might wish—we are exposed to the wind from both the west and the north. Still,” he added, tossing a grin into the face of Glorfindel’s mock scowl, “it is, I suppose, better than exposing our entire site to eyes from the Road or from the east.”
“You suppose correctly.” Glorfindel nodded, relieving his horse of its packs. The others followed suit, stacking the bags against the sharp rock rise at their backs.
“Can we at least go up and look?” Estel pleaded, and his father laughed aloud.
“Ai, Estel, I have indeed missed you.” Elrond dropped one arm about his shoulders and hugged him close. “Yes, of course. I would not have you stay over the night at this place without such an opportunity. It is one of the reasons I chose for us to stop.”
Estel grinned. “Thank you, Ada.”
“You are most welcome.” Elrond released him, then gestured around. “I would have you gather wood and kindling to last the night before any of that, however.” Estel sighed—he’d known his father’s easy acquiescence was too good to be true—but did not protest. In camp, everyone did their part. Elrond nodded approvingly as Estel moved off, eyeing the ground, and continued. “Glorfindel, take Baradhald and scout to the north and west—ensure we are secure.” The Ranger captain scowled at the order, but followed the Elf lord to their waiting horses without complaint. “Elladan and Elrohir, scout ahead. We will be reaching the Road in short order. I foresee no difficulties, but I would also prefer to avoid other travelers if possible. We have been too exposed upon this journey as it is. The chances of meeting others are unlikely, but if we share the Road I would like to know it.” The twins nodded and returned to their own horses, cutting south and out of sight around the hill. Elrond looked to Dorhaur, the last remaining of their party. “How is your leg?”
The Ranger nodded, flexing the injured thigh. “Much improved. It is stiff, but not nearly so painful as yesterday evening. A short walk to stretch the muscles might not go amiss.”
Elrond nodded slowly. “Perhaps. Do not overexert, but it is true that a slow, easy walk would likely be beneficial, as you say.”
“You should come with us to look at the watchtower!” Estel bounded over, carrying an armful of kindling and larger branches he had gathered from beneath several scrubby bushes dotting the campsite. He grinned up at Dorhaur even as Elrond started to shake his head.
“Estel, the path is steep. I am not certain that—”
“You could not prevent me,” Dorhaur assured him, clapping Estel’s shoulder and returning his grin. The Elf hesitated, glanced between his two beaming companions, then threw up his hands in mock surrender.
“Who am I to even try?” He lifted an eyebrow at the Ranger. “If it becomes too much …”
“It will not. I have climbed steeper with much worse injury.” Dorhaur waved a dismissive hand and offered a reassuring nod to Elrond—who did not, Estel noted briefly, seem overly reassured—then directed Estel’s attention up the hill. Not many of the ruins could be seen from the ground at such close range, but even so Estel followed Dorhaur’s gaze. “The remains of the southern wall are more intact than those of the others, and there is yet much to see, if you know where you look. You will see the open slots in the wall where defenders would have gathered to repel the enemy during battle and siege, and where the platforms would have held them aloft.”
Estel grinned at both the Ranger and his father, dropped his armful of wood with a clatter, and bolted off to find more. He wished that he had paid more attention when Erestor had spoken of Amon Sûl and its history. At the time, though, the watchtower had been just another old, dull place amongst a score of old, dull places he would never see. Now, though … Now he was here. He could see the crumbling stones, he would soon be feeling them beneath his touch. He bounced happily, snapping dead branches off the bottom of one of the low bushes. Now he would have something to tell Erestor when they got home. Even if his teacher already knew Amon Sûl’s history, the Elf hadn’t left Imladris in almost as long as his father. Estel’s description would definitely be the more current. He grinned and scampered off to the next clump of bushes, some two hundred feet away.
The pile of wood seemed excessively large by the time that Elrond declared it sufficient, but finally Estel’s father declared that they were free to climb to the tower. The three made their way around the hill’s base to a steep, winding path set into its side. The path switched back and forth up the incline, mostly worn to overgrown earth but still defined in a few places by short, crumbling stairs. Estel scrambled up at breakneck pace, barely hearing his father’s words of caution from behind as he flew over loose stones and collapsing stairs. He reached the summit well ahead of the others, and burst onto the flattened, paved surface that was the peak of Weathertop.
Even in ruin, what was left of the massive stone blocks which had once formed the walls of the ancient tower were incredible. He entered the remains between two weathered blocks set on either side of him, what must once have been the anchor stones of some great entryway. Each was nearly as tall as he was, and Estel felt suddenly small. These were not, he saw, the usual size of the tower’s building blocks—those which had formed the outside walls were somewhat smaller, though still quite large in their own right—but he saw that a matching pair flanked another entrance directly across from him. At least, one did, though the other was nothing more than a broken off base. Had the tower been standing, he thought, he would not have been able to see that entrance. Debris from several inner walls sprawled between them, some still several blocks high and some utterly razed.
He stood still, the wind billowing his shirt and blowing his hair into his face, eyes flickering from place to place as he took it all in. The south wall was indeed more intact than its fellows, rising yet some twenty feet above the pavement. Openings built into the stone at regular intervals must be the arrow slits Dorhaur had mentioned. Near the wall’s ragged top edge, the remains of a great, heavy stone stairway clung yet to the inside, held up by two layered stone supports which had somehow escaped the destruction. The stairs broke off abruptly where the western wall would have stood. Several inner arches still stood about, their more stable design serving them after the walls to which they had been attached had fallen.
The long, smooth paving stones which had formed the flooring were cracked and chipped. Not one, so far as Estel could tell, had escaped some sort of damage. Plants grew up through many of them now—grass and tall flowering weeds, scraggly bushes and even one twisted, indeterminate tree which was putting forth its spring buds. Rather than reassuring, the signs of life within this dead place were … oddly disturbing, as if their existence somehow mocked the memory of those who had built here, had fought and died here, had sought to tame this place for their own. A crumbling stillness shivered about him, and he jumped, startled, when Elrond’s hand came down upon his shoulder.
“Estel?” Elrond’s raised one brow, and he turned his own gaze toward the ruins.
Estel shrugged, embarrassed, and moved away. “A lot of people died here, didn’t they?”
Elrond and Dorhaur exchanged a glance over his head, then the Ranger drifted into the ruins, leaving Elrond to nod slowly. “Indeed. Many. This site was of great strategic importance to Elendil and his people after, not only because of its placement, but for … other reasons as well.”
“The Palantír.” This he did remember from his lessons—who could fail to be intrigued by such a source of magical communication, and over seemingly endless distances? Elrond turned a startled gaze upon him, and Estel returned it, puzzled by the reaction. “Erestor taught me.”
“Did he? Already?” Elrond voice was soft, musing, and Estel wondered why it mattered when he was taught of the Palantíri—they were mostly lost, after all, and had no bearing up him in any case. Before he could ask, however, Elrond continued, pacing slowly around the edge of the ruins. Estel followed, less wary now that his father was near. “Very well. Yes, because it held one of the Palantíri. It became, in addition, a source of much strife and contention after the kingdom of Arnor was divided.” The tenor of Elrond’s voice indicated that he considered this tale to be now at an end, but Estel tugged at his father’s sleeve, regaining his attention.
Elrond hesitated. “This you have already heard, I do know.”
“Yes, but … it’s not same. We’re here.”
“Indeed, we are.” Elrond turned his eyes away, gazing long upon the fallen evidence of ancient glory which lay around them. “It is not a tale for bedtime.”
Estel pressed briefly against his father’s arm. “Then I will sleep with you tonight.”
Elrond snorted. “So that we may both spend half the night awake?” Estel began to protest, but Elrond cut him off with a sigh. “Very well. But only a piece of it.” The Elf nodded as Dorhaur fell in beside them, gathering his thoughts. “After the death of Eärendur, the kingdom of Arnor was divided among his sons. The divided kingdoms fell quickly to squabbling amongst themselves, and as Amon Sûl stood at the meeting of their borders, near constant disputes arose over its true lordship.”
Estel listened raptly, his gaze wandering the stones and the weeds and the wild land beyond as Elrond told the sad tale, Dorhaur’s low voice adding comment or substance on occasion. The shifting alliances, the battles, the fall of once proud descendants of Númenor into pettiness and chaos. Anger stirred as story unfolded, and disgust, and a bitter wish burned in the pit of his stomach that Men—his own race—were not capable of such weakness and such evil.
“King Arveleg I of Arthedain fell during the final destruction of the watchtower, at the hands of an alliance between Rhuduar and Angmar. The Palantír was saved from capture by the—”
“Angmar.” Estel’s brittle tone surprised even himself. “The Men of Rhuduar allied with Angmar.” He knew this already, but it had only been dry history until now. Surrounded by the evidence of that terrible alliance, his revulsion overtook his good sense. “I wish I really was an Elf.” He kicked savagely at an unoffending chunk of rock.
Both Elrond and Dorhaur snapped around, staring. Estel moved back, away from the shock in his father’s gaze and the hurt in Dorhaur’s, but lifted his chin.
He would not take it back.
“Why would you say such a thing?” Elrond’s voice was deceptively calm, a tone which Estel had learned throughout his life to approach with the utmost respect.
He stared, baffled. “Why wouldn’t I? Men squabble with each other and ally with evil!”
His father’s eyes narrowed. “Men are not the only race to quarrel amongst themselves, Estel. All races do so, and will until Arda ends.”
“But not all races join themselves with Angmar! Elves may fight each other, but they stood together against Morgoth and Sauron. Everyone knows that Men are weak.”
“Everyone knows this?” Dorhaur’s voice was low and tight, and Estel knew that he had deeply offended his friend. Elrond held out one hand to the Man, his eyes never leaving Estel. Dorhaur pinned the Elf with an angry, accusing gaze, but stilled.
“And who is everyone, my son?”
Estel hesitated, then looked away from his father’s piercing gaze. “Not everyone,” he admitted, realizing finally that he should have kept his mouth shut. He shuffled his feet, adding, “Not you. Or the twins, or Glorfindel or Erestor or …” Estel shook his head, looking back up. “But many do. They don’t think I hear them, but I’m a Man, not deaf.”
Elrond’s lips tightened. “I see.” He took a long breath, and let it out slowly. “I assure you, everyone will not say such things again.” Estel had seen that light in his father’s eyes, and knew that within a week of returning Elrond would likely know every Elf who had made such a statement within the bounds of Imladris, whether Estel had overheard or no.
It made no difference.
“But Ada, I—”
“Think you that Men have lost all valor?” Dorhaur stepped before him, folding his arms tightly. “Think you that all have sworn allegiance to the Witch King, or to Sauron?” He stepped closer. “Think you that I spend months away from my wife and my children, protect Men and Hobbits who would see me driven from their towns, and patrol the wilds pitting myself against Orcs and wargs without any sense of duty or loyalty or compassion?”
“No!” Tears flooded Estel’s eyes, and his gut twisted. He stepped forward. “No, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have said it!”
Dorhaur closed his eyes briefly, then nodded and scrubbed at his jaw. “Yet, you still wish it.”
Estel hesitated, then glanced toward Elrond. His father was an Elf—Peredhel, truly, but it amounted to the same—and his brothers, his teachers and his friends. Everyone he knew was an Elf, except for his mother. Imladris was his entire world.
How could he not wish it?
Still, he had never meant to say it aloud.
He nodded miserably.
Dorhaur nodded again, and let out a long, slow breath. Elrond, too, sighed, then stepped forward and took Estel’s shoulders, gently turning the boy to face him.
“Estel … I would that I had realized you felt so. I did not, and for that I must apologize.”
“No, Estel. You must listen now.” Estel nodded reluctantly, and Elrond continued. “I have not taken a child of Men as my own before. It is no excuse, yet it must serve as reason for now.” The Elf took a long breath, and his fingers tightened. “Your wishes are understandable, my son, growing up as you have among only my people. And … I admit that I have wished the same for you at times.” Dorhaur turned a raised brow on the Elf. Elrond ignored him. “In the end, however, we must accept—not only accept, but embrace—that we are each what Eru Ilúvatar made us to be. You are good and strong, full of valor and love, and created from His thought a child of Men. Do you believe Him mistaken?”
There was only one possible answer to that. “No!” Estel gasped, horrified.
“No.” Elrond nodded, approving. “Then we must learn to rejoice in what you are, not in what we might wish you were.” He drew Estel close, embracing him. “We will do this thing together, you and I.”
Estel nodded into his father’s chest, shame and love and … disappointment still swirling through him. He felt a touch on his shoulder, and turned to see Dorhaur. The Man drew him gently away from Elrond’s embrace, and caught Estel’s eyes with his own.
“You are right. Many Men are weak and have turned to evil. But not all.” Dorhaur squeezed Estel’s shoulders tightly. “Not all, and you must strive to be the best of us. You have a heart for good, young Estel, and when you enter the battle against the Enemy, as I know you will, it will be as a Man. Be a Man that others would be proud to follow. Be a Man who can draw forth the valor and the love which lies hidden in other Men.” He grinned, a crooked, encouraging smile. “Think you that perhaps you could be content as such a Man?”
Confusion remained, yet the challenge stirred Estel’s blood. He nodded slowly and returned Dorhaur’s gaze, hesitant but hopeful. “I … I think so.”
Dorhaur nodded. “Good.”
Impulsively, Estel stepped forward and embraced his friend. “I am sorry,” he whispered, and the Ranger held him close.
“Will you forgive me?” he mumbled, and Dorhaur laughed, ruffling his hair.
“Gladly, though it is hardly necessary.”
Estel grinned up at his friend, stepping away. Elrond pressed his shoulder again. “Estel, I would speak with privately with Dorhaur. Will you leave us for a time?”
Estel looked toward the Man, who seemed genuinely surprised by the request, then nodded. “I might start back down, if it’s all right.”
“Thank you, my son.”
Estel left his father and the Ranger in the ruined watchtower and started back down the tight, narrow path. His mind was in a muddle and he felt drained, all that he had seen and heard in the past hour swirling around and through him. As he rounded one of the switchbacks he saw that the others had returned to the camp and were in the process of building up the fire. A sudden desire for privacy halted him in his tracks—he was not ready to join into the conversations below, not when he had so much to work through from his conversations above. Seeing a flat area off the path some feet to his right, he left the narrow track and picked his way carefully over the slanted, rocky ground. His temporary refuge reached, he settled in happily, drawing his knees to his chest and noting that dark was finally beginning to dull the afternoon light.
How long he sat Estel couldn’t say, but the light was fast failing when he saw Baradhald make his way to the path and start up it. For several minutes Estel remained still, hoping that the Man would not notice him and simply pass him by. However, the Ranger captain glanced several times in Estel’s direction as he climbed, and Estel realized with annoyance that Baradhald had already seen him. Possibly, it was the whole reason he was coming up.
Estel wasn’t in the mood. He surveyed his options. He couldn’t go back to the path, obviously—he’d not be able to pretend he hadn’t seen the other Man from there. The hill down had several steep places that didn’t seem safe to attempt, especially in the growing darkness, but the hill back to the peak … Yes, that should be no trouble at all. Grinning, Estel ducked around a nearby rock and began to scramble silently up the slope, using rocky handholds and the small, twisted trees that grew from the side of the hill for leverage. Only a few of them began to pull out as they felt his weight, and none of those in places that would be any real danger if he did lose his balance. Below him, he saw Baradhald picking his way toward Estel’s previous spot, glancing around and below as he realized that the boy was no longer there. By the time the Man thought to look up, Estel was pulling himself over the crumbling wall base and back onto the great, flat stones which still paved the summit of Weathertop.
They both watched Estel as the boy picked his way through the ruins and disappeared over the hill’s edge onto the steep path below. It was, Dorhaur thought, a good focus to help him ignore the apprehension and the sudden awkward silence. He wondered if Lord Elrond felt the same—but surely not. The ancient half-Elven lord would not be ill at ease over impending converse with a simple Dúnedan of modest name and rank. Certainly the fair, grave countenance gave no hint of whatever thoughts or feeling might lie behind it.
For himself, Dorhaur’s own mind was in a muddle. He was uncertain how to feel about Estel’s revelations of the past minutes. The lad’s words had hurt him, admittedly, but he wasn’t certain he had any real right to be so. The comments regarding Men had not been personally meant, after all, and despite that the boy was the Dúnedain’s—his own—Chieftain, Estel was also just that. A boy. And not just any boy, but one who had been reared almost solely among Elves. It was little wonder that Estel felt as he did. Truly, it would have been something of a worry had he not, for at heart it meant that the child had been well loved for the length of his short years.
And that Estel had been hearing poor tales of Men from the Dúnedain’s closest allies.
Well. Dorhaur was certain, given Elrond’s reaction to that news, that the Lord of Imladris had no part in such slander. He was also certain that Elrond would take whatever measures were necessary to see that such gossip, if it could not be stopped entirely, was at least kept away from Estel’s ears.
It was as much as he could hope for on that front, and Dorhaur chose to be satisfied.
As for the rest … Elrond had promised to address the matter with Estel, and Dorhaur believed that he would do so. History knew Elrond of Rivendell to be honorable. How the Elf lord would manage this was a question that loomed large … but Elrond was ancient and far wiser than he. Surely Dorhaur son of Dedhalin had no call to question.
His head argued fiercely, but his heart refused to be completely convinced.
The last of Estel’s head sank from view, and Elrond looked around, and Dorhaur could no longer avoid the uncomfortable thought that the Lord of Rivendell had asked to speak with him privately. He braced himself and squared around to meet the Elf’s gaze. Elrond, however, eyed him for a brief moment then turned away, wandering slowly back into the ruins. After a confused moment, Dorhaur followed.
The silence stretched, and Dorhaur was just considering that he might be forced to break it—unappealing as that thought might be—when Elrond’s musical voice threaded into the stillness. “You have a family of your own?”
It was … not what he had expected. Dorhaur nodded. “I do. A wife and three sons.”
“Ah.” A faint smile briefly split the Elf’s face. “Tell me of them.”
He had no idea of the reason for the Elf lord’s interest, but Dorhaur was fiercely proud of his family—his strong, intelligent, laughing wife and his brave, foolish (aye, foolish), good-hearted sons. They had built a good life together, he and Haletha, and he was more than willing for Elrond to hear of it, whatever the purpose behind the Elf’s request.
“Haletha, my wife, I have known from childhood. We lived near to each other from our births—which were, indeed, not so far apart—played and fought together, and I believe that even from Estel’s age we knew that we would spend our lives at each other’s side.” Dorhaur grinned shyly, remembering those early carefree days. “It was never so much a decision for us as a simple understanding.”
He continued for more than a quarter hour in the same vein, telling of their sons, their farm, and their lives when apart—which was increasingly, as more Rangers fell against incursions of orc, warg, and other evil creatures, and patrol times were lengthened to compensate for fewer men.
“My two oldest have joined the Rangers, and are even now on patrol in the northeast reaches of our lands. They go together, which gives us a little comfort—though there is always the fear that if something happens, we may lose them both at once.” Dorhaur looked down and blew out a long breath. It was something that he and Haletha had struggled long to accept. “But my youngest is still at home—two years older than Estel, no more. He is a tremendous help to his mother during these times when I must be gone from them.”
Elrond nodded slowly, casting him a wry grin. “I, too, know both the comfort and fear that comes when one’s sons ride to battle together.”
The comment took Dorhaur off guard, and then he felt foolish (his sons came by it naturally, he would fully admit) as he thought of the twin sons of Elrond in the camp below. Still, it was … an odd thought, that he shared something with the great Elf lord so prosaic as worry over one’s children.
But of course he did.
Dorhaur shook his head over his own thoughtlessness as Elrond continued, eyes turned toward the east and his own valley. “You live on a farm, you say, rather than in a village. Were your sons able to make friends beyond each other, or were their social interactions limited to your own family?” He looked around then, fixing Dorhaur with those piercing eyes. “But you knew your wife when young, so some manner of community must be available even in your rural areas.”
Ah. He began to see the central topic of these questions. “Some Dúnedain farms are truly isolated, but in the area where we live, our farms are not so far apart. My sons had cousins nearby—both from my sisters and Haletha’s siblings—and other children as well. There are festival times, barn and house raisings, harvest. And often our wives take turns with the schooling, rather than each teaching her own in solitude.” He shrugged. “The Dúnedain lead hard lives, and except for those rare few who choose seclusion, we cannot survive alone. It is vital that our children form bonds at a young age with their peers, those who will be the ones to work and play and fight and suffer beside them.” He hesitated, then added, “Also … it is not the way of the children of Men to easily accept solitude or the company of only adults. They deeply desire the companionship of those their own age.” Dorhaur regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, feeling as though he had overstepped. He wondered if the Elf lord would think his words critical when they had been intended only as truth. Somewhat lamely, he added, “I know not how it is with Elven children.”
Elrond, however, took no offense. Instead, he sighed. “The years mean little to Elves. Once we reach maturity, our bodies no longer change. We do not die of illness or age. The ages of our friends, our spouse, our parents mean very little.” This did not surprise him—Dorhaur’s mind still reeled when looking between Elrond and his sons, knowing the vast difference in their years and yet seeing no physical trace to mark the twins as junior to their father. In fact … had he guessed, he might have chosen Elrond as the younger—before looking into his eyes for the first time, of course. After that, there could be no question. “Even when young, we have very little internal drive to differentiate. I do not say that as adults we feel no special need to protect and teach our children, or that as children we do not understand the need to learn from our elders—that is not so. However, we also feel no particular urge to spend our time with those of our own ‘age’, as it were.” The Elf lord pursed his lips, then shrugged wryly. “Such would be difficult in any event, as often hundreds of years pass between births within our realms.”
Dorhaur blinked, startled. “Truly?”
“Indeed.” It might have been regret in Elrond’s eyes, but the emotion passed too quickly for the Ranger to be certain. “Procreation is not such a drive for Elves as it is for Men, and in these days of our waning here in Middle Earth, fewer than ever choose to bring forth children.” Their waning in Middle Earth? What might that mean? Though the words were cryptic, they left Dorhaur unsettled. “Perhaps it is the uncertainty of these times, perhaps it is simply a desire to wait for Valinor. In any event, there have been no children in Imladris not only since Estel’s arrival, but for many centuries before.”
Truly, the Elves were not as Men. He had known this … and yet, it was as if he only began to understand.
“It is different for Thranduil’s people, I believe,” the Elf continued. “The Elves of Mirkwood live in far greater harmony with the rhythms of Middle Earth. Thranduil’s line hails from Doriath, and among his people also are those who chose to stay within Mirkwood—though it was not called so then—from the beginning, rather than journey toward the light of Valinor and the Two Trees. They live in great communion with the trees, and defend against the Enemy daily with their very sweat and blood. More children are born there.” He sighed, regretful. “More Elves die there.” Elrond shook himself gently. “In any event, the rest of us live within Middle Earth, and yet in many ways, outside of it still. Imladris, Lothlórien, the Havens. We … we wait, we hold ourselves apart even as we spend ourselves against the Enemy. We live here, we love our home, and yet … we have chosen not to fully commit ourselves to this place. Always, we look to Valinor.”
Silence fell, and Dorhaur waited for Elrond to return from his musings. He wasn’t certain the Elf lord was still in fact speaking to him.
“My apologies.” Elrond’s voice sharpened, and he shook his head. “I find myself … somewhat distracted by the past weeks and by Estel’s … thoughts of this evening.”
“I would be surprised if you were not, my Lord.”
The Elf’s smile flashed again, white in the darkening evening. “You are most kind.” He sat on the rubble of one of the inner walls and motioned for Dorhaur to do the same. Gingerly Dorhaur complied, feeling strangely surreal. Had someone told him a week past that he would soon be discussing his Chieftain with the Lord of Imladris on the peak of Weathertop, he would have laughed in that one’s face. Once the Ranger settled, Elrond took a long breath. “I was somewhat reluctant at the first to undertake the task of being a father to Estel—not because I doubted my ability to do so, but because I knew the pain that would come from taking a Mortal into my heart as such. The time given to Men is so short …” Bats flew overhead, tracing crooked paths through sky. Night insects buzzed around their heads and past their ears. A mouse, little more than a shadow against the stone pavement, ventured forth from beneath the fallen rock of the adjoining wall, only to dart quickly back to safety when Elrond continued. “Once made, I have never regretted that decision. Estel brings joy and light to my life, and to the lives of all who know him.” The Elf turned his gaze to the sky. “And yet, that which did not concern me at the outset …” He shook his head. “My wife and I reared three children, and I expected this to be little different. In some ways that has been true, but in some ways …” He laughed softly. “In some ways, he continually baffles me. I know not whether it is because he is Estel, or because he is a child of Men, or both, but rearing him has most certainly not been like rearing the children of my own body.”
Dorhaur laughed as well, his rough chuckle jarring against the smooth music of the Elf’s mirth. “Every one of mine baffled me.” He snorted. “Still do, in fact.”
“That is true, I suppose.” Elrond stretched, long and lean. “At least, I do remember asking my sons many times over the years what they could possibly have been thinking …” He laughed again. “The last time was only a week past, as I recall.”
“It never stops, then?”
“It does not, I assure you.”
Dorhaur hesitated, then stretched his long legs, turning his own eyes toward the glittering stars. “What will you do to help Estel … come to terms with himself?”
The Elf lord sighed. “What, indeed?” Another moment of silence passed, then Elrond admitted, “I will need some time to consider, I fear. I am not, perhaps, ideally placed to teach a child how to appreciate his place as a Man. His mortality …” One eyebrow rose. “How to help my son accept that which I refused when given the choice?”
That was not something Dorhaur had considered. In point of fact, he had always believed that story to be more legend than fact.
“The Lady Gilraen …”
“Will be my first conversation once we return to Imladris, I assure you.” Elrond stood, drifting across the ruined flooring. “I do not know if Estel has expressed such sentiments to her, but I would tend to doubt it. I suspect I would have heard such news immediately.” He folded his hands behind his back. “I know that she worries about him, alone among Elves. In fact, it was this concern that nearly turned her decision in the beginning toward remaining with your people. In the end she determined that the immediate dangers to his life were the most pressing, but I know it is a concern which distresses her still.” Elrond’s jaw clenched. “He has always been a joyful, content child, and I have thought her fears groundless until now—or at least exaggerated. I see now that I was mistaken.”
Dorhaur, too, rose. “My Lord Elrond …”
“I would … appreciate whatever thoughts you may have on this matter, both as a Man and … as one father to another.”
Lord Elrond of Rivendell, Elf of ancient lineage and renowned wisdom, was asking for … his opinion.
He had not thought that this particular adventure could get stranger.
“I would … I would be honored, my Lord.” Dorhaur drew in a long breath, gathering his tumbling thoughts and hoping desperately that they would make sense when he finally spoke. The question was so vital … He had no answers, of course—he was uncertain whether answers, per se, truly even existed for this quandary—but he had thoughts aplenty. Whether they would be helpful, he knew not, but they were worth voicing. “It seems to me, on the very surface, that—”
Elrond held up a quick hand, and Dorhaur fell silent. After a moment he heard what had drawn the Elf lord’s attention. A scraping, rustling sound drifted from over the edge of the ruins, not from the direction of the path but rather off to the side. They paced forward on silent feet and peered down the hill, over the remains of the obliterated wall. After a moment Elrond shot a raised eyebrow at Dorhaur, who merely shrugged.
He had, of course, no more explanation for this than did Estel’s father. He was, however, quite interested in hearing the boy’s excuses.
They waited silently, watching as the small figure inched his way up the last few feet and dragged himself onto the broken flagstones. Estel rolled over, panting and staring toward the sky, and only then did he realize that he had been observed. The boy’s eyes went wide, and his body still.
“Estel.” Elrond stepped closer, then folded his hands and stared down at his son. “Perhaps you would care to explain.”
He hadn’t really thought about what would happen when he reached the top.
Estel lay on his back, and stared up at Elrond and Dorhaur, and wondered how best to answer his father’s question. He had not done anything wrong—exactly—but he suspected that his father would not be entirely satisfied with that assertion. Estel had known that Elrond and Dorhaur were having a private conversation, after all, and had volunteered to go back down to camp. Climbing up the hill as he had, especially at a good distance from the path, would look very much like an attempt to eavesdrop. That hadn’t been his intent, of course, but he would need an explanation that sounded very real if he was to convince his father.
Unfortunately, the only real-sounding explanation that came immediately to mind was … the real explanation. And that didn’t seem much better. Telling Elrond now that he had climbed the side of Amon Sûl in order to avoid Baradhald would probably lead to more questions, and more explanations, and he would probably be in trouble by the end of the night anyway.
Estel sighed and rolled over to sit. Elrond cast another glance over the edge, then tugged briefly at Estel’s cloak. “Come further away from there.”
He wouldn’t fall. Still, Estel obeyed, climbing to his feet and trailing behind the others to the nearest low mound of rubble. Elrond motioned for him to take a seat, but remained standing himself.
That was never a good sign.
Estel sank down onto the tumbled wall, and played restlessly with a broken chunk of stone that he found there, and considered.
His mother had said it was better not to make things worse … but maybe telling Elrond wouldn’t actually make things worse. Could it really be so bad if his father knew that Baradhald had harassed them and had made his mother cry? The Man didn’t come to Imladris much, it was true … but maybe Elrond could fix it so that he didn’t come at all.
And anyway, it would be better to be in trouble for what he had actually done rather than for something he didn’t do.
“I am prepared to stand here all night.”
He wished that Dorhaur wasn’t here, though. It would be embarrassing to be yelled at in front of the Ranger. Estel liked him, and wanted the Man to think well of him.
Almost as if he had read Estel’s mind, Dorhaur shifted. “I suspect I am not needed here. With your leave, my Lord, I will return to the camp.”
Elrond glanced briefly toward the Ranger. “I thank you. We will speak again, I hope, before we go our separate ways.”
“I will look forward to it.” Dorhaur offered a nod toward Elrond, ruffled Estel’s hair with a crooked smile, and then disappeared silently into the darkness. Both watched him go, the silence thick between them. When he had vanished onto the path, Elrond returned his attention to Estel. Even in the dark of evening, Estel felt the weight of his father’s gaze.
“I suggest you—”
“Baradhald was coming, and I did not want to talk to him.”
Elrond was silent for the briefest of moments. Then, “Coming?”
Estel dragged a sigh from the depth of his toes, then folded his legs beneath him. He might as well be comfortable while flinging himself onto the chopping block. “I didn’t go all the way back down, I had … things … I wanted to think about.” He glanced toward his father, who only nodded in response to this deviation from the expected plan. Encouraged, Estel continued. “I found a good spot a little bit off the path and was just sitting there when I saw Baradhald coming.”
“And you assumed he wished to speak to you?” Estel shrugged, looking away. Elrond frowned. “Did it occur to you that perhaps he wished to speak to me, or to Dorhaur, or that perhaps he simply wanted to climb to the top of the hill?”
“He didn’t.” Elrond raised one eyebrow. Estel, somehow finding the orange marble in his hand, rolled it absently between his fingers. “He kept looking toward me, and when he got up to my spot he came over to it.” The little stone was polished almost as smooth as glass. One tiny crack was barely detectable beneath his nail. “I wasn’t there anymore then, but I saw him.”
Elrond’s silence was longer this time. “You were alert for this behavior.” Reluctantly, Estel again shrugged. His father’s reply took on a perceptible edge. “Has Baradhald previously sought you out for personal conversation?”
Estel blew out a long breath, then looked up and nodded.
Elrond straightened, crossing his arms tightly. His voice was clipped. “Explain.”
“He doesn’t like me living with you.” Once he had decided to speak, the words rushed out of him all at once. “At home, at Rivendell. He says it’s not right, and I should tell you I want to go and live with other Men.” Estel shook his head quickly. “But I don’t want to, I want to stay with you and Elladan and Elrohir. I don’t know why he even cares.” He balked, remembering their recent conversation. “I know I’m a Man and that I need to learn to—”
“Estel.” Elrond put up one hand, razor-sharp tone slicing through the babbling string of words. Estel blinked up at his father, tightening his grip on the marble. “When did this happen? There has been very little opportunity over the past days for—”
“Not this time.” Estel looked away again, knowing that Elrond would not like his next words. “It was … last time.”
“Both times, actually, when he visited Rivendell. I think he was following me then, because—”
“Estel.” Elrond gripped his chin, tilting Estel’s head up. Even the dim lighting could not hide the intensity in his father’s eyes, or the set of Elrond’s jaw. “Why is it that I am only now hearing of this? Why did you not speak of it at the time?”
Estel shrugged again and tried to look away, but Elrond drew his head gently back around.
“Do not. A shrug means nothing to me. In fact, I would prefer it if you never shrugged again.”
It was not the first time Estel had heard that, but now did not seem the time for the teasing response that usually followed such a statement.
“I didn’t want to make things worse.”
Said out loud, he realized immediately that it was not the right answer. It was too late, however, to take the words back.
“You know.” He almost shrugged again, but stopped himself. Elrond released him, and Estel looked away. It was easier when he didn’t have to watch his father’s face. “Everybody was grumpy almost the whole time he was there anyway, and Mother said it was better to—”
“Your mother knew about this?”
Oh no. He hadn’t meant to …
Estel shook his head. “No, I didn’t … I didn’t tell her either.”
“Because you didn’t want to make things worse.”
Somewhere, there was a trap in those words. Estel just wasn’t sure where. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“If she did not know of Baradhald’s behavior toward you, then of what was she speaking?”
“She just …”
His mother’s tears flashed in his memory, and anger finally lowered Estel’s guard. “He came to our rooms. He said he just wanted to talk, but they had a fight and she cried when he left. Baradhald said a lot of things to her, he said that Mother was irresponsible and selfish, and that she—”
“And you witnessed this?”
“I was in bed. I came out when he started yelling, I wanted to help her, but she sent me back.” Estel flung away a chunk of broken rock that lay on the wall beside him. “I said we should tell you, but Mother said that he wasn’t there very often and that that there was no reason to make things worse.”
A long silence followed his pronouncement. When Elrond finally spoke, his voice was utterly unreadable. The darkness and shadows hid his father’s expression.
“And you decided, on your own, that this decision regarding your mother’s particular situation with Baradhald applied to your own experiences with him as well?”
Estel hesitated, suddenly uncertain. It had seemed the right choice at the time, although he had somehow always suspected that his father would not be pleased by it.
In that moment, Elrond sat swiftly beside him. “Estel. Listen well, my son.” He waited for Estel’s eyes to fix upon him, then continued. “While I would have preferred the opportunity to assist your mother with Captain Baradhald, she is a Woman grown and as such I respect her choices.” Elrond paused, and Estel nodded his understanding. He had noted over the years that Gilraen and Elrond often did not respond to various situations in the same manner. They had always carefully respected each other’s opinions, however, even when Estel could tell that one (or both) was decidedly frustrated with the other. “You, however, are a child and under my protection.” Estel made a face—he was twelve years old, not Cora’s or even Sander’s age anymore—but Elrond shook his head. “You have much yet to learn, do you not?” Well … he couldn’t really argue with that, not when he compared against anyone else in Rivendell. Estel blew out a short breath, and Elrond placed a hand on his shoulder. “While I would wish to believe Imladris beyond the need to clarify such things, the past weeks have most decidedly shown me otherwise. Therefore … if you ever feel threatened, physically or otherwise, if you find yourself frightened by anyone or in harm’s way, or if you are even uncertain about whether you may be in danger, you will tell me.”
It was … surprisingly comforting, this order. Estel nodded.
“Am I in any way unclear?”
Estel shook his head, and surprised them both by curling into Elrond’s side. His father put an arm around him and pulled him close, kissing the top of his head.
“I love you, my son.”
“I love you too, Ada.”
They sat for a long moment, silent beneath the stars, and then Elrond sighed and stood. Estel made to follow him, but Elrond stilled him with a hand. “I would like for you to remain here for a time. Will this cause you any discomfort?”
His father must be planning to confront Baradhald. There was little other reason that he would not wish Estel to return to the camp with him. Estel was disappointed that he was not to witness it, but the thought of remaining alone atop Amon Sûl did not disturb him. He had spent nights alone throughout Imladris, in trees and caves and outbuildings, and the ruins of an old watchtower—even an old watchtower where so many had died—held little fear for him.
He thought about asking to come along, and decided the request would not be wise.
“No, I’ll be all right.”
“Good. I will send one of your brothers when you may return.” Elrond briefly pulled him close again, then turned toward the path and disappeared into the night.
He was not entirely surprised to encounter Baradhald halfway down the path. It would certainly be a legitimate explanation of young Estel’s reappearance on the summit—he had little doubt, given his observations of the past days, that Estel would have happily climbed a far steeper hill than Weathertop to avoid the man. In truth, Dorhaur was tempted himself. He was a bit bemused by the sight of his captain struggling through a patch of brush several yards out onto the rocky slope. Dorhaur briefly contemplated continuing as if he hadn’t seen the other man, but discarded the idea almost immediately. They were too near each other for the ploy to be anything but obvious.
Baradhald was scowling when he reached the path, inspecting a dark patch on the corner of his cloak that might have been either a stain or a tear—it was difficult to tell in the darkness, and in any event, Dorhaur didn’t particularly care. He nodded as Baradhald joined him on the path.
The other man responded with a mutter that may or may not have contained actual words. Dorhaur stepped back to offer more room on the narrow path, pondering the change in Baradhald’s temperament since they had joined with their young Chieftain and the Elves from Rivendell. It was true that he did not know the man well, but the captain had never before been overtly unpleasant. Self-important, yes. Grandiose, perhaps. Pompous, definitely. But this bitter, aggressive anger he had not seen—not even suspected—until the events of the past days.
It seemed an overreaction to an argument lost ten years ago. His captain apparently knew how to hold a grudge. Dorhaur would do well to remember it.
“What were you doing up there?”
Dorhaur blinked. “Estel wished to see the ruins of the watchtower. Lord Elrond and I accompanied him to the top.”
Even the darkness could not conceal Baradhald’s scowl. “I thought you were injured. You need rest, I’ve been assured.”
He shifted, testing the limb in question. The leg was beginning to move from uncomfortable to painful after so long upon it, but the climb to the summit had offered no real difficulty. “Lord Elrond suggested a short walk, in order to ease the muscles after so long upon horseback.”
“Lord Elrond. Of course,” Baradhald grumbled.
Dorhaur frowned, studying the other man more closely as Baradhald continued to pick burrs and thorns from his clothing. Yes, of course Lord Elrond. Rivendell’s master was acknowledged as perhaps the greatest healer in Middle Earth. Why should he not make a suggestion regarding Dorhaur’s injured leg? His captain was, it seemed, determined to find fault with whatever action their Elvish companions took regarding any topic.
It was beginning to grate upon him.
No, it had long past begun.
Truly, what was Baradhald’s difficulty here?
“You do not seem to care for our companions.”
“You do not seem to grasp the situation.”
Dorhaur blinked. What was that supposed to mean?
Baradhald glanced toward him, snorted, shook his head, and started back down the slope. After a brief moment, Dorhaur started after him.
He was beginning to get a strong sense that he indeed did not grasp the situation.
“What situation do you mean?”
Baradhald rounded on him. “What situation do I mean?”
Dorhaur settled back on his good leg and eyed his increasingly agitated captain. “Yes, captain. What situation do you mean?”
The other man grunted and began to turn again, but Dorhaur reached out to catch his arm. Baradhald pulled away, and the two stared at each other for a long moment.
He was not out of line to demand answers, even from his captain. The Ranger hierarchy applied to patrol scheduling and placement of men, battle plans, and general decision-making within the confines of the Rangers’ every day duties. This, however, did not fall in any of those categories. In this matter, Dorhaur of the Dúnedain, unknown among the greater part of his people though he may be, had every right to demand a response from the cousin of their former Chieftain. Whether Baradhald chose to respond was another matter entirely, but Dorhaur suspected that he would. That he wanted to, and that given the right encouragement would not indeed be able to stop himself.
It was up to Dorhaur, then, to find the right encouragement.
“Rivendell has ever been our staunchest ally.”
“Ally.” Baradhald sneered. “Is that what you see?”
Dorhaur frowned. “What else should I see?”
“Open your eyes, man!” Baradhald paced forward, and Dorhaur drifted back a pace, keeping their distance. Truly, that had taken even less time than he had hoped. “Ever have the Elves sought to control the Dúnedain. From the time of Valandil, Elrond Half-Elven has exerted his influence over our leaders.”
This was … mad, surely. “Lord Elrond has fostered and educated our kings and chieftains.”
“He has shaped their views and thinking! He has done so for centuries, until we know nothing but awe for Elvenkind and the path to Rivendell in case of the slightest hint of trouble!” Baradhald shook his head, snarling. “And his efforts have served him well, have they not? We have simply handed over our current Chieftain to him, leaving our people nothing but a skeleton leadership devoid of any true representative of Isildur’s line.”
“Estel is but a child. He could not—”
“Estel. He is not even allowed a Dúnedain name. He—”
It admittedly seemed a drastic step, one at which Dorhaur had wondered over the past days. However, had no background by which to judge. “Surely Lord Elrond would not take such a step without consulting at least the Lady—”
“Ah.” Baradhald spun away. “Your loyalty to our Elven allies is—”
“I am loyal to our Chieftain.” Dorhaur followed, biting off the words in his disbelief and anger. “Our Chieftain, and I find no fault without reason in those who also—”
“Our Chieftain.” The captain snorted, stopping abruptly. “That boy is more than half Elvish already. If we could affect his return even immediately, the damage might not be fully mitigated. As it is, the best for which we might hope is a strong council prepared to override him when necessary if the Half-Elven finally deigns to return him.”
It was a struggle to keep his rising fury in check. The words were dangerously close to treason, if not already past that line. Out of the churning muddle in his mind, Dorhaur grasped at one word which had caught his notice.
Baradhald snorted and moved close, lowering his voice. “Think you that I alone have seen this?”
The implications were … staggering. Dorhaur blinked at the other man, processing Baradhald’s words and meaning only with difficulty. Had the lack of a strong central figure for the past decade and a leadership council headed not from among Arathorn’s kin but Gilraen’s truly left room for the fomentation of such beliefs? He had seen for himself how the uncertainty regarding Estel’s—Aragorn’s—fate, the prevailing belief in the child’s death, had affected the sense of identity and purpose among the wider Dúnedain people. Could it be that Estel’s absence among their leadership, even a child so young as he, indeed had greater impact than anyone might have foreseen? If so, how widespread were such notions? Baradhald’s words were vague—they might refer to five others, or fifty. Dorhaur had no connection to the leading families of his people, was rarely among them, and had no way of judging the truth of such claims.
This was, however, no longer a conversation he could tuck away simply to satisfy his own curiosity.
Yet, what could he possibly do?
I am loyal to our Chieftain.
That loyalty must be his guide. He had seen Estel in the company of these Elves. He had watched their interactions, had listened only recently as the Lord Elrond poured out his struggles in the raising of a child of Men. No, he did not believe that the Elves of Rivendell meant Estel or Estel’s people harm, no matter his captain’s assertions – and as such, these might be his truest allies, with the loyalties of his own people in possible question.
The thought was barely formed, the questions regarding how to best proceed only beginning to make themselves known, when Baradhald’s eyes suddenly focused upon the path beyond him. Dorhaur looked around to find Elrond nearly on top of them, sweeping down the rocky trail in smooth, flowing steps. Even in the dark the Elf radiated a focus and fury that Dorhaur had never before seen—not from Elrond himself, nor from any other. He felt his captain back away, he felt the brush of a shoulder as the Elf lord rounded him, and then Elrond was upon Baradhald, seizing a handful of hair and bodily dragging the man along as he continued to descend.
“Son of Gerhale.” Elrond’s voice was frigid, a stark contrast to the warm, friendly tone of earlier in the evening. “We will speak.”
Whatever Estel had told Elrond must not have boded well for the Ranger captain. Baradhald yelped a protest, scrabbling for the dagger on his belt. Without breaking stride, Elrond reached around him, seized the weapon, and flung it into the darkness.
Baradhald did not try for another.
For a brief, startled moment Dorhaur stared after them, then he shook off his stupor and joined the rush down the side of Weathertop.
The other Elves rose as Elrond reached the base of Weathertop and hauled Baradhald—in his mind, Dorhaur refused any longer to consider the man his captain—through the camp. ‘Scrambled’ would have been too undignified a word, but certainly Glorfindel and the twins gained their feet quickly. Elladan and Elrohir lost a moment staring after their father with wide, startled eyes. Glorfindel fell smoothly into step beside the master of Imladris, the Elf lord’s face betraying no hint of surprise although he could not have known what had happened or what was to come. Elrond did not acknowledge him, or any of them. Instead, he continued through the circle of firelight to the outcropping at the opposite side, a low finger of rock which stretched out from the base of Weathertop and blocked their camp from the brunt of the wind. Baradhald, who had been struggling against the Elf’s iron grip without noticeable success, let out a pained, startled grunt as Elrond dragged him around and slammed him back against the rock.
“What in the—”
The command sliced easily through the protest, and Baradhald, coming around to face the stony countenance of not only Elrond but Glorfindel as well, stilled—though his scowl proclaimed his reluctance to obey. Silence settled like a pall, broken only by Dorhaur’s footsteps and the crackling of the fire. The sons of Elrond drifted forward, hands not quite touching their long knives. Dorhaur halted some feet away from the scene, hovering uncertainly in the shadows until he could understand what was happening and decide what his role here should be.
The stillness stretched, and Dorhaur shifted, wondering what Lord Elrond intended. The other Elves might have been carven from stone. Finally Baradhald snapped.
“Take your hands away from me!”
It was not how Dorhaur might have chosen to begin.
Elrond did not break contact—in fact, he stepped closer. Though none of Baradhald’s belligerence faded, Dorhaur did see him attempt to move back … only to meet the solid rock behind him. Elrond’s voice was soft, and Dorhaur shivered. He would not have believed such a tone from the companionable, laughing Elf with whom he had so recently traded tales of fatherhood.
“Now, perhaps you would like to begin.”
Baradhald’s eyes narrowed. Even in the dim edge of the firelight, Dorhaur could see the Man’s rapidly shifting gaze, from Elrond to the other Elves to Dorhaur himself and then, fleetingly, toward the summit of Weathertop. Elrond tightened his grip.
“You will face me this time, not my son.”
“Your son,” Baradhald sneered, then fell abruptly silent.
Indeed, Dorhaur suspected that contempt had freed the words rather than any true intention of response. Once they were spoken, however, Baradhald almost visibly relaxed. He took a long breath, lifted his chin, and met Elrond’s eyes boldly. Elrond, for his part, did not behave as if he was surprised by the outburst, and Dorhaur wondered again what Estel had said after he had gone from the ancient ruins. The twins moved swiftly forward, hands dropping to their knives, but Elrond held up a quick hand. His sons halted, though neither went so far as to release his weapon.
He would give Baradhald marks for audacity, utterly imprudent as he may be.
Baradhald said no more, and finally Elrond spoke again. “You have nothing to say?” The question was mild, but swiftly took on a sharper edge. “Yet as I am told, that was not so with my son, nor with his mother.” Ah. The other Elves stiffened—even Glorfindel, who had to this point remained impassive as marble—and at last Dorhaur understood. Just how foolish was the man? “What could you have to say to them that might not be repeated to me, at need?”
The Ranger snorted. “They are not your family, Elf.”
This time, it was Glorfindel that Elrond motioned back.
“You are … misguided. Yet even were they not, still they are under my protection, both.”
Baradhald laughed, and there was in its sound that which warned Dorhaur that the son of Gerhale had abandoned all caution. Perhaps Lord Elrond had pushed the Man’s temper to breaking. Perhaps Baradhald expected no quarter given from the Elves, regardless of what he said. Perhaps he was overconfident as well as foolish.
Perhaps he had simply been waiting long to say the words.
Whatever the reason, Baradhald threw wisdom and discretion to the winds. “That fault is not my own! And say rather under your thumb, than your protection.” A strangled cough might have indicated a tightening of Elrond’s grip, but the words still came well enough. “The wife of Arathorn sentenced the Dúnedain to diminishment and servitude when she turned that boy over to you, and I’ll—”
“I would not complete that, were I you.” Glorfindel strode forward to loom over the recalcitrant Ranger, his fair face hard and stern. It was as well, for Elrond had released Baradhald and fallen back. In the flickering firelight his expression was frustrated and openly baffled.
“Of what can you possibly speak, son of Gerhale? Long have Imladris and the Dúnedain been allies, even to the days of Elendil’s flight from Númenor. Ever have I sought to—”
“To control the line of Isildur, and through it the Men of the West!”
Not foolish, but insane. Utterly insane. Surely.
Elrond blinked slowly. Elladan and Elrohir shifted and murmured, too softly for Dorhaur to hear. Elrond cast a frown over his shoulder and his sons subsided, yet did not seem appeased. In truth, Dorhaur could not blame them—to hear such aspersions cast upon his own father, who had been a good and kind man, would surely have outraged him …
“Very well, then.” Elrond’s face hardened. “Sauron searches for your Chieftain, and his spies grow ever more numerous as his power waxes. What, then, would be your own suggestion to ensure Aragorn’s safety among his people, scattered and diminished as the Dúnedain are? For the Lady Gilraen considered long and with much sorrow before she—”
“Chieftain in name only, once you’ve done with him.”
Protests burst from the other Elves, and Dorhaur barely heard his own voice added to the din.
It was not his place, yet he was the only other Dúnedain present and he would no longer allow this absurdity to continue. He was no ambassador or lord, but need demanded here a representative of the true Dúnedain—the greater body of their people, who were and ever would be loyal to both Chieftain and allies—and discomfiting as the thought might be, he would be equal to the task. Dorhaur stepped abruptly forward, even as Elrond bodily held Elladan in his place and stilled his other son with a curt string of Sindarin. All eyes turned to him as Dorhaur approached.
“Lord Elrond.” He drew himself up and sketched a brief, shallow bow. “I offer apology in the name of the Dúnedain people for … for this.” His eyes flickered toward his captain—his former captain—who scowled at him from around Glorfindel’s frame. “I am no important man, and I know nothing of leadership or political maneuvering, but I can assure you that our people as a whole do not share in this madness.”
Elrond cast a hard glance at his sons, then stepped away from them, nodding tersely. “I do know this. Nevertheless, I thank you. Your apology is unnecessary, but your assurance welcome.”
It was a relief, though not entirely a surprise. Dorhaur trusted that one of the Lord Elrond’s reputed wisdom would not be swayed so as to attribute the ravings of one Man to an entire people.
Although … it might not be only one. The memory of Baradhald’s words (Think you that I alone have seen this?) ached within him, but he could not simply ignore them. His responsibility was to his Chieftain, and to the loyal members of his people. Dorhaur took a long breath.
“I am glad to hear it. However …” He glanced toward Baradhald, wondering briefly what the other’s reaction would be to his next words, then pushed on. “However, there may be a larger issue than that which we now know.”
A scuffle broke out beyond the firelight, Baradhald’s breathless oaths cut off with a gasp as Glorfindel shoved him with no little force back against the rock. “Traitor!” Baradhald snarled, and Dorhaur rounded on the other Man.
“Traitor?” He was disbelieving, incredulous and incensed that such a man as Baradhald son of Gerhale would have the gall to so accuse him. A hand wrapped around his arm, but Dorhaur barely felt its pressure. “Nay, not I.” He started toward the other Ranger, but the hand tightened, holding him in place. He snapped around, face to face with Lord Elrond.
“Stay.” The Elf’s eyes bored into his own. “Of what do you speak?”
That peculiar intensity had returned to Elrond’s voice, and Dorhaur forced his temper into check. There was far more of importance at stake than his desire to knock the teeth from his former captain’s head for daring to so slander his loyalty.
He took another long breath, then began. Briefly, he related all that he had heard from Baradhald during their conversation on the side of Weathertop. Elrond listened without interruption, his face hardening to stony immobility as Dorhaur spoke of Baradhald’s stated hope that a council would be found to limit Estel’s—Aragorn’s—authority, and the possibility that others shared his views and aims. The other Elves stirred restlessly, and even the son of Gerhale remained still as his secrets were laid bare—though that might have had more to do with Glorfindel’s hand at his throat than any realization of the wisdom of silence in such a situation.
“I know not how much of what he has said may be true, or how much he exaggerates …” here Baradhald growled, but fell silent again as Glorfindel’s grip tightened, “… but these words concern me greatly, and I do not believe they should be dismissed out of hand simply because their source has proven himself a Man untrustworthy.”
“Indeed.” Elrond nodded slowly, tone and expression considering, and then spun and stalked back toward the disgraced Ranger. Glorfindel stepped away, but Baradhald had no time to attempt any manner of escape before Elrond was upon him. He did step back from the approaching Elf, but once again the sheer rock held him fast. The Man lifted his chin and met Elrond’s eyes, but even so could not entirely disguise his growing unease. “Indeed,” Lord Elrond repeated, “I fear that they must rather be given a greater weight.” He fixed implacable eyes on the captain, his tone growing once again mild and dangerous. “Care you to elaborate upon these … assertions, son of Gerhale?”
Baradhald managed a chuckle—though if the sound was intended to convey more of derision than of nerves, Dorhaur thought it unsuccessful. “I am no telltale, Elf.”
“Think you that would be your worst offense in this matter?” Elrohir finally broke, pushing forward, but Elladan caught his arm, hissing a word in their native tongue. Elrond cast a hard glance at his son, but raised a languid brow as he returned his attention to the Ranger.
“My son speaks out of turn, but wisely. It seems to me that your priorities are … somewhat skewed, if you indeed value your pride of reputation—and that among other traitors—over your loyalty to Chieftain and people.”
“I am loyal to my people!” Baradhald spat out, glaring into the fair face before him. “I am a loyal Dúnedan, who values the legacy and independence of my people, and it is through no fault of my own that you have ever sought to undermine and control us.” His chin thrust forward in a gesture of defiance. “It is through no fault of my own that the greater part of my people do not see our ‘alliance’ for what it is, nor our Chieftains for what they have become.”
Elrond stared for a long moment, then sighed heavily and stepped back. “Incredibly, I do believe that you believe your words.” He folded his arms and stared into the night, drawing another long breath. “And how many others?”
“No.” Elrond silenced Elladan with a hand, and turned his full attention back upon Baradhald, eyes narrowed and lips set in a grim line. “No. I regret that there are those among the Dúnedain who do not see, but it cannot have been other than it was. Your people would be destroyed, the line of Isildur but a memory were it not for our alliance.”
“Humble words,” Baradhald sneered, and Dorhaur was both amazed and aghast at the Man’s persistence.
“Neither humble nor prideful. Simple fact—and fact it is as well that Aragorn son of Arathorn has been turned over to my keeping until such a time as he is old enough to take up his name and inheritance, protect himself, and govern the Dúnedain. If there are those who contest this decision, those who have legitimate worries or grievance against it, make them known to me, son of Gerhale.” Elrond offered his arm to the Ranger captain, willing him to take it. “We will discuss. I will explain.” His tone hardened as this gesture remained unanswered. “But this choice is made. It will not change.”
Baradhald stared, expression hidden in the flickering firelight. “I am no telltale, Elf.”
Dorhaur swore beneath his breath and started forward, ready to add his own insistence—little though the insistence of one whom Baradhald saw as a subordinate might impress the Man. Lord Elrond, however, must have heard something in the captain’s tone, or seen it in his face.
“Are you truly so loyal, son of Gerhale, or simply frightened?”
The Elf moved suddenly into the Ranger’s space, locking Baradhald’s gaze with his own. For a long moment both were silent, then the dark head tilted. Elrond’s tone softened, and something within it sent shivers along Dorhaur’s spine—reminded him, humble Man that he was, that before them was one who had lived and fought and held the fealty of many throughout Ages. Elrond Half-Elven may be fair and kind by preference, but he would be implacable against any who opposed him or threatened those under his protection.
Baradhald son of Gerhale was indeed a fool.
“Ah. I see.” Elrond nodded once, then stepped back. “Consider your position during the night, I urge you. We will speak again on the morrow. Remember, however, that if you do not see fit to aid us, neither will we feel any obligation to protect the name of he whose unchecked words betrayed them when we discover the identities of your fellow dissidents.” Even in the darkness, Dorhaur saw Baradhald’s face blanch. Were he not so disgusted, he might have felt sorry for the Man. “And we will find them, have no fear of that. I have not battled Morgoth himself, watched my King and yours fall in the Alliance against Sauron, and protected the last of my brother’s line over the course of centuries to be defeated at the end by pettiness and willful misunderstanding.”
Another long, level gaze, then Elrond beckoned his sons. Elladan and Elrohir surged forward, dropping onto either side of the Ranger and each seizing an arm. Baradhald scowled, but seemed finally to comprehend that continued argument would only further harm his position—he made no real effort to resist. Elrond stepped forward one last time as the twins hauled Baradhald away, seizing the Man’s jaw and pulling him roughly around.
“Son of Gerhale.” Baradhald flinched from the contact, the slender fingers digging painfully into beard and skin, but the Elf’s grip held. “Never seek out or speak to my son or his mother again.” Their eyes locked, but only briefly before Baradhald looked away. Elrond released his hold and stepped back, allowing his sons to tug the Man away. “If you do so, you will regret it.”
Dorhaur watched uneasily as Baradhald was manhandled from the firelight, but Elrond shook his head as he approached, followed closely by Glorfindel. “He will be uncomfortable, but unharmed. We are not barbarians.”
He flushed. “No, of course not. I—”
“Apology is unnecessary. Such a concern even in the face of his behavior speaks well of your character.” Elrond exchanged a glance with Glorfindel before Dorhaur could respond, then sighed deeply and seemed almost to deflate before them. He rubbed one hand over his face, which seemed to have aged a decade even as it remained timeless. “It seems as well that we were forced to leave Imladris at this time, the reason for our journey aside. I have been complacent, and blind to many things.”
Glorfindel shook his head. “Your task is to protect the line of Isildur, my friend, not the Dúnedain people from themselves.”
“Indeed.” Elrond shook his head. “Yet, what is one without the other? How is Estel to take up his Chieftaincy without a people to govern?”
“You look too far ahead.” Glorfindel lifted an eyebrow and spoke bracingly to his lord. “You are wise, Elrond, and at times such far-sightedness is necessary, but we both know that this is a habit you have difficulty reining in.” Dorhaur looked quickly around, startled to hear the Lord of Imladris scolded almost as if he were Estel. To his surprise, Elrond chuckled, nodding. Glorfindel returned the gesture and continued. “This rhetoric is obviously still underground, as we have heard nothing of it from our allies within the Dúnedain leadership. We know not whether it is even anything more, or only the dissatisfied grumblings of a dozen Men in their cups. It would behoove us to learn more before consigning our allies to infamy and ruin just yet, think you not?”
Elrond laughed aloud, gripping the blond Elf’s shoulder. “As always, my friend, your counsel saves me from my own folly.” He stretched long then and rubbed at his face again, this time briskly. “Very well. I will send Elladan and Elrohir to the Dúnedain leadership to sound out what they may. It may do us little good, if indeed such resentment does exist against our people, but it will be a start. As for the son of Gerhale …” He gazed into the dark, where his sons had disappeared to secure their captive. “He obviously cannot remain free, not if we wish his fellows to remain ignorant of our knowledge. However … I admit that I am not entirely certain what to do with him.”
Glorfindel shrugged smoothly. “Perhaps we may discuss it later, after the twins have returned and Estel is asleep. If your sons are to attempt to track the depth and sources of these rumors, they may have need of easy access to him, for further questions and such.”
“You speak the truth.” Elrond nodded slowly. “Perhaps—”
The thought had been growing in Dorhaur’s mind as he listened to his companions, but he had not truly intended to speak yet. With the words out, however, and their attention turned to him, Dorhaur pushed stubbornly ahead.
“You speak rightly when you say that your sons may not discover the truth, if indeed a large pocket of resentment exists against your people. It seems to me that you require assistance from within my people—one who is not a known lord or leader, and who may therefore subtly search out such rumors without drawing attention or suspicion.”
Both Elves studied him for a long moment, and Dorhaur was beginning to wish that he had not spoken and could simply melt into the earth when Elrond nodded again.
“You speak the truth as well, my friend. Am I to assume that you are offering yourself for such an endeavor?”
He was a simple Man, and this was far from a simple issue. It was, in fact, fraught with the possibility of both personal and political pitfalls. He was a true Dúnedan, however, and could not allow such a challenge against his Chieftain to stand unanswered.
Perhaps he was a fool as well …
Forcing back his nerves, Dorhaur nodded. “I pledge my loyalty to Estel. He is a good boy, and will be a good Man, and he is our rightful Chieftain. I’ll not see that taken from him by Men such as Baradhald. If I can be of assistance in preventing it, I do offer myself in that role.”
Glorfindel was already nodding approval even as Dorhaur finished, and he was somewhat stupidly relieved to see that his proposal was not to be rejected out of hand. Elrond stepped forward, offering his arm. “Dorhaur son of Dedhalin.” Dorhaur gripped the proffered arm in a warrior’s clasp, and a grin flashed across the ancient Elf lord’s features. “A star shone on the hour of our meeting.”
What had he just gotten himself into?
Estel lay wrapped in his bedroll, listening as the camp stirred to life. It was morning in only the most basic sense—the sky was no longer entirely black, and he had heard maybe one bird—and he was surprised that anyone was already moving. Of course, he didn’t know their current plan. Having returned to find Baradhald secured to a convenient tree under rather surly guard, he had attempted to stay awake after he’d been sent to bed, hoping to learn what had transpired while he had been banished upon the top of Amon Sûl. That had proved entirely unsuccessful, as he had fallen asleep not more than a minute after burrowing into his blanket. He poked his head out now, straining to see if anything more was happening than the usual morning activities, but quickly pulled the material back tight around his chin. His neck was cold.
With hesitant fingers, Estel reached up to touch the short strands, so odd brushing against his face and neck. He wished now that he hadn’t done it—but then, wasn’t that why he’d seized his knife so immediately when the idea had come, there in the darkness on Weathertop? So that he wouldn’t have time to talk himself out of it? Anyway, he knew it had been the right thing to do. His brothers and Glorfindel had only offered puzzled frowns upon seeing his new—and slightly ragged—haircut, but they didn’t know yet about the things he’d said, and the conversation that followed. Elrond, though … his father had worn a pleased, rather proud expression (and for a moment he’d thought sad as well, but then it was gone and Estel knew it had only been a trick of the firelight) when he had marched across the camp, stopped before Dorhaur, and promised solemnly, “I will not forget.” That was proof enough, but Dorhaur’s faint smile and the shallow bow with which he acknowledged Estel’s gesture were as obvious as any shout of approval.
“I know you will not. I thank you.” Then, the Man’s grin had broadened, and he had flicked at one of the shortened locks. “Perhaps you will allow me to show my appreciation by straightening this up a bit.”
Estel had returned the grin, relieved. “My thanks. I was not sure how to—”
“Not with a knife next time, perhaps.”
Dorhaur had retrieved a razor and small scissors from his pack, then sat Estel near the fire and smoothed the rougher edges of his impromptu styling while the others finished preparing their evening meal. The talk over supper had been general, nothing of what Estel truly wished to hear, and he had been sent to his bedroll soon after. Now, squinting against the slow graying of the morning, Estel saw that not only Dorhaur and Baradhald were leaving, but apparently Elladan and Elrohir as well. He started to scramble up, half worried that they would depart without saying goodbye, but Glorfindel beckoned to him from near the saddled horses.
“I was just about to wake you. The twins are to ride with Dorhaur for a time—come say farewell.”
Estel wondered again what had happened, but knew from experience that plying the ancient Elf with questions was unlikely to produce answers—not for something of this magnitude. He would simply have to wait, and perhaps spring his queries upon his father unaware.
That only rarely worked either, in truth. Still, it was worth a try.
Baradhald was already mounted, and scowled briefly before turning away. He ignored the Man—now that Elrond and the others knew about the Ranger’s behavior, Estel somehow didn’t really care what Baradhald thought of him. Elrohir was fastening his packs, and Elladan approaching from a nearby bush. Both gave him tight hugs, expressed their regret, and promised to return to Imladris when they were able. He was disappointed that they were leaving, but Estel knew that his brothers loved him, and that they did important work with the Dúnedain. They would not go now without good reason. Dorhaur appeared with his own pack as they mounted, and Estel felt a sudden, keen sense of loss.
Who knew if he’d ever see Dorhaur again?
The Ranger grunted as Estel flung himself into the Man’s arms, and dropped his pack to return the fierce embrace.
“Thank you,” Estel whispered, and Dorhaur planted a rough kiss on his crown.
“It has been my honor, young Estel.”
The Man pulled back to study Estel for a long moment, then disentangled himself, mounted, and pulled his horse around. Within minutes, the little group was gone. Estel stared after them for several long minutes, feeling strangely forlorn, and then his father’s arm came around his shoulders.
“Come. Your mother has been missing you for long enough.”
The next days stretched into a blur of hard riding broken by brief rest breaks and light meals. Even the Elven horses, hardy and strong, were noticeably fatigued by evening. Much of their food store had departed along with the others, and although they certainly did not go hungry, Estel always wished for more. The road was long, and straight, and boring. His body, unused to such activity, ached. He missed Gilraen, and was ready to be home.
He did develop a certain appreciation for his new haircut as the miles stretched behind them. Though thick and shaggy, still the sweat wicked away from the short strands much more quickly than from his long hair, which had always been sweat-soaked and stuck in strings to his skin after any period of riding or exertion. The cooling breeze across his neck was more than enough to convince him that perhaps Men had discovered something with this shorter style, and he quickly lost any regret he’d had over the decision. He might change his mind again when they reached home, of course—but for now he was just as happy to have it all gone.
Mitheithel and the Last Bridge were a welcome sight, proof that they were actually getting somewhere rather than just riding forever, but the Trollshaws quickly followed. Estel was uneasy, though he didn’t care to admit it. He didn’t remember this part of the journey as he and Ferrier had traveled away from Imladris—he’d still be quite thoroughly drugged—and he was glad. If he was nervous now, riding between his father and Glorfindel, how might he have felt with only Ferrier as protection? It was ridiculous, he knew—at least, ridiculous during the day. Everyone knew that a troll caught out in the sunlight turned to stone.
But … what if that was just a story? His brothers had told him too many ‘facts’ about trolls for him to be quite certain what to believe.
Was a troll truly twice the height of an Elf? He might believe that, but … not the bit about the third eye in the back of a troll’s head for sighting prey that attempted to flee. He knew that wasn’t true. He thought that wasn’t true. He was sure that trolls did wear spiked boots, but he wasn’t certain that they truly spit acid. He had always suspected Elladan had been making that up – at least, he was sure he had seen Elrohir roll his eyes during that story. Probably it was made up. But they had both said there was more than one kind of troll, and that made sense. Maybe. What if one of those kinds didn’t turn to stone in the sunlight?
Estel nudge Hethu closer to Elrond, hoping that his father would not notice.
For a while he believed himself successful, until Elrond asked, without looking at him, “Do you wish to ride with me, my son?”
“No.” He pulled his mount abruptly away, and they rode in silence for another half hour, the dark hills looming over them, before Elrond looked around and held out his arm.
This time, he did not protest. Estel nudged Hethu close, and allowed his father to pull him into the saddle of his own horse. Well-trained, Hethu kept pace with the others, and after only a few minutes Estel sagged back against Elrond and closed his eyes. The night before had been restless—he had never quite managed a true sleep, half expecting to be set upon by whole packs of trolls at any moment—and he quickly slid into a doze. As the world disappeared into darkness, he heard his father say softly, “He looks a good deal older—like a young Man, in truth—with his hair cut so.”
Glorfindel might have offered the cryptic response, “You shall have him for a while longer yet, my friend,” but Estel couldn’t be certain. The rhythmic thud of the horses’ hooves had lulled him to sleep.
The ford at the Bruinen, which Estel heard for more than an hour before they finally reached it, sent him into a fervor of excitement. It was all he could do not to kick Hethu into a gallop as they splashed out of the fast-flowing water into the outer reaches of Rivendell. Elrond laughed, but held out a hand to slow him. “Your horse has served you well, my son, and is fatigued. Do not push him beyond his endurance so near the end of your road.”
Abashed, Estel slowed his mount slightly, but his agitation must have yet been apparent, for Hethu without urging broke into a trot along the rocky path. Elrond and Glorfindel fell in behind him, but they were barely to the trees before an Elf dropped lightly into the path beside them.
“My Lord, you return!” The Elf, not one with whom Estel was familiar, turned her eyes to him. “And successful, I am relieved to see.” She smiled. “We will celebrate your return, young Estel, with song and feast and tale-telling in the Hall of Fire. All of Imladris rejoices that you are well.”
Estel blushed, looking away. Elrond asked the Elf if word had been sent ahead of their arrival.
“Nearly an hour past, my Lord. They will certainly know of your coming.”
“I thank you.”
She dipped her head, long black hair shimmering in the sunlight, and disappeared again into the branches. Within moments, no sign of her existed. Glorfindel shook Estel out of his usual wondering gaze, eyes alight with silent laughter.
“Come! The House will be preparing to welcome you—it is well to not keep them waiting.”
No. No more waiting. Estel touched his heels to Hethu’s sides, and the horse surged ahead. This time Elrond did not attempt to slow them—indeed, he would not have been successful. Hethu seemed well enough in any case, easily dodging the Elves that appeared along their path from out of branches and shadows and thick brush as horse and boy swept past. Glad cries called after him, and Estel waved a hand and shouted back greetings without slowing. There was only one person he most wished to see right now—he would speak with these other, his friends and neighbors, later. The trees and path became familiar, beloved as the House grew closer, green vibrancy tickling his nose and assaulting his ears and lending a pounding energy to his coursing blood, but Estel’s eyes were only for the way ahead. Then he topped a low rise, and she was there.
Estel hauled Hethu up short and flung himself out of the saddle.
Gilraen hitched up her skirts and ran the remainder of the hill, dark curls wild around her, tears already streaming down her face. Erestor and several others had been keeping pace, but fell back now. She met him halfway, and crushed him close, and showered his face with kisses.
“My son! My son …” She pulled back to drink him in, then drew Estel down and kissed him again. “You have grown—you are so tall.” And indeed he had. When last Estel had seen her, Gilraen had been a bare inch shorter than he, and now he topped her by at least three. It seemed he had been gone a lifetime, rather than the relatively few weeks since he had been taken from her.
Estel laughed and picked her up, twirling her around. He was not yet big enough to do it easily and they both ended in a heap on the rocky slope, sliding some feet to land abruptly against a fallen branch. His mother only joined his laughter, putting her arms around him again. She rocked them both as the Elves that had been following him and those who had been with her met in the center. Erestor grinned widely at Estel, as did the others who gathered round, but all left him to his reunion and instead approached Elrond and Glorfindel. Feather-light fingers in his hair drew Estel’s gaze around, and he found Gilraen studying the shortened locks with shining eyes.
She liked his hair.
She … it made his mother light up inside. Estel didn’t know what about a haircut could possibly make Gilraen so happy, but he vowed silently to always wear it so.
It was, surely, the least thing he could do for her.
Even as he decided it, her gaze suddenly fell. Her hand trembled, and he reached up to seize it.
“Did he hurt you? Are you—”
“No!” He ducked in to kiss her cheek. “No, Mother, I’m well.” Gilraen’s eyes rose again to his hair, and Estel squeezed her hand. “I did this to myself.” Her surprise was evident, and her anxiety not entirely relieved. Estel hugged her again, reveling in her feel and smell. He was home, and his mother was here. Life was, for the moment, right again. “I have so much to tell you.”
“Perhaps, however, we might do it more easily at the House?” Elrond’s voice broke gently into their conversation. “I know not about you, my son, but I could do with an early luncheon.”
Estel’s stomach growled loudly at the reminder, eliciting laughter from the surrounding Elves (whose stomachs did not, after all, do anything so uncouth as to rumble when empty). He blushed, and Gilraen scrambled up to face Elrond.
“Thank you, my Lord.” She offered a deep curtsey, but when Elrond touched her shoulder, Gilraen’s composure broke and she seized the lord of Imladris in a tight embrace. An amused murmur rippled through the gathered throng, but Elrond merely returned the gesture until she finally broke away. “Thank you,” she repeated, voice thick with tears, and he smiled faintly. Something passed between the Elf and the Woman then—some shared bond of responsibility or remembered promise centered upon this lanky child of Men who caught them both suddenly in a rough embrace—and Elrond placed a hand upon each dark head in silent benediction before moving away.
The throng broke apart then, and Estel scrambled for his horse, dragging Gilraen behind him. He mounted and his mother swung up easily behind him, skirts trailing down each side of Hethu’s flanks. Gilraen wrapped her arms around his chest and pulled him close again (Estel suspected he might be a bit lacking in personal space for the next several days, but he couldn’t bring himself to care), resting her chin comfortably on his shoulder. Estel nudged Hethu down the hill after the others, his mouth watering at the thought of the food that awaited them.
Trail rations, he had discovered, were truly best left for the direst of circumstances.
Glimpses of the Last Homely House could be seen now through the dappling of the trees, and Estel’s heart leapt within him so hard that it almost seemed to skip a beat. Home. He took another long breath of the vibrant forest air, and felt the warmth of his mother’s wiry arms around him. Home. He picked up their pace, and dashed down the last hill into the heart of Imladris.
Elrond swept into his office, sketching a bow as his guests rose. “Dorhaur son of Dedhalin.” He offered his arm, advancing, and the Ranger met him halfway, gripping him with a firm warrior’s clasp. “Well met.” He grinned and the Man returned his own, strong teeth flashing bright in his weathered face.
“And you, my Lord Elrond.”
Briefly Elrond marveled at how the Man had aged since their parting, more than a year past. Other Men would likely have noticed no difference, of course—Men were accustomed to change, in both themselves and in others, and its less noticeable manifestations often went unobserved by the Secondborn as they did not by the Firstborn. Elrond was not unaccustomed to Men, of course—yet still it startled him, in some manner at least, nearly every time.
Best to just move on from those thoughts. No good ever came of brooding.
“I apologize for my delay. I have been testing my gelding’s gait this morning—he acquired a stone bruise some time ago and has been slow in healing. It was some time before my sons were able to locate me.” He smiled faintly. “I fear we kept missing each other on the trails.”
Dorhaur waved away his apology. “You were not to know we would arrive today.”
Elrond divested himself of his outer cloak and moved to cleanse his hands in the basin near the door. “I trust that in the meanwhile, these two have kept you well entertained?” Erestor and Glorfindel raised their goblets in near synchrony. Dorhaur’s grin widened.
“Indeed, they have.” The Man went to retrieve his own glass. “You serve excellent wine, my Lord. Rivendell is indeed rightly famed for its hospitality.”
Elrond laughed, motioning for Erestor to provide him a goblet as well. “I hope that we may do justice to such a reputation with more than our wine, while you are among us.” He claimed his own glass from Erestor and tilted it in salute to his guests before he drank.
Ah. The Dorwinian red. Thranduil did know his wines …
“My Lord.” Dorhaur set aside his goblet and motioned his companions forward. “May I present to you my sons—Duinath,” he nodded to the eldest, “Demedhel,” the next, “and Daelin.” The young Men, who looked only a little like Dorhaur but very much like each other, bowed respectfully. Elrond offered his arm gravely to each. Awe and even fear warred with dignity behind their eyes, but Dorhaur’s sons, Elrond was pleased and not at all surprised to observe, conducted themselves well. “My sons, the Lord Elrond Eärendilion, master of Imladris.”
The two eldest murmured greetings. The youngest, whom Elrond noted was possessed of the same half-starved countenance as his own son and the same boney, coltish limbs which seemed to lengthen daily, merely nodded. Dorhaur viewed them for a moment with barely concealed pride, then turned back to Elrond.
“These,” he nodded toward the Duinath and Demedhel, “have been invaluable to me this year—my right and left arms. We would not be here without them.”
He fell silent then, and Elrond read the Ranger’s unspoken message that no more must be said of their mission before young Daelin. The youngest of Dorhaur’s sons grimaced and looked away, but it was a resigned sort of protest, one that spoke of an old battle long fought and deemed rightly hopeless. It was an expression with which he was recently and intimately familiar—Estel wore it nearly every day over some matter or other. Elrond smiled faintly and moved to take a seat, indicating that the others should relax again as well. “My own son should be joining us momentarily,” he informed them. “Elladan and Elrohir have gone to fetch him. He has been attempting to build a flet in one of our larger oaks, and has been absent since before sunrise this morning.”
Glorfindel snorted softly. “Attempting would be the primary word …”
Elrond shot him a frown, unwilling that Estel’s (admittedly poor) building attempts should be discussed before Men upon whom the boy would no doubt wish to make a good impression. Glorfindel grimaced and took another swallow of the velvety wine. Dorhaur lifted an eyebrow.
“A flet? I’m unfamiliar with—”
A tangle of sweaty, muddy limbs and hair burst through the open office door, and Dorhaur rose, laughing, to catch Estel in a firm embrace. The twins followed, their own road dust leaving them in little better shape than their brother. Elrond went to embrace them, now that they were all on the ground rather than upon horseback, then returned to his seat, allowing a long while for Estel to assault Dorhaur with questions and with his own stories of the past year. Dorhaur introduced his sons, whom Estel greeted with a wary politeness which exuded equal parts enthusiasm and—Elrond was amused to note—jealousy. The older two greeted the boy easily but with a restrained sort of respect which Elrond suspected came from knowledge of Estel’s true name and role. Daelin returned stare for wary stare, and it was clear from Estel’s body language that he did not quite know what to make of this other child of Men, older yet so near his own age.
Well. It was just as well, perhaps, that Dorhaur had included his youngest in their party. Elrond was curious to see how the next days would progress.
Finally, Elrond held up a hand. “There will be time for further conversation later. I suspect, however, that we have business to discuss?” He lifted an questioning eyebrow. Both Elrohir and Dorhaur nodded agreement. “Very good. We have business to discuss, and while I would not dream of keeping all of you from bath and meal, it is well, I think, that I hear at least the basics before we part.”
Dorhaur nodded. “It is, my Lord. We have great need of your counsel.”
“Indeed.” That the entire party had traveled to Imladris to consult mean both information of import and a situation which might prove … difficult. What had Dorhaur and his sons discovered, festering there among the Dúnedain? Elrond kept his tone calm, and looked to his youngest son. “Estel, perhaps you may show young Daelin to his room and bath—Lilán will know where they have been prepared.” Estel’s face fell and his jaw tensed, but Elrond interrupted before the boy had time to offer any manner of protest. “Estel! There will be more time for visiting later. Do as I ask.”
The grey eyes moved from one face to another, searching, and Elrond knew his son suspected that whatever the topic, it at least partially involved him. He remained impassive, however, in the face of that silent inquiry, and after a long moment Estel reluctantly nodded.
The boy turned to Daelin, who appeared to be losing a similar silent argument with his own father, and motioned awkwardly toward the door. Slowly, Dorhaur’s youngest son sighed and followed Estel, sending one last pleading glance to Dorhaur as they approached the hall. The Ranger pursed his lips, shooed both boys into the hall with a sharp flick of his wrist, then waited silently until they had exited and Elladan had closed the door firmly behind them.
When Elrond returned his attention within, he found Dorhaur eyeing him with no little degree of apprehension. “I hope I have not presumed overmuch, my Lord. Daelin is young, but his sense of duty is as strong as any thrice his age. If sworn to silence, he will not speak of what he sees or finds here. I vow it.”
Ah. Elrond nodded slowly. That, in fact, had not been his primary concern. “Indeed, I would not have presumed otherwise of any son of yours, my friend.”
He did not miss the pride with which the sons of Dorhaur looked upon their father, hearing such words from the lord of Imladris. Dorhaur, for his part, seemed only relieved. “I thank you.” The Man hesitated, then added, “He is good lad. It seemed a hard thing, after a long year of knowing that he alone of our family was upon the outside of some important undertaking, to also tell him that his brothers would journey to see famed Rivendell, yet he would not.”
“We approved as well, Adar,” Elrohir spoke. “It was—”
“You seem under the impression, all of you, that I disapprove,” Elrond interrupted mildly, swirling the velvet wine in its goblet and watching the light catch its currents. Silence fell, and he looked up to varying degrees of amusement and disbelief. Biting back a smile, he shook his head and straightened. “Indeed, it is well that Estel have some interaction with someone his own age, at some point well before he returns to his people. Think you not?”
Tension drained from the room, and nervous chuckles rippled throughout. Elrond looked to Dorhaur under the cover of the mild chatter that rose around them.
“I am curious whether your Daelin knows of Estel’s true name.”
Dorhaur shook his head. “It seemed best to keep the knowledge among those who needed to know.”
Elrond nodded slowly, considering. “I would agree—and yet, if our sons spend any amount of time together, I wonder if it is best that he does know. Estel is, you may well remember, curious and intelligent, and your Daelin seems likewise.” Dorhaur indicated his agreement. “It may not take much for the two of them to work out together what one alone may not. It may be better if Daelin knows outright that such is not a topic for speculation.”
The Ranger took a long breath. “I see your point, my Lord.”
“Hmm.” It seemed unfair, in truth, that Estel’s companion should have such knowledge when the boy himself was still unaware. It created a certain … imbalance. Life upon Middle Earth was, however, far from fair, and Elrond was more concerned with his son’s safety than with such niceties. He considered for a moment longer, then shook his head. “That will be a question for later, I think—allow me to consider on it over the course of the afternoon. We will speak again this evening, perhaps.” Dorhaur nodded, and Elrond raised his voice. “For now, tell me what brings you here. What have you discovered, then, that requires my counsel?”
Side conversations ceased, and Elladan motioned for Dorhaur to speak.
“As we had previously suspected, my Lord, the traitorous segment is quite small—fewer than twenty strong, at this time. They take all care to grow their movement with stealth, in order that they might avoid discovery by the current leadership. Indeed, had we not the information from Baradhald, it is unlikely that any would yet suspect.”
“Twenty.” Elrond sighed. “It is more than we might wish, and yet far fewer than I feared.”
“Indeed.” Erestor exchanged a glance with Glorfindel, and Elrohir leaned forward.
“There is, however, a complication.”
A complication. That might mean anything. Elrond lifted an inquiring eyebrow. Glances passed between his sons and the Men, and then Elladan spoke.
“Rendis, son of Restor.”
Elrond bit back a curse, dousing the words with a significant swallow of wine. The name hung in the air for a long moment, and then he asked, “Are you certain?”
“What, then, do we know?”
Again a pause, and then Dorhaur motioned to his second son, pride and frustration warring in his voice. “It was Demedhel who discovered the link. Perhaps he should speak.”
“It would be wise.”
All eyes turned toward the young Man—no more than twenty years, surely, and already the bearer of such tidings and responsibility. Demedhel son of Dorhaur took a long, nervous breath, exchanged a quick glance with his brother, and began.
The hallway outside of Elrond’s office was silent, free of noise and general traffic. Indeed, the lord of Imladris had placed his office in its current location precisely because it was out of the way—he was far less likely to be disturbed by external noise when so few people had reason to travel the hallway in question. Estel and Daelin eyed each other for a long moment, both disappointed to be left out of the discussion within but neither willing to admit it. Finally, Estel sighed.
“I guess we should go find your room.”
He turned and started down the long hall toward the guest quarters. After a moment Daelin caught up to him, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Estel glanced covertly at the other boy, curious but hoping that he would not be caught out in his surveillance. Daelin’s eyes met his and both looked quickly away, studying the artwork hung on walls and tucked in niches along their path. The hall opened onto a wide, covered patio, with view of the eastern gardens and then the forest beyond. Estel wondered how old the other boy was—he was not taller than Estel, but a shadow of fine hair darkened his upper lip. Estel looked away again, wondering if Dorhaur had already taught his son to shave.
None of the Elves grew facial hair, and his mother (of course) did not shave. He wasn’t certain who would teach him, and did not wish for a beard all the way to his knees …
“What is a flet?”
“What?” Estel frowned, startled from his vague ponderings on Dwarven beard braiding.
“Your …” Daelin trailed off, looking faintly confused, then continued. “Lord Elrond said that you were building a flet. What is that?”
Estel hesitated, glancing across the patio in the direction of the forest—and his flet.
If it could be called that.
“Do you … want to see it?”
He was not certain that he should offer—Elrond had said to take the other boy to his room. But, the adults were in counsel, and might be for hours …
Daelin, too, hesitated, glancing back toward Elrond’s office as though his thoughts were much the same as Estel’s. Then, he nodded. “Might as well.”
Estel hadn’t truly expected the other boy to agree.
“All right.” He stepped gingerly out of the hall, leading Dorhaur’s son across the patio. At the edge of the gardens, he stopped. “It’s not a … it’s not a real flet. Not a good one, anyway. I’ve not been able to get the frame right—it keeps tilting to one side.”
Daelin considered these words for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, whatever they’re all discussing in your father’s office, I do not think that either of us will be allowed in anytime soon.” The other boy offered a tentative grin. “I’ve helped with building sheds and barns and done some repair work on our house—perhaps this flet of yours will not be so different.”
Estel stared for a moment, then felt an answering grin tug at his lips. Perhaps it would be more fun to work out the details with someone else, rather than simply wait for his brothers or one of the other Elves to show him how it was done. He stuffed his hands into his own pockets, nodding toward the expanse of forest beyond the gardens.
“It’s this way, then. Come on.”
*The Lay of Leithian, of course. 🙂 Taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.”
A/N: Though I’m not sure of the details of how pipeweed was farmed, I’m assuming it was pretty much like tobacco farming today (or rather, two hundred years ago). The info I used came from the North Carolina Digital History web site, an article called Tobacco Farming the Old Way. Was quite interesting (at least, I thought) …
A/N: No … I do not hunt—rabbits or anything else. But a 2010 article in Game and Fish magazine online called, helpfully enough, “Rabbit Hunting with a Bow,” gave me some good tips … 😛
* Amon Sûl is Sindarin for ‘Hill of Wind’
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