Book and movie elements have been mercilessly mashed up here to form my version. However the characters and settings all ultimately belong to JRR Tolkien and this is non-profit fanfic.
1. Chapter 1- Arrival by elwen of the hidden valley
2. Chapter 2 - Gilraen by elwen of the hidden valley
3. Chapter 3 - Beginnings and Endings by elwen of the hidden valley
4. Chapter 4 - Breaking the Language Barrier by elwen of the hidden valley
5. Chapter 5 - Adar by elwen of the hidden valley
6. Chapter 6 - Broaching the Breaching by elwen of the hidden valley
7. Lost by elwen of the hidden valley
8. Found by elwen of the hidden valley
9. New Friends by elwen of the hidden valley
10. Rain, Rain, Go Away by elwen of the hidden valley
11. Reading, Writing and Printing by elwen of the hidden valley
12. Glory Days by elwen of the hidden valley
13. Chapter 13- New Clothes by elwen of the hidden valley
14. Life and Death and Trees by elwen of the hidden valley
15. Taking A Seat by elwen of the hidden valley
16. Strange Encounters by elwen of the hidden valley
17. Misty Mountains by elwen of the hidden valley
18. Herblore and kingship by elwen of the hidden valley
19. The Darkening of Valinor by elwen of the hidden valley
20. What Has It Got In Its Pocketses? by elwen of the hidden valley
21. Nimrodel by elwen of the hidden valley
22. The Birthday Present by elwen of the hidden valley
23. Chapter 23- Brothers In Arms by elwen of the hidden valley
24. Foreboding by elwen of the hidden valley
25. Feeling Better by elwen of the hidden valley
26. Honour and Forgiveness by elwen of the hidden valley
27. A Short Rest by elwen of the hidden valley
The tiny party arrived at dusk, horses clattering swiftly beneath the ancient arch and on, into Rivendell’s stone flagged courtyard. The lord of the valley awaited them on the steps to the wide porch, hands folded into the sleeves of his flowing robes.
With a nod to their father Elladan and Elrohir sprang lightly from their weary horses. Elladan moved forward to accept the small, blanket wrapped bundle from the lady’s arms but it was Elrond who stepped up to offer his support to the Gilraen. For a moment she only stared blankly, and then placed her hands upon his shoulders to be lifted easily onto the pavement. There she leaned into the support of her host her for a moment, face downcast.
Gilraen drew in a deep breath and straightened, searching at once for her son, and Elladan relinquished the cocoon into her arms. Aragorn son of Arathorn, slept on, one grubby thumb tucked between pink lips. The lady bent to kiss dark curls but did not otherwise acknowledge her surroundings and Elrond took her elbow in one gentle hand, guiding her into the house. Formal introductions could wait.
Even by elven standards Imladris was an ancient house and it had grown organically over the centuries of its existence. Elrond knew every corner and twisting hallway however and guided Gilraen along less travelled ways to the small suite of rooms that had been set aside for her. Had she eyes to see, the lady would have marvelled at the lavish beauty of the frescoes, the ancient vases, the delicate sculptures, the richly coloured carpets beneath their feet. But her eyes were closed to all but the memory of her husband’s ruined and empty face.
The raggedly fletched black arrow had been perfectly placed, piercing one storm-grey eye, to embed itself deeply in Arathorn’s brain. How long had it taken him to die? The twins had not offered her that information and Gilraen had not dared to ask. He had breathed his last before she could gather him into her arms.
Gilraen would suffer no other to perform the last act of love that she could offer her husband. She had drawn the arrow herself and bathed his body with her mother’s help. Gilraen had dressed him in his wedding robes and wrapped him in a winding sheet. Silent, she had stood vigil with her tiny son until the very last clod of earth had been raised above Arathorn’s resting place. Only as Ivorwen lead her little grandson away had Gilraen surrendered to tears and cast herself upon the mound.
Now, as one sleep walking, Gilraen permitted herself to be settled upon the edge of a broad bed. Elrond busied himself for a while, drawing heavy curtains against the chill of the oncoming night beyond the long windows and coaxing a fire into life on the broad hearth. When she continued to show no sign of returning awareness he bent before her.
“Will you allow me to put your son to bed while one of my folk assists you to yours? You are exhausted.”
Still there was no response so when Faerwen entered, Elrond slid his hands beneath the precious bundle in Gilraen’s lap, relieved and yet concerned when she made no protest at the removal of her only son. With a nod to her lord, Faerwen led the lady away to an adjoining bathing chamber and Elrond moved to a chair by the hearth, where a shallow tub sat steaming gently.
Unwrapping the sleeping form Elrond was struck anew by the echo of his brother’s features in the descendents of his line. To be sure, the body was of a more sturdy build than elvenkind but here were the same long, straight limbs and pale complexion. The raven hair formed soft curls uncommon to Elrond’s people but he knew that were those dark lashed eyes to open they would be a clear soft grey. With longer hair Aragorn could easily pass for one of Elrond’s own sons.
Removing the child’s simple gown Elrond noted that although he no longer wore any padding, the clothing was soiled. It was no surprise that at such a time of distress the little one had lost control and Elrond had cloths available in case of just such an eventuality. Using one to wipe away the worst of the mess, he paused only long enough to test the water before lowering the little form into the tub. That was when Aragorn’s lashes fluttered and Elrond was treated to his first glimpse of misty grey eyes.
Aragorn blinked and Elrond felt the first tendrils of panic from his charge. Using the contact of his hand with the little one’s back the elven healer felt only a little remorse as he carefully nudged the emotion aside before Aragorn could form a cry. Gilraen needed time to marshal her strength.
“Hello, tithen pen. My name is Elrond. I am the father of Elladan and Elrohir,” he offered with a gentle smile.
“Where’s Mama?” Aragorn asked timidly, his treble voice wavering slightly.
Elrond cupped warm water in his hand and trickled it over small shoulders. “She is having a bath, just like you.” He settled the little body against the back of the tub, confident that Aragorn was in no danger of drowning now that he was awake, and began to apply soap to a wash cloth.
For his part, Aragorn craned his head to look around the chamber, eyes widening at the sight of high, intricately carved ceilings and sumptuous furnishings. Then his gaze returned to Elrond’s face assessingly. “Dan and Roh are big. You don’t look like grandpapa Dirhael. You have no grey hair or beard.”
Elrond chuckled as he lifted one skinny little arm and began to wield his soapy cloth. “I am a half-elf. We do not age as quickly as your people. It will be many more years before my hair turns grey.”
“Oh.” Aragorn suffered his limbs to be moved as Elrond continued to bathe his small frame. “Where am I?”
“You are in Rivendell. It is where Elladan and Elrohir live. You and your Mama will be staying with us for a while.”
Elrond began to lather the ebony curls and Aragorn screwed his eyes shut in anticipation of stray suds. When grandma Ivorwen washed his hair there were always stray suds and they usually made straight for his eyes. When the suds did not arrive and Elrond began to rinse, he opened his eyes in pleased surprise. His mouth was quick to follow suit.
“How long is a “while”?”
“At least until you are grown as tall as Elladan and Elrohir,” Elrond replied carefully as he spread a thick towel on his lap.
Elrond withheld a smile as he watched the cogs turning in Aragorn’s mind. He lifted him from the tub and settled the little one on his lap with the practiced ease of a father, using another thirsty towel to dry his charge.
“Will Papa be coming too?” Aragorn asked.
Elrond knew that the little boy had attended his father’s funeral. Sometimes it was difficult to remember that mortals matured differently to elves. It was clear that Aragorn had not linked the ceremony with his father’s demise. Indeed it was possible that he had no concept of the finality of mortal death as yet. For some moments he considered, using the act of vigorously rubbing dry Aragorn’s hair to cover his pause.
“No. He has gone to another place but before he left he asked me to look after you and your Naneth.” Taking up a gown last worn by Arwen many years before, Elrond dropped it over Aragorn’s damp hair and wrangled it down the little body. Fortunately, he was spared further explanation by the scattered nature of a child’s overly active mind.
“What are an naneth and a tittlepin?” Aragorn wrapped wiry little legs about Elrond’s chest as he was lifted and he was too busy taking in the world from this more elevated position to notice Elrond coughing back a laugh.
“Naneth means Mama in my language. And Tittlepin means Little One.” Elrond lowered the now wide awake child into a little, high sided bed and began to drape him in soft blankets. Of course, Aragorn sat up at once.
“If Naneth means Mama, what’s your word for Papa?”
Elrond held out a two handled cup of warm milk, watching carefully as his charge took a large swallow. Once it was clear that Aragorn could drink without spilling Elrond settled upon a stool at the side of the low bed. “It is Ada,” he replied.
“Do you have an Ada?” Aragorn asked.
Unphased by this change of direction, Elrond reached out one finger to wipe away a milk moustache and smiled. “My Ada is a sailor. He has taken his ship and gone on a long journey.” He accepted the now empty cup from his charge and watched in some satisfaction as Aragorn settled down contentedly and yawned.
“My Ada took his horse. He says one day I will have a horse.” There was another huge yawn. “I’ve never seen a ship. Is it like a horse?”
Elrond tucked the blankets closer, letting his voice drift low as he saw grey eyes grow misty once more. One small thumb made its way toward Aragorn’s mouth and Elrond congratulated himself upon the fact that it was now a clean thumb. “Well. They are both used to ride. A horse is an animal for riding on land and a ship is made of wood and usually rides on water.” Elrond decided that to explain Earendil’s ship sailing across the midnight sky was definitely a tale for another time.
Aragorn’s eyes slid all the way shut as he rolled onto his side. Many of Elros’ heirs had been placed in his care down the generations but something about this little one tugged at Elrond’s heart. He and Elros had been little older when their father had first sailed away so he knew well the pain Aragorn would feel soon enough. In that moment he determined that he would do what he could to ease the path of this child. He bent to offer the benison of a kiss on damp raven curls.
“Sleep well, Tittlepin. May the Valar watch your dreaming.”
Within the bathing room warm water and kind attention was also working its magic upon the Lady Gilraen, who gradually became aware of her surroundings. For one moment her heart stopped when she realised that she had no sight of her only son. Then she heard his reedy voice in the next chamber, exchanging words with a male’s rich baritone. She drew in a deep breath, recognising that they were both safe in Rivendell at last.
The elven lady assisting her held wide a large bath sheet and Gilraen stepped into its welcoming folds. By the time she was dry her helper returned with a long, thick robe.
“Thank you. Please forgive me. I am afraid I do not recall your name.” Gilraen tied the sash.
“I am called Faerwen, Lady. Lord Elrond asked me to assist you until you become familiar with the ways of the house. Would you care for something to eat?”
It was difficult to tell with elves but this one appeared young in their terms, which made Gilraen feel a little less like a child herself. “I am not hungry. But I am certain my son will be.” With those words she strolled to the open door and found herself in a large, well appointed bedroom.
“Good evening, Lady Gilraen. Are you feeling a little better?”
She spun about to find a lordly elf, with long hair the colour of midnight, sitting at the side of a small, high sided bed; in which her son was sleeping soundly. Here was the owner of that beautiful voice. From the similarity of features this must surely be the father of Elrohir and Elladan, Elrond Halfelven himself.
“I feel clean at least, and grateful for your care, Lord Elrond.” She noted the incongruous sight of the elf lord holding a small double handled cup. Aware of his fame as a healer Gilraen stepped closer. “You have given my son something?”
Elrond arose, holding up the cup with a wry smile. “Warm milk only. He is exhausted and requires no aid from me to find sleep. I judged him too tired to make best use of any other nourishment at present.”
When he handed over the cup to Faerwen that lady departed and Gilraen found herself alone with this ancient and powerful being. She had grown used to Elrohir and Elladan but their father was a different matter altogether and she felt like a very little girl in his presence. Trying to cover her awe, Gilraen bent to stroke her child’s dark curls, finding them damp, like her own. He also appeared to be wearing a fresh gown and the grime of travel had been washed from his little face and hands.
“You have not fully answered my question,” Elrond noted calmly as he waved her to one of a pair of comfortable chairs by the fire.
Gilraen noted a faintly unpleasant odour and her gaze dropped to the pile of linens on the hearth. Clearly her son had messed himself at some point and tears sprang to her eyes of a sudden as she realised that she had been so deep in her own grief that she had not noticed her child’s needs.
Elrond was at her side at once, settling her into the chair and then removing all the linens and a small tub. When he returned he held out a fine white handkerchief and Gilraen used it to wipe her face and blow her nose. He took the chair opposite and waited patiently.
“I am sorry, Lord Elrond. I do not know why I am crying over such a small thing.”
Elrond watched as she turned to check on her son. “He is well and safe and in no distress at present,” he assured her.
Faerwen returned silently and set a small tray on the table at Gilraen’s side. On it was a selection of simple foods and some mint tea. Gilraen’s stomach grew unsettled at the mere smell of food. She had not eaten since . . . since before the twins had returned with her husband’s body.
“At least try a little tea.” Once again Elrond understood, adding softly, “The mint will help.”
Gilraen inhaled and then took a sip. The tea was fresh in her mouth and had been laced liberally with a fine honey. Whether it was laced with other things she did not know but it seemed to clear her mind and soothe her innards. Elrond watched silently and Gilraen wondered if he expected her to fly apart at any moment. Ruefully, she acknowledged that such was indeed possible. Her fae had sundered at the sight of Arathorn’s body thrown over the back of his horse and she was still scrabbling to draw all the pieces together again.
“How are you feeling?” Elrond persisted.
Gilraen fought back the returning tears, replying almost peevishly, “I feel shattered, bereft, frightened, angry, lost; overwhelmed. It is impossible to list all my feelings at present.”
Elrond only nodded. “That is to be expected. Grief is a strange beast. Do not try to push down those emotions. Only through acknowledgement can you move through them.”
Already feeling a little stronger Gilraen took another sip of tea before looking across at his face. “Do you speak as a healer?”
She was surprised to see him grimace. “As a healer but also as one who has personal experience of that particular beast. I have lived a very long time, Lady Gilraen. One does not reach my age without feeling the demise of many others. My own brother took the path of mortality and as a healer I have helped ease many through mortality’s final door.”
Then Gilraen saw his eyes unmasked for a moment. ‘Deep wells of sadness’, was a phrase she had once heard used to describe elven eyes and now she saw the truth of it. Her own son was descended through generations unnumbered from Elrond’s brother, Elros. Indeed, she had been told that was why he so often offered succour to her people. Now she caught a glimpse of what it had cost him. She saw him blink and the pain was gone.
“I apologise. It is too easy to believe that I am the only one suffering.” She refilled her cup.
“You have every right to your grief. But you need not suffer alone. I and my sons cannot begin to know fully your pain but we do also feel Arathorn’s loss. He was not very much older than your son is now when he came here for safety and tutelage. Life made him grim but I remember a laughing and willing child with a thirst for knowledge. When you are ready, we are here to listen. If you do not care to talk we will accept that too.”
“Thank you.” Gilraen took a deep breath and let it out on a slow sigh, feeling some of her pain expelled with it. “Did Aragorn ask after his father?”
“He did. I was unsure what he had been told so I merely implied that his father was elsewhere. I do not believe he has yet grasped the concept of mortal death, although I understand that he was present at Arathorn’s interment.”
Gilraen dabbed at her eyes as tears overtopped her dam once more. “I tried to make him understand but I think he does not want to. I have not the energy to force him, nor the heart to see him hurt. He is still a babe.”
Elrond nodded. “There will come a time when he is ready. And when he is I think he will surprise you with his resilience. A child encounters ten new things every day. They adapt to change more readily than adults.” He added gently, “Which is not to say that he will feel no anguish, but with much love he will come through. I will offer you both all the support I can, then and in the years to come.”
“Do you assume we will remain here for some years, then? I may wish to return to our people and my family,” Gilraen pointed out.
“You are free to stay or go at any time,” Elrond assured her. “But I will point out that the borders of this valley are well protected against the darkness gathering without. Your husband’s death was no chance and it is known that you bore Arathorn a son. There are those who will seek him out in order to end the direct line of the kings.”
Gilraen was beginning to feel stronger now that she had something other than her grief to occupy her. “Your borders are protected. Of that I have no doubt. But they are not closed. Your house offers shelter for all races. Can you promise me that no-one who comes here has a secret pact with our enemy? I think not. Even elves are not the perfect beings some would believe them.”
Elrond tilted his head in acknowledgement. “My people have a chequered past. In response I will say that although your hamlets are defended by sword and bow, there too all manner of folk may enter and leave at whim.”
“And yet what can you offer that his own cannot? I am grateful for this respite but will my son be any safer here than amongst his own?”
A flicker of emotion crossed Elrond’s calm features. “He is amongst his own here too.” Then he paused in thought, considering his hands. “We can hide his identity and give him a new name until he is of an age to be advised of his inheritance.”
“That too, can be done in my home,” Gilraen replied firmly. “Forgive me, Lord Elrond, but I worry that he will grow up not knowing the people he will one day have to lead.”
“He will have time for that.” When the lady pursed her lips Elrond sighed, holding out his hand, palm down. “And my borders are protected by more than bow and sword.” With his words a pale blue glow formed upon his finger, coalescing into a fine gold ring bearing a sapphire cabochon the deep colour of a midnight winter sky.
Gilraen gaped openly now. “Is this . . . is this one of the Three?”
“It is. This is Vilya, the ring of air and mightiest of the Three. Of the others I am not permitted to speak but Gilgalad passed this to me before the Dagorlad. Few outside my immediate family know of its existence here, but know that little happens within the borders of Imladris that are not whispered to me through this.” He clenched his hand and the ring faded from sight.
“And now you have entrusted that knowledge to me?” Gilraen and many others had assumed that the Three had been lost to legend long ago, for nothing had been heard of them in many mortal generations.
“It was not my intention. I had hoped to convince you to remain without its revelation.” His lips quirked in a wry smile. “But I had not reckoned with the keen mind of the Lady Gilraen, even in her grief.”
The lady gave a delicate sniff. “You forget that, although I am not of direct descent, the blood of Elros flows through the veins of many of my people. If I stay you will discover that illusion and sweet words hold little sway against intellect and a strong will.”
Elrond smiled openly now. “Peace, Lady. We should not fence with each other but join illusion with intellect against the common enemy. Our peoples have been allies before. Can we not be so again? Allies in the protection of your son . . . my nephew?”
Gilraen glanced aside at her sweetly oblivious babe. The power Elrond wielded was undeniably great but it was, “My nephew,” that finally decided her. “Agreed. My son and I will accept your protection indefinitely.”
Rising, Elrond drew Gilraen across the room with him to stand at little Aragorn’s bedside. Both looked down at the still innocent face.
“Have you thought of his new name?” Gilraen asked.
“Hope? I think I like that.” Gilraen ran a finger down her son’s soft cheek.
Elrond smiled. “Welcome Estel; the hope of your people.”
Aragorn took a bite of bread and his mother was not quite fast enough to prevent a long string of honey landing on his lovely new tunic. Both she and Aragorn had awoken that morning to find several sets of rather beautiful garments in their room. It was clear that they had been donated and expertly altered as they slept for no-one, even an elf, could have made them so quickly. Aragorn’s eyes had widened when he saw the delicate line of birds embroidered around the hem of his tunic and Gilraen had never worn such a light and elegant gown in her life. She wondered if Elrond was aware how much damage her son could do to a set of clothes in one day and making some simple play clothes moved to the top of her list of priorities.
“But why do I have to have a new name?” Aragorn asked around a mouthful of bread and honey.
Gilraen glanced aside at Elrond, who was leaning against the balustrade, sipping a cup of mint tea. The Lord of Imladris had arrived shortly after their breakfast tray and helped himself to a cup while Gilraen supervised her son.
“Well . . . we are in a new place so we thought you would like a new name,” she offered rather lamely.
“Do you get a new name too?” he asked, around a sticky mouthful.
“Oh, I am too old for a new name and don’t speak with your mouth full,” Gilraen replied. She noted Elrond hiding a smile behind his cup.
“But I like my old name. It sounds like Papa’s name,” Aragorn persisted.
Elrond finally took pity on the lady, setting down his cup and coming to sit at one of the chairs about their small table. “Did you know that elves have several names?”
He had little Aragorn’s full attention at once. Gilraen noted that there was something about the timbre of Lord Elrond’s voice that instantly made one want to stop and listen. He continued. “I was named by my father at birth and then, when I grew older, I chose another name and it is that which I use most often now. Most elves even have another one, given to them by their mother, but mine departed Middle-earth before she could do so.”
“What is your other name?” Aragorn asked.
“My father is called Earendil so he named me Earendillion, which simply means Earendil’s son. The name I chose for myself is Elrond. When I was only a few years older than you are now my brother and I were lost in a forest. That night we took shelter in a cave with a waterfall at the entrance. My brother took the name Elros, which means Star-rain and I took the name Elrond, which means Star-cave.”
Most of this information was new to Gilraen too and she determined to find out more of Elrond’s history. It was clear that his childhood had not been uneventful.
Aragorn took a gulp of milk and Gilraen winced as he wiped his mouth on the back of one finely crafted silk sleeve. “So can I choose my own name? I want something that means “Big Warrior”,” he announced with a broad swipe of his empty hand. Gilraen’s heart stopped and, lightening fast, Elrond grabbed a delicate teacup before it could be swept off the table.
Placing the cup safely out of Aragorn’s range Elrond smiled. “You have not yet reached the age for choosing your own name but you are of an age where an elven mother would usually give a second one. Would you like your mother to do that?”
Aragorn turned to his mother, his eyes shining. “Will you name me, “Big Warrior”?”
Gilraen chuckled, dipping the edge of a napkin into a water glass and using it to remove breadcrumbs and honey from her son’s cheeks. “I think you are still a little young to be a warrior. Perhaps I can give you a name that suggests that when you grow up you will be someone very special . . . even a warrior?”
“Yes! Yes!” Aragorn bounced in his seat, scattering cushions and leaving him with his chin level with the table top. Elrond determined to appoint someone to search the storerooms for a raised chair later.
Gilraen glanced at Elrond before adopting a considering pose. After a moment she smiled brightly. “How about, Estel?”
Both lady and elf lord held their breath as Aragorn frowned. “Does it mean something? Like Mr Elrond’s name,” he asked.
“Lord Elrond,” Gilraen corrected. “It means, “hope”. It will tell everyone that we have high hopes for your future,” she offered with some hope of her own.
Aragorn turned pleading eyes on Lord Elrond in one last bid. “And I can’t be called, “Big Warrior”?”
Elrond smiled and shook his head. “Not yet, Tittlepin. You have a lot of growing and learning to do before you can claim that title. But you can hope to earn it one day.”
Seeing that he was not going to get his own choice Aragorn capitulated. At least he had hope. “Alright. I shall be called, Estel.”
“Welcome to Rivendell, Estel,” Elrond announced solemnly, hand on heart, as Gilraen let out a long breath.
Estel grinned. “Now can I go out and play?”
Gilraen gave their host a questioning look and Elrond nodded. “Turn left, towards the statue of the lady at the end of the hall, and then right. Through the door you will find a nice lawn to run on.” As Estel jumped down from his seat Elrond added, “Elrohir will meet you there.”
Pausing to exchange a brief kiss with his mother the youngster ran from the room and both adults winced as the door slammed shut behind him.
Gilraen sank back into her chair and Elrond refilled their cups. “That went well,” he offered as he pushed the honey pot toward her. Discovering that the pot was quite sticky he absently sucked honey off his finger while the lady doctored her tea.
“Thanks to you,” Gilraen replied as she too sucked honey from her fingers. She determined to ensure that Aragorn . . . Estel . . . was not allowed to handle the honey pot in future. “Was all that information about elven names true?”
“It was, fortunately,” her host replied with a smile.
Gilraen took a sip of the excellent tea. “He has not asked about his father this morning.”
“At his age it is difficult to know whether he has forgotten or whether he wishes to deny the truth. Give him a few more days. If the subject does not arise naturally you may have to broach it yourself.”
Unshed tears began to glitter in Gilraen’s eyes and she blew her nose. “I am not sure I will know what to say to him. Can you remember how you felt when your mother departed? You say you were a child too. How did you cope?”
Elrond sipped his tea. “Perfect elven recall can be a two edged sword. Elros and I were left at the mercy of our sworn enemies. Estel has been spared that at least. But I did have my brother and we shared our grief.”
Gilraen dabbed at her eyes. “Arathorn and I were not wed long enough to provide Estel with a brother or sister.”
“No hope even now?” Elrond asked but Gilraen shook her head.
“My courses arrived this morning,” she replied emptily.
“I am sorry, Lady Gilraen. I know another child would have brought you much comfort.”
Gilraen made one final swipe at her tears and straightened her shoulders. “I have a son and that must be enough. I will raise him as his father would have wished; to become the leader of his people.”
“And perhaps even more,” her host added.
Estel searched the dishes and plates for one last morsel of food, finally discovering a lone cucumber sandwich hiding under a napkin near Elrohir’s knee. With a good natured grin Elrohir offered the plate and Estel began munching at once.
Elrond shook his head commenting to Gilraen, “I had forgotten just how much food a growing child can consume. Perhaps we should bring a sumpter horse on our next picnic.”
Gilraen laughed; surprised that she could recall how to do so. “Lord Elrond, you could bring a sumpter oliphaunt and my son would still manage to empty its panniers. We have been here only weeks and already I have had to lengthen the legs of his breeches. I am even more convinced that it would have been better to keep him in dresses for another year.”
“But it is so much easier to climb trees when wearing breeches,” Elladan inserted, grinning broadly when Gilraen fixed him with a gimlet stare.
“He is too young to climb trees and if you encourage him again I shall make you stand on top of a chest too.”
Swallowing his last mouthful of sandwich Estel’s eyes widened and he jumped to his friend’s defence. “Dan didn’t mean to get me into trouble, Mama.” His voice took on an edge of awe however when he asked, “Can you really make Dan stand on the chest in our room?”
“Watch me,” the lady replied firmly.
Elrond tried to diffuse the sudden tension. “My son’s will respect your wishes in this matter I am certain. And you may dress Estel as you see fit. We will not stand in the way of the customs of your people.”
His sons exchanged glances which promised otherwise however and Elrond determined to have strong words with them later. He and Celebrian had never stood them on a chest as punishment when they were children but he knew of several bedroom corners that had regularly received the little twin’s undivided attention. They were too old now for that particular punishment but Elrond could list several odious tasks to be doled out at need.
Estel’s voice interrupted his listing. “What’s that?”
All turned to follow Estel’s little pointing finger. Their four horses stood cropping grass contentedly and at first Elrond was uncertain exactly what Estel was pointing at. He leaned down to sight along the child’s arm and that was when he realised that he was asking about a small low mound, topped with a standing stone. It was one of the reasons Elrond had chosen this particular picnic site.
He exchanged a warning glance with the child’s mother before replying, “It marks the burial site of an old friend. He died in an accident many years ago.”
“Can elves die?” the little one asked in surprise as his mother inched a little closer.
“They can. But Edrin was not an elf. He was a man. Indeed he was one of your people.”
Gilraen’s interest was piqued too. “How came he to be buried here?”
Elrond’s eyes grew distant. “One spring we found him almost frozen to death in one of the mountain passes and brought him in to recover. He was a woollen trader and returned many times after that, bringing us the best fleeces each year.” His rich voice dropped. “One spring he did not come upon the promised date. We found him in the high pass, trapped beneath a rockslide.”
“Was he dead?” Estel asked quietly and Elrond dropped his eyes to meet the innocent gaze.
“His end was swift at least. He was dead when we found him. I knew he had no family still living so we buried him here, where he will always be remembered.”
Tears began to shimmer in the child’s eyes. “And he won’t ever come back?”
Elrond cupped a small cheek in his palm. “No, Tittlepin. He will never come back but he will always be in here and here.” He touched a hand to his heart and head.
“Like Papa?” Estel asked, though his chin quivered.
“Yes. Like your papa,” Elrond replied sadly as Gilraen gathered her son into her lap, rocking him as the sobs finally came.
Elrond smiled in satisfaction as he drew out the scroll from its hiding place on the top shelf. He had been searching for this particular version of the tale of Beren and Luthien for several decades and had finally discovered it, quite by accident, amongst a collection of ancient herbals. He blew off a thick layer of dust. Someone had obviously misfiled it some time ago.
Lost in musings of just who could have filed it there he was suddenly jolted back to awareness of the world both metaphorically and literally. The ladder upon which he stood lurched alarmingly and, with one hand upon the rail and the other around a scroll, he was unable to prevent its slow topple. For some moments his body fought to stay put but when the list became too great he gave up the battle for balance. Letting go and leaping backwards he landed nimbly, flexing his knees to absorb the shock, and then pirouetted neatly to snatch the ladder before it could land upon the open mouthed little edan cowering beneath it.
Both heads turned to the doorway as Elladan’s voice was heard announcing, “Estel! Come back here you little imp. You will have to learn Sindarin at some point.”
With a conspiratorial wink Elrond twitched aside his heavy outer robe and the child had no need for second thought before rushing beneath. Just as Elrond drew his robe back a rather tight-lipped Elladan entered the library. He paused when he saw his father and frowned.
“Have you seen Estel, Adar? We were making a start on learning Sindarin and when I turned my back for a moment he was gone.”
Elrond set the ladder back against the bookshelves and even Elladan had to admire the way he managed to do it without turning or taking a step. In fact, the whole movement looked a little odd. His gaze travelled down the length of his father’s robe, noticing that it did not seem to fall in its usual ordered folds. The reason for this was explained when he noted that Elrond seemed to have acquired an extra pair of feet. His gaze shot back up to his father’s face.
The only part of Elrond’s features to move was one perfectly winged brow. “I cannot see him at present. Perhaps you could try the garden. It is a sunny day after all.”
Elladan’s mouth opened briefly then snapped shut before morphing into a lopsided smile. “Of course. Thank you, Adar.” Without a backward glance he departed, leaving Elrond alone with his new ward.
“You may come out now.” He helped the little figure to fight free of the enveloping folds of his robe.
Estel ran fingers through his tousled curls and grinned up at him with mischief sparkling in his eyes. Having raised three children of his own and helped to raise countless others Elrond had thought himself immune to an impish smile but now he learned otherwise. It took some effort not to mirror the little one’s grin.
“Was there a reason for your swift departure from the schoolroom?”
Estel’s grin faltered as he realised that his erstwhile rescuer was perhaps not as pleased with his actions as he had first appeared. He slipped a grubby thumb in his mouth and mumbled something. Elven hearing picked out the words and their meaning easily but Elrond frowned.
“I am sorry, Estel. I am not used to your language. Westron is not my mother tongue. Could you repeat it a little more clearly?”
The slobbery thumb was removed and Estel raised his voice a little, speaking slowly. “I wanted to play outside.” His gaze strayed yearningly to the long windows, through which could be seen a corner of Rivendell’s extensive gardens.
“I see. Did you not think that Elladan would be worried when he could not find you?”
Estel’s eyes widened. “No,” came the soft response. “Will he be very worried? Maybe I should go back.”
Elrond narrowed his eyes for a moment. “Perhaps we can send word to him that you are safe with me. Have you been in the garden today?” He had to tighten his lips on a grin as Estel tried to nod and shake his head at the same time. “Very well. I shall send word and then you and I will take a stroll in the garden.” He reached out a hand and Estel grabbed two of his fingers in one slightly sticky fist. Elrond suspected the boy had taken honey on his breakfast oatmeal today.
Estel was lead from the library, out onto a little used path that ran around the side of the large house. As they strolled in the sunshine Elrond offered gentle conversation.
“It is many years since I have needed to speak in Westron,” he noted. “You must forgive me if I am a little rusty in its use. Perhaps you can help me?” In truth, a party of dwarves had been through the valley to trade only two months ago but their Westron was rendered almost incomprehensible by a thick accent, so Elrond decided he could be forgiven this little deception. “For example, what do you call this thing upon which we are walking?”
Estel looked down and considered for a moment. He felt very important, being asked to help such a wise elf. It would not do to tell Lord Elrond the wrong thing. “A path. A gravel path,” he added helpfully.
“Ahhh. We call this a brithbad,” the elf replied, annunciating clearly. “A gravel path. Thank you. I shall remember that.”
“Brithbad,” Estel copied triumphantly. Years later his wife would laugh when he told her the first Sindarin word he had ever learned.
The path ended at a delicately wrought iron gate, set in a long stone wall smothered in glossy green ivy. Elrond lifted the latch and ushered the little boy into an enclosed rose garden. “This is called Celebriasant, which means “Celebrian’s garden”. Celebrian is my wife and she and I planted it together many years ago.”
Estel looked around a little disappointedly. All he could see were roses, trees and hedges. There were no lawns to run on or streams to paddle in. But he had been rude to one elf already today so he held his tongue.
Elrond bent to sniff a deep peach coloured rose. “What do you call these flowers?” he asked as he picked one and slipped it into the sash at his waist.
Estel was pleased that this at least was a flower he knew. “It’s a rose.”
“A rose,” Elrond repeated carefully. “To us it is a meril.”
To be polite, Estel repeated the word dutifully. Just then a frog hopped across their path and he shrieked, tugging on Elrond’s fingers to drag him after it. “Frog!” he cried delightedly.
Elrond laughed, falling into a trot to be lead easily in the frog’s wake. “Cabor,” he supplied.
By the time the midday bell announced luncheon Estel had learned at least two dozen Sindarin words. Admittedly, they were mainly the names of animals or plants, but it was a beginning. As he watched the little edan dart off to the dining hall Elrond determined to have a word with Elladan about the need to make Estel’s Sindarin lessons more engaging.
He grinned as he raked a twig from his hair and surveyed the grass stains on his robe. Perhaps he would undertake to teach Estel himself in future. It had been many years since he had spent so enjoyable a morning.
“Ouch!” Estel tried to pull away but his mother dropped both hands to his shoulders.
“Be still, now. I promise not to tug so hard but this would be easier if you let me cut your hair.” Confident that he would stand still, she wielded the hair brush once more, holding tightly to the root of one particular lock. It took several attempts but she finally managed to tease out the knot.
“I want long hair like Dan and Roh and Adar Elrond,” her son declared.
Gilraen’s heart performed a queasy flip-flop and her brush paused before moving on to smooth the rest of his shoulder length hair. Did Estel truly think of Lord Elrond as his father? Was her son already forgetting his real father?
“Did Lord Elrond tell you to call him Adar?” she asked as she helped him out of his dressing robe and into his little bed.
“Dan and Roh call him that,” he replied innocently.
“Do you know what, ‘adar’ means?” Gilraen tucked the soft blankets under his chin.
“I’ve been learning to speak elvish. It means, ‘father’ he replied proudly. “A father is like a papa.”
“But he’s not your papa, is he?” his mama asked around a suddenly constricted throat.
“Oh no,” Estel replied with all the easy innocence of childhood as he pushed back the blankets to leave his arms outside the covers. “I have a papa but he is dead. Adar Elrond is different.”
The muscles in Gilraen’s throat began to relax. “How is he different?”
“Adar Elrond says he could never be my papa but I can call him Adar if I like. He says people who are friends don’t call him ‘Lord’ and I’m too little to just call him Elrond. So I said I would call him Adar because that’s what Dan and Roh call him,” her son offered. Then his eyes widened. “Oh!”
“What is it, Ara . . . Estel?”
“He said I was to ask you if it was alright first.” Estel’s eyes dropped and his thumb made its way toward his mouth. “I forgot.”
“Yes, you did.” Gilraen captured his hand before the thumb could slip between his lips.
“Can I call him Adar, Mama?” Even at this young age Estel knew that his eyes were his best weapon when trying to convince grown-ups to do what he wanted.
After nearly three years Gilraen sometimes tried to persuade herself that she was immune to those big grey eyes. Every time she thought she had succeeded she found herself falling victim once more. She sighed. “Alright.”
When he would have exploded from the covers to hug her Gilraen constrained him. “That does not mean that you can pester him every hour of the day and night.” She fixed him with the glare Estel had come to associate with impartation of some serious information. “Adar Elrond makes choices about your lessons but outside lessons I am still in charge.”
Estel adopted his most serious face. “Yes, Mama.”
Gilraen was a little taken back by the simple agreement. She had come to recognise when the cogs were still turning in her son’s head. For a moment she waited but Estel simply settled down into the pillows, rolled onto his side and slipped a thumb in his mouth.
His mother bent to kiss his cheek then crossed to draw window curtains against the last rays of the sun as it sank behind the mountain peaks opposite. As she made for the door her son’s sleepy voice asked, “Does that mean Dan and Roh are my brothers now?”
Gilraen did not turn. “Goodnight, Estel.” She closed the door silently behind her.
Searching for Elrond in his study Gilraen found Elladan instead. “I am sorry to disturb you. Do you know where I may find your father?” she asked.
Elladan turned from the window. “At this time of day if he is not in the garden, watching the sunset, he will be in the Hall of Fire. Is there something I can help you with?”
“I thank you. No.” Gilraen turned to leave but Elladan stayed her.
She turned back to find him holding out a small flat item, no bigger than his hand and wrapped in brightly patterned silk. He looked a little uncomfortable and cleared his throat before continuing.
“I had only one charcoal sketch of Arathorn so this was painted mainly from memory. Will you accept it?”
Gilraen took the small package and unfolded the silk a little tremulously. The contents caused her to stifle a cry for in her hand was a simple oval frame containing a perfect likeness of her husband. Blinking away a mist of tears she touched a finger to his bearded cheek, half expecting to find flesh and bristles instead of paint.
When she said nothing Elladan cleared his throat once more. “I am no artist but I did the best that I could.”
Gilraen stepped up and wrapped her arms about him in a brief, fierce hug. “It is beautiful and I shall treasure it all of my life.”
Elladan’s face brightened. “I am glad it pleases you. I had intended to present it to you upon your natal celebration but I thought you may like it sooner.”
Gilraen rewrapped the miniature and slipped it into the pocket of her over-gown. “You can have no idea how timely this gift is. Thank you.” Now it was her turn to clear her throat. “I still need to find your father.”
“Oh yes.” Elladan glanced out of the window. “I see him. He is in the arbour in mother’s garden. Would you like me to show you the way?”
“The rose garden? I know it. Thank you.”
Gravel crunched beneath her shoes as Gilraen navigated the winding paths of the rose garden. The arbour overlooked a small lawn and fountain at the garden’s heart and despite the sound of her steps Lord Elrond did not seem to notice her presence until she was almost upon him.
He turned from watching the last pearl glow of sunset to smile softly at her, and Gilraen was surprised to see a shimmer of tears in his eyes. “Did you wish to see me about something, Lady Gilraen?” He waved her toward a seat in the arbour and Gilraen felt annoyed to find that she had complied without thinking. Elrond took a seat next to her, half turning to give her his full attention.
The reassuring weight of Arathorn’s miniature rested against Gilraen’s thigh. “I have been taught that elves are very wise and that you are considered wiser than most,” she stated as she steeled herself to meet his gaze.
Elrond’s eyes narrowed. “Some would say so,” he replied simply, aware from her tone that this conversation had the potential to grow acrimonious but unsure yet why that should be.
“My son has a father,” Gilraen announced pointedly, tucking her hand into her pocket.
The target of her ire nodded. “Estel has relayed our conversation of this afternoon, then. May I take it that you do not approve his suggestion?”
Gilraen blinked as the conversation was suddenly turned on its head. “His suggestion?”
Lady Gilraen was raising only one child whereas Elrond had already raised two sons and a daughter and helped to raise several of Aragorn’s sires. He was more astute than she when it came to the workings of a child’s mind. “We were revising some Sindarin words when Estel suggested that ‘Adar’ would be a good title for me. I confess that I was a little concerned at your reaction but ‘Lord Elrond’ seemed rather too formal for our relationship.” Elrond smiled. “I find I have grown very fond of your son.”
Gilraen would not let herself be so easily mollified, however, determining to retain the high ground. “Being fond of my son does not give you . . .” She struggled to find the right words and winced when the only ones her angry thoughts could supply were, “ does not give you any rights of ownership.” Her fingers wrapped tightly about the frame in her pocket. “Arathorn may be dead but he, and he alone, is my son’s father.”
The elf lord’s eyes flashed briefly and Gilraen actually shrank back a little. “I would hope neither of us has any ‘rights of ownership’.” Then his voice continued, calmly. “Which is why I told Estel to ask your permission to use the term, ‘Adar’. I considered that the word was sufficiently different to the Westron, ‘Papa’ to ensure no confusion between the two. I do understand, however, if it is not to your liking. We could use the term for a teacher, which is ‘Isthir’ or perhaps, ‘Uncle’.”
Gilraen discovered that it was very difficult to stay cross with someone who did not respond in like manner. She was wise enough to let go her ire and dropped her gaze with a sigh. “No. I have already agreed that he may call you Adar. But I would have appreciated being included in your original discussion with Estel.”
Lord Elrond bowed, touching hand to heart. “And for that I apologise. I did not take into account how easily a child’s mind may confuse permission sought for permission granted. I shall endeavour to ensure that I do not do so again.”
Surprised to find herself gifted with the upper hand Gilraen decided to push home her point. “In future, outside the schoolroom I make all the decisions about my son’s upbringing. Inside it, you and I make joint decisions.”
Elrond’s’ lips quirked into a wry smile. “I agree. It would seem that I am not as wise as some would have you believe.”
Gilraen found herself smiling in response. “It’s a wise man, or elf, who is willing to acknowledge that.”
Gilraen recognised the knock at her chamber door and closed her book. “Come in, Faerwen.”
There seemed to be a moment’s fumbling with the door handle and then Faerwen backed slowly into the room. When she turned around it was clear why she had struggled, as her arms were piled high with various colours and lengths of fine fabric and Gilraen rushed to help at once, closing the door and relieving her of half of the heap. Both ladies placed their burdens on the table.
“Where ever did you find all this?” Gilraen asked, smoothing her hand longingly over a layer of heavily damasked holly green silk.
Faerwen grinned, jangling a ring of heavy keys. “I raided the store rooms.”
Gilraen’s eyes widened. “I hope you will not be in any trouble. I would have been content with some simple stuff to make my son a set of play clothes.”
Faerwen laughed. “Have no fear. Erestor allows us free rein.” She surveyed the two piles of fabric. “Although I may have got a little carried away. I was uncertain of your tastes. But I can always return what you do not need.”
Gilraen had never seen so many beautiful and no doubt costly fabrics in one place. She amended that thought at once. She had indeed. On the backs of elves gathered in the Hall of Fire on the previous evening. The amassing of wealth was probably easier when one lived for thousands of years. Gilraen did not feel that she had earned such bounty however and was loathe to take advantage of her new hosts.
As though sensing her thoughts Faerwen lifted a small piece of dark grey woollen fabric. “This would make some practical breeches for Estel, do you not think?”
Gilraen reached out to touch the soft yet tightly woven material, her voice wistful. “It would be perfect although I am reluctant to breech him yet. He is still a babe.”
Faerwen’s brows rose in surprise. “He no longer requires padding. Why would he still wear dresses? We put our children into breeches as soon as they are dry. It is so much more practical for both genders when they are playing.”
Sighing, Gilraen took the cloth from her. “To be truthful, so do my people. I suppose I am reluctant to let him go. It signals another step away from needing me.” She fumbled for a hanky to blow her nose. “He is all that I have and I struggle to fight the urge to keep him close.”
Her companion pushed the lady gently into a chair at the table, drawing out one for herself. “I have no children of my own yet, so I cannot claim to know how you are feeling. Indeed, we have very few children in the valley at present, as it is not usually the way of our people to bring children into such dark times.”
Gilraen gifted her with a watery smile. “We mortals do not have the luxury of waiting for a better time, or the elven gift of choosing when to conceive. Sometimes I wish that Arathorn and I had waited a little longer but at other times I am grateful that we did not. I have loved Ara . . . Estel from the moment I felt him quicken in my womb but, as you so rightly point out, this is a dark world. He has lost his father already and I fear for his future. Wherever his path takes him it will not be easy.”
Faerwen laid a hand upon Gilraen’s where it stroked the grey wool. “Even those amongst my kin who have the gift of foresight do not claim to see a fixed path, unfurling into the distance. We may plan for the future but we must also be prepared to have that future change. I am still accounted young for elvenkind but one thing I have learned is to live each day as it arrives. To worry too much about tomorrow is to miss the joy of today.”
“Wise words but difficult for a mother to follow,” Gilraen replied with a sigh.
“Then know this, Lady Gilraen. There is nothing more precious to elvenkind than children. While he is here your son will be protected and nurtured by every elf in the valley, as though he were their own. Before he can ask a question someone will help him to find the answer. If he so much as stubs his toe upon a pebble half a dozen hands will reach out to dry his eyes.” Faerwen met Gilraen’s eyes squarely and in her gaze the lady saw a hint of the reason for her naming, ‘spirit lady’. “And if any hand so much as reaches out to harm your son it will be severed before it can lay a finger upon the hem of his cloak.”
Gilraen could not help but smile at her new friend’s vehemence. “Then I had best make sure he has a cloak.” She looked down at their joined hands upon the grey fabric in her lap. “And several pairs of breeches for I can guarantee you that he will tear the knees out of the first within days.”
Faerwen shook her head. “Oh no. Not this stuff. It was woven in the valley and is used to clothe our warriors. Although at the speed Estel is growing it may be as well to make several pairs in different lengths.”
Gilraen laughed. “It is clear you have never had children. One pair, with deep hems.”
Faerwen began to sort through some of the larger pieces of sumptuous silks and velvets. “I bow to a mother’s superior knowledge there. This pale yellow would make a lovely contrast as an under-dress to the holly green fabric you were admiring earlier, don’t you think? Both colours will suit you well.”
Her comment elicited a longing sigh. “They are beautiful. Are you certain Erestor will not be cross?”
Faerwen laughed. “I know the way to Erestor’s heart. How do you think I acquired the keys in the first place?”
Elrohir’s mind was lost in pleasant childhood memory as he stroked Baragaer’s bright copper flank, so when he turned about to select a clean brush he blinked to find Estel standing just beyond the roped entrance to the stall. The little edan had crept up so quietly that Elrohir’s mount had not even flinched. He was impressed, for Estel usually tore about in fair imitation of a small oliphaunt.
“Good morning, Estel. Should you not be at your lessons? I hope you are not hiding from Adar.”
Estel shook his head swiftly. “No lessons today. Adar says he has ‘portant visitors.”
Elrohir changed brushes and began to tease the knots out of Baragaer’s mane. “Important and, yes, Adar ordered some jewellery from the dwarves of the Iron Hills. I had heard they would be arriving today.” He paused to eye his new little brother suspiciously. “If you have no lessons did Adar not give you something else to do?”
The little one shuffled his feet and Elrohir hid a smile as he saw one small grubby thumb migrating toward Estel’s mouth before he dropped it to clasp hands behind his back. Elrohir remembered that being one of his father’s favourite strategies to wean children from sucking thumbs. “He said I had to practice my letters,” he mumbled toward the stable floor.
“And have you?”
“A bit,” Estel confessed. Then he turned pleading eyes on his older brother. “It’s hard, Roh. And it was dark in the libr’y.”
Elrohir grinned openly now, remembering only too clearly how he used to hate being stuck indoors when he was Estel’s age. “Lib-rary. So you decided to go for a walk? Does your mama know where you are?”
Estel had the grace to blush and drop his gaze to the floor once more. “She’s with Lady Faerwen.” He wrinkled his nose. “They’re sewing.”
“And if you told her where you were going your mama would make you practice your letters, I expect,” Elrohir commented as he set the brush aside and stroked Baragaer’s cheek.
“Is he your horse, Roh? He’s not the one you used to bring when you visited Papa.”
Elrohir chuckled, deciding to ignore the sudden change of subject. “He is a she.” He clicked and a little copper coloured foal trotted from the back of the stall to butt at his waist. Elrohir fished in a bag tied at his hip and offered the little foal a piece of carrot, holding out the rest of it to Baragaer when her imperious head swung his way.
Estel took a step closer, although he did not cross the rope. “Oooh. What’s the foal’s name?”
“His name is Gaerryn and his mother’s name is Baragaer.” He considered for a moment before whispering in Baragaer’s ear. The horse nodded her head and Elrohir beckoned Estel closer. “You may enter the stall and stroke Gaerryn if you wish.”
Estel’s eyes widened, shining with delight. “Can I?”
Elrohir held up a staying hand. “If you make me a solemn promise. You must promise never to enter any of the stalls unless a grown up tells you it is safe.”
As he had seen elves do on many occasions since his arrival in the valley Estel placed a hand over his heart and said, very clearly, “I promise, Roh.” He did not wait for Elrohir to change his mind, ducking under the rope and approaching mother and foal with admirable restraint.
Elrohir grinned, handing him a carrot. “Give him this. He’s very fond of carrots.”
Estel held it as he had seen Elrohir do and giggled when he felt Gaerryn lip it off his palm. When Baragaer snorted Elrohir gave her one too.
Reaching up a tentative hand, Estel’s face glowed when Gaerryn allowed him to stroke his warm neck. “Does his name mean anything?” Estel was learning that elven names usually meant something but he did not know enough Sindarin yet to be able to translate them all.
Elrohir stroked Baragaer’s long nose. “Baragaer means, fiery copper and Gaerryn means, copper chaser.”
Estel frowned as he continued to stroke the foal. He could see why the names included the word copper. Both animals were the most beautiful copper brown colour, like beech leaves in autumn. “Why, ‘chaser’,” he asked as Gaerryn nearly bowled him over with a butt to the shoulder.
Elrohir tapped Gaerryn’s nose lightly with one finger, even as he steadied Estel with the other hand. “No, Gaerryn. That is not polite,” he murmured and the foal snorted but stilled. “He is called Chaser because when he grows up he is going to be a very fast runner.”
Estel frowned. “How do you know?”
Elrohir offered Baragaer another carrot and broke one in half for Gaerryn, watching as the foal delicately nipped if off Estel’s palm. “Because of the shape of his body and because both his mother and father are good runners.”
Estel absorbed that bit of information as he patted Gaerryn’s neck. “Can you tell if I’ll be a good runner when I grow up?”
Elrohir laughed. “With your long legs I am certain you will. But would you not rather ride than run?”
“I don’t know. I only rode for the first time when Mama took me up with her. And I think I fell asleep. We were awfully high up.” He nearly fell over backwards as he looked up and up at Baragaer’s back and Elrohir had to steady him again.
“Oh, we must do something about that when you are a little older. I can teach you to ride and we have some ponies.” Elrohir shepherded a rather reluctant little edan from the stall but then, instead of escorting him to the door he led him to a quiet corner at the back of Rivendell’s extensive stables. He paused before another rope. “Say hello to Luin.”
Estel held in a squeal of delight as a tubby little black pony with a shaggy mane and big, liquid brown eyes trotted forward. Elrohir held out a carrot and Estel needed no encouragement to hold it out for Luin’s delectation. “Why is he called, Blue?” he asked as Luin crunched contentedly.
Elrohir ducked under the rope, bringing Estel with him. “When the sun catches his coat it has a blue shimmer.”
Estel pursed his lips, imagining a horse that glowed blue in the sun. That would be a very magnificent steed and he wondered when he could begin his riding lessons. Even as the thought came to mind Elrohir scooped him up and, before he could blink, Estel was sitting astride Luin’s back . . . or at least trying to. Luin was a rather fat little pony and although Estel’s legs were long for his age, they were not yet long enough to enable him to balance astride. Elrohir supported him safely, however, and Estel leaned forward at once to wrap his arms about Luin’s neck and bury his face in the thick, unruly mane.
As soon as he straightened the questions started. “When can I start riding lessons? Will Luin be my pony? Will you teach me or will Adar? Can we ask Mama now?”
Elrohir laughed, holding up his hand to stem the tide. “You are too little to ride alone yet. Let us see how you keep your balance in a few months. For now this will be our little secret.” With those words he lifted down a very reluctant Estel and nudged him out of the stall.
Estel looked back with a sigh. “Can I come and see Luin sometimes?”
Elrohir scooped up Estel and placed him on his shoulders. “You can help me to feed and clean him if you like. That will be a good lesson for when you do start to ride. But for now I will have to be your steed.” He trotted toward the stable doors and Estel giggled.
“That way, Baramlug!” he instructed with a tug at one of Elrohir’s plaits.
“Fiery dragon! Does that mean I must fly?” And Elrohir grabbed his rider’s ankles as he picked up speed. Estel squealed with delight and dug his heels into his steed’s shoulders, yelling, “Faster! Faster!”
Gilraen paced her room impatiently, crossing to lean over the balcony and survey the gardens below yet again. The midday bell had rung some time ago and the table was laden with treats to tempt a little boy’s growing appetite. But there was no sign of Estel.
When there was a knock at her door Gilraen raced across the room, flinging it wide and ready to hear the worst. But it was only Faerwen and another, coming to collect the empty plates. When that lady saw Gilraen’s face and the untouched food she turned her back into the room and waved the attendant away, closing the door.
In the time they had been here Faerwen had rarely known Estel to miss a meal. Nor had she seen Gilraen in such a state since the evening she arrived. “Where is Estel,” she asked gently.
Gilraen wrung her hands. “I don’t know. He left after breakfast to go and play in the gardens but he has not returned for his luncheon. I was going to give him a few more minutes and then go to Lord Elrond.”
Faerwen wasted no time. “Come. I will send word to Lord Elrond and meanwhile you and I will begin a search of the gardens.”
It was as they were closing the gate upon Celebrian’s garden that they turned to find a large contingent of elves, lead by Lord Elrond himself. Gilraen was at first dismayed to see several wearing the long pale green tabards of the Healer’s Hall but she relaxed upon noting others in the white suits of the kitchen helpers. It seemed that the presence of healers was not some portent of injury but rather a symptom of the fact that any and all who could be spared from their duties were joining the search party. She noted not only the twins but Erestor, Lindir and Glorfindel among the front ranks.
If Gilraen still harboured any doubts about Faerwen’s assertion that all elves in the valley would treat Estel as their own she lost them now. All wore grim expressions and Gilraen was astonished when Elrond gathered her into a fierce hug before stating firmly, “We will find him.”
For a moment Gilraen sagged in his arms, and then she drew a deep breath and straightened. “Thank you. All of you. Has anyone seen Estel today?”
A white clad elf stepped forward. “He came to the kitchens for a snack at mid morning.” He smiled a little sheepishly at the lady. “He calls in on most days and I give him a pastry and a glass of milk. I was kneading a batch of bread so I am afraid I did not see him leave.”
Gilraen filed that piece of information away for future use. Snacks were not forbidden but she would rather it was a piece of fruit. She fought the urge to giggle as she found her mind occupied by such a minor thought at this time and realised that she was not nearly as calm as she was trying to appear. As though sensing this Faerwen slipped a hand onto the small of her back in support.
Erestor came to the fore. “I saw him walking toward the woods at the end of the lawns at mid morning but I had noted Elladan going that way a few minutes earlier and assumed they were playing hide and seek.”
Elladan shook his head. “No. I was going to check progress on the clearing of the stream at the foot of the bank. Once we had removed the debris damming the water I left.”
“Do you think he could have been following you?” Gilraen asked in alarm as she remembered that the land sloped down steeply from lawn to stream at that point.
Elladan blanched. “I did not see him on my return trip but I suppose we could have passed each other without noticing. I was preoccupied and the undergrowth grows thickly there.”
Elrond looked out over the sea of faces. “If no-one has seen him since then, that would be a good place to begin our search.” When no-one else came forward Erestor began to arrange the search party into smaller groups, the largest of which would be tasked with searching the bank and stream whilst others were sent further afield in case their assumption was incorrect. Determined not to be left behind Gilraen and Faerwen used the few minutes grace to run back to the house and change into leggings and Elrond nodded approval when they returned.
“Come, Lady Gilraen. We will call out to him as we search and he will be most likely to heed your voice.”
Estel whimpered, wiping his nose on an already soaked sleeve. Once more he tried to move his leg and threw his head back to cry out as pain shot through from ankle to hip. The action dipped his face below the water and he lifted it to cough, tears springing to his eyes as that sent stabbing pains through his chest.
The bank was as steep as Gilraen remembered but a narrow path zigzagged across its face and Elrond guided her along it with a firm hand beneath her elbow. At any other time she would have protested the cosseting but it had rained heavily the day before and both bank and path were very slippery. Gilraen considered the close growing trees and muddy ground and shuddered as visions of her son rolling down toward the stream, his little body careening unchecked from trunk to trunk, crowded her imagination.
The rest of the elves were traversing the areas between the levels of the path and now Erestor cried out, “Here!”
“Estel!” Gilraen shook off Elrond’s hand to run forward to where the seneschal was just visible, at the next bend in the path. Her hopes were dashed however when there was no smiling child, nor even a tangle of little limbs. What she did see made her heart pause. In the mud she made out a set of small bootprints and then a series of long streaks leading to a trail of strange markings that disappeared down the hill.
Elrond and Faerwen were only a half step behind her. Erestor bent to examine the marks more closely, finally looking up into the lady’s face, concern writ large on his features. He pointed to the footprints. “He was trying to take a shorter route between turns in the path.”
Elrond continued. “He slipped in the mud.” His eyes followed the strange trail. “And fell, rolling on down the slope.” He motioned to Elladan, who was just above them. “Follow the trail down and we will continue on the path.” When Gilraen would have protested he shook his head. “I do not doubt your nimble step, lady. But even elves have difficulty negotiating this mud. Elladan will call if he finds anything more.”
Watching Erestor resorting to leaning against a tree trunk in order to rise, Gilraen had to accept the truth of Elrond’s assertion. But her step speeded up when the path turned to lead her away from the trail, before turning to meet it once more. And now she called out.
Other voices joined in chorus. “Estel!”
Estel had never felt so alone and frightened in all of his short life. Nor had he ever been in such pain, although his leg was not quite so painful now. He looked down the length of his body but could see little beneath the still muddy water, only the heavy branch that pinned him. His teeth chattered and when he lifted a hand he could see his fingers turning white. Spring had brought sun and warmth to the surrounding mountain peaks and much of the water in the streams was from the melting snow caps. As a consequence it was icy cold.
His neck was hurting now as he had to keep his head bent forward in order to hold it out of the water that, even then, came up to his chin. In desperation he craned his head, his gaze finally lighting upon a small log. He reached out a hand, stretching as far as he could, and managed to snag a twig at its end and drift it closer. Had it not been in water it would have been too heavy for him to move and he wished the same were true of the larger tree branch that trapped his leg. With much difficulty he eventually manoeuvred it beneath his head and managed a teeth chattering sigh as it relieved some of the pain in his neck.
Gilraen was running by the time she reached the foot of the slope, noting Elladan waiting for them. There was no sign of her son although there were signs of activity some way upstream. A small pile of debris sat on the bank and Gilraen realise that this must be the site of the dam they had spoken of. Tears sprang to her eyes as she saw the strange markings of her son’s trail end at the edge of a bank above the rain swollen stream. “No. Oh please, no.”
Faerwen would have slipped an arm about her shoulder but Gilraen shrugged free, running to look down over the edge, hopeful and yet fearful that her son would be lying at the foot of the low cliff. There was no sign of his little body and she buried her face in her hands, accepting Faerwen’s comforting arm now.
It was some moments before she realised that Elrond had moved away and was making his way down to a shingle beach. Now she watched in fascination as he knelt at the water’s edge, closing his eyes before plunging his hand into the icy flow. All stood silent and still, waiting for she knew not what.
The elven lord’s eyes opened to look at her and yet Gilraen sensed that it was not she that he saw and his voice seemed distant. “He fell into the stream just as they broke the dam. The rush of water carried him downstream.” He winced, eyes suddenly drawing into focus upon her face. “He is hurt but alive.” He arose, returning to the bank. “This way.”
The voice seemed so close but when he turned his head slowly from side to side Estel could not see his Adar. Still he tried to call back, but his voice was little more than a whisper. At least his teeth had stopped chattering. Indeed, he felt strangely comfortable now.
It was Elrond who took the lead now, pausing occasionally to thrust his hand into the stream before running on. They passed several bits of debris, still floating in the swift flowing water and Gilraen fought to keep her mind on the fact that Elrond continued to maintain that wherever Estel was, he was alive. Then she heard it . . . faint but definitely her child’s voice.
Elrond leapt into the water and, despite the fact that it was freezing, Gilraen followed him. Her eyes followed him as he splashed to toward a shingle beach on the other shore, where a small pile of broken branches had snagged around a rock. She was almost upon it before she saw the pale features of her son floating on the surface and was only peripherally aware of others following as she fell to her knees at Estel’s side.
“Come here and support his head, Gilraen. Speak to him.” Used to having his orders obeyed without question Elrond too knelt at Estel’s side and began to run his hands over little limbs almost invisible beneath the muddy water.
Gilraen pushed her annoyance aside as she removed a log from beneath her son’s head and slipped her knees beneath him instead. Gently she bent to kiss his brow, brushing strands of wet hair from his face. “Hello, Sweetheart.”
Grey eyes opened and tried valiantly to focus on her. “Mama?”
“Yes, Sweetheart. Mama is here now.” She stroked his brow, feeling the icy chill of his skin.
Elrond ran assessing hands down Estel’s legs, reaching around the heavy branch that pinned one of them. “Elladan, Elrohir, come and lift this off him. Carefully. Try not to jostle the leg beneath.” The twins moved to obey at once as Elrond beckoned to some of the healers, who ran forward with dry blankets. Gilraen was worried when Estel’s only reaction to the undoubted jostling was a small whimper and more worried still when she saw her own concern mirrored in Elrond’s usually calm face.
Needing no instruction, Erestor took a group of elves onto the beach where they collected dry wood and set a fire. Others collected leaves and spread a blanket atop them near the infant blaze. Soon a pot of water was hanging over the fire and Elladan gently scooped his little brother from the chilled water, one of the healers instantly stepping in to swaddle both in a thick blanket.
Elrond waited by the fire, a satchel of supplies and one of the healers at his side. Elladan laid his precious bundle on the makeshift mattress and Gilraen pushed him aside in her eagerness to be at her son’s side. Elladan took no umbrage, only moving away to speak with his twin. Elrohir ran back upstream at once and was soon lost to sight.
“Scissors.” The healer placed a pair in Elrond’s hand and he began to cut away Estel’s soaked clothing. The healer took a wicked looking knife and began to cut away little boots. Gilraen helped where she could, turning small limbs, drying pale flesh and murmuring endearments to her worryingly quiet child. She tried not to look too closely at the bloodied right leg, where a quick glance showed her the white ends of broken bone protruding from previously flawless skin. In her nightmares she imagined her son being injured by arrows or sword but never had she considered he would be hurt by a simple misstep, or so young.
Once Estel was dry and clean they covered him with blankets that had been hung by the fire to warm. Gilraen worried when he began to tremble but when she glanced aside at Elrond he only smiled reassuringly. “It is a good thing. It shows that his body is making an effort to warm itself once more. He has been in the cold water for too long. But now we must straighten the limb as quickly as possible. There may be damage to blood vessels and nerves and if we do not correct the alignment soon it will be irreversible.”
Gilraen stroked her child’s brow. “Will it hurt?” She knew the answer, had seen enough warriors returning with such injuries to know that she was trying to hide the truth from herself.
Elrond stroked her back. “It will. But I can give him a herb to ensure that he does not remember the pain.”
She met his eyes, seeing the truth of his assertion. Still she asked again, “Is there no other way? He is so little.”
Elrond only shook his head, signalling for one of the healers to feed Estel the necessary tincture. It did not take long for it to take effect and Gilraen held back her tears as she felt her son’s limbs relax, his face growing peaceful.
Gently but firmly the assistant placed his hands about Estel’s limb, just below the knee. The leg was so small that his hands easily overlapped. Elrond took the foot and, at some unspoken command he pulled, firmly but steadily.
Estel screamed and Gilraen fought the urge to cover her ears and run. But this was her son, flesh of her flesh, so she kissed his brow, powerless to prevent her own tears too. “It will be over soon, Sweetheart. I promise. It will all be better soon.”
The screams seemed to go on forever, until she began to doubt her own and Elrond’s promises. Then she caught some movement at the corner of her eye and looked up to see the assistant placing a dressing over the now straightened limb. Estel’s cries faded to whimpers. Elrond continued to hold the little foot in his hands as his assistant placed pads and then some smoothed pieces of wood on either side of the limb from ankle to thigh, bandaging them firmly in place.
Gilraen swiped tears from her cheeks before bending forward to smile down at the little face cradled in her lap. “It’s all over now, Sweetheart.”
“I got my new clothes dirty. Sorry Mama.”
“Hush now,” she murmured. “We can wash them easily enough.” She looked up in time to see Erestor throw the remnants of Estel’s new play-clothes and boots on the fire. She could make some more. It seemed that the fabric would meet a warrior’s need but could not so easily withstand the onslaught of a determined healer with a pair of sharp scissors. Estel’s eyes slid closed on a sigh.
At that moment Elrohir returned at the head of a group of riders, leading several spare mounts. He ran to the little group by the fire at once. His face clearing as soon as he saw his newest little brother peaceful and resting in the care of his mother and adoptive father. “The limb is set?”
Elrond stood and Erestor began to supervise the dismantling of the little camp. “Yes. He will sleep for a few hours now.” He touched Gilraen’s shoulder and she looked up at once. “He will remember nothing of the past few minutes and the pain from the break should be greatly reduced when he awakens. We must continue to watch him carefully, however. I sense no breaks in the major blood vessels but the muscles of his leg were compressed for some time.”
Gilraen could only nod. Her memory brought to mind an uncle who had been trapped beneath a rockslide when she was just a girl. His arm appeared to be undamaged when they released it, aside from some bruising. But then the pain and swelling had started and within a couple of days the arm had to be amputated.
Even as her mind spun through various horrific scenarios for her son, Elrond knelt at her side once more, drawing her gaze back to him by the simple expedient of cupping her cheek and turning her face to him. “He is young and strong and I have many years experience in treating injuries like this. If there are no further symptoms within a couple of days he will recover fully. All he requires now are a few stitches, lots of rest and his mother’s love.”
The search party were now leaping onto their mounts but when Elladan would have handed Estel up to his father Gilraen objected. “I want my son close.”
Elrond made no comment, merely dismounting to show her how to arrange her son in her lap to ensure his leg was not jostled and remained below the level of his heart. When he was certain his charge was correctly disposed he leapt upon his own steed and, taking her horse’s reins, led the way back to the house.
On horseback the return journey took only minutes and soon Estel was settled in his own bed, propped up on soft pillows, his leg stitched, padded and re-splinted by Elrond himself. As soon as he left Gilraen took his vacated seat.
Gilraen looked up from her sewing and smiled at her sleepy son. “Hello Sweetheart.”
Estel blinked, looking about their shared room and smiling when he saw Faerwen sitting by the hearth. “Good morning, Lady Faerwen. You’re early. Where’s breakfast?”
Faerwen’s tinkling laugh seemed to draw sunshine into the room. “It past teatime, Sleepyhead. Are you hungry?”
Gilraen studied her son’s face intently. In truth, she had done little else for the past few hours. “Does your leg hurt?”
“I am hungry,” was Estel’s first reply. Then he frowned as he tried to move his legs, letting out a small, “Ouch.”
Gilraen stayed him at once. “Do not move it too soon. You have broken it but Lord Elrond says it will heal well.” She fixed him with her sternest gaze. “As long as you do as you are told!”
Estel frowned. “But can I still have my tea?”
“I will fetch something, Lady.” Faerwen departed, no doubt pausing to advise Lord Elrond on her way to the kitchens.
Estel tried to push aside the blankets and Gilraen stayed him before he could do any more damage. “Let me.” She twitched aside the bedding to reveal the small splinted leg.
Her little son’s eyes widened but instead of crying he grinned. “I’ve never seen a broken leg.” His smile faded. “It’s not a funny shape. Cousin Adwin said his papa’s leg was bent when it broke.”
Gilraen rolled her eyes as she tucked in the blankets once more. “Yours was a funny shape. Adar Elrond fixed it while you were asleep.” Her stomach, which had been churning ever since she heard her son’s first wail of pain, now finally settled. It was clear that Elrond had been correct and Estel remembered nothing of his treatment. Relief flooded in.
It seemed Estel was remembering something, however. “I’m sorry, Mama. I got my new suit dirty. I didn’t mean to. I slipped. Can you fix it?”
Relief expressed itself in a flash of anger. “No, I cannot fix it. We had to burn it. Whatever made you run off without telling anyone?” She regretted her ire immediately, as Estel’s face crumpled.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I can help you make some more clothes.”
Gilraen bent down to gather him into her arms at once, scattering kisses on his cheeks and brow. “Oh, Sweetheart! Hush now. I am not really angry with you and Faerwen is already making you some new breeches.” She pulled out a hanky to dry his cheeks. “But you should have told someone where you were going. You know that.”
Estel settled back. “I wanted to see what Dan was doing. I was going to ask him if I could come but he was too fast.” He sniffed and his mother pinched his nose with her hanky.
Estel obliged and she wiped. “Why did you not call to him? He would have waited.”
Estel lifted a thumb to his mouth and Gilraen had not the heart to prevent him on this occasion. “I wanted to make him jump. I took a short cut but my feet slipped.”
“Please do not do that again.” Both turned to see Elrond holding the door open for Faerwen, who was carrying a tray. “You are fortunate to have any tea. A batch of bread was burned when the cooks left their posts to search for you.”
Estel pulled his thumb from his mouth and looked suitably contrite as Elrond came to stand at the foot of his bed.
Gilraen slipped extra pillows at her son’s back and Faerwen set a little tray on its own legs, over his lap. Estel’s face lit up. It was clear that the cooks had managed to recover from their little mishap for there was food aplenty and Estel grinned broadly as he tried to decide what to try first.
One boiled egg sat in a little wooden cup, its cap already removed to reveal a shiny yellow yolk. Arranged around it on the plate was a sunburst of soft buttered bread fingers and he dipped one in the yolk and ferried it to his mouth at once. His mother rushed to spread a linen napkin over his chest just in time to preserve the bedding.
There was also a dish of apple slices and sweet red grapes, a bowl of cool, creamy rice pudding dressed with a swirl of honey, two little flower shaped biscuits with current eyes and jam lips, a small piece of cake topped with butter-cream icing and a large cup of milk nestled in its own bowl of chipped ice.
Gilraen smiled as she saw her son tuck into the repast with some gusto. “I see the cooks managed to bake another batch.”
Elrond smiled and he turned to place a small vial on the table. “Over the years they have learned to be resourceful. One never knows who will turn up at the gates.”
Feeling lighter now that her son was well enough to eat, Gilraen could not resist a jibe. “I thought you said that nobody entered the valley without your knowledge.”
Elrond’s brow quirked, his eyes shining. “That does not prevent them knocking at the gates.”
Estel swallowed a mouthful of apple. “Do you have gates, Adar? Where are they?”
Elrond considered his reply for a moment. “There are several gates, but they are magical and invisible.”
Estel did some considering of his own as he chewed a grape and then, “If they’re invisible, how can people see them to knock?”
Gilraen enjoyed watching the mighty Lord Elrond lost for words for several moments and she had to swallow a giggle as he replied, rather lamely in her opinion. “That would be telling. We elves must keep some secrets. Perhaps I will tell you when you are all grown up.”
Leaving her son to demolish the contents of his tea tray Gilraen moved to the table to examine the vial. Helpful as always, Elrond had labelled it in Westron. Gilraen’s Sindarin was sufficient for conversation but she still struggled with the written word.
“Pain relief. Two drops to be taken as required. No more than eight drops in one day.”
Gilraen turned to watch he son, who seemed to be in no pain at present. “Do you think he will need this?”
Elrond moved closer, dropping his voice. “At present the tincture we gave him in order to set the leg is still in his system. When it wears off he may develop a slight fever and experience some pain. That is why I asked Faerwen to bring him some food now. He may not feel much like eating in a couple of hours.”
Gilraen replaced the vial. “Will he be alright, do you think?” Her heart broke anew to think of her child experiencing yet more pain.
Elrond squeezed her hand reassuringly. “We cleansed the wound thoroughly and applied a poultice. I sense no mortification. As for the other complications, only time will tell but from his progress so far I am hopeful.”
Gilraen felt a glow of pride in her son when he said, “Please tell the cooks I’m sorry I made them burn the bread? I won’t do it again.”
Elrond crossed to the bedside and bent to kiss Estel’s brow. “I shall tell them although I know that they have already forgiven you. I am pleased to hear that you will be more careful in future, however.” He lifted away the now thoroughly denuded tray, handing it off to Faerwen before re-arranging the pillows and encouraging Estel to scoot down. “And now I think you should take a little nap. Your Naneth will stay with you and I shall be just down the hallway.”
Indeed, Gilraen had already reclaimed her seat at the bedside and she too bent to kiss her son before tucking the blankets beneath his chin. Estel was sleeping peacefully before she had picked up her sewing.
“Good morning, Lady Gilraen.” Elrohir dipped his head to the lady and she nodded in response.
“Thank you for coming so quickly. I know you have many tasks to perform.” Gilraen offered him a chair and poured him a cup of mint tea.
“I will always make time for you.” He glanced about the room as he added a liberal dose of honey. He was not overly fond of mint tea. “Where is Estel this morning?”
Gilraen settled in a chair opposite and took a sip of her own tea before replying. “Your father took him into the gardens for the morning.” She smiled ruefully. “I cannot say that I am disappointed to have some respite.”
Elrohir smiled broadly. “He is a bit of a handful now that he is recovering.”
“A handful and an earful,” Estel’s mother replied with a sigh. “I have run out of ideas to keep him occupied within this room and he grows more and more restless. He had a full blown temper tantrum this morning just because he did not want to have his hair brushed.”
“Is there aught I may do to help?” Elrohir asked, politely. He secretly hoped that she would say, ‘No’. One of the best things about not being a father was the ability to step back when a child was being difficult. He was to be disappointed, however.
“That is why I asked to speak to you.” Despite seeing a flicker of discomfort in Elrohir’s grey eyes she pressed on. “He used to enjoyed his visits to the stables and would come back bursting with pride at being allowed to help. I wondered if you could spare some time to take him for a visit.”
Elrohir disguised his pause for thought by taking another sip of tea. Estel always behaved himself when in the stables and he suspected some of the animals actually missed him. “I suppose I could take him to see the horses. Or perhaps he could watch whilst I work. If he stays in the walkway he should be safe enough.”
Gilraen’s relief was palpable. “Oh, that would be wonderful. When can you do it? This afternoon?”
Elrohir smiled again. “How about early tomorrow? He can spend the morning with me.”
If Gilraen was disappointed that Elrohir could not take her son that afternoon she took care to hide it. The very promise of tomorrow’s visit to the stables would probably see Estel in a better mood for the rest of the day. “Thank you so much.”
“Sit there and behave yourself,” Elrohir instructed as he lowered his little brother onto a heap of clean straw by Baragaer’s stall.
Estel shuffled himself around until his back rested against the wooden partition and he could watch Elrohir work. For several months he helped with feeding and grooming some of the milder mannered mounts and since breaking his leg he missed the regular visits with Elrohir. He scowled at his still bandaged and splinted leg and then ducked, giggling as Gaerryn leaned over the rope to nibble at his hair.
“Gaerryn, you behave yourself too.” Elrohir dropped a small bag in Estel’s lap and Gaerryn now waited politely for it to be opened, his sensitive nose instantly identifying the sweet aroma of fresh carrots.
As Elrohir selected his brushes and began to groom Baragaer, Estel broke a carrot in half and held it out to his friend. Gaerryn lipped it gently from his palm then crunched loudly, eliciting another giggle from the child.
In hopes of receiving the other half of the carrot Gaerryn dropped his head to Estel’s chest and allowed him to rub between his ears. Gaerryn actually liked the rubbing every bit as much as the carrot but did not refuse when the rest of the treat was offered.
Elrohir watched proceedings from the corner of his eye as he worked and was surprised when Gaerryn dropped to his knees and then settled down companionably next to Estel. Estel slipped an arm beneath Gaerryn’s neck, stroking his cheek gently. If Elrohir needed any evidence that Estel would one day make an excellent horseman he could see it here. Indeed, had Estel been older he would have gladly gifted him Gaerryn as a mount. Sadly, by the time Estel graduated from ponies to horses Gaerryn would already have been allocated a rider.
As he worked Elrohir began to sing, as he often did when working with animals. It seemed to calm them, which made his task easier, and he liked to sing.
For his part, Estel loved to listen to Elrohir singing. His Sindarin was extensive now but sometimes the “older” words still confused him. But when Elrohir sang them Estel could see the stories he told, as though he was there as they happened. He was happily playing on a beach in the sunshine when something prickled on his un-splinted leg.
Drawn back from the dream he looked down to meet a pair of bright golden eyes. On his leg a little marmalade kitten, with a perfect pink T of a nose was kneading his leg in preparation for a nap. Gaerryn lifted his head and snorted in alarm at the tiny interloper but the kitten just stared back brazenly at the huge creature, circling daintily on Estel’s leg, before flexing her claws once more. Estel yelped, lifting her from his abused flesh. She gave her kitten version of a yelp and struggled as Gaerryn drew back, scrambling to his feet when he saw the little pink maw open and heard, “Aa!”
Suddenly aware that something was happening behind him Elrohir paused in his song and turned about. Estel still sat upon the floor beyond the rope but Gaerryn, eyes rolling, was backing toward his mother. Elrohir laid a soothing hand upon the foal’s flank and Baragaer nudged her foal toward the teat for comfort. Hunkering down at his little brother’s side Elrohir nodded toward the wriggling kitten. “I see you have discovered one of the stable cats.”
Elrohir relieved Estel of the kitten, lifting it gently by the scruff of its neck. The kitten stopped struggling immediately, hanging limply from his hand. When Estel looked at him questioningly Elrohir smiled. “It looks odd but this is how her mama carries her.”
Lifting Estel’s hands, Elrohir lowered the kitten gently into his little brother’s cupped palms. She was still so tiny that she could sit comfortably there and Elrohir wondered if she was the runt of the litter. She called again and Elrohir directed Estel’s hands inward, toward his chest, where the kitten immediately clambered inside his jerkin, curled up and began to purr.
“I can feel her voice,” Estel announced in wonder.
“You have surely seen cats before? I remember them running about your village.” Elrohir settled, cross legged in the straw.
“Oh yes. But I’ve never touched one before. Papa said they belonged in the stable,” Estel answered wistfully. “They’re very soft, aren’t they?”
Elrohir chuckled. “Apart from the claws and teeth,” he commented as he saw Estel rub absently at his thigh.
Estel grinned. “It only prickled.” Then he peeped inside his jerking before asking, “Are her teeth very sharp?”
Elrohir watched as the mama cat came toward them warily. Estel froze at the sight but Elrohir continued calmly. “Kitten teeth are not too bad. They do not intend to hurt and an adult cat will generally only bite if frightened for themselves or their children.” As soon as she came within range Elrohir reached out slowly and stroked the mama cat reassuringly. Beneath his touch she arched her back and, once she had sniffed at her kitten, sat at Elrohir’s knee, tail wrapped neatly over her toes.
At this signal of trust a gaggle of little multi coloured fluff balls tripped and tumbled to join them and soon a quietly ecstatic Estel was heaped in kittens. So pleased was he that he did not even complain when they settled on his healing leg. “Do they realy live in the stable?” he asked as he tried to stroke each purring lump in turn.
“Most of them will stay here but some decide to live with us. We let them choose.” Elrohir suspected that at least one kitten had already made that choice.
“Do you think one would come to live with me?” the little edan asked, hope shining in his eyes.
At one time Elrohir would have simply spoken to the mama cat and handed over the kitten, but he had learned to respect the Lady Gilraen’s opinions when it came to raising her son. “I think we must speak to your Mama first. You and she share a room at present and she may not want a kitten under foot.”
Estel’s answering pout soon faded as all the kittens continued to vie for his attention.
Elrohir waited until his father had taken Estel to the library for his lessons before seeking out the Lady Gilraen. Sitting in the sunlit garden, sewing yet another garment for her son, she smiled a greeting. “Good afternoon, Elrohir. Thank you for entertaining Estel this morning. He looked much better when you brought him home.”
Elrohir joined her on the bench, first moving aside a little pile of oddly shaped fabric pieces. Uncertain whether they were off-cuts or actual garment pieces he placed them neatly on the grass at his feet. Although he had long ago learned how to repair his own garments in the field he had no interest in the mechanics of actually constructing them. “Did he tell you of his adventures, then?” he asked.
Gilraen smiled as she removed a pin. “He did. I had no idea that you kept cats in Imladris.”
“Oh, there are several, although few choose to live in the house. My brother and I acquired a pet cat when we were Estel’s age. He followed us everywhere until he got old and stiff in the joints. Then he adopted my father.” He winced and adjusted his fine silk tunic. “I think Lithuion preferred father’s slower pace,” he added.
Frowning, Gilraen’s gaze dropped to an area of Elrohir’s tunic, just above his belt, which seemed to be moving independently of the rest of the garment. Elrohir decided to postpone the meeting no longer and lifted out a rather ruffled marmalade kitten.
Gilraen’s face softened at once and she held out her hands eagerly to accept this little treasure. “Oh my. She is as adorable as Estel said she was.”
As he hoped she would, the kitten signalled her approval of the lady by rasping a tiny pink tongue over Gilraen’s palm. The love emanating from Gilraen was almost palpable and in response the kitten leapt lightly into her lap, curled into a ball and settled down for a snooze.
“Have you cared for cats before?” Elrohir asked hopefully.
“Oh yes. I too had a cat when I was a girl.” Gilraen sighed. “I would have liked one for Estel but Arathorn was not fond of them.” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you asking if Estel can have this kitten?”
“They do seem to have bonded and the mother cat approves of the match.”
The lady searched his face a little sceptically. “The mother cat approves? I suppose you asked her.”
“I did not really have to. Mother cat would not stand in the way of her kitten’s wants in this matter. She approves of Estel, it seems. She says he is “Animal Friend”, which is a great honour.”
Gilraen stroked the kitten’s head absently. “Do all elves converse with animals?”
Elrohir shrugged. “I suppose so, although some seem to be better at it than others.” He nodded toward the now purring kitten. “Will you permit Estel the kitten?”
Smiling, Gilraen gathered the little ball of fluff in her hands and held it up to her face. Gold eyes met silver for a moment then the gold ones blinked slowly. “How can I refuse? Yes. I hope Lord Elrond does not mind having the furniture scratched.”
Elrohir chuckled. “He is quite tolerant of such things and I expect he will speak to her regarding the house rules soon enough.”
Gilraen leaned in to kiss the little rose pink nose of her new charge, deciding that she would love to hear that conversation.
Gilraen looked up at the knock. “Come in,” she called as she gathered up her shawl.
Elladan entered, bowing his head in greeting. “Good afternoon, Lady Gilraen. The visitors have set up their wares in the Dining Hall. Faerwen said that she would meet you there.”
“I shall not stay too long,” Gilraen promised as she draped the shawl about her shoulders.
“Stay as long as you like. I am certain I can keep Estel occupied.”
If she doubted the veracity of that statement Gilraen kept her thoughts to herself. Estel had become a real handful of late and she was more than looking forward to a couple of hour’s respite.
“Dan!” Estel flew across the room, leaping at his older brother who caught him easily and casually swung him upside down by one leg. The child squealed with laughter, his struggles having no effect whatsoever upon Elladan’s grip on his ankle.
Gilraen only rolled her eyes. “Thank you for looking after my wayward son. Nonetheless, I will not stay too long in the hall. I only wanted to see if they had any ribbons.”
“And something for me!” came a somewhat muffled voice from around her knees.
“And something for Estel,” his mother confirmed with an indulgent smile. Making no comment on Elladan’s parenting skills she slipped out of the room.
Estel was still struggling like a landed fish and Elladan held him up. “Now, what shall I do with you?” he speculated. “Perhaps I could hang you on a clothes peg in the wardrobe.”
His suggestion was met with a squeal of “Nooooo!”
“No? I suppose I could sit you on the top branch of that oak tree in the centre of the lawn. That would keep you still for a while.” Elladan took a step toward the door but stopped when Estel giggled, “No, Dan. Play with me.”
Once more Estel was hoisted upward. “I am not sure, Estel. I am rather busy. I promised Adar I would help him tidy a corner of the library this afternoon. Then again, it is raining so I suppose you would get rather soggy if I left you in the oak tree.”
Estel’s agile mind grasped immediately at a perceived flaw in Elladan’s reasoning. “But it’s not afternoon yet. You have time to play.”
Elladan’s eyes widened in mock surprise. “My goodness. I do believe you are right.”
At that moment a tiny bundle of orange fluff pounced upon Elladan’s shoe and he winced as sharp little claws penetrated the supple leather. “That is unfair, Celeg,” he chided.
Estel giggled. “Get him, Celeg!” The little ginger kitten gave a token nip at the toe of Elladan’s shoe but then turned her attention to the tips of Estel’s hair which, hanging upside down and struggling as he was, made a perfect kitten toy.
Elladan took pity on his little brother, swinging him upright in one fluid movement and catching him to his chest before setting him on his feet. He did not fancy the idea of explaining Estel’s scratched face to Gilraen. He supported Estel for a moment while all the blood returned to its proper place in the little body.
“Can we play in the garden?” Estel asked as soon as the room had stopped spinning.
“It is raining. Oh, but wait . . . I brought some things with me.” With those words he left the room, returning a moment later with his arms full of bags and strange equipment, which he dropped in the middle of the carpet.
Estel and Celeg ran over to investigate at once. “What’s this?”
Elladan settled himself cross legged by his collection, scooping Celeg into his lap when she would have climbed into one of the bags. “You have plenty of toys but I thought Celeg could do with some. And you can use them to play with her too.”
“Oooh!” Estel righted a short, thick pole attached to a square of wood. He could see that it was wrapped neatly with a tight spiral of string. “What’s this for?”
Celeg needed no prompting however and immediately leapt out of Elladan’s lap to stand on her hind legs, stretching up as far as she could and scratching at the pole with her front claws. Elladan grinned. “It is for just that. Adar suggested it would be preferable to her scratching the upholstery.”
Estel coloured as he remembered his mother’s anger yesterday when she discovered Celeg had been using the back of a finely upholstered armchair to sharpen her claws. “Was Adar very cross? Celeg didn’t mean to hurt the chair.” As though sensing his distress, Celeg gave what had become her signature call, “Aa!” and jumped into his lap. Once there she clambered up his chest, eliciting a couple of winces from Estel, and onto his shoulder where she balanced a little precariously, golden eyes focussed challengingly upon Elladan.
Elladan grinned at her antics. “Adar is used to such incidents but it was he who suggested the scratching post.”
Estel’s little shoulders relaxed and Celeg clambered down, to a chorus of yelps from Estel when her claws penetrated his linen shirt. Once down she began to sniff delicately at the bags, drawing Estel’s attention too. “What else have you brought?”
The bags were tipped upside down and Elladan grinned as the child’s eyes widened at the bounty revealed. There was a selection of brightly coloured soft balls and when Celeg batted at one experimentally it rolled across the carpet, emitting a bright tinkle. The little kitten lowered her head, tail straight up like a flag pole and hind quarters wiggling for a moment before suddenly pouncing upon her prey. Another bat with her paw and it was off across the room where she gaily followed it under the table, dribbling it around the chair legs.
Estel continued to sort through the heap, crying out with delight when he discovered a bundle of feathers and ribbons on the end of a long piece of cord, attached in turn to a stick. As soon as he waved it about Celeg zipped across the room and pounced. Estel crowed, standing up to wave it in a wider arc and Elladan retreated to a safe distance to watch, relocating an antique vase in the process.
The arrival of winter had taxed Gilraen’s patience as her son demanded action after his long confinement. The broken leg had healed quickly and perfectly under Elrond’s care but Estel chafed at his enforced inactivity. As soon as the splints were removed he had assumed that he could continue with life as usual and everyone’s tempers had been tested by his tantrums and disappointment as he fought to regain his former strength. Just as he had been pronounced completely recovered winter closed in.
Protected by Elrond’s power, Imladris rarely saw bad weather but what fell on the surrounding mountains as snow he allowed to fall as rain in the valley. To prevent rain or cold weather altogether would not be good for plant or tree. Although elves did not relish walking about in cold, sopping wet garments it did them no harm. Mortals were not so fortunate however and Estel was forced to entertain himself indoors on many days. Although the storerooms had been raided for old toys and several elves had been happy to play rough and tumble with the little lad, Estel preferred the wide open spaces of outdoors.
Two days ago Gilraen had confessed to Elrond that she was almost at her wits end and it was then that he had told her of the caravan of dwarves due to arrive soon. They came to trade every year at this time, leaving just before the mountain passes were blocked completely by winter snow. When the lady expressed concerns about trying to shop and look after her over-excited son at the same time Elrond pressed his own son into service as baby-sitter. Whilst he loved his new little brother it was not a role Elladan particularly relished when space was restricted. Estel needed plenty of room to run off his excess energy. The introduction of cat toys was Elrond’s idea and watching Estel giggling and prancing about the room, followed by an adoring Celeg, Elladan doffed his metaphorical cap to his father’s wisdom once more.
When Gilraen returned a couple of hours later it was to find Elladan sitting comfortably in a chair by the fire, deep in a book, and a floor strewn with balls, bells, ribbons and feathers. She surveyed the mess but it was not until Elladan nodded toward the corner that she was surprised to find her usually inexhaustible son curled up on his bed, with Celeg purring softly on the pillow by his head.
Elrond looked up from his work, setting down his pen and smiling at the little figure peeping around the corner of one of the book cases. “Yes, Estel. Did you want something?”
Estel looked about him at the many cases that ran from floor to ceiling down the long room, their shelves crammed with books and scrolls. Celeg was not so easily impressed, however. The little kitten sniffed delicately at a few tomes on a bottom shelf then came over to investigate Elrond. Adar Elrond absently bent to scoop her up in one hand, stroking her gently.
“I am getting better at my letters,” Estel announced as he came closer.
“You are, indeed,” his foster father replied, waiting to see where this conversation was heading.
Celeg’s golden eyes narrowed, fixating upon the quill Elrond had just set in the ink pot.
“No, Celeg,” Elrond stated calmly as he set her down upon the floor once more. There she sat looking up, up and up the legs of the writing lectern.
“Have you any books I can read?” Estel asked. “I like to read but Mama’s books are too hard.”
Elrond smiled, leaving his stool to hunker down before his adopted son. “Would you like to read in Westron or Sindarin?”
“Sindarin,” Estel replied at once.
Elrond frowned. “Would you not prefer your mother tongue? You may find it easier at present.”
“But I’m learning Sindarin. We don’t talk Westron here. Even Mama talks elvish now.”
Elrond considered again the wisdom of teaching Estel Sindarin so soon. But he had not wanted the little edan to feel isolated when most of those living in the valley only spoke Westron as a second tongue. Now he began to worry that Estel would lose the language of his own people. He would speak to Gilraen about the feasibility of her son learning the languages in tandem.
“Very well. Perhaps I can find you some books in both Westron and Sindarin. What sort of stories would you like to read?” He rose smoothly, taking Estel’s hand to lead him to a far corner of the huge room.
“I like stories about warriors and dragons,” Estel replied at once.
“Hmmmm. Most of our stories about warriors and dragons are a bit too grown up for you. Let me see . . .” Elrond pushed aside a drift of comfortable floor cushions and knelt to examine a collection of brightly bound books on the lower shelves. He drew out a small book, bound in a bright sky blue leather. “Here is one written in Sindarin, a story about a naughty pony. Elrohir was very fond of this book when he was younger.”
Estel plopped down amongst the cushions and opened the book, cooing with delight when he saw that it contained many colourful pictures as well as words. Warriors and dragons were instantly forgotten and Elrond smiled, pulling out two more books. “This is a story about a sailor called Aldarion. He is an ancestor of yours and had lots of adventures.” He held out a green book. “The story is written in Westron. And this one,” he offered a bigger and obviously much read book, “is the tale of how the world was made.”
Estel laid aside his first book and reached for the larger one. It fell open easily in his lap and he tried to read the title page. “The Ain . . .” He looked to his Adar for help.
Elrond smiled as his fingers traced the word slowly. “The Ai-nu-linda-le,” he pronounced carefully. “You will not find it as easy to read but it does have some very pretty pictures. If it is too hard for you we could read it together the first time.”
Estel beamed. “Oh, yes please. I love it when you tell stories. Can we read it now?” he asked eagerly.
Elrond settled on the floor at his side, slipping a cushion at his back and gathering Estel to him. “Yes.” He turned to the first page and his rich voice floated on the air as Estel stared at a picture of strange and beautiful figures.
“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar . . .”
Celeg watched the two move away but did not follow. She continued to stare upward, to where the tip of Elrond’s quill could just be seen, its bracts quivering in a stray draught from the open door. Still a kitten, the desk was too far for her little legs to jump. She unsheathed her claws, testing them against the wood of the lectern, but after two unsuccessful attempts she sat down to reconsider.
That was when she hatched her master plan. With much thought (for a kitten) and not a little scrabbling she managed to traverse a convoluted path from bookshelf to bookshelf and from thence to chair and finally, desk. Once there she paused.
Celeg sniffed delicately at a brown and curling scroll, and sneezed before sitting upon a fresh sheet of paper which contained just one line of beautiful flowing script. She pawed at the words for a moment, just to see if they would play. When they ignored her she returned her attention to the initial quarry.
The pale grey quill sat in isolated splendour within a finely traced silver pot at the corner of the desk. Its delicate bracts waved at her tantalisingly and she dropped onto her front paws, golden eyes glowing as her bottom wiggled from side to side, the tip of her tail twitching. Somewhere in the house a door closed, the plume shivered and Celeg pounced.
She landed a hairsbreadth from pot and plume but one front paw nudged the little silver inkpot. That was enough to tip it over, pooling blue ink over most of the lectern and turning the quill into a soggy mess. The round pot rolled in a wide arc before dropping off the desk and landing with a loud clatter on the tile floor, leaving a ragged ribbon of blue in its wake.
Celeg did not wait to discover whether or not she was in trouble. She assumed the worst and, with a cry of alarm and a boldness that could only have been born from fear, she jumped directly from desk top to floor and bolted for the door.
Elrond leapt up, Estel in his arms, as there was a loud clatter followed by the sound of papers scattering and the unmistakeable, “Aa!” of one very startled kitten. His keen gaze immediately took in the scene, the growing blue stain, soggy feather and trail of tiny blue paw-prints. It took the elf little more than a moment to assess the situation and he set Estel on his feet. “Come. We had best find Celeg before she leaves a trail of paw-prints across some family heirloom.”
As they left the library Erestor appeared. “If you can send someone to deal with the mess in the library I shall find our little culprit,” Elrond called over his shoulder. Erestor glanced into the library and sighed. The beautiful tiled floor was centuries old.
It was not difficult to find Celeg. The trail of dainty prints ended in a corner, behind a large potted palm. Elrond easily reached in to grab the little trembling bundle by her scruff. She called out indignantly only once before hanging limp in his grip. Elrond held her up before his face, his voice soft but firm. “If you promise not to get ink on Estel’s clothes we shall get you clean.”
Elrond met her golden gaze steadily for a moment before laying her on her back in Estel’s hands. There she remained, blue pads pointed heavenward and her trembling fading as she recognised her friend’s touch and smell.
“Oh dear. What has happened?” Gilraen set down her book as Elrond and Estel arrived.
“Celeg stood in some ink,” her son replied as he held out his kitten for her inspection. Celeg obliged by stretching out her little blue pads.
Elrond was already making for the bathing chamber and called over his shoulder, “Ink that she spilled.” He returned a moment later with a basin of warm water, soap and a towel. Gilraen drew a table next to her chair and pushed Estel to sit.
The elven lord eyed Celeg sternly. “If you lie still I shall try to remove this ink. Although I suspect you are destined to have pale blue paws for some days. And please sheath those claws.”
“I think Celeg could look very fine with blue paws,” Estel pointed out as Elrond soaped his fingers and began to gently wash the kitten’s pads.
“I have no opinions on the aesthetics of blue pads but Celeg will try to lick them clean herself and the ink may upset her tummy.”
Some of the warm soapy water trickled down Celeg’s leg and she squirmed a little but Elrond ignored her movements. By the time Elrond had reached the fourth little foot, however, Celeg was becoming annoyed. Her fur was getting wet and wet fur was cold fur. Finally, she decided she had suffered enough indignity.
Had Elrond or Gilraen been holding the little cat they would perhaps have been prepared for her sudden move. But Estel was holding her very lightly when Celeg exploded into action. She corkscrewed about as only a feline can and leapt. Sadly, as a kitten, she had not thought this through and landed with a big splash, up to her belly in the basin of warm, soapy water. Everyone jumped back but Elrond was unprepared when Celeg made her almost instantaneous next move.
Claws unsheathed, the now soaked kitten leapt straight at his chest. Sadly, her climbing skills were limited as yet and she had to scrabble to climb upward, leaving a trail of water and little rips all the way up the front of Elrond’s fine robe. As swiftly as Celeg had pounced, Elrond moved. The kitten was grabbed by the scruff. She would not let go, however and when Elrond drew her away she took his robe with her.
So there Celeg hung, from Elrond’s hand, and there Elrond’s once beautiful robe hung, from Celeg’s claws. A stand off until Elrond’s eyes narrowed. “If you release my robes I shall hand you over to Estel to get dry.”
Celeg sniffed and twitched her whiskers before delicately sheathing her claws. The robe fell away and Elrond grimaced as the cold wet fabric fell against his chest. Gilraen tried valiantly to hide a smile as she spread the towel. When Elrond lowered Celeg into his lap Estel draped the soft towel about his little friend. A rather soggy and sorry looking Celeg burrowed into the towel, peeping out to stare balefully at Elrond.
True to her promise Celeg had not marked Estel’s clothing, much to Gilraen’s relief, but Elrond had not fared so well. He managed to avoid the ink but his beautiful robes were very wet and showed some serious damage from needle sharp kitten claws.
Having witnessed the undignified tussle, Gilraen was having difficulty holding in her laughter as she held out another towel to the scowling and, for once, not so elegant elven lord. Elrond paused long enough to fix her with a narrowed gaze before dabbing rather ineffectually at his garments. At the sound of his mother’s smothered giggle Estel looked up in surprise.
For a moment longer Elrond scowled then his lips twitched as he too began to see the ridiculous side to the situation. He began to chuckle and that was the signal for Gilraen to completely abandoned the battle to hide her amusement.
It seemed to Estel that it was an age since he had heard his mama laugh so freely and it felt as though spring had just arrived after a long and hard winter.
Lindir yelped and Glorfindel laughed as the younger elf’s arrow flew wide of the broad target to bury itself in the mound of earth behind. “I would concentrate on your harp strings in future, if I were you.”
Lindir grinned at the jibe but examined his arm where the leather bracer showed a scar from a hit with the bowstring. He was fortunate that past experience had taught him to wear a bracer and the leather showed evidence of many similar accidents. “I am just not an archer.”
Glorfindel nocked an arrow and drew back the string, pausing for a moment to sight and then releasing. The arrow flew straight and true, hitting the target dead centre with a solid, ‘thunk’. He turned to Lindir with a tilt of the head. “And that, my friend, is how to do it,” he announced smugly.
Lindir shook his head. “You have had a few centuries longer than me to hone your skill,” he pointed out as he selected another arrow and set it to the string. “I would like to see how you fare with a harp.”
“Oh, a harp string is far too inflexible to fire arrows,” Glorfindel replied with a smirk.
“Very amusing.” Lindir sounded anything but amused.
Glorfindel shook his golden head and set down his bow. “Alright. Let me see your form.”
Lindir took up his position, nocked an arrow and drew back. Then he waited while Glorfindel circled around behind him.
“Well, your stance is good but I thought you drew your hand back higher last time. Pick a place on your face to draw to and always go to the same one. I always draw so that my little finger is level with the corner of my mouth. It does not matter where you choose but always use the same place if you wish to be consistent with your shot.”
Lindir waited patiently while Glorfindel ran a hand across his shoulder blades to check the muscle tension and then gently eased back his student’s upper arm. “Now, sight along your arrow, take a breath, hold and then let it out before you loose.”
Lindir did as instructed and grinned with delight as his arrow hit one of the inner rings of the target.
Glorfindel slapped him on the back and turned to collect his own bow. As he did so he spotted little Estel and his mother sitting quietly on a mound behind them. “We have an audience Lindir. Shall we give them a show?”
Lindir turned to smile at Estel and Gilraen. “You may if you wish. I doubt I could do much to impress with my feeble skill.”
Glorfindel drew two arrows from his quiver and nocked them both. His draw and release was so quick that, to his audience, the arrows seemed to just sprout miraculously from the target. Both shafts landed in the central point, forming a perfect triangle with his previous shot.
Estel clapped eagerly and the golden warrior turned to bow to his appreciative audience. Gilraen chuckled and Lindir snorted, regretting it immediately when Glorfindel turned to him with a wicked grin.
“How are your nerves, Lindir?” he asked, with all the innocence of a spider eyeing up a fly.
“Reasonably good,” his victim replied a little hesitantly as Glorfindel rifled through the contents of his fletching kit until he produced a long grey feather. Lindir accepted it with a sigh of resignation. “How far away do you want me to stand with it?”
Glorfindel pursed his lips. “About ten paces from the target, at a guess.”
Lindir’s brows rose. “I had hoped there would be no guess work involved.” Even so, he took the feather by the tip of its quill and moved to the suggested position. There he held it out to the side and prayed silently that the Valar would miraculously lengthen his arm and provide him with steel fingers . . . very soon.
Glorfindel watched, twirling a grass stalk in his fingers, his grin widening. When Lindir came to a halt Glorfindel turned to wink at a wide eyed Estel as he drew two arrows from his quiver. Then he turned back to his quarry, pausing to drop the grass stalk and watch it flutter away before nocking.
All the blood drained from Lindir’s face when he saw his tormentor nock two arrows. The feather in his fingers trembled and he was certain it was not just from the action of the light breeze . . . unless the breeze was also responsible for the trembling of his knees.
He watched in morbid fascination as Glorfindel took his right-angled stance and drew back the string. As he saw his friend breathe in and hold, he did likewise. Before he had time to utter another prayer to the Valar a sharp tug sliced the feather a hairs breadth from his fingers and he sensed, rather than saw, the second arrow carry the remains of the feather onward toward the target. When he spun around to look he found the larger part of the feather skewered to the central circle of the target by one arrow, along with the shaft that had cut it from his hand. He looked down at the half inch of quill in his fingers and breathed out explosively.
Estel was ecstatic, jumping up and down and clapping. Once again, Glorfindel bowed and then strolled toward his victim with a broad grin. Lindir was still mentally counting his fingers when he arrived at his side. Glorfindel took the hand, turning it this way and that before pronouncing, “It seems you will live to play the harp again.”
Finally emerging from his shock, Lindir narrowed his eyes. “Indeed.” He flexed his fingers. “Perhaps, in celebration, I could compose a ballad to your modesty.”
Sitting at her son’s side Gilraen dreaded the question she knew would come.
“Do you think Glorfindel would show me how to shoot a bow, Mama? I’d really like to be able to do that.”
Gilraen could feel Glorfindel’s gaze and she lifted her eyes to meet it squarely. “You are still a little young,” she replied in a voice that would carry.
“But Mama, the other boys in our village were starting at my age.” Estel stuck out his bottom lip and flopped down on the grass.
Gilraen sighed. Elrond said all children went through this stage but that did not mean that she had to enjoy it. “Pouting will get you nothing, Estel,” she pointed out firmly.
When her son continued to pout and started tugging and throwing blades of grass she caught his hand gently. “Do you want to spend time standing on the box in our room?”
Estel dropped his head. “No Mama.” There was a pause and then, “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Gilraen replied calmly as she turned his face to hers. “Can you promise me that you will be sensible and do exactly as your teacher asks you? Arrows are dangerous things.”
Grey eyes widened in hope. “Yes, Mama.” He touched hand to heart. “I promise I will be very careful.”
Out of the corner of her eye Gilraen caught Glorfindel grinning. “Very well. I shall ask Elladan if he would be willing to teach you.”
Glorfindel only quirked one brow and offered her a sweeping bow whilst Lindir tried to hide his amusement. Rarely had he seen anyone put Glorfindel in his place.
Elladan fixed the string to Estel’s little bow and then unhooked it again, handing it to his new student. “Your turn.”
Estel set the bow upright before him, bracing it with his feet as he pulled down on the upper point. What had seemed so easy for Elladan was not so for his much smaller pupil but it was a task every archer needed to learn so he merely stood back to watch, smiling when he saw a tongue tip appear at the corner of Estel’s mouth.
The little edan tried several times to set the string but the bow sprang free of his hand or spun away to the left before he could drop the loop into place. He sighed, looking up pleadingly at his big brother. Elladan simply continued to stand, arms folded. “If you have not the strength to string the bow you will not have the strength to draw it.”
His calm injunction was all the incentive Estel needed. It took three more attempts but finally he managed to set the loop in the notches perfectly, proudly holding it up for Elladan’s inspection.
“Well done, Little Brother. Now I will show you how to stand.”
Estel frowned. “I know how to stand, Dan. I hardly fall over at all now.”
Elladan chuckled. “You have to stand a certain way if you are going to hit your target. Do you see the target?”
Estel had been a little disappointed when he noted that Elladan had set them up much closer to the round target than Glorfindel had stood yesterday. “Of course. It’s there.” He pointed with his free hand.
Elladan winked. “Just checking. Look down at your feet and place them so that they are sideways on to your target.” When Estel looked uncertain he demonstrated, presenting his left shoulder to the target and his little brother followed suit.
Now Elladan stepped behind Estel and knelt. “Can you tell the time using a clock?”
Estel nodded eagerly. “Mama has been showing me.”
“Good. Draw the bow as though you were going to shoot at the target.”
When Estel made to pick up an arrow Elladan stayed his hand. “No. First do it without an arrow.”
Estel made a valiant effort and Elladan helped arrange his arms and hands. “Left hand behind the bow like this, or you will hurt your thumb. Right elbow all the way up here so that you are using your back muscles to draw the string instead of your arm. It will hurt less. That’s it. Now imagine that the bow is the two hands of a clock and place the tips so that they point at eleven o’clock and five o’clock.” He tilted the bow slightly and Estel grinned as understanding dawned. “Does that feel comfortable?”
His pupil’s arms were already shaking but he replied, “Yes. Can I use an arrow now?”
Elladan chuckled. “Not yet. Gently let the string relax and shake your arms for a moment.”
Estel did so, unable to prevent himself from expelling a sigh of relief. “That’s hard.”
“It is. But you are doing very well so far.” Elladan gently massaged his little brother’s right hand, checking that the finger guard and arm bracer were securely in place. He did not relish facing Gilraen if her son cut or bruised himself during their first lesson. Indeed, Elladan did not relish facing his father either in that situation.
“To make it a little easier this time I want you to hold up the bow but not to take hold of the string. I would like you to pretend to draw and I want to see where you put your hand.” He leaned around to place his brother’s fingers in the correct place on the bow again then watched as Estel drew his right arm back. Once more he placed the elbow. “Can you feel where your fingers are against your face? When you draw the bow I want you to make sure that you always bring your fingers back to the same place.”
“Yes, Dan. Can I use an arrow now?”
“In a moment.” His teacher tried not to laugh at Estel’s eagerness. “When you get the arrow in place I want you to line it up so that you can look along it at the target. And when I say, ‘loose’ I want you to take a breath in, hold it, then breathe out and let go the string. Do you think you can do all that?”
“Yes. Now can I have an arrow? Please?”
Elladan took one of the small arrows from its quiver at their side and showed Estel how to nock it into the string. “Place the tip of the arrow to the left hand side of the bow, just above your hand like this.” Once again he set Estel’s hands and fingers correctly. “Now draw back the string. Look along the arrow.” He paused as Estel complied, once more helping to ease the right elbow and shoulder into place. “Nice breath in and hold. Breathe out and now, loose!”
Estel’s little fingers released and the arrow flew straight, hitting the outermost ring of the target. “I hit it! I hit it! Dan, I hit it!” Estel jumped up and down several times before turning to delightedly throw himself into Elladan’s arms.
“You did,” his older brother agreed with a chuckle as he tried to disentangle his hair from the bow which Estel had forgotten to drop before hugging his teacher.
Faerwen and Gilraen were sitting on the sun-washed balcony. A large table was placed between them, strewn with pieces of fine fabric in several shades and tints of the same blue-green colour.
Gilraen was setting neat stitches in a long seam joining two pieces of dark figured silk, her needle moving with the precision and economy of one much experienced in the craft. She smiled softly as she felt the shiny fabric slide through her fingers, pleased that for once it was not the strong wool of her son’s garments.
Faerwen held up an almost complete gown in a transparent tissue of paler blue. “Should I put some embroidery along the hem to match the neckline?”
Gilraen set down her own work to survey the delicate under-shift. The low, almost off-the-shoulder neckline was delicately embroidered with a tracery of green leaves and pale blue flowers. Initially, Faerwen had wanted to add pearls and crystals but the fabric was so fine that it could not take the weight. Gilraen marvelled that her friend had even managed to get the diaphanous fabric to support embroidery. Now she grinned, her eyes twinkling. “When he sees you in that the last place he will be looking is your feet. Any work on the hem will be wasted.”
Faerwen blushed and giggled. “You have a point. I can embroider the hem on the overskirt instead. Everyone will see that.”
Gilraen returned to placing her stitches as Faerwen started to pin the hem of her garment. She was surprised to hear a note of uncertainty in the much older elven maiden’s voice when she asked, “Do you think he will like it? I have never felt the need to dress to suit someone else but I want this gown to appeal to him.”
“I remember worrying about the same thing when I made my own wedding gown,” Gilraen replied wistfully. “But I need not have been concerned. Arathorn married me, not my gown. And beyond the first glance as we met before my father, he looked no further than my face.” She paused for dramatic effect before continuing, “Until he had to remove the gown. Then he noticed lots of things and they had very little to do with embroidery.”
Faerwen laughed now. “I am so glad that you agreed to help me with this. I have many friends but few are married and fewer still would be willing to speak as openly as you.”
“Oh dear. Do I sound too uncouth? My people tend to be rather more down-to-earth about such things. I suppose it is because we have less time for subtlety than elvenkind. My mother often interspersed her stitches with marital advice.”
“Not always helpful, no doubt,” Faerwen ventured.
“She did make the marriage night sound a wee bit frightening, I must confess.” Gilraen laughed. “Everything she told me about what goes where and how to please flew completely from my mind as soon as Arathorn and I were alone.”
“I hope I do not sound too forward, asking this, but did it go well?” Faerwen asked tentatively.
Gilraen set down her work. “Faerwen, Erestor loves you deeply and you love him. Anyone with half an eye can see that. Whether or not your first night goes well, you will work it out together eventually. So much love will not be denied its’ full consummation.” She touched her companion’s wrist. “My best advice to you is to forget everything anyone tells you and simply explore together.” She winked. “One thing I would ask you to remember, however; the journey can be as much fun as the destination.”
Both ladies laughed now as they picked up their work once more.
“Have you attended any elven marriage ceremonies?” Faerwen asked around a mouthful of pins.
“None. But as I understand it they are very similar to the practices of my own people. I suppose that is because our ceremonies hark back to the days of Numenor. I note that you wear the silver promise bands, as do we. Can I also assume they will be replaced with gold in the ceremony? Will your parents be attending? I don’t remember ever having seen them and they are not amongst the guests that have arrived so far.” Gilraen snipped off a thread and measured out another length between her hands.
Faerwen set the last pin in her hem and selected needle and thread. “Both my parents travelled West some years ago but I could not leave without Erestor and he will not leave his post here.”
“Surely Lord Elrond could find another Seneschal easily enough if you both truly wished to depart for the Havens?”
“A Senechal? Oh yes. I am certain someone would come forward. No. I was referring to his post as Counsellor to Lord Elrond.” Faerwen snipped a length of thread and Gilraen watched with envy as she threaded her fine needle at the first attempt.
“Counsellor? I did not know, although I felt he was much older than you. I suppose a disparity in age makes little difference to elves.”
“Not physically,” Faerwen replied as she made her first, almost invisible stitches in the fine fabric. “Erestor is actually older than Lord Elrond but I have only recently come into my majority. It is not usual to have so much difference in ages but it happens. Elrond is much older than his wife too. Elves mate for eternity, even beyond death, so we wait for as long as it takes to choose wisely.”
Gilraen worked in silence for some time as she wondered whether she and Arathorn would be reunited somewhere beyond death. Estel was her joy and reason to continue; the physical embodiment of her love for Arathorn. But she missed the feel of her lovers’ strong arms in the night.
Faerwen interrupted her reverie. “Gilraen, would you consider taking the role of my mother in the marriage ceremony? You have been as a sister to me and I can think of no-one I would rather have to bless the marriage cup.”
“I would be very honoured.” Gilraen snipped off another thread before adding, “As long as you tell me exactly what is involved. I would hate to spoil the ceremony for you.”
Faerwen smiled. “You could never do that.”
Estel looked up from his lesson to stare out of the long library window. It was not the first time his attention had strayed that morning and Elrond cleared his throat pointedly. Blinking, Estel returned to his simple Sindarin grammar but although his eyes followed the flowing script his mind refused to co-operate and he may as well have been reading dwarvish.
Elrond withheld a smile when he heard his distracted pupil sigh again. “Is something troubling you, Estel?”
It was all the encouragement the child needed and he closed his book firmly, before Adar could withdraw the opening. “Why are so many people visiting, Adar?”
“We often have visitors in the valley. You know this. Many elves pass through on their way to Mithlond.”
Estel was learning that Adar Elrond was very good at answering a question without actually answering a question. “But these aren’t “passing through”. They’re all staying.”
His foster father could only admire his tenacity. “They are staying for a little while and then they will all leave together. They are friends or family, but they come from many different communities so they agreed to meet here before making the last part of the journey together.”
“Oh.” Estel could see the advantage in that. If he were making a long journey he did not think he would want to travel alone.
Elrond cleared his throat again and tapped the closed book on the table in front of Estel. With one last longing look at the summer garden through the library window, Estel sighed and re-opened his grammar.
Estel crept into the largest of Rivendell’s kitchens for his mid-morning snack and came to a sudden halt just inside the door.
The kitchens were always busy, providing food for the main dining hall, but they usually had an air of controlled calm. Today the large space seemed to hold twice the usual number of people, all dodging about each other with bowls and trays. Large racks of portable shelves were chock full of delicious looking cakes and pies. Estel inhaled, identifying sugar and butter and many more delicate spices and fruits that made his mouth water.
One of the younger elves, who always managed to find him a honey cake and a glass of milk, spotted him by the door and bustled over. “Good morning, Estel. I am afraid you cannot sit in here today. If you go into the dining hall I will bring you a cake and a cup of milk in a moment.”
Estel pointed to a tray of little buns, which one of the other cooks was busy piping with pale yellow butter icing in the shape of a flower. At his side another was taking the iced buns and edging the yellow petals with pink so that they looked, for all the world, like one of the fine roses in Adar’s garden. “Can I have one of those?”
“I am sorry Estel. Those are for the wedding feast.” The cook patted Estels’ head. “You will get to try them tomorrow.” Even as he spoke the last bun was iced and another assistant covered the tray and swept it away to one of the huge cold larders.
Estel watched rather wistfully for a moment before retreating to the relative peace of the dining room. It was not until he sat down at one of the long tables, almost empty at this time of day, that he realised what his friend had said. “Wedding Feast”. But who was getting married?
Now all the extra people not “passing through” made sense. Unfortunately, it also made sense of his mother’s insistence that he be measured for a new set of clothes. Estel hoped those new clothes did not entail the wearing of the long robes that elves seemed to favour for special occasions. Mama once made him wear an ankle length robe for his birthday party and by the end of the afternoon he had managed to rip several holes in it. The robe never made another appearance, a fact for which he was immensely grateful. But now he considered tomorrow with a growing dread.
Estel stopped swinging his legs when Adar Elrond tapped the top of his head gently with the comb. “Sit still, please, Estel.” The object of his mild censure let out an explosive huff but remained still as Elrond caught the end of Estel’s plait in a fine silver clasp.
Laying the comb upon the dressing table Elrond patted his shoulder. “Stand up and let me look at you.”
Estel was only too eager to comply. It felt as though he had been sitting for an age while Adar messed with his hair. In truth it had been only minutes. Such tasks did not usually fall to the lord of the valley, so he had chosen a simple style.
Now that he had the leisure to consider it Elrond was uncertain how the task had come to him in the first place. As representative for the groom’s father he would usually be sipping a nice glass of wine with friends and family about now. It seemed that everyone else had some pressing task to perform when it came to placing the final touches to Estel’s toilet, including Gilraen, who was assisting the bride. Elrond suspected no-one else felt up to the task of dealing with the squirming little edan.
Estel jumped down from the stool and allowed Adar to lead him to the long mirror. Only then did he see the full effect of his new outfit and his mouth dropped open, for before him stood a little elven lordling. “Oh my!”
The figure staring back at him was dressed in a knee length blue velvet tunic over a silver silk shirt and grey breeches. A belt of silver leaves sat loosely about his slender waist and blue suede shoes with silver buckles comfortably encased his feet. His dark hair, simply swept back from his temples into a single plait at his crown, hung past his shoulders in shining tamed waves that almost hid his ears.
“Indeed,” Elrond concurred as he tugged at a cuff on his own elaborate robes. “Do you think you could manage to stay clean and tidy until at least the end of the ceremony?” he asked with little hope.
“When does it start?” asked the little edan, worriedly. He was well aware of the effect that he had upon clothes. Despite his best efforts most outfits seemed to attract mud or rips . . . sometimes both.
Elrond took pity on him as he steered them both toward the door. “Have no fear. It will start as soon as we arrive in the garden. You will be standing at the front, between Elladan and Elrohir.”
Estel tried not to fidget as he waited for the bride and groom to arrive. He had never been to a wedding before and it seemed an awful lot of fuss to go through. He had told his mama as much, even as he bemoaned to her the fact that he had no memory of his parent’s ceremony. His mama had only laughed, falling back on the comment he was getting very fed up of hearing. “You will understand more when you are older, Estel. Now go and stand with your brothers.”
His reverie was broken by the sound of a horn, blown by an elf perched high on the roof of the main house. Elrond and Gilraen stood together beneath a canopy of blue silk, a small table between them and now they looked to left or right and smiled.
Erestor strode confidently from the left to stand before the table, his hair a shining black fall against the deep blue-green velvet of his long robes. Faerwen drifted in from the right to join him, crystals at the neck and hem of her gown catching the sun and scattering it in a mesmerising display of stars at midday. Young as he was Estel stilled, suddenly aware that this was more than just the prelude to a feast. The image reminded him of drawings of the Valar from his story books.
He watched proudly as mama lifted a silver goblet and, letting her hand rest over it, asked the blessing of Varda upon the marriage. With a smile she handed it to Faerwen, who took a sip and passed it to Erestor to do likewise. Now Gilraen stepped forward and laid Faerwen’s hand in Erestor’s. Elrond took up a long white ribbon and bound together their joined palms as he asked for the blessing of Manwe upon their union. For a moment it seemed to Estel that their hands glowed. Then he blinked and Elrond was removing the ribbon as both he and Gilraen pronounced the couple joined in the sight of Eru.
The elves all around Estel began to sing in a language he did not yet understand, although he had heard it sometimes in the Hall of Fire. Erestor and Faerwen removed each other’s silver rings and replaced them with gold ones upon their right index fingers, then leaned in to kiss for what seemed to the child to be an excessively long time. Estel wrinkled his nose in distaste at such an exhibition. He wondered if Mama and Papa had ever kissed and vowed that if he ever got married when he grew up he would never behave in such a soppy way, especially in front of so many people. He noted that the grown-ups seemed to find it funny.
The song came to an end and another horn sounded. The couple finally parted as everyone surged forward to congratulate them.
Estel tugged at Elladan’s hand. “Can we eat the buns now?”
When Elrond nodded and held out his cup Gilraen refilled it with the delicate rose tea. Then he settled back in the cushioned seat to watch the antics of a group of younger silvan elves who had decided to chase each other through the stand of trees at the end of the lawn.
Estel was playing with Celeg on the lawn but Gilraen noted his eyes following their every move. “He’s watching them,” she noted unnecessarily.
“Yes. You realise that he will wish to emulate them?” Elrond took a sip of tea and smiled as one of the climbers lost his footing and was laughingly caught by a companion.
“Sometimes I worry that we should have returned to our home.” Gilraen sighed. “But I understand that the village has been experiencing more frequent attacks lately.”
“You are safer here but I can understand your fears. Estel is still too young to realise that he has not the natural skills of elvenkind. He will wish to test his mettle.”
“I suppose I had better ask Elladan to teach him how to climb safely. That way I know he will have some knowledge when he tries it.” Gilraen bit her lip when another elf made what seemed to be an impossible leap from one tree to another. “Although I really would rather he didn’t learn to do that.”
Elrond chuckled. “I do not think he will attempt that move for some time.” He looked up at the blue sky. “The bark will be dry after today’s sun. I will take him climbing tomorrow.”
Gilraen set down her teacup in surprise. “You will teach him!”
Now Elrond laughed. “Do not sound so surprised. I was not born wearing these robes.”
Estel strolled slowly along the line of trees at the edge of the gently sloping lawn. He had been told not to leave the lawn without advising someone but he did not think that just looking, while remaining on the lawn, was technically breaking that injunction.
Yesterday he had seen several elves laughing as they raced each other to the top of this group of trees and marvelled at their easy skill as they leapt from tree to tree, chasing each other.
He glanced around to see if anyone was watching and took a tentative couple of steps into the longer grass, closer to the trees. He was still standing on grass so could argue that he was still on the lawn. A little voice inside warned him that his reasoning was not entirely sound but he chose to push it away. He could not so easily push away Adar’s voice however and he jumped guiltily.
“Estel, what are you doing?”
He spun about to find Lord Elrond, obviously just come from some formal meeting, standing a few paces behind him. “I was only going to look, Adar.”
“I was not aware of your interest in the nature of trees but I am sure that I can provide some interesting books upon the subject. Was it their variety or their nurturing that drew your attention?” He paused, raising one brow. “Or perhaps you were trying to decide how best to climb them?”
Estel’s face reddened and he dropped his head to watch his foot, which was describing little arcs in the grass. “I wasn’t actually going to climb one, I think,” he murmured.
Elrond sighed as he slid out of his heavy formal robe, folding it loosely before dropping it on the lawn and carelessly throwing his circlet atop it. Estel watched in silent hope as Adar removed the sash and long inner robe until he stood before his foster son clad in breeches and shirt. He placed his hands on narrow hips. “I suppose I had best show you how to climb properly before you decide to learn alone. I do not relish the prospect of explaining to your Mama how you managed to break any more of your limbs.”
Estel tried very hard to look contrite but his excitement won out easily. “Thank you, Adar!”
When he would have run up to the nearest bole however, Elrond stopped him with a light hand on his shoulder. “First we look,” he admonished. Drawing Estel to one side he hunkered down and pointed to a large oak. “What can you tell me about this tree?”
His pupil frowned, looking up into the gnarled and twisted branches of the ancient specimen. “It’s an oak tree and it’s very old.” He looked higher, to see a russet squirrel staring boldly back at him. The little creature sniffed once and then disappeared into a large hole in the trunk.
Elrond smiled. “It is indeed. It was planted just before Elladan and Elrohir were born.” He let his gaze fall to the base of the ancient specimen. “What do you see lying about its roots?”
“Lots of bits of branches and stuff. I can’t see the roots really.”
“And why do you think branches fall from a tree?” his teacher asked patiently.
“The wind blows them down?” Estel offered tentatively.
“But why those branches when the others remain?” his teacher probed.
For a moment Estel considered. He was still of an age where action usually won out over thought but, when engaged, he could be coaxed into using mind before hands. “Because they’re dead?”
His comment was rewarded with a wide smile. “Well done! This is a very old tree, as you so correctly pointed out.” He led Estel around to the other side, where a large crack had formed in the wide trunk and the orange wood within was exposed to view. “This is what happens to old trees. The centre grows rotten and is slowly eaten away by fungus and insects.” He pointed higher, to where a large clump of fungus plates shelved from the scar of a missing branch.
Estel followed his gaze. “Can you eat that mushroom?”
Elrond smiled, now accommodated to the way a child’s mind flitted from one subject to the next. “Not that one. It is dangerous to both man and elf, although some animals have learned to cope with its poison.” He picked up one of the many branches scattered about. “This branch looks like any other still attached to the tree but see what could happen if you were climbing and put your foot on it.” Taking it in his hands he bent it only gently. It snapped with a loud crack, sending up a puff of dust.
“Oh!” Estel sneezed, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “How can I tell if it’s going to break?”
Elrond produced a hanky from his pocket and Estel accepted it, tucking it up his sleeve without applying it. “Were you an elf the tree would be able to tell you which branches are safe but the ability to commune with trees was not gifted to mortal-kind. You must therefore use your gifts of sight and touch and smell.”
“Smell?” Estel inhaled but could sense nothing out of the ordinary. Woodland smelled like . . . woodland.
“Yes, smell.” Elrond drew the youngster closer to the crack in the trunk. “Sniff here and remember the smell. Rotten wood has a distinctive sweet but musty odour.”
Estel drew another deep breath, recognising at once the smell his foster father described. Now that he thought about it he could remember encountering the odour in several places when walking through the woods. At the time he had not questioned but now he realised that noticing such things may be important. When Adar moved to stand before a smaller tree he followed, taking the initiative to move closer and inhale.
Elrond smiled. “And what do you smell this time?”
“I can’t smell any rot.”
“Well done. This chestnut tree is much younger and has not yet begun to hollow out with age. Still it is always well to check every branch as we ascend. Sometimes a small break in the protective bark, from wind or creature, can allow a canker to set in and weaken an individual branch.” He drew Estel back several paces. “What was one of the other senses I mentioned?”
The youngster sifted back through their conversation so far. Smell they had covered and at this distance he did not think his Adar expected him to apply touch. “Looking?”
He was rewarded with another smile of approval. “Yes. Look up into the tree before you decide to climb. Watch out for any broken branches that have become caught. As you disturb the tree with your climbing they could fall on you or on anyone standing beneath.” Elrond pointed to just such a branch, almost hidden within the dense summer foliage. “If the leaves are not too thick you can also try to plan your journey upward. Avoid any branch thinner than your leg and any place where a branch splits in two. Where possible, stay close to the central trunk.”
Estel frowned. Who knew climbing a tree could be so complicated? Already Adar Elrond had dismissed two trees and he began to wonder if he would ever actually be allowed to climb. Still, Adar had removed his long robes so he asked, hopefully, “Can we climb a tree today?”
Elrond shook his head but smiled. “Edain . . . so hasty. Tuck in the laces of your jerkin so that they do not catch on any twigs.” Whilst Estel obeyed Elrond moved to stand before another oak, this one young and clean limbed. “Let us ask this one.” He beckoned Estel before touching a hand to the bark and leaning in to whisper, “Le suilon. En ale ionneg.”
Estel’s mouth dropped open as he heard thousands of leaves shiver in response. What Elrond heard he would never know but the elven lord smiled. “Hannon le.” He beckoned an awestruck Estel forward, tapping a branch just above the child’s head. “Jump up and catch hold of this branch where it joins the trunk.”
Estel did as instructed, swinging delightedly for a moment. Elrond allowed him time to settle then gave advice on how to lever up to sit and then stand upon the branch. Once the boy had moved on to the next Elrond followed, his strong, lithe body promising protection should Estel miss his footing.
It took several minutes (and a little help from both elf and tree) for them to reach the point at which Elrond deemed the child would be satisfied and the two of them sat companionably upon a sturdy branch to survey the world below. Estel showed no fear, swinging his feet and leaning out to look down. Elrond slipped an arm about his waist, frowning when Estel would have protested. His foster son accepted the restriction with grace. He was sitting exactly where he wanted to be after all. He allowed Elrond to gather him close.
“Adar. Why can elves hear the trees when mortal’s can’t?”
“Do you remember the story of creation that we read in the library? Illuvatar sang elvenkind to live inside creation. Mortals were sung differently. They move through creation.”
The child frowned and Elrond tried to put it in simpler terms. “Think of elves as being a part of the land, like a tree or a flower. Men are more like the wind. They are not a part of the land and yet they move through and can affect the land. Illuvatar gifted them with mortality so that, like the wind, they are free to move beyond the borders of the world we know.”
Estel considered, brushing a strand of dark hair from his face. “What is beyond the borders?”
“I do not know the fate of man but I cannot bring myself to believe that death to this world is the end for mortals,” his Adar answered simply.
“Did my Papa go somewhere, then?”
“I believe so but I cannot prove it. It is a secret known only to Illuvatar and a gift some of my people would very much like to possess.”
“Cousin Adwin says elves live forever. He says even if they get killed they can come back. Glorfindel came back, didn’t he?”
“Many men think elves are immortal. But they are mistaken. We are reborn and can choose to return to Middle earth but only for as long as Middle earth lives. When the world ends, so do elves. We seem immortal because we live for a long time . . . just as a tree would seem immortal to a squirrel.”
“But when the world ends you can go to the islands in the West,” Estel pointed out as he settled more comfortably into his Ada’s side.
“The islands of Aman were sung into being along with the land of Arda so their fate is the same. When Arda ends so does Aman.”
Estel sniffed, nestling closer. “I don’t want you to end, Adar.”
Elrond bent to kiss the dark head. “Have no fear. I shall not leave for as long as you need me, Tittlepin.”
“How did he do?” Gilraen asked as she selected a highly perfumed red rose and added it to her basket.
“He will make a good climber with practice. The trees like him.” Elrond cut a small peach coloured rose and lifted it to his nose to sniff appreciatively. “He should now be able to select those trees safe for him to climb.”
Gilraen cut a piece of twisted hazel. She had lived in the valley long enough now to express no surprise at Elrond’s suggestion that the trees were sentient. “I would rather he did not climb at all. But I know my son well enough to know he will try it anyway.”
“He is growing up so quickly,” the elven lord stated wistfully.
“You have no argument from me about that. It seems only minutes since he was placed in my arms by the midwife.”
“I noted today that he has almost outgrown his bed. How would you feel about him having his own room?” Elrond asked as he took another sniff at the rose in his hand.
“If you had asked me that a few months ago I would have objected but, honestly, I am getting a little bored of tripping over his toys.” Gilraen snipped a branch of white rosebuds and Elrond added a frond of greenery to her collection.
“I expect Celeg has not helped there. She seems to have acquired as many toys as Estel.”
Gilraen smiled. “Everyone dotes on that cat. Estel seems to return with a new toy for her every day.”
“She is quite loveable, when she is not ripping up ones clothing. There is another smaller room adjoining your bathing chamber. It has been used for storage for many years but once cleared it would be a perfect size for Estel and Celeg and you will still be close enough to supervise them. Indeed, if you wish I can provide you with Faerwen’s old room across the hallway as a sitting room. Then, in effect you would have your own suite.” Elrond twirled the fine peach rose between his finger and thumb.
“That would be wonderful. Thank you. And Faerwen’s fireplace has provision for the hanging of a kettle. I could make my own tea without having to go down to the kitchen.”
Elrond smiled. “It is rather a trek, is it not? I had not considered that when I allocated your room. I only wished to provide somewhere secluded to enable you to draw breath. Have you seen Faerwen recently?”
Gilraen cut a sweet-smelling pink rose. “Yes. I thought that once she married she would be too busy for us but after a couple of weeks she returned.” She grinned. “I think she wanted something to do with her days. You keep her husband rather busy.”
Elrond considered for a moment. “I suppose I have come to rely upon him too much. Perhaps it is time to ask if he requires an assistant. He has managed the valley almost since we arrived and when Celebrian left he also took over the running of the house. Perhaps Faerwen would like to assist him.”
“It’s a thought. Although I hope you are not going to assume that she wants to, simply because she is now his wife. She may have other interests.”
Elrond raised his rose in salute. “I take your point. I shall ask Erestor to make arrangements regarding the additional rooms.”
(I make no claims for the correctness of my Sindarin.)
Le suilon = I greet you.
En ale ionneg = Look after my son.
Hannon le = Thank you”
Gilraen leaned casually upon one of the wooden walls dividing the stalls, watching proudly as her son finished brushing the little black pony. Perhaps not so little when compared to the size of Estel, she mused as he gave the unruly forelock one last smooth. She hid a smile as he frowned at the lock. No matter how much anyone brushed Luin’s mane it always looked as though he had just come in from trotting through a storm.
Elrohir had asked Gilraen to make some excuse to visit the stables today as, unbeknown to the lad, it was to be the occasion of his first riding lesson. It had not been a difficult task as this was the first appearance of some fine weather they had encountered in several days. Celeg sat at her feet, one back leg stretched heavenward as she cleaned herself. The now sleek cat had long ago decided that grooming ponies was a boring business. Ever aware of her little owner’s mood, however, she stopped when Elrohir handed Estel the saddle blanket.
Estel’s eyes widened as Elrohir bent to produce a saddle from the other side of the wooden dividing panel and lay it within sight. The elven teacher grinned. “Yes, Estel. It is time for your first riding lesson.”
Forgetting all he had been taught Estel squealed, jumping up and down upon the spot in glee. Luin tossed his head and shuffled sideways, narrowly avoiding Celeg’s tale. The cat arched her back in warning and then shot behind Gilraen’s skirts. Before Luin could step upon his little brother’s foot instead Elrohir placed his hand firmly upon the pony’s neck murmuring, “Saes, Luin.” The pony stilled at once but turned his head to stare accusingly at a now very still Estel.
“I’m sorry, Roh. I forgot,” he offered contritely.
Elrohir was not going to let him off lightly, however. “Thank you. But I believe you owe Luin and Celeg and apology too.”
Celeg peered around the hem of Gilraen’s skirt, uttering in agreement, “Aaa”.
Estel touched hand to heart, his gaze moving from pony to cat. “I’m sorry Luin, Celeg. I won’t do that again.”
To Gilraen’s surprise Luin snorted, as if in understanding and Celeg ventured out to wind about first Estel’s and then Luin’s legs. The cat had sense enough to retire behind Gilraen’s skirt once more however, having accepted the overture of peace.
“Well done, Estel. Now put the blanket on Luin’s back. Remember what I told you and make sure that you place it far enough forward. We do not want him to get any saddle sores.”
Estel carefully draped the thick but beautifully woven blue blanket in place, moving around to ensure that it was evenly draped on both sides. When he was satisfied he glanced up at Elrohir and grinned when he received a nod of approval.
“Hold out your hands,” the tall elf instructed and he held out the small saddle for Estel to hold. Unprepared for the weight the little edan nearly dropped it but recovered before Elrohir could assist. Elrohir nodded approval. “Well done. Saddle’s are quite heavy but you have not the skill, as yet, to ride without one. Proceed, and make sure you put it on the right way around,” he added swiftly as Estel nearly put the pommel to the back.
Estel’s mother resisted the temptation to help as Estel struggled to lift it high enough to place on the pony’s back. It took a little while but he managed it in the end, tucking up the stirrups as he had seen his papa do long ago.
Elrohir smiled. “Well done. Now duck under Luin’s tummy and catch the girth.”
Estel complied easily, despite Luin shuffling a little.
Elrohir’s quiet voice stilled the animal. “Be nice, Luin. And stop holding your breath.”
Luin exhaled on a snort and Estel, who had been unsuccessfully trying to tighten the girth, suddenly found his task a lot easier. Elrohir moved closer to place a hand upon Luin’s neck as Estel unfastened the rope halter to replace it with a finely tooled bridle. When Luin clenched his teeth against the bit, Elrohir stepped in once more. “Luin. Give the poor child a chance at least.” There was another snort and then Estel felt the bit slide into place. Elrohir was proud to hear the boy murmur, “Thank you,” in Luin’s ear as he fastened the throat latch.
All the while, Gilraen itched to give instruction or step in to help and now Elrohir bowed slightly to her in acknowledgement before unfastening the rope across the front of Luin’s stall. “Come, Estel. We will use a mounting block in the yard for your first few lessons.”
Estel was too pleased to be taking his first lesson to worry about complaining at what he perceived to be an unnecessary restriction. He hooked Luin’s reins forward and clucked as he followed his older brother. Luin eyed him for a moment and Gilraen worried that the cantankerous pony would refuse to follow, or worse, pull the reins out of Estel’s hand and bolt. She readied herself to step in but Luin simply glanced at her disdainfully and followed her son as meekly as you like. Gilraen and Celeg brought up the rear of the little party.
When they left the cool dimness of the stable Gilraen noted Elrohir waiting patiently at the mounting block, and a quick glance also revealed Elrond and Elladan standing in the shadows of the arch leading into the stable yard. It seemed that all of her son’s new extended family were here to watch and, rather than feeling cross at their intrusion, Gilraen realised that she felt pleased for her child. Here were people who not only cared for, but loved Estel.
Elrohir accepted the reins as Estel climbed the block. “Always mount from the horse’s left side,” the teacher instructed quietly. “Left foot in the stirrup.” He tapped the appropriate leg as Estel still occasionally struggled with the principle of left and right. “Then swing your right leg over Luin’s back. Sit down slowly. Do not plump into the saddle.”
Estel followed his instructions to the letter, waiting quietly as Elrohir made minor adjustments to the length of the stirrups. Gilraen could not remember when she had last seen her son so quiet and compliant. No doubt Elrohir had chosen Luin for just this purpose. She knew there were gentler ponies in the stables but Luin would ensure that Estel kept his mind firmly on the task in hand.
Elrohir paused to ask if his little brother was comfortable before attaching the lunging reins. Only when Estel assured him he was ready did Elrohir lead Luin out into the centre of the huge yard, where there was a broad circle of grass. With a soft cluck he encouraged Luin to begin walking, gradually letting out the lunging rein until pony and rider were describing a large circle.
“Bring your weight forward a little, Estel. Heals down in the stirrup. Back straight.” All Elrohir’s instructions were given in a calm voice and Gilraen began to wish her own riding instructor had been so gentle. She had vivid memories of her Uncle Sedrin yelling at the top of his already loud voice. It was only now that she realised why she had been concerned about Estel’s first riding lesson and she let out a slow breath. Estel was in safe and loving hands. He was also wearing a hastily converted and heavily padded warrior’s helmet, something she had insisted upon despite her son’s protestations.
At that moment Estel glanced her way, eyes shining and mouth stretched into a wide grin as, following Elrohir’s instruction, he spread both arms wide. The next moment he had his attention fully on the task as Luin gave a little hitch in his stride and Gilraen had to smile as the wise old pony drew his attention back to the task.
“I am going to ask Luin to trot now, Estel. Remember to push down on your legs. Heels down in the stirrup.” Once Estel had nodded his understanding Elrohir clucked again and Luin broke into a light trot. Gilraen was surprised to note how smooth that movement was. The tubby little unassuming pony had a gait smoother than any horse or pony she had ever seen and she was impressed anew at Elrohir’s choice of mount.
It took Estel a few painful moments to catch the rhythm but soon he was sitting easily, hands on hips. It seemed her son was destined to be a natural rider a skill Gilraen had mastered only poorly. She wondered whether Elrohir would be willing to give her a few pointers at some future date.
It seemed to be only minutes before Elrohir was taking Luin back to a trot and drawing in the reins until pony and rider stood at his side.
“Can we go again, Roh?” Estel asked a little breathlessly.
Luin dropped his head disinterestedly and began to crop the grass at his feet.
“That is enough for your first lesson, Little Brother. You will find yourself a quite sore tomorrow as it is,” Elrohir replied with a grin.
Gilraen stepped forward, Celeg at her heels. “You did so well, Estel.” She gathered him into a brief hug.
“Did you see me riding with no hands, Mama?” Estel asked excitedly as Elrohir lead them back to the mounting block.
“I did! You are going to be a much better rider than I,” his mother assured him as she helped him dismount, steadying her son as he regained his land legs.
Elrohir glanced at the lengthening shadows. “I will unsaddle and clean Luin on this occasion, Estel. That will give you the time to have a bath before your supper.”
“But Roh, I have a bath every morning. I don’t need another,” Estel protested.
“Oh yes you do,” Gilraen replied before Elrohir could say the same. “I will not sit through my supper with you smelling of horses.” She gathered up her son’s hand to lead him away, pausing to say, “Thank you, Elrohir. I wish my own teacher had been as gentle.”
Elrohir tipped his head. “If you ever wish to ride I will be happy to assist, Lady Gilraen. I enjoy teaching and we have some larger mounts, every bit as gentle as Luin here.” He rubbed the pony’s nose and Luin rolled his eyes heavenward in ecstasy.
Gilraen glanced down sceptically at the now innocent seeming pony and Elrohir chuckled. “I promise. We have some very gentle mares with less mischievous attitudes.”
“Thank you, Elrohir. I may take you up on your offer, then. I have been a little wary of horses all of my life, I am afraid.”
Elrohir smiled. “I could tell. I am certain I can help you to feel more comfortable on horseback. You will find me in the stables most mornings and I would welcome some company on my daily ride.”
Estel continued to protest his need for a bath all the way back to their rooms.
The dwarves were making their annual visit to trade. Estel saw them arrive from a distance but Elladan had taken over Adar’s duties as tutor for the day. Elladan was much more of a stickler for keeping the lessons on track and, even as Estel loved his big brother dearly, did not make lessons as interesting as Adar could. So the only glimpse Estel got was through the library windows as the party crossed the distant bridge.
It was a very large party, at least there were lots of ponies, many of which were piled with packages. But there were only about six dwarves, some riding, some walking, and all dressed in several muddy layers of leather, chain mail and heavy clothing against the autumn chill. Estel had little opportunity to note more before they moved out of his line of sight. There would be a feast tonight and, no doubt, storytelling in the Hall of Fire but Estel’s mama never let him attend when there were strangers in the valley.
“Roh, where do the dwarves come from?” Estel put his foot in the stirrup and climbed easily onto Luin’s back. Celeg watched from the stable doorway for a moment before retreating to the warmth within.
Elrohir made one final check of the tack on Estel’s mount before leaping onto his own horse. “It was Mahal who made the dwarves. I thought Adar had told you the creation stories.” He led the way through the wide stable yard arch and turned left onto a less travelled path into the trees.
“No. I mean where did these dwarves come from? Where do they live when they’re not travelling?” Estel clucked at Luin when the independent thinking creature threatened to stop to investigate a particularly succulent clump of grass.
“Ahh. This group comes from the Iron Hills. They visit us every autumn on their way west.”
Estel frowned. “Do dwarves go West like elves, then?”
Elrohir chuckled. “No. I mean that they travel to the lands west of us. There are several more mortal settlements before you reach the sea. The dwarves travel to the markets there after they visit us and then they go home via the Gap of Rohan to our south.”
Ahead of them, beyond a bend in the path, was a small glade by a stream where they intended to stop for their midday repast. Now Elrohir drew rein as he heard loud and, to him, uncouth voices. When Estel would have passed him, he grabbed Luin’s bridle. “I think the glade ahead will be too muddy today. Let us take the fork we just passed and have our lunch by the lake.”
But Estel had also heard the voices ahead and his quick mind told him that there were dwarves ahead, for he did not understand their tongue. Before he could protest, however, a voice came from the shrubs to his right. Elrohir knew his cause was lost when he saw his little brother’s grin.
“Can’t a fella even take a piss in peace in this valley?” A fierce looking dwarf appeared, unhurriedly arranging his clothing.
Elrohir eased his horse closer to his little brother but dipped his head to the irritable dwarf. “Good day to you, Master Dwarf. I am called Elrohir. Please accept my apologies for interrupting your . . . ahem . . . business.”
The dwarf’s eyes widened as he recognised one of the sons of the Lord of Imladris and he sketched a hasty bow. “Gribble, at your service.” He peered around Elrohir’s tall mount to wink at Estel. “And yours, Little Master.”
Before Elrohir could intervene Estel grinned, performing a hasty bow of his own, the sudden shift of his balance causing Luin to shuffle a little so that he had to tug on the reins. His verbal greeting was, perforce, a little breathless. “Estel, at yours.”
Elrohir added, “My little brother.” Estels’ hair was hanging loose today so that it covered his ears and with his still slender build he could easily pass for an elf.
Gribble frowned, no doubt aware that Elronds’ lady had travelled West many years ago. “It’s a raw morning and we’ve got a bit of a fire going in yon meadow. Would you join us for a bite to eat?” Gribble waved expansively down the path as though he owned the valley.
Now that he concentrated Elrohir could smell wood smoke and what appeared to be roast venison. He glanced aside at his little companion and knew his cause was lost when he saw Estel’s pleading expression. Estels’ presence was now known so he may as well turn this into a learning experience for the edan. “I thank you, Master Gribble. We were about to stop for luncheon anyway and will be pleased to join your company.”
Gribble led the way and within moments Estel and Elrohir were dismounting in the suddenly silent glade. In the centre was laid a fire, carefully ringed with stones, over which was set a spit on which turned several large pieces of roasting meat. The dwarf in charge of its rotation was smaller than the rest, his red beard shorter and less elaborately dressed than his companions. Gribble introduced him as his younger brother, Tibble. Around the fire the other dwarves had drawn up stones to sit on or were lounging at their ease on blankets.
Bot was the oldest of their fellowship and sported a white beard, much braided, dressed with gold beads and so long that he had to tuck it into his broad belt. He was the leader of their company and Elrohir noted him studying Estel closely.
Beside Bot sat Donnet, who’s beard, below a broad and crooked nose, was trimmed close and of the deepest black. By contrast his hair was long and, tied back in a simple qu. On a blanket next to him sat two who were clearly brothers by their features, Kwilim and Dwilim. Both had bushy beards the colour of fresh turned loam and eyes of brightest green.
All of them looked much tidier and cleaner that when Estel had last glimpsed them and although they still wore mail shirts, which he considered a little impolite within the protection of Rivendell’s borders, their tunics and boots were obviously created with much skill.
“Come, sit by the fire, my lords.” Dwilim dropped a large log close to the fire and Elrohir accepted the seat, ensuring that Estel sat close by his side. Whist elven bodies are not affected by the cold as are mortals, still they would rather sit in comfort by a fire than in the chill of a still misty, autumn noon. Estel was no elf, so he gladly reached out his hands to the blaze, his mouth watering at the sight and smell of roasting venison.
Elrohir noted several axes propped about the temporary campsite. “I trust you have not been using your axes upon the trees?” he asked suspiciously.
Bot frowned which, with his heavy brows, made him appear very fierce and Estel leaned closer to his brother’s side. “What do you take us for? We are guests and would never abuse your welcome,” he bristled.
Dwilim grinned. “And you’d never invite us back.”
“Aye. Bad for trade, that,” added Kwilim with a chuckle as he began to set out some wooden bowls.
“We only collected fallen wood. Mind you, there’s some trees around that could do with a trim.” Bot pointed into the branches of an ancient oak at the other side of the clearing. “There’s a widow maker up there.”
Estel followed his hand to see a large branch that had broken off but been caught by some lower branches. One good storm would be likely to bring it crashing down on anyone unlucky enough to be standing beneath it.
“You have a point,” Elrohir admitted. “I shall assemble some of my people to remove it safely.”
“We could do it if you like,” Gribble offered as he helped lift the spit from the fire.
“I was not aware that dwarves could climb trees.” Elrohir unpacked his own meagre supplies of bread, cheese and apples and added them to the huge pile of steaming meat. The dwarves collectively turned their noses up at the fare but were more than generous in offering a share of meat to Elrohir and Estel. Estel had never seen so much meat in one place and began to look around for the cutlery.
Gribble ripped some venison from the huge piece in his bowl and chewed appreciatively. “We weren’t born with boots on, laddie.”
Estel beamed with delight as he used his fingers to tear at the meat in his own bowl. Elrohir was more dainty but also eschewed use of the cutlery he knew was in his pack. “Then, if you are willing I see no objections.”
Bot washed down a large mouthful with an equally large swallow of water. “There’d be a price of course.”
Elrohir nodded, used to the bargaining of dwarves. “And what would that be?”
Bot took his time chewing, glancing around at his companions. “The pick of the wood we take down.” The others nodded.
“That sounds fair,” Elrohir replied calmly.
Kwilim shrugged. “Well, that was easy.”
“Were you expecting me to refuse you?” Elrohir asked with a smile as he broke off a little bread.
“Not exactly,” Dwilim replied. “But I do enjoy a good barter. You took all the fun out of it.”
Elrohir laughed and the trees seemed to shiver in delight. “I am sorry to disappoint you, Master Dwilim. We could start again if you wish.”
Bot threw a bone at Dwilim with stunning accuracy. It bounced off the younger dwarf’s pate eliciting an, “Ouch!” “The bargain is struck,” their leader stated firmly, to a chorus of loud laughter.
Estel and Elrohir stopped eating long before the dwarves but continued to sit by the fire whilst their hosts finished the repast. Estel found that he felt rather comfortable in their company. They did not expect him to be on his best behaviour all the time and even Elrohir did not seem inclined to chastise him for wiping his greasy fingers on his tunic or belching.
Once the bowls had been washed and the bones and remains thrown on the fire, Dwilim and Kwilim took out small drum and whistle. Soon most of the dwarves were singing a very silly song about a dwarf with no beard. Estel did not understand some of it but Elrohir joined in the general laughter several times.
Gribble selected a small piece of wood from the pile gathered to feed the fire and, taking out a knife, began to whittle as the others started another song. Estel moved closer, fascinated that such thick fingers could be so dextrous, for within minutes a pony began to take shape in his hands.
“I wish I could do that,” Estel sighed.
“What makes ye think you can’t, laddie?” asked Gribble as he shaped a bushy and unkempt mane on his pony.
“I don’t think Mama would let me have a sharp knife like that.”
“Who is your mama, lad? I’m willing to bet a dragons’ hoard that it isn’t the Lady Celebrian” Gribble stated with a snort.
Had Elrohir been paying less attention to the singing he would have stepped in. “Oh no. Adar Elrond is only my foster father. My mama is . . .”
“Probably wondering where you are,” Elrohir finished for him. Around them the music faltered and stopped as Elrohir stood, helping Estel up with him.
Gribble held up a hand. “Nay, laddy. I meant no harm. If you want to keep your secrets. I’ll not probe further. I was only curious when I saw the little one’s ears.”
Elrohir ushered Estel to his pony, lifting him into the saddle in his haste. “I trust you will respect our wishes in this matter and say nothing beyond the boundaries of this valley.”
All the dwarves stood and then bowed. Bot spoke for them all. “I don’t know why you wish to hide this lad but you have my word and the word of all my companions. We shall say nothing of the little man living with the elves.”
Elrohir drew a relieved breath. “Thank you. Please accept my apologies for being so abrupt. I hope to enjoy your company in the Hall of Fire this evening. I shall advise my father of our agreement regarding the wood.”
With those words he urged Estel and Luin before him, back to the house. Several times before they turned the bend in the path, Estel looked back wistfully, even daring to wave when Gribble held up a hand in farewell.
It was some days later that Estel watched them leave the valley. He looked down at the little wooden figure found on his pillow that morning and smiled. It was a perfect image of Luin, down to every unruly lock.
Estel was lost. To a small boy Imladris was huge and Estel had been forbidden to move beyond the stream at the foot of the slope leading down from the lawns about the house. Even that boundary had been only recently expanded. Estel knew he was well beyond that restriction now.
Of course, it was difficult to know for sure, he tried to tell himself. However, as he had crossed a stream via a narrow wooden bridge some time ago, even he no longer believed that, and in his mind’s eye he could see Adar’s raised brows. Now he stumbled over roots and rabbit holes, the mist so thick around him that at times he could hardly see his feet.
Imladris had always seemed a safe and sunny place, even in the depths of winter or on the rainiest of days. But Estel had never travelled far from home on his own and the fog was so thick that he took to walking with one arm held ahead, to fend off any unseen branches.
“Aah!” Celeg’s voice was faint and Estel could not determine its direction but he would recognise it anywhere.
“Celeg? Come on, kitty. I’m here.” Estel stood still to listen. Celeg had not come home last night which, in itself, was no longer unusual. She sometimes stayed out all night and Estel suspected she visited her family in the barn. But when she had not arrived for breakfast he grew worried. Celeg never missed a meal, preferring the tidbits of chicken and fish that Gilraen provided over the gamier mouse and rat meat sought out by her barn raised relations.
Gilraen had tried to comfort her son, telling him not to worry; that Celeg would return when she was hungry, but something within Estel told him that his little playmate was in trouble. So, once breakfast was over he had begun his search. When a visit to the barn turned up no trace Estel started with the vast house and then worked his way outward. Now he wished he had waited long enough to enlist the help of Elladan or Elrohir.
Celeg’s voice came again and Estel struck off to his left. “I’m here, Celeg. Where are you, kitty?”
There it was again, much closer. But Estel could see only the dark twisted shadows of tree trunks glistening in the damp air. “Celeg?”
Estel followed the sound, looking up in growing dread. For a moment the valley seemed to co-operate and the mist parted, revealing a tangle of naked branches and just a glimpse of white, far above his head. There, way above him in an ancient chestnut, Celeg was clinging to a branch, her white belly fur acting as a flag against the dark grey, lichen shrouded bark.
Estel unwittingly gave a fair imitation of his mother’s scolding voice. “Goodness, Celeg. How did you get up there? Come down now. I’ve been worried.”
Celeg tiptoed a couple of tentative steps along the branch she was sitting on, testing each inch first. But she could not seem to work out how to come down and, as Estel’s heart leapt into his throat, she performed a rather wobbly pirouette and headed back to the safety of the trunk. There she sat down and cried once more. “Aah!”
The mist closed in.
Estel wondered how long Celeg had been stuck. Had she spent all the dark night out here in the cold, damp air, hungry and frightened? Well, Celeg was his pet and everyone had made it clear that he was responsible for her, so Estel decided that the task of bringing her down must fall to him. Remembering Adar’s lessons, he examined his clothing, tucking in stray laces and tying his long hair into a knot at his nape. He had never attempted to climb a tree so tall but he would not leave his friend in distress for one moment longer.
“I’m coming, Celeg.” He took a running jump and grabbed the lowest branch, almost losing his grip upon the wet bark and wincing as his palm collected several splinters. But Adar had taught him well and soon he was sitting astride the branch and pulling himself upright with the help of the one above. For several minutes he continued thus, hoisting himself from branch to branch, higher and higher; drawn on by Celeg’s forlorn cries.
It was as he looked down to place his foot on a particularly slippery branch that the eddying mist parted and Estel glimpsed the ground far, far below. For what seemed like an age he could only watch as the ground seemed to spin faster and faster. Then his eyes slammed shut and his heart stopped, starting again with a thump that felt as though it would burst from his chest. Estel’s hands clamped tight about the central bole and his legs locked as he froze in place so that even Celeg’s pitiful cries could not induce him to move another inch. He whimpered.
Faerwen loved autumn. Today she had set aside her embroidery and decided to go mushroom hunting. She and Erestor would feast on mushroom casserole and crusty bread this evening and her mouth watered at the thought. The trug over her arm was already filled but mushrooms shrink in the cooking so she continued to follow the little valley downstream, stooping to pick as she went.
As Faerwen walked she hummed one of Lindir’s latest compositions. She had travelled quite some distance from the house when she grew aware of other voices coming from somewhere high above her. Thinking it was perhaps a party of wood elves she paused for they would know where all the best mushrooms could be found. That was when she recognised at least one of the voices.
“Estel? Where are you, child and whatever are you doing so far from the house? Your Adar will be cross when he finds out.” Faerwen had lived in the valley long enough to realise that with the Lord of Imladris it was always a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if he found out’.
She was surprised to hear a sob and then, “I’m up here.”
Setting down her mushrooms Faerwen peered up, into the winter-bared branches of a wide spread chestnut tree. Even elven sight struggled with the thick mist but eventually she discerned Estel, standing very still many feet above her. “What possessed you to climb so high? You had best come down at once.”
Estel only wailed, “I can’t. I’m scared, Faerwen. Celeg is up here too.”
The cry ended on another sob and Faerwen did not pause. Bending, she brought the back hem of her long skirt between her legs and tucked it into her belt at the front. One bound and she was standing on the lowest branch. “I am coming, Little One.”
When she left the house this morning Faerwen had not taken time to change into breeches and had been berating herself ever since, for the muddied hem of her gown had soon begun to tangle wetly about her ankles. The thought of a cosy evening by the fire with casserole and husband had kept her on her determined course however, deciding it was worth the laundering of a gown. Now she regretted anew her wardrobe choice as she had to pause every now and then to re-secure the yards of soggy fabric at her waist. It was as she over extended herself just a little that luck deserted her.
Having taken a riskier route than the smaller Estel, Faerwen jumped, intending to place her toe in a small break in the bark as she reached up with both hands for the branch above and to one side. Her skirt chose that moment to slip free and, instead of encountering tree, her toe was enveloped in fabric and slipped. Faerwen was left dangling by her hands, listening to one of her shoes clattering through branches to land with a soft thud in the leaf mould a very long way below. She sighed. Where was a wood elf when you needed one?
Elrond could have dissipated the fog with a thought but he loved these late autumn mornings. There were no visitors and he had no lessons planned with Estel so the day was his own to do with as he wished. He wished to sit in his favourite place and enjoy the still quiet of the morning.
Celebrian’s walled rose garden was empty of all other folk. Elrond flicked a damp tendril of midnight hair from his cheek and leaned back on the wooden bench to breathe in the scent of damp loam and wood-smoke. Even within the shelter of this bower the mist reached clammy fingers but he did not mind, instead taking delight in the bejewelled cobwebs draped from overhanging ivy.
Before him, the naked branches of pruned rose bushes appeared and then disappeared with each eddy of the mist as though playing peek-a-boo. Birds were silent, feathers plumped within the dry and secret places of the hawthorn hedges. The only sound to be heard within this white cocoon was the steady pat, pat of water dripping from the surrounding trees onto thick leaf mould.
His peace was simultaneously shattered by the squeal of gate hinges and Erestor’s concerned voice calling for first Faerwen and then Estel. Opening his mind, Elrond felt rather than heard, “Adar!” It was Estel’s voice and it sounded frightened.
Elrond pushed to his feet and ran for the gate, pausing only long enough to beckon the concerned Erestor to follow as he swept by him and out across the lawns. His feet took him unerringly to the base of a sturdy chestnut several minutes later. At his side Erestor cried out as he dropped to his knees beside a trug, overflowing with mushrooms, and scooped up one delicate but muddy shoe.
Both elf lords looked up. At first their eyes were met only by a wall of white mist, then Elrond blinked and, with a twitch of his fingers, the vapour thinned. Both drew audible breath at the sight above them.
High above, they first encountered a pair of feet, dangling from a tangle of muddied green skirts. One foot was naked and the other wore the mate to that which was now cradled in Erestor’s hands. Both stepped back for a better view and discovered a dishevelled but determined Faerwen, dangling from her hands.
She grimaced at her husband. “The tree tried to help but it could only push this branch at me. I cannot reach a foothold.”
Erestor dropped the shoe and scowled. “Did it not occur to you that climbing whilst wearing a skirt was not the most sensible thing to do?” The concern shining in his eyes belied the angry tone of his voice. “Let go. I will catch you,” he instructed tersely as he stepped beneath her.
Faerwen glanced from husband to branch and back again, a little uncertainly. She knew Erestor was strong and she trusted him . . . really, she did, but it was an awfully long way to fall.
Erestor’s voice softened. “I will catch you, my love. Trust me.”
It was that softening that decided her and Faerwen let go. Within the blink of an eye she was held secure in her husband’s strong arms, face buried in the dark scented fall of his hair as he murmured, over and over in her ear. “I have you. I have you.”
Elrond paused only long enough to ensure Faerwen was safe before flinging off his outer robe and beginning to scale the tree, for he could now see Estel, hugging the bole even further up. “I am coming, Tittlepin.” Never had he climbed so recklessly, but the need to reach his adoptive son and bring him safely to earth subsumed all thought of his own safety. Indeed, he would have taken more risks were it not for having to arrive safe and in one piece if he was to be of any practical use to Estel.
Soon he stood beside the little Adan. “Come, Tittlepin. Let go the tree. I have you safe.” He wrapped an arm firmly about the tiny waist.
Estel’s eyes were tightly closed. “I can’t, Adar. My fingers won’t work.” A tear escaped to roll down one already tearstained cheek.
Elrond bent to kiss it away, tasting the salt of it. “Open your eyes. Look at me,” he instructed softly.
Estel opened grey eyes trustingly to find his Adar’s face inches from his. He swallowed, attempting a watery smile, and his Adar smiled back.
“Let go, Tittlepin. I promise that I have you safe. Adar will never let you fall.”
His little Tittlepin prised loose one finger and then another. After that it was easier and soon his arms were clasped tight about Elrond’s neck, small legs wrapped about his saviour’s waist like ivy about a tree.
Elrond waited a moment, running hands over the small form to check for injuries. When he found none, he asked gently, “Why did you climb so high? I thought you were more sensible than this.”
Estel’s eyes widened and he leaned back so quickly to point upward that Elrond had to grab a branch to maintain his balance. His gaze followed Estel’s finger and he sighed as he met Celeg’s golden gaze. The little cat was sitting calmly in the fork of a branch just above Elrond’s head.
She chirruped a greeting before dropping neatly onto Elrond’s shoulder and wrapping her tail about his neck. Estel leaned forward and cat and child touched noses. Elrond glanced aside at the self-assured golden eyes. “Celeg, you and I will have words later,” he promised ominously as he began to descend more carefully to earth, swaddled in child and cat.
As soon as his feet touched ground Faerwen stepped forward to enfold elf and edan in Elrond’s discarded outer robe. She paused to kiss the little boy’s cheek and collect her trug before being turned away by her husband and led home.
Estel remained wrapped about his foster father’s body, his trembling beginning to fade now. For her part, Celeg trotted ahead, tail waving unconcerned farewell as she went in search of food and fire.
Elrond followed. “I would be angry with you but I suspect that your mother will be angry enough for both of us so I will say only this, ‘Do not ever do anything so foolish again.’”.
Estel snuggled deeper within the warmth of Adar’s robe. “I promise.” Then his voice took on a wheedling tone. “Do we have to tell her?”
“Yes, we do,” Elrond replied firmly.
Gilraen closed the door to her son’s room, with one final glance to ensure that he was indeed asleep. “Was I too harsh?”
Elrond looked up from where he was pouring camomile tea into two cups. “A little harsher than I would have been but he will survive it.” He handed her a cup and took a sip from his own.
The lady sighed. “I have yet to develop the elven knack for calm. All I could see were the splinters and scratches.”
Elrond allowed himself a small smile, remembering his own lack of calm at the sight of Estel so high in the tree. “He did it with the best of intentions. His friend was in difficulty.”
Celeg had the good grace to wind herself about their feet when they entered. She had even remained with Estel as the youngster was berated by his mother, had his hands tended by Elrond and was put to bed for a nap. Now, having eaten her fill, the little cat was curled upon a rug before the hearth, purring contentedly.
Gilraen scowled at the sleepy cat over the rim of her teacup. “That creature seems to enjoy getting into trouble and dragging Estel along with her. She got him locked in my wardrobe yesterday.”
“I am certain it was not intentional,” Elrond assured the lady as he tried unsuccessfully to hide another smile. He set down his cup and stood, making for the door. “Come Celeg. It is long past the time you and I had another talk.”
Gilraen watched with some satisfaction as the little cat climbed daintily to her feet and preceded Elrond meekly from the room. As the door closed she heard Elrond.
“Now Celeg. I believe I have already told you that the hunting of songbirds within this valley is forbidden . . .”
Estel liked all of Imladris’ varied gardens, although he preferred to run on the wide lawns beside the house and play hide and seek in the woods. He was not as fond of the walled gardens with their flower beds but there were some days when he craved their quiet, particularly when the house was busy.
Today he was roaming the physic garden alone. He had only recently been allowed access, having made a solemn promise to Adar not to touch any of the plants. Adar’s face had been very grave when he told Estel that some of the plants could kill simply by touch. Estel had wanted to visit the garden for some time, simply because it was not permitted, and Elrond decided it would be safer to allow him access rather than to risk him entering without fully understanding the danger. He had helped raised enough little boys over the years to understand the lure of the forbidden.
The house was a flurry of activity today. A mixed party of elven warriors and mortal rangers had suffered defeat against a large band of orcs in the passes of the Misty Mountains. They had escaped, but the cost had been high. Although Estel had not been made party to the conversations, his hearing was acute enough to understand that some elves and men had died and there were many injured now housed in the healer’s wing. The healer’s wing was another place that Estel was not permitted to visit.
Lost in imaginings of wielding a great sword in battle, Estel jumped when Adar’s voice interrupted him, mid-hew. “Good morning, Estel.” He spun about, narrowly avoiding landing in a flower bed when Elrond grabbed his shoulder. “Careful, child. Those nettles would have given you a nasty rash.”
“Sorry, Adar.” Estel noticed that Elrond carried a trug, containing his gardening knife and gloves, over one arm. “Have you come to collect herbs? Can I help?”
Elrond’s keen gaze bore into him for a moment before he nodded. “If you only touch those plants I tell you to, you may.” He could not help but echo the bright smile that stretched Estel’s face in reply. “Come this way. I need marigold to make a salve for healing. Do you remember which plant is the marigold?”
Estel ran to one of the nearby beds, pointing to the bright orange daisy-like flowers. “These!” he announced triumphantly.
Elrond followed at a statelier pace. “That is correct. You have remembered your lessons well. I will need you to harvest half of the crop. Pinch them out here, just above the branch in the stem. That way they will produce another crop of flowers within a few days.” Trusting Estel to follow instruction, he moved to the next bed to harvest some long slender leaves from a small grass-like plant.
Were it not for the fact that the physic garden was tended very carefully Estel would have thought the plant a weed, for it looked most unassuming and would not be out of place under any hedgerow. When Estel stepped closer to drop some marigolds in the trug a fine clean scent teased his nostrils. He felt strangely drawn and leaned closer to examine the long leaves although, mindful of his Adar’s warnings, he did not touch them. “What are these leaves used for?” he asked, inhaling more deeply of the pleasant aroma.
Elrond’s eyes narrowed for a moment then he held one out to the future chieftain of the Dunedin. “This is called Athelas. You may touch it for it will cause you no harm.”
Something within whispered to Estel that this plant was too special to be handled with dirty fingers so he wiped hands upon his breeches before accepting the proffered leaf. He lifted the cut end to his nose and sniffed, eyes widening as the light perfume he had smelled earlier now hit him fully. Trying to place the smell he was only reminded of gorse on the hillsides, fresh winds across a long meadow and clean snow in mountain passes.
Elrond watched him closely and then allowed himself a smile as he saw Estel’s reaction. “It is very pleasant, is it not? We use it to lift the spirits of those who are sick. It has other uses but we have not needed it for those purposes for many years.” His eyes flickered as though with remembered pain. “Let us hope that we do not for many years yet to come.” He shivered, then drew a deep breath. “Come, finish your collecting whilst I gather other herbs.”
For nearly half an hour the two continued their harvesting, until Elrond’s trug was filled to overflowing. As they worked Estel discovered that this was a subject that interested him. Not that this was unusual for he found that his Adar could invariably make the driest of subjects interesting. Each plant added to their collection was accompanied by some tale of the Eldar illustrating its purpose and method of use.
Now Elrond arose, brushing dust from his knees. Estel’s disappointment at his Adar’s imminent departure showed clearly on his face and Elrond paused. “Estel, would you like to help me prepare some of these herbs?”
Estel nodded at once. “Yes please!”
While he dealt with some of the more dangerous plants at his own work bench in the apothecary room, Elrond set Estel to work with the marigolds. He spread some on a drying tray by the sunny window and was then set to chopping up the rest, under Elrond’s careful supervision. Once chopped, half were dropped into bottles of oil and sealed and the rest were ground with mortar and pestle and added to an ointment base to be spooned into pots.
By the time they were finished the afternoon was well advanced and Estel discovered that the exacting work of the apothecary could be every bit as exhausting as a day spent running in the woods. Now, when he returned to the trug he discovered that the only herb left was the Athelas. “How do we prepare this one, Adar?”
“With love,” was Elrond’s cryptic reply.
“Ah . . . here you are.” Both turned to find Gilraen standing in the doorway.
Elrond spoke first. “Lady Gilraen. We had become so engrossed in our lesson that I had lost track of the hour. Please accept my apologies. Have you come to visit your people in the infirmary?”
“I have. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help. I do not wish to disparage your people in any way but I thought that a mortal face would perhaps be a welcome familiarity to some.”
“I take no offence and I am sure that you will indeed be a very welcome sight. I was about to ask Estel if he would like to visit them with me. It is fortunate that you arrived when you did, for I would not wish to do so without your permission.”
Gilraen wondered whether, had she not arrived at that moment, Elrond would have taken Estel and apologised later. Then she wondered whether she would really have objected if he had. Her son got little enough opportunity to mix with mortals and at least she knew that her own folk would not betray him. She considered her son, whose grey eyes were pleading silently. “I suppose it is time to learn that fighting has its price,” she murmured softly, reaching down to stroke her son’s dark waving hair.
Elrond placed the Athelas leaves in a bowl and, taking that as her permission, hunkered down to speak face to face with the boy. “There are several poorly men and elves in the infirmary. Does the sight of blood frighten you?”
Estel considered his answer for a moment. Not having been allowed access to the healer’s wing he had little experience of seeing serious injury. However, he had been present when one of the cooks cut his hand very badly a few weeks ago and discovered then that he was more curious than squeamish. His gaze returned to the Athelas leaves and it was as though they beckoned him to learn more. “I don’t think so. Though I don’t like to see people hurting.”
Elrond smiled, laying a gentle hand upon Estel’s shoulder. “I would be concerned if you did. No sane person would wish to see another in pain. Would you like to help me to ease the pain of those in the infirmary?”
“Will we be using the Athelas?”
Elrond glanced up at Gilraen, who seemed pensive. “Yes. I will show you how we apply it.”
“I would like to help them feel better.”
Elrond stood, guiding Estel with a hand upon his shoulder, and the boy was surprised to hear his Adar murmur, “Come then, Son of Arathorn.”
In the healer’s wing Estel was met with a quiet air of bustle. Several elves in pale green healer’s tabards were going efficiently about their business of tending the injured as Elrond led Estel and Gilraen into a small room. Two walls were lined with hooks, upon which hung an assortment of robes, and against another was set a large cupboard. Adar removed his heavy outer robe, hanging it on a hook before turning to the cupboard. When he opened the doors Estel could see several shelves filled with pale green fabric.
“Take off your jacket and hang it up,” Elrond instructed as he sorted through the shelves. Gilraen helped before hanging up her shawl. Elrond paused to tie back his hair with a simple leather thong and then shook out a long tabard and slipped it over his head. The tabard covered his clothes from neck to floor and fastened about the waist with a dark blue sash. Gilraen followed suit, adding the white sash Elrond handed her.
Estel watched curiously as his Adar approached with what appeared to be another tabard. But when he shook it out it revealed itself to be a long apron, which he held up in front of his foster son. When the top was held to Estel’s shoulders the fabric formed a large pool upon the floor and Elrond pursed his lips.
Estel shrugged. “I don’t mind wearing my ordinary clothes, Adar.”
But Elrond shook his head, turning to collect a large set of shears. “The tabards are for the benefit of our charges as much as for us. We have found that wounds do not mortify as easily if we and all the instruments we use are as clean as possible.” When he turned back the apron was several feet shorter and, with Gilraen adding some clever tucking at the waist, they managed to make it fit. Anywhere else Estel would have felt ridiculous in an apron but now he felt very proud to be trusted to wear the healer’s green.
Elrond bent to fold back Estel’s sleeves to the elbow before doing the same with his own. “Now we wash our hands,” he instructed as he poured water into a basin. Several minutes later Estel’s hands were tingling. Elrond examined them closely before setting the nail brush aside and emptying the basin.
Estel’s mama chuckled. “I do believe I have never seen my son’s hands so clean. Had you the time, Lord Elrond, I would like to employ you to supervise my son’s toilet each morning.”
She was rewarded with a quirk of the lips. “I would be willing to make the time but, sadly, I am certain that his hands would be dirty again within moments. Such is the nature of children.” He led them back along the hallway to a closed door and there he paused to look down at his little helper. “The men and elves within this room are badly hurt and some are in pain, so we must be quiet when we enter.”
Estel frowned. “I can hear music,” he observed. “And why are they hurting? You told me you had herbs to stop pain.”
Elrond shook his head sadly. “I can ease pain but some of the herbs are difficult to clear from the body later, so they must be used sparingly. Music can soothe and bring its own healing so our musicians help where they can.” Then he added, “There is one more thing. Some of those being tended were injured so badly that we had to remove limbs. I know that you are naturally curious but you must remember not to stare at any of the hurts you see. The loss of a limb takes time to get used to and some people get very upset.”
Estel began to wonder if he could do this after all. Mama was always telling him not to stare at new people. It was too late now, though, for Adar was ushering them quietly through the door.
Having been forbidden to enter the healers wing in the past, Estel had of course tried to work out just how he could get to see inside, without breaking any promises to Mama or Adar. So on several occasions he had contrived to walk on the lawns outside, but a wide area of paving meant that he could not get as close as he would have liked. He had managed to see a little, however, so was surprised to find a room containing four beds. “I thought there was only one person to a room,” he observed.
Elrond’s eyebrow rose. “What made you think that?”
“When I looked through the window I . . .” Estel bit his lip, eyes widening as he looked up at his Adar.
“We shall continue that particular conversation later. For the moment, I will say only that we have not the space to accommodate so many without some sharing rooms.”
Estel decided to shelve his worries about Adar’s censure and concentrate upon the present. There was one beds to his left and one to the right and beyond them were long windows, open to the fresh summer air. Between the windows sat Lindir and the soft sound of his harp was twined with clear birdsong from the gardens beyond.
With a soft cry Gilraen crossed to the bed on the left where a bearded man slept. Estel followed his Adar to the other side of the bed and tried hard not to notice that, although discretely draped in a cloth, one of the man’s arms terminated at the wrist and was tied to the head of the bed. Elrond laid a gentle hand upon the man’s brow. “Is he known to you? I am told his name is Amdon. Whilst I am certain he does not consider himself so, he is quite fortunate that we were at least able to save his arm. He has no other injuries.”
“He was one of Arador’s captains and will not take this well, for he was ever an active man.” Giraen smiled as she pushed a stray strand of dark hair from his damp brow. “We grew up together and he was Arador’s second in command for a while, but he asked to be posted to the defence of another village a few months before Arathorn and I were wed. I assume he has family there.”
Elrond glanced at her keenly for a moment and then nodded. “He has a strong will. Unfortunately, at present he is using it to hide from the world. These two have taken refuge in dreams, rather than come to terms with their altered life.” He turned to smile down at Estel. “But I believe we can help them find their way back. Then we can help with the real process of healing.”
For the first time Gilraen remembered the contents of the bowl in Elrond’s hand. “You are going to use Athelas?”
Elrond smiled down at his foster son. “Yes. I thought Estel would like to see one of its uses.”
Gilraen’s eyes widened. “Is he not too young?”
Elrond poured hot water into a large basin and beckoned Estel. “He need not know all today.”
Estel frowned, aware that matters were being discussed that he did not understand. When he would have asked for an explanation, however, Elrond drew him closer. “Watch me,” he instructed. Taking up two slender leaves he crushed them in his palm and then breathed upon them gently. “Hold out your hands.”
Estel inhaled the perfume of a dew sprinkled spring morning and the very air around Adar seemed to sparkle with life. “Now cast them upon the water,” Elrond instructed as he dropped them into Estel’s cupped hands.
Estel frowned as he examined the bruised leaves. Their perfume still felt oddly familiar and his palms began to tingle strangely. He looked up to find his Mama and Adar watching him closely. Mama looked worried but Adar was smiling softly.
“Cast them upon the water, Estel,” Adar repeated, with a nod toward the basin, and Estel parted his hands slowly to let the Athelas fall.
They floated upon the surface and the warmth of the water seemed to intensify their perfume so that all, both elf and mortal, breathed more freely. Elrond’s voice, warm as summer sunset, seemed to ride the vapour to the very corners of the room. “Come back to the light. Awake to hope of life renewed.”
The injured elf blinked open grey eyes and Lindir leapt from his seat, weeping and almost dropping his harp in his haste to gather him into a hug. Amdon awoke too, frowning in confusion when he saw Gilraen.
To Estel it seemed that a cloud that had drifted across the sun suddenly blew away and the world was truly filled with hope and light once more. He looked from his mama to his Adar. “Is this magic?”
Elrond only smiled, shaking his head. “No, Estel. It is a gift even some mortals hold.” He looked to Gilraen as he intoned, “When the black breath blows and death’s shadow grows and all lights pass, come Athelas! Come Athelas! Life to the dying in the king’s hand lying.”
Gilraen shook her head minutely. “Please, Elrond.” For a moment, she and Elrond locked gazes.
Estel frowned, once more aware that there was more being said here than was spoken. “Are you a king, Adar?”
His Adar chuckled. “No. I am just Elrond. Although the line of Gondor’s kings sprang from my brother’s loins many mortal generations ago. But that is a tale for another day.” He steered the young Adan from the room. “Come. There are many more for us to help.”
Behind them Gilraen released a long-held breath.
“I think he enjoyed today.” Elrond perched upon the balustrade, ignoring the long drop to the valley floor with the unshakable certainty in his balance that only an elf could muster.
Gilraen settled in her chair, taking a sip of wine before replying. “I know it was a lesson to be learned eventually but I wonder if he is too young to have witnessed such pain.”
“I believe we do our children a disservice if we teach them only of the honour to be found in war, without also teaching them of the price that must sometimes be paid. Whether by their enemy or themselves. Estel will need to be strong but as chieftain he must also learn compassion.” Elrond took a sip from his own glass, holding the wine briefly on his tongue as he inhaled, judging it a very good vintage.
“And the Athelas?”
Elrond smiled. “For now, he grasps only what a future chieftain of the Dunadain must know. If the time comes he also has enough knowledge to wield the power given to a king.”
“Life to the dying in the king’s hand lying? Will it come in his lifetime, do you think?”
Grey eyes grew distant as Elrond considered, then they drew back to pin the lady. “I see many paths drawing together soon.”
“How soon?” Gilraen set aside her wine as her stomach began to churn in alarm.
Elrond nodded toward her glass. “The wine will settle your stomach.” He shrugged his shoulders infinitesimally. “It may not happen within your lifetime but I believe our little Estel is the one who can restore the line of the Kings. Of course, the choice of whether to do so will be his.” He took another sip from his own glass and smiled softly at her. “But there is yet time for him to be a little boy who chases butterflies and skins his knees climbing trees.”
Written in response to a B2Me prompt 2017
“Does Lindir really need this particular book at this particular time?” Fearwen asked with a sigh. Erestor had been searching for “The Darkening of Valinor” for some hours now and Faerwen had only recently joined him.
“He needs it for a song he is composing in celebration of Elrond's conception day. I am certain it was in this section the last time I saw it.” Erestor frowned as he leaned even further out to his left and the library ladder he was perched upon began to tilt and creak a little.
“But that is months away. Precisely when did you last see it?” Faerwen asked as she grabbed the base of the ladder.
Her husband stilled for a moment to consider. “I believe Gil-galad borrowed it just before the host departed for the war in Gondor.”
Faerwen rolled her eyes. “That was nearly three thousand years ago! I think somebody else will have borrowed it since then. Probably lots of someone elses.”
Erestor began to climb down. “Has it been that long? My, how the time flies.” Much to Faerwen's relief he reached the safety of the floor and she helped him brush the dust from his robes. “Even if they did, they should have returned it to the shelf they took it from,” he added indignantly. For Erestor there were few greater crimes than misplacing a book. He had been responsible for setting up Imladris' great library and knew where every tome should be stored. “And remind me to set some of the household staff to cleaning those top shelves. They are a disgrace.”
Faerwen took his arm to lead him from the chamber. “Yes, my love. Perhaps after we have eaten luncheon? We have been in here for hours and it is well past noon. And remind me to stop by Estel's room afterwards. I promised to teach him how to sew today.”
Erestor allowed himself to be steered toward the dining room. “Sewing? A strange occupation for one so young.”
“He will be a ranger one day and may have to spend long weeks in the wilds alone. It would be wise for him to learn how to repair his own clothes and darn a sock.”
“Will it be so soon? I forget that mortals age so quickly. I have been little involved with Isildur's kin over the years and after the first few generations they all started to look alike.”
“Erestor!” Faerwen was suitably scandalised. “That is not true and you do not fool me. I know that you adore Estel.”
Erestor tilted his head. “Estel is the exception, I confess. It is difficult to dislike him, even when he does get my wife stuck up a tree.”
Faerwen giggled. “Strictly speaking it was Celeg who got both Estel and me stuck up a tree.”
“Good afternoon, Estel.” Faerwen set her sewing basket upon the table.
Estel eyed the basket with all the trepidation of one expecting it to spring open and disgorge some huge venomous snake. “I forgot we were doing that today. I was just going to go play in the gardens with Celeg.”
Faerwen spied the cat sitting serenely atop a box on the sunny balcony. She stepped closer and realised that it was not a box but rather a large and exquisitely bound book. Tilting her head she read the title upon the spine, no mean feat when Celeg was flicking her tail too and fro across it.
“Estel, how long have you had that book?”
Estel began to study his boots. “Adar gave it to me to practice my Quenya.”
“When was that?” Fearwen asked.
“Erm . . . Just before Yule, I think.”
Fearwen held back a smile. “Estel . . . that was several months ago. How far have you got?”
Estel's bottom lip pouted a little. “I think I opened it once.” Then he raised pleading eyes to his friend's face. “But it's nearly summer and Mama and Adar let me play more in the summer.”
“And Quenya is dry and difficult.” Faerwen let her smile show. “It is a very good story, you know.” She advanced upon Celeg, who eyed her with all the disdain of a mighty queen, for the meanest of her subjects. Faerwen was not to be put off by a cat, however. “Celeg, that is not a cushion. If Erestor discovers cat hairs in one of his precious books he may have you banned from the library.”
Celeg liked the library, especially in winter. It was quiet and warm, for a fire was always set in that room in cold weather. It would not do to look too concerned about the threat, however. A cat should always appear aloof, after all. Giving a huge yawn she arose, stretched out her front legs, bottom raised, whilst making sure to unsheathe her claws briefly, before stepping down daintily and then jumping onto the balustrade. There she curled nonchalantly on the sun warmed stone.
Faerwen retrieved the book, brushing off the dust and cat hairs with her sleeve. “Erestor has been looking for this, you know.”
“Oh dear. Well, if he needs it today I don't mind if he takes it. I can borrow it again once he's finished with it,” Estel offered a little too eagerly.
“He does not need it that urgently. Lindir wanted to compose a song from some of the verses but he can wait. Your education is more important.” Faerwen set the book upon the table and drew up two chairs. “Come on. I will help you. Sewing can wait and the story of the two trees of Valinor and their destruction is actually quite interesting.”
With one last longing look at the sunny lawns below his balcony Estel clambered into one of the chairs and Faerwen opened the huge tome.
“Can you translate the title, Estel?”
Her pupil frowned for a moment. “The Blackening . . . No . . . The Darkening of Valinor?” he offered tentatively.
“Very good. Now see if you can translate the first paragraph.”
Estel sighed as he noted the size of the script and the depth of the book. This was going to be a long afternoon.
“Where’s Mama?” Faerwen held the chair steady while Estel clambered up, then pushed him closer to the table.
“And a good morning to you, Estel,” she replied pointedly, pouring milk into his cup.
Estel bit his lip. “Sorry. Good morning, Faerwen.”
“That is much better. Your mother is helping in the Halls of Healing. We are unused to dealing with so many injured at one time and Lord Elrond thought the Dunadain would appreciate being tended by one of their own.” Faerwen ladled porridge into a small bowl, adding a swirl of honey and some milk before setting it before her charge.
“Oh. Thank you.” Estel sniffed before taking up his spoon. His nose was runny this morning but food was more important than wiping his nose. He should have known better, however, for before he had taken his second mouthful the lady was waving a clean hanky in front of his face. He accepted it with a sigh and applied it loudly before tucking it up his sleeve.
“What is wrong with your pocket?” Faerwen asked mildly.
“It’s full,” Estel replied around another mouthful of milk. His throat was dry this morning and the milk was cool and soothing.
His fair interrogator settled in a chair opposite. “Full of what?”
Estel frowned. He had not catalogued the contents for some days so he dipped in a hand and scooped out his gleanings, dropping them on the table to examine. As he sorted he elaborated upon the trove.
“There’s this piece of string. I took it from Celeg because she was trying to eat it. I thought it could be useful.”
Faerwen blinked. The string was thin and but three inches long. “Useful for what?”
Estel shrugged and continued to sort. “This is a button from my second-best shirt. I thought Mama could sew it back on,” he announced.
Faerwen frowned. “Your Mama was looking for that four days ago. Why did you not give it to her as soon as it came off?”
Estel took another gulp of milk. “I forgot.” He moved on swiftly. “This is a special stone. I was going to ask Adar if it was magic.” He held up a dull dark grey pebble.
Despite herself, Faerwen was beginning to enjoy this. “What makes you suspect it may be magic?”
Estel’s voice dropped to a whisper. “It changes colour when it’s in water. It turns blue. Adar was telling me about the three magical elven rings last week and that nobody knows where they are. I thought they may have been broken and this could be the stone from Vildra.”
“Vilya,” Faerwen corrected automatically. “I can see why you would keep it” She added, with some sense of mischief, “You really should show it to Lord Elrond.” She pointed with some concern to a small drawstring bag that looked to have come from the herbarium. “I hope you have not taken that from the infirmary.”
Estel shook his head vehemently. “Oh no! Adar told me never to take herbs.” He made to open the bag. “I was in the garden when I saw an owl pellet and I put it in here for later.” He frowned. “That was last week. I had forgotten I had it. Glorfindel says you can tell what they’ve eaten if you pull these apart because the owl spits up the bones. I’ll show you.”
Faerwen stayed his hand upon the drawstring. “No, no. I shall take your word for that. The breakfast table is not the best place to open it.” It was with some trepidation that she indicated several round fluffy grey balls. “Are they owl pellets too?”
Estel grinned. “No, silly! They’re aniseed balls. I was sucking them yesterday when Mama called me in for tea so I put them in my pocket for later.” He frowned. “I don’t know where the fluff came from.” He reached in to pull his pocket inside out, producing a cloud of fluff, seeds and crumbs, and sneezed. About to wipe his nose on his sleeve he remembered Faerwen’s presence and fished for his hanky. He had discovered some time ago that grown- ups had a thing about not wiping noses on sleeves. Having observed the niceties, he gathered up his treasures, fluffy aniseed balls and all, and returned them to his pocket.
Faerwen held out a hand. “Give me the button.”
Estel grinned. “You could just tell Mama you found it on the floor.” He dropped it into her palm.
Perhaps she could. Deciding that her curiosity had been more than adequately satisfied Faerwen nodded towards his breakfast bowl. “You had better finish that. Do you have any lessons today?”
“I’m not hungry this morning.” Estel gulped down the last of his milk and, eschewing the hanky, wiped his top lip with the back of his hand. “Adar wants me to see him in the library for a history lesson after lunch but he said I could play this morning.” He turned pleading eyes upon Faerwen. “I can play, can’t I?”
Faerwen smiled. “Of course you may. Just do not forget to return at midday. Your mama insists that you have a wash before going to your lesson.”
Estel made his escape with, “I promise,” shouted over his shoulder as he ran from the room.
Estel dipped a hand into the silver fountain and cupped some of the icy clear water. He slurped noisily and swallowed, hoping it would ease the heat in his throat. For a few moments it had the desired effect, the ice cold liquid freezing his mouth and throat, but then the discomfort returned. He dropped down dejectedly upon the stone edging of the broad silver bowl, knowing that he could postpone this no longer.
The vague scratchiness at the back of his mouth this morning had grown into a burning dryness and his nose was running constantly. He suspected that he was developing a cold and, not for the first time in his life, wished he was an elf because Adar said they never got colds. He squinted up at the sun, which seemed to be excessively bright today. From it’s angle, and the shortness of the shadows, he knew it must be close to midday, although the noon bell had not yet been rung. He was tired and needed a clean hanky so he decided to return to his room. At least that would give him time to wash his hands and face before eating.
Neither Faerwen nor Mama were in sight when he arrived and the table was not set for lunch so Estel turned to the bathing room, where he made some attempt to neaten his appearance. As he was finishing he heard the rattle of crockery coming from the hallway and knew that the table was being set in the sitting room. Ducking hurriedly into his bedroom he grabbed a clean hanky and arrived just in time to meet Faerwen leaving. He held out his hands for inspection.
Faerwen smiled as she turned over the little hands. “Very good, Estel. Your hands are much cleaner than your pocket at least. Your Mama is still working in the infirmary so you will have to eat alone. Lord Elrond asked me to tell you that he will meet you in the library but he may be a little late. He has to perform an operation upon one of the edain.”
Estel frowned. “I thought they were all getting better.”
Faerwen cupped his cheek and her eyes grew sad. “Sometimes healing does not progress as we would wish.”
Too uncomfortable to wish to pursue that statement, Estel only nodded and Faerwen departed, seemingly lost in her own thoughts.
It felt strange, eating alone. Estel blew his nose as he surveyed the platter of cold fish and the colourful salad bowl, discovering that he did not feel very hungry after all. He drank some cool apple juice and followed it with some water but the food still did not tempt him.
A yawn sneaked up on him as the noonday bell chimed. Maybe he could lie down for a few minutes on the cushions in the library corner while he waited for Adar.
It was a full two hours past noon when Elrond entered the library, making for the desk he normally used for Estel’s lessons. When it was clear that Estel was not awaiting him there he turned about. “Estel? Are you hiding?”
There was no reply and Elrond shook his head. It had been a long and disappointing morning and he did not feel up to playing hide and seek. He took a deep breath and ordered his thoughts. After all, it was hardly the child’s fault that a man had died beneath Elrond’s knife.
“I shall find you. You know this,” he called, having tacked on a smile.
It took him only a few moments to find his student. In a corner of the vast library was a section used to store books for Imladris’ younger residents. It was one of Estel’s favourite haunts and he would often be found sprawled on a heap of cushions, absorbed in carefully edited tales of Silmarils and secret elven strongholds. Today, however, he was asleep, curled in about himself with an unopened book by his hand and Celeg tucked in close at his feet. When she saw Elrond Celeg met his gaze for some moments before moving away a little and sitting down to watch.
Elrond lowered himself to his knees at his foster son’s side. “A fever you say?”
Celeg only replied, “Aah”.
It was with difficulty that Elrond switched from concerned Adar to elven healer. Once more collecting himself he studied the little boy. Estel’s face was pale but his cheeks were flushed and a fine sheen of perspiration had caused tendrils of dark hair to cling to his forehead. In one hand was clutched a still damp handkerchief and from the fact that Estel was breathing through his mouth Elrond deduced that he suffered some congestion of the nasal passages.
He reached out to touch a finger to one wrist, confirming the presence of fever and a life pulse too swift, even in one so young. He smiled softly as he cupped one hot little cheek. “Estel? Wake up Tittlepin.”
Estel roused slowly, dragging himself up from dark and disturbing, but only vaguely remembered dreams. “Adar?” He blinked watery grey eyes, trying to remember where he was and finally establishing that he was in the library. He had fallen asleep waiting for Adar. “Sorry, Adar. I was sleepy.” He pushed himself upright with Elrond’s help and sat for a moment as the room performed a lazy spin.
“How long have you been feeling sick, child?”
“This morning I think,” Estel answered slowly as he blinked the room into stillness. “My throat hurts,” he added plaintively.
“Let me see.” Elrond pressed carefully just beneath the corners of Estel’s jaw, withdrawing as soon as he saw his charge wince. “It seems you do not exaggerate. Your throat must be very sore. Open your mouth please.”
As soon as Estel obliged Elrond recognised the illness. “The little white spots inside your cheek tell me that you have measles.” The healer frowned. “Although how you have acquired them I am unsure.”
“What are measles?”
Elrond slid arms beneath the small frame and arose with Estel cradled securely in his arms. “Measles is a mortal illness. Fortunately, if one must catch it, childhood is the best time of life in which to do so. Young and healthy bodies can fight it more successfully.”
Estel laid his head upon his Adar’s shoulder, feeling better already. “I don’t remember chasing it. How did I catch it?”
Elrond smiled as he walked down the hallway towards Estel’s room. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the measles caught you.”
“Oh.” Estel’s fever fed imagination threw up a rather frightening image of a crowd of large white spots chasing him through Rivendell’s hallways and he shrank closer to Adar’s strong chest.
Sensing the child’s disquiet Elrond squeezed him gently. “Do not worry, Tittlepin. You will feel uncomfortable for a few days but we will look after you.”
Celeg’s voice interjected. “Aah.” Estel glanced down to discover that they were being escorted by the little cat.
As Elrond turned to push the door open with his shoulder he glanced down. “Go and fetch Elrohir, please.” Celeg spun about to run back down the hallway and Estel learned anew that there was more to his Adar than often met the eye.
By the time Celeg returned, with Elrohir close behind, Elrond was helping Estel into a nightshirt.
“What did you wish to see me about Adar?” He put two and two together when he saw Elrond tucking Estel into bed. “Is Estel sick?”
“He has contracted measles and needs to rest for a little while.” Elrond smiled down at his little nephew and then turned to escort Elrohir back to the door, lowering his voice as he continued. “I would like you to deliver some messages for me. First, please advise Lady Gilraen that her son is ill. She is working in the Healers Hall at present but she will wish to be with him. You will also need to advise Master Healer Lorndir that we have measles within the valley. It must have arrived with one of the edain in his care and it is possible that others will begin to show symptoms soon. As soon as he sees any sign of the sickness any sufferers must be isolated from the others.”
Elrohir glanced back to the bed, where Estel had now curled up on his side and appeared to be dozing. “Is it safe to have Gilraen with him? Is she not in danger of catching it from Estel?”
Elrond shook his head. “If she has been tending the edain it is likely that she has already been in contact with the sickness. It will make little difference whether she is here or in the Halls of Healing and suspect it would be impossible to keep her from her child’s side in any case.”
“Will Estel be alright? Can this sickness kill?”
“It can kill the weak and as Lorndir’s charges are already physically compromised he must take great care. Estel is otherwise healthy and strong so he will be uncomfortable but is unlikely to die.” Elrond did not give his son time to ask further questions. “There is a possibility that elves may carry the illness from one person to another, even though we do not suffer ourselves. So the strictest cleanliness protocols must be set in place and it would be wise to limit the contact of healers between rooms. I shall join him later but if Lordir requires information now he will find details on the illness in my notebooks.” He smiled reassuringly as he gently edged Elrohir from the room. “Hurry now.”
Elrond returned to the bedside, gathering up Estel’s discarded clothes and a selection of items which appeared to have fallen out of a pocket.
The door opened to admit one tall elf lord. Elrond closed it quietly behind him, gliding silently to the bedside. Estel’s mother offered a weary smile.
“Good afternoon, Gilraen. I can sit with him for a while if you wish. Faerwen tells me that you did not leave his side all night.” Elrond drew up a chair opposite her.
Gilraen only shook her head. “My place is at his side. He woke up earlier and asked for me.” She leaned over to brush damp hair from her little boy’s brow, her fingers registering both heat and the bumps of an angry rash.
“How was he?” Elrond asked as he touched a finger to the inside of one small wrist.
“His eyes are sore. I tried to wipe away the crusts about them but it hurt him so much that in the end I gave up.” Gilraen’s grey eyes glittered with tears.
Rather than sit, the healer crossed to the bathing room. Gilraen heard him washing his hands and when he returned he held a basin of gently steaming water, which he set upon the table at her side. Selecting a fine green glass bottle from the arrangement of medicines that had been collecting on the bedside table he added a couple of drops of the contents and swirled the water with long fingers. The bottle was delicately cut with an image of flowers and vines, its stopper an alabaster rose. Among Gilraen’s people it would have been reserved for the storage of expensive perfume but here it contained something more precious, succour for the hurting.
Elrond wrung out a clean soft cloth in the delicately scented water and held it out to her. “Hold this on his eyes for a few moments and then wipe gently,” he instructed. “It will break down the encrustation more easily.”
She draped the warm damp cloth over her son’s eyes, then heard, “Mama?” Estel’s plaintive call was little more than a croak.
“Mama’s here,” Gilraen murmured as she stroked his hair.
“My eyes hurt.”
“I know, sweeting. Mama’s going to help with that now.” She began to wipe gently, sweeping the cloth from nose to temple and relieved when Estel made no protest. “Try to open them now,” she murmured when her son’s thick dark lashes were revealed at last.
He blinked open bleary and bloodshot eyes to seek out his mother’s face, chin trembling as he whispered, “Want to be better, Mama.”
Fighting back tears Gilraen smiled, in an attempt to reassure. “I know. You will be out climbing trees soon, I promise.” A part of her knew that this statement was true but another could remember, only too clearly, Elrohir’s quiet message of that morning. One of the injured rangers had succumbed, his damaged body too weak to fight off this latest onslaught. She had refused Elrohir’s offer to sit with Estel so that she could attend the interment, resolving to mourn her kin only when her son no longer needed her.
“Would you like a drink? Your Adar has sent lemonade.” She glanced up to where Elrond stood behind her chair.
Estel’s face showed a flash of interest. “Yes, please.” He followed his mother’s gaze to see Adar’s calm features. “Can’t you make me better, Adar?”
Elrond had to swallow before replying. “I am sorry, Tittlepin. Only time can heal this sickness. But your Mama is correct. In a few days this will just be a memory.” He lifted Estel slightly so that Gilraen could slip a plump pillow beneath his shoulders, tucking the blankets close while she poured pale, cloudy liquid into a small cup. Water gathered upon the outside at once and Gilraen marvelled anew at the skill of elves in keeping liquids cool. She had long since ceased to call it magic, knowing that the term would only draw frowns of incomprehension from her hosts.
Touching the cool rim to his lips, Gilraen was gratified when Estel took a sip, quickly followed by another and another. Lemonade was one of the few things that Estel did not push away and Elrond had promised her a stroll in the orangery attached to the Healer’s wing when Estel was recovered. Gilraen had never heard of lemons until she started to help with the sick. This was not surprising for they would only grow indoors in these northern climes and there was space in the orangery for only one tree. The sick always had first pick of the fruit and only when there was an excess did other’s get to share this precious commodity.
Elrond bent to whisper in her ear. “Not too quickly. It will not sit well on his empty stomach.”
Gilraen complied at once but was very gratified to have the cup emptied. Elrond bent to smear a clear salve on Estel’s lips and was rewarded by a thin smile from his heart son.
His immediate needs settled, Estel watery gaze followed his Adar about the bed, watching as he settled into a chair opposite Mama. “Is it night time?” he asked with a frown.
Elrond followed his train of thought easily. “No. We have drawn the curtains so that your eyes do not hurt as much. It will soon be teatime. Are you hungry?”
Estel considered for a moment. He should feel hungry. It seemed to him that he always felt hungry. But he could not remember when he last ate and he realised that, if he was truthful, he did not feel hungry now. His tummy was not growling and the prospect of chewing something was more effort than he could muster. “Not really.”
Gilraen glanced across at Elrond. Estel must be feeling ill indeed if he was turning down the offer of food. Elrond only nodded to her before continuing to coax their little charge. “You need to eat something if your body is to fight off this illness. You will get better much faster if you can manage to eat. Perhaps we can find something soft for you to try. Do you like soup?”
Estel pondered for some time. Soup was very nice when he came in from playing on a cold day. He had not been playing, though. On the other hand, soup did not require chewing. Indeed, the more he pondered the subject, the more the idea of soup appealed. “What sort of soup?”
Both adults stopped holding their breath. “We have lots for you to try. There is cream of chicken, cream of tomato, beef broth, potato and mushroom . . . If none of those appeal I am certain that we can ask the cook to make you one that does.” Elrond waited patiently for his reply.
It did not take long. “I like cream of tomato. Can I try some of that?”
“Of course you may.” Elrond arose. “I shall make the arrangements.”
Gilraen smiled at her son before following Elrond to the door. There they held a short, whispered conversation.
“Will that be enough? I would rather he had the beef broth.”
Elrond shook his head. “We can fortify it with a little chicken broth and, for the moment at least, I would rather encourage him to eat something than have him reject everything. His appetite will pick up once more when he begins to feel better.”
“When will that be?”
“The illness shows no sign of abating at present, but neither is it growing any worse.” In a rare show of affection Elrond laid a gentle hand upon Gilraen’s shoulder. “Do not worry. He is young and strong and will come to no lasting harm if he rests. Our greatest problems will come when he begins to recover. I have no doubt that he will chafe against the restrictions we must place upon him then.”
Now Gilraen managed a small smile. “I’m sure you are right.” Then she turned back to look at the little figure curled beneath soft blankets. “I wish I could do more.”
“You are doing all that he requires of you. He knows that Mama is at his side and that is the greatest gift for any child,” he replied wistfully.
Gilraen watched his back thoughtfully as he strode away down the hallway.
“And Tulkas was as one caught in a black net at night, and he stood powerless and beat the air in vain. But when the Darkness had passed, it was too late: Melkor had gone wither he would, and his vengeance was achieved.”
Elrond’s rich voice faded and with it the magical images. The book of The Darkening of Valinor lay open upon Elrond’s knees but he had long ago ceased to consult its pages, the lore master recalling perfectly every word written there.
“So is it always dark in Valinor now?” Estel asked around a mouthful of soft scrambled egg.
Elrond smiled, reaching out to wipe away a drop of liquid from Estel’s chin. “That is a tale for another time, but no, there is light in Valinor. Perhaps you can read about it when you are feeling better.”
Estel frowned. “Is it written in Quenya?”
“We have a copy in Sindarin, but the poetry sounds better in the original Quenya.”
“Maybe I could start with the Sindarin?” Estel asked hopefully.
Elrond relented. There was still time for the chieftain of the Dunedain to learn Quenya. Not as much time as an elf, but time enough. “Very well. When I judge you recovered enough to read I will send you the Sindarin version. Later we will study the Quenya one together.”
Estel swallowed the last morsel of egg. “Will you tell me the tale now?”
Elrond smiled. Every day he was reminded of how quickly mortals lived their lives. “No. Now that you have finished your repast you need to rest.”
Estel sighed, having learned long ago that further protest would be ineffective with Adar. For his part, Elrond cleared away the tray and it’s few remaining contents and rearranged the pillows beneath Estel’s head. As he settled back in his chair Elrond noted Estel trying valiantly to smother a yawn.
“I will not tell you another tale but I will sing, if you wish.”
Estel’s eyes widened. In all the days he had now lived in Imladris he had heard Elrond sing no more than half a dozen times. Each time was engraved upon his memory for the Lord of Imladris had a rich baritone that could fill the corners of the largest hall or whisper melodically in the ear of only one. Pure elven voices held a clarity and perfection that seemed to grow out of the very air. Elrond’s mixed heritage produced in his a perfectly pitched clarity but it also had a burred and earthy quality to the edges that spoke warmly to Estel’s mortal ear.
Settling back among his pillows, Estel smiled. “Yes, please Adar.”
Elrond closed his eyes and drew breath then, to Estel’s surprise, began to sing in Westron.
*“An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver grey.
A star was bound upon her brows,
A light was in her hair
As sun upon the golden boughs
In Lorien the fair.
Her hair was long, her limbs were white,
And fair she was and free;
And in the wind she went as light
As leaf of linden-tree.
Beside the falls of Nimrodel,
By water clear and cool,
Her voice as falling silver fell
Into the shining pool . . .”
*The song of Nimrodel – as sung by Legolas in Lothlorien, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Estel stomped upon a stray leaf that must have drifted in the last time the doors to the balcony were open, lifting his foot to glower at the shattered brown remains before moving on to walk another circuit of his room. He had been allowed out of bed for the first time this morning but forbidden to walk any further than the bathing chamber or the balcony outside his room. As it was raining heavily outside, only one of those options was available and he had already had his bath for the day.
He scratched absently at the thought. Adar had added a little bag of oats to his bath this morning and it stopped the constant itching of his dry skin but the effects wore off all too quickly. Crossing to the table, he made a desultory search of the books scattered upon it, in hopes that a new one had appeared since he looked an hour ago. No. There was a Quenya grammar, a Sindarin-Quenya dictionary, a Westron dictionary, a book on mathematics, a story book about a naughty pony that he had read more times than he could count and, of course, The Darkening of Valinor.
He stabbed the huge tome with one finger, yelping when his fingernail broke. Celeg, who had been sitting in a corner, watching him march round and around, leapt daintily onto the table to sniff the offending book. Deciding that it was no real threat to cat or boy she ensured it did not become one by the simple expedient of curling up on top of it and composing herself for sleep. Estel sniffed approvingly before worrying at the sharp remains of his nail with his teeth. That was by far the best use he could think of for that particular book.
There was a precise tap upon his door and Estel hurriedly removed his finger from his mouth. “Please come in, Adar.”
Elrond backed into the room. Elrond never backed into a room but when he turned to push the door shut behind him with one elegantly slippered foot, Estel could see why he had entered in that uncharacteristic fashion, for both arms were full. In the curve of one he carried a large, squarish leather case that Estel recognised at once to be the cover for a lap harp, in the other he bore a large folio.
Setting down both beside the table the lord of Imladris raised a brow at Celeg where she still curled upon The Darkening of Valinor. The sleek cat blinked at him lazily. Elrond’s brow rose higher and Celeg stared back, the very tip of her tail flicking beside her nose. Elrond spoke one quiet word. “Celeg.” Uncurling lazily, Celeg paused to yawn wide, displaying an impressive array of needle sharp white teeth. She unhurriedly stretched out her two front paws, curving her spine deeply to stick her behind in the air, in Elrond’s direction. Then she straightened and, equally unhurriedly, sprang delicately to the floor and sauntered to her bed in the corner of the room, tail twitching all the way.
Elrond only shook his head at her antics then began to arrange Estel’s books in an orderly heap on one corner of the table. “We celebrate the anniversary of your Naneth’s natal day this evening. Have you given consideration to a gift for her?”
Estel clambered into a chair at the rapidly clearing table. “I was going to make something but I’ve been so poorly that I didn’t have time,” he mourned. “I suppose I could draw her a picture,” he offered, half-heartedly. Even for a child, Estel’s draughtsmanship left much to be desired. He had long ago decided that drawing was not one of his giftings and, although Elladan occasionally tried to help him, Estel did not feel that a picture would be quite the thing.
“If you will permit me, I have a suggestion.” Elrond placed the harp case upon the table and began to release the ties. Within, carefully nestled inside a layer of soft cloth, was a beautiful, carved and silver inlaid, pale wood harp. Estel leaned forward, using one finger to pluck tentatively at a white string. A warm pure note issued forth to reverberate cleanly in the air between them for a moment, before slowly dying away.
“You have never had any music lessons, have you?” Elrond asked as he drew up a chair next to his foster son.
“Erm . . . no Adar.” Estel’s face scrunched up in distaste. He would much rather be outside, climbing trees.
Adar gave one of his rare chuckles. “History is much easier to learn if turned into poetry and sung to music, and I wondered if perhaps you and I could sing a song for your Mama as our gift. I know that you have a good singing voice.”
Estel was still not impressed. “I would like to sing with you, but why do I have to learn history? I can’t change it.”
“The study of the past enables us to build upon the good things that happened and to learn from the bad things.” Elrond paused a breath before continuing. “Do you remember what happened when you forgot your wrist guard for your archery lesson last summer?”
Estel rubbed his forearm absently. “The bowstring hurt my arm.”
“Yes, it did. What have you learned from that?”
“That I have to wear my wrist guard when I’m using a bow,” Estel replied easily.
“Precisely. You have learned from your past and that knowledge will help to keep you safe in the future. Learning history is very much like that. People have made many mistakes before you and by learning about them you can avoid making their mistakes yourself, thus saving much effort and discomfort.” He tapped the huge tome on the table before them. “How much have your read of ‘The Darkening of Valinor’?”
Estel bit his lip, wondering if it was worth trying to dissemble. He did not need to contemplate for long. All grown-ups seemed to have a knack for knowing when he was telling an untruth. It was a skill that he hoped to master himself as he grew up. “A page or two,” he confessed with a blush.
Elrond’s brow lifted once more. “Is that one page or two pages?”
Estel’s finger traced the pattern of grain in the wood of the table top and his voice dropped to a whisper. “One page . . . mostly.”
Elrond smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind the curve of Estel’s ear. “Then let us try this . . .” He lifted the harp, spent a moment plucking random strings as he checked that it was properly tuned, then struck a silver chord.
Estel settled back to listen as his Adar began to sing. The words were simple, as was the tune, but Estel was surprised at the content.
Ungolient sat long and deep
But deeper yet her thought.
Faint light she sipped and would not sleep
Til from it dark she wrought.
Black ropes she spat and strung them high
Keen blade could not have shorn.
Black cloud she spewed to hide the sky,
Her bloated spider form . . .
After several more short verses Elrond struck the last note and Estel blinked. “Oooh, I’d like to learn that,” he exclaimed. “That’s much easier than the book.”
Elrond smiled. “I thought it would appeal. Perhaps I misjudged your readiness to wrestle with the original. This is a version I taught my children.” He pulled a sheet of paper from the folio and slid it to Estel. “Would you like to try singing it with me this time?”
Estel was trying very hard not to show his excitement. Dissembling was not usually acceptable but Adar had told him he would be forgiven upon this occasion.
Mama tucked the covers beneath his chin and bent to kiss his brow. “I am sorry that you cannot come to the party, but Lord Elrond insists that you are not yet strong enough.” She stroked his cheek and offered a wistful smile. “I would rather spend my birthday with you but Faerwen and Erestor have gone to so much trouble that it would be very rude not to attend.”
Her son turned upon his side and curled up beneath the covers. “It’s alright Mama. I do feel sleepy. Will you bring me some cake?”
Gilraen’s smile widened. “Of course I will. A big bit with lots of icing on it.” One last kiss and she arose and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.
Estel bounced up at once, grabbing Celeg to give the startled cat a squeeze. It was fortunate that Celeg was used to such exuberance or it could have earned Estel a few scratches. As soon as she was released, she darted for her own bed where she settled in to re-arrange her ruffled fur.
Estel looked up with a start when the door began to open once more and dove down beneath the covers, his eyes tight shut. Surely Mama was not returning with his cake so soon? Then he heard a soft giggle. “It is only I, Estel. And in future, should you wish to fain sleep, do not screw up your eyes so.”
Estel’s eyes popped open to find Faerwen, standing with folded arms and broad smile, at his bedside. He let out an explosive breath and sat up once more. “I thought Mama had come back.”
Faerwen turned to his clothing store and began to select garments. “You need not worry about that. Erestor is escorting her to the hall and will ensure that she remains fully occupied.” Even now she continued to marvel that her husband managed to combine the sweetness of temperament to know that all Imladris needed something to brighten life, after recent events, and the ruthless organisational skill to produce a party upon short notice.
She turned back to the bed, where Estel now stood in fresh small clothes. “Well done.” She handed him a beautiful white suit, with its delicate scrolling embroidery of grey leaves and flowers, correctly anticipating his long-suffering sigh. “I know you would rather wear your everyday clothes but this is a special occasion. Your Mama will love seeing you in your best and will know that you seek to honour her by it.”
One final grimace and Estel began to tug on the knee length breeches while Faerwen sought out silk stockings and white slippers.
“Will there be lots of people there?” Estel asked as his head popped through the neck of his tunic and Faerwen returned to help him wrangle arms into long sleeves.
“The whole valley has turned out and even those Dunadain who are still recovering,” she replied, holding out a finely tooled white and silver belt.
“I thought they had all gone home,” Estel commented as he fastened the buckle and stepped into his slippers.
Faerwen began to work upon the tangles in his sable hair as gently as she could when her charge was fidgeting to be away. “Some have departed but three remain. The twins will be escorting them home tomorrow.” She did not add that they would also be escorting the remains of those who had not survived battle and sickness, their bodies preserved until they could be given loving burial by their kin. The child needed no more death in his life.
A few minutes later Faerwen shepherded Estel into the Hall of Fire via a little used door. There a screen had been set ready that allowed those behind it to observe the going’s on in the hall without being observed themselves.
Along one wall tables had been placed and kitchen helpers were just adding the last platters and dishes of finger food. At their centre was a huge cake, it’s white iced surface scattered with marzipan roses. Faerwen was correct in her assertion that all would be attending. Even the kitchen helpers were now removing aprons to reveal their finest robes. Lindir and other musicians sat near Elrond’s chair and their soft playing mingled with many elven voices to fill the air with sweet melody.
Gilraen sat in place of honour at Elrond’s right hand and her eyes sparkled with joy as she sipped from a crystal goblet of pale wine. At her feet were scattered a selection of gifts and her hair was crowned with a coronet of yellow roses. Estel thought he had never seen his Mama look prettier.
Faerwen dropped before him then, tugging his tunic straight and, to Estel’s surprise, placing a fine silver filet upon his head. “There now,” she murmured. “The perfect little prince.”
Unused to such compliments Estel grinned, reaching up to touch the simple band upon his brow. He supposed it wasn’t too bad having to dress up every now and again if it earned him the title of ‘prince’. Princes were always mighty warriors after all?
Even as the thought crossed his mind he saw Elrond glance toward the screen. The Lord of Imladris nodded to Lindir and the music ceased. A hush descended upon the room as Elrond stood. Turning now to bow low to Gilraen his voice dropped, rich, into the ensuing silence.
“Lady Gilraen, there is yet one more gift to bestow upon this celebration of your natal day. The giver has toiled hard in its crafting although I think you will cherish it most because it comes from his heart.” He bent to lift his harp, which had been leaning against the side of his chair, and nodded to where Faerwen was now escorting Estel to a growing space in the middle of the floor.
Gilraen set down her glass and would have gone to her son but she was stayed by Elladan with a hand upon her wrist. Elrohir set a chair by Estel and Elrond settled himself upon it, harp against his shoulder. With a wink to the child, who was now blushing furiously at all this attention, he made his announcement.
“Estel has been studying our history of late and he has a gift for his mother on this special day, which is not just her natal day but also a celebration of his return to full health.” Drawing Estel closer to his knee he plucked the first refrain before nodding Estel in.
The child’s clear high treble was tentative at first but began to soar like a lark as his Adar added quiet subtle harmonies with his own warm firm voice.
Ungolient sat long and deep
But deeper yet her thought.
Faint light she sipped and would not sleep
Til from it dark she wrought.
Black ropes she spat and strung them high
Keen blade could not have shorn.
Black cloud she spewed to hide the sky,
Her bloated spider form.
Now Melkor crept to seek her there
In form as dark as she.
And spoke of land that shone so fair,
Neath gold and silver tree.
With silvered tongue he promised her
A feast of golden light.
With golden voice he pledged to her
A taste of silver bright.
From shadowed vale the two set forth
Beneath Ungolient's cloud,
And silently they travelled north,
Where Valar stood so proud.
No eye was seeking forth that day.
No creeping shadow seen.
For Manwe called a festal day
Where hearts could be made clean.
On Taniquetil Vanyar sang.
They danced with not a care.
In streets of Valmar silence rang.
Empty, Tirion's stair.
Feanor came at Manwe's call
Though Finwe would not come.
Fingolfin stood there strong and tall.
The brothers joined as one.
Then gold was mingled silver bright
On Valmar's empty street.
Two trees that filled the world with light,
Now doomed to dark defeat.
For Melkor thrust his mighty spear
Into each gleaming core.
Telperion shed silver tear,
Laurelin golden gore.
Ungoliant then deeply drank
Of every shining drop.
Replacing life with poison rank
Til dead, she would not stop.
But still she thirsted more for light
So Varda's Wells she drained,
Till even Melkor feared her might
And fled the land they stained.
Then darkness fell on Valinor,
Such malice never known,
This darkness born of spider gore
Ungoliant had sown.
It was not just a lack of light
This black that she did spill.
It entered even those of might
To strangle every will.
Soon Holy Mountain stood alone
Amid the blackest tide.
But Manwe on his mighty throne
Sprang forth the host of Orome
But darkness did them best,
And Melkor faded clean away.
Proud eldar failed the test.
Thus darkness fell on Valinor.
Much was set in motion
Which trapped some on this Eastern shore,
Sundered by an ocean.
The last note faded and Estel finally looked into his mother’s face, surprised to see her cheeks damp with tears. Then she smiled, held open her arms and he ran into her embrace to bury his face in her bosom. “Happy birthday, Mama!” The room erupted into applause.
A little later, when Gilraen had cut the cake and carried a sleepy Estel back to their chambers, Elrond sat with his sons.
“He did very well, did he not?” Elrond asked as he forked up a morsel of birthday cake.
“He certainly did better than Elrohir when he first sang in public,” Elladan replied with a smirk.
Elrohir punched his brother’s bicep. “I had eaten something that disagreed with me. Naneth understood.”
His father chuckled. “Tis pity her dress did not. She never did get rid of that stain.”
Elladan grinned. “At least Estel will never forget that tale now.”
“And Erestor will have that book returned to his collection at last,” Elrohir pointed out.
Estel set down his pencil with a satisfied grin and Elrond looked up from his parchment. “Finished?” He held out his hand to accept Estel's work and began to scan the answers to the arithmetical problems he had set the child.
Estel dropped his chin into his hand as he awaited the verdict, his eyes drifting to the woods outside where a group of fully armed elven warriors was heading out to patrol Imladris' border.
Elrond signed his name with a flourish at the bottom of Estel's calculations. “These are all correct. I believe I shall have to make the next set of questions much more difficult.” He wrote as Estel began his usual stream of questions. Fortunately, Elrond had long ago learned to do both at the same time.
“Why do I have to learn sums, Adar? I want to be a warrior so wouldn't it be better if I learned fighting instead?”
“You are learning to fight,” Elrond replied as he composed. “You are becoming very proficient with a bow.”
“But I haven't learned about swords yet.” Estel nodded to the corner where a shield, taller than himself, a tattered banner and a beautiful sword were displayed. Although they had been there for as long as the youngster remembered he had never dared to touch them. Elrond had once told him that he had brought them back with him from the last great battle with the Dark Lord.
Elrond followed the direction of his longing gaze. “Do you not think that a warrior needs some understanding of mathematics too?”
Estel frowned. Adar always found a way to sidestep the issue of sword fighting. Indeed, all the grown-ups did. “I suppose so,” he answered a little peevishly. “But Dan and Roh can fight and even you have a sword.”
“You are too little to be able to use a sword effectively,” his Adar replied in a continuing attempt to discourage the youngster. Learning to use a bow was one thing for it could be used to provide food. There was only one use for a sword, however, and once hand was fitted to grip there could be no return to the innocence of childhood. Whilst Elrond acknowledged that Estel would need to begin lessons soon, he was not so sure that Gilraen would agree. The subject needed broaching at some point but it would have to be done with some delicacy.
His comment was met with a pout that had Elrond dropping his head to hide a smile, remembering too well having this same conversation with all three of his children. They too, had pouted prettily. He handed over a new page of mathematical problems and Estel began to read, with a long-suffering sigh at the intransigence of grown-ups.
“You are the leader of an army. Your enemy has two thousand troops. Advisors tell you that in order to win the battle you will require fifty troops more than he. You have only one thousand and forty troops at present but sufficient numbers have been promised by an ally. Of the additional warriors supplied by your ally, thirty are mounted. How many warriors on foot do you require of him?”
It seemed Adar was determined to push home his point. Should he assume that his additional warriors on foot would also require nine hundred and eighty swords, Estel wondered sourly as he picked up his pencil once more.
Estel knew where the practice court was, as he knew most of the corners of the Last Homely House. So, when he noticed Glorfindel and Elrohir both wearing their swords indoors, he guessed their destination and curiosity led him to follow at a distance. His presence was sensed long before they reached that destination, however.
Elrohir turned, silver eyes travelling unerringly to the pillar topped with decorative vase, behind which Estel had dodged. “I had thought better of you, Little Brother. Have we taught you to skulk in the corners like some fat spider?”
Estel stepped out, his face pink and voice barely more than a whisper. “No, Roh.”
Glorfindel folded his arms, hip-shot, as he studied the downcast little figure with some amusement. “If you are trying to hone your tracking skills you could at least have made a better attempt to do so quietly.”
Elrohir shot his companion a look that promised retribution at some later point.
“Oh, I tried,” Estel assured them innocently. “But there's no carpet in this hall and these are my outdoor boots.” He lifted one foot to display his heavy soled footwear. The elves had long since despaired of supplying him with shoes for they only seemed to last a few days before he destroyed them.
Elrohir looked from Glorfindel to Estel. “I think you are both missing the point here. Estel should not be following us at all. Why are you doing so?”
Estel's gaze flicked to the long swords hung at slender hips. “I wanted to watch you practice,” he confessed. “I'll be quiet. I promise. Can I watch?”
Before Elrohir could refuse Glorfindel stepped in. “I do not see why not. It is a skill you should learn at some point and watching is a good place to begin.”
“I am not sure that the Lady Gilraen would agree with you,” Elrohir murmured in an aside to his companion.
It seemed his voice was not pitched low enough to evade young ears trained by elves, however. “Mama says I am too young.” He tried out the pout that had so successfully softened hearts in the kitchens. “But I think she will always say that. I need to learn if I am to be a warrior. Even Adar has a sword.”
Elrohir sighed, having already been undermined by Glorfindel and finding himself not altogether immune to the pout. “You may watch from the balcony, just this once. Then I will ask Adar about lesso . . . oof!” His words were broken off by having the air knocked out of his lungs when Estel hurtled at his midriff.
“Thank you, Roh! I shall be as quiet as a mouse. I promise.”
Glorfindel chuckled. “I would be careful about making promises you may not be able to keep, Estel. Words issue from your mouth like water from a spring.”
Elrohir dropped to one knee and took his little brother's shoulders in his hands. His gaze captured and held Estel's firmly. “You must promise to make no sound, whatever happens. Glorfindel and I will be practising with real swords and if we are distracted somebody could get very badly hurt.”
Glorfindel snorted. “I doubt you would get close enough to hurt me, Elrohir.”
Elrohir chose to ignore the jibe . . . for the moment. “Your promise, Estel.”
The youngster placed a hand upon his heart. “I promise.”
For a moment longer Elrohir searched his foster brother's face, then he gave a brisk nod and stood. “Very well. Come with me.” He offered a hand and Estel slipped his much smaller one within it without hesitation.
At the end of the hallway Glorfindel slipped through some tall doors but Elrohir led his brother to the left, where a set of steps spiralled upward. At the top they entered through a smaller door and Estel found himself upon a narrow balcony that ringed the huge practice hall. Here and there chairs had been set and Elrohir led the youngster to one, drawing it a little closer to the elegantly carved railings so that Estel could see over the top. He gave one final injunction. “Remember. Not a sound.”
Remembering Glorfindel's observation, Estel nodded gravely, but his eyes lit with excitement as soon as Elrohir turned away. Eschewing the stairs, the peredhil vaulted over the rail to land nimbly several feet below and only yards from Glorfindel. The older warrior responded with raised brow and continued with a series of stretches.
Some minutes later the opponents turned to face each other. There was a whisper of glittering steel and two long swords were held aloft in silent salute. For what seemed to Estel to be an age, Elrohir and Glorfindel simply circled each other, their eyes locked, swords clasped in both hands, and he began to wonder if they were ever going to clash.
Suddenly Glorfindel feinted right and swung his long blade to the left in a line that, had it connected, would surely have sliced Elrohir cleanly in two, diagonally from shoulder to hip. Much to Estel's relief Elrohir dropped his own blade down and left, deflecting Glorfindel easily, and the two leapt apart once more.
Glorfindel was grinning but not for long. With no tell that Estel could see, Elrohir leapt up, spinning in mid-air to sweep his blade in a downward arc, so fast that Estel did not truly see it until it connected with Glorfindel's sword in a ringing clang. The two blades slid and then Glorfindel's was somehow on top as he drove Elrohir's to the floor. The opponents stepped apart and began to circle again.
Now Glorfindel danced in, sweeping his blade upward, the point only a hairs breadth from Elrohir's chest. Estel gasped, jumping from his seat, and that was the only distraction Elrohir needed to slam Glorfindel's blade to the side and down, suddenly presenting the pommel of his own sword to his opponent's exposed chin. Under normal circumstances Glorfindel would have tucked his head back to avoid the coming blow but Estel's sudden movement had caused him a split second of inattention and he staggered backwards as the pommel rapped smartly on his jaw.
Elrohir lowered his blade at once, stepping forward to examine the hurt. “How bad is it?”
Glorfindel stood for a moment, testing his jaw's range of movement. “I will live. It is not broken I think but it certainly smarts,” he replied ruefully.
Both warriors turned to the balcony where a wide eyed Estel stood, both hands clamped over his mouth.
The healing room was, to Elrond's mind, excessively crowded when one took into account the minor nature of the injury suffered. Glorfindel sat upon the edge of a bed, a bag of ice chips held to one side of his already blackening jaw. Behind him Elrohir was collecting swords, both his and Glorfindel's, and trying to make himself invisible. Little Estel stood to one side, having just apologised to Glorfindel for what, to Elrond's knowledge, was the fifth time. Behind the boy, Gilraen glared at Elrohir and Glorfindel equally and in turn. How precisely the lady had heard of the event so swiftly Elrond did not know, but she had arrived just as he handed Glorfindel the ice.
Elrohir had to admire Glorfindel's coolness under pressure for he only gave the lady a lopsided smile. For his part, Elrohir thought he would rather face a balrog than Gilraen's ire where her son was concerned. Now she folded her arms as she stepped forward. “And just who's idea was it to show my son the use of a sword?” Fire sparked in her eyes as she glanced from Elrohir to Glorfindel and then to Elrond.
Elrond only held up both hands in a warding gesture and stepped out of the line of fire. Glorfindel's grin faltered a little but it was Elrohir who finally came forward. “We only invited him to watch from the balcony. He was safe.” He regretted the final words as soon as he set them free and even Elrond winced.
Gilraen surged forward, wrapping protective arms about her son's upper torso. “Safe! Safe from a blade perhaps, but what of the knowledge? My son is far too young to learn of fighting and you were fighting with naked blades, for goodness sake! What would have happened if one of you had been really injured? Would his dreaming have been safe then?”
Glorfindel and Elrohir actually sank back under her tirade, just as surely as if she had wielded a sword of her own. With a swiftness rarely exhibited by him, Elrond stepped in front of her, deciding that there had been recriminations enough. “Peace, Lady Gilraen.” He nodded toward the little boy, who was on the verge of tears. “Take your son to the library, where Elladan awaits him for his Quenya lesson. Then join us in my private sitting room where we will discuss this further.”
Gilraen's nostrils flared but when she saw the distress in her son's face she turned about, ushering him from the room.
Elrond indicated for the duellers to follow him and two mighty warriors complied meekly.
“Please come in, Gilraen,” Elrond called out before the lady had time to knock upon the closed door. When she entered he was relieved to note, from the set of her shoulders, that some of the anger had dissipated and he offered her a glass of mulled wine as he ushered her to a chair before the fire.
Glorfindel had abandoned his ice pack, deciding that mulled wine would work just as well, and Elrohir was drawing up his own chair to join the semi-circle around the hearth. He waited for his father to be seated before settling.
Elrond addressed Gilraen. “How is Estel?”
Gilraen took a sip of her wine, judging it to contain too much cinnamon, before replying. “He was upset, but Elladan has abandoned their lesson and is reading to him from the Quenta Silmarillion. Estel seemed calmer when I left him.”
“If I am the cause for his upset I apologise, Gilraen.” Elrohir looked suitably contrite.
“We are equally guilty, my friend. It was I who first suggested we allow him to watch.” Glorfindel touched a tentative finger to the blackening swelling on his jaw and grimaced.
Elrond set down his cup. “It seems to me that you two are equally guilty but I would expect more sense from someone of your years, Glorfindel.”
Glorfindel shrugged his shoulders. “It seemed harmless enough.”
Gilraen drew breath to wield more harsh words but Elrond neatly inserted his comment before her. “I think we can discuss the wisdom of your actions for hours and be no further forward. What we need to decide is what action to take now.”
Gilraen had a strong opinion on that too. “We tell him that he is too young to take an interest in sword fighting,” she stated with what she hoped was some finality.
Elrond shook his head slowly. “I fear, lady, that the 'Celeg' is already out of the bag. Indeed, Estel broached the subject with me some days ago.” When Gilraen would obviously have chastised him he added, swiftly, “I tried to deflect him then, but it seems he is quite determined upon the matter.”
Elrohir nodded. “I saw him mock fighting a tree with a hazel switch last week.”
Glorfindel cradled his wine, rolling the cup between his palms. “Elven children do not show an interest so young. I know that Estel can already wield a bow but at what age do mortals usually begin to train in arms?”
Although he knew the answer already, Elrond deferred to Gilraen, who shifted a little uncomfortably in her chair. The lady tried to prevaricate. “Estel is safe here. He does not need to know how to defend himself.”
Elrond could only sympathise. “He is safe but surely it is not his fate to spend the rest of his life here? One day he will have to lead warriors. Think you they will respect someone who has not sufficient skill with a blade to defend himself?”
Gilraen swallowed the last of her wine, and used the short delay caused by Elrohir refilling it from the jug on the hearth, to martial her words. She discovered in the process that her arguments were thinning. “That is some years away. He needs time to be a child, still.”
Elrond's voice was calm but frank. “There will still be time for play but I believe, had he remained among his own people, Estel would by now have been taking instruction in the basics of swordplay for some months.”
Setting aside her cup, Gilraen held up her hands in surrender. “I was hoping my son could hold onto his innocence for just a little longer but I suppose it was inevitable.”
“I understand your mother's heart in this matter. I too, would love to hold onto the sweet little boy I taught to climb trees. But, elf or man, we all must face the fact that time marches on. Once Estel reaches adulthood he will be expected to take responsibility for his own defence at the very least. To develop the necessary strength to do so he must start young.” He laid a gentle hand upon Gilraen's. “Have no fear, he will soon discover that learning is not nearly as exciting as he imagines, and there is more to the fighting than slashing in anger at anyone who crosses his path.”
Gilraen could only frown toward Elrohir. It was well known, throughout the valley and beyond, that the twin sons of Celebrian regularly went out of their way to hunt orc; not because they were attacked but simply in remembrance of past hurts done to their mother. Elrond had long ago ceased trying to point out to them that orcs had no more control over their urge to destroy than he had over the colour of his eyes. Despite having as much reason as his sons to kill, Elrond had set aside his ire and would act only in defence. Anyone hoping to practice the healing arts should have no room in his heart for vengeance.
“Glorfindel will be responsible for teaching Estel to wield a sword,” he announced. Both Elrohir and Glorfindel looked up in surprise but Elrond only smiled. “I have always believed that someone who has learned that it is not always possible to win is the best person to teach another how and, just as importantly, when to fight.”
Elrohir glowered. “I have lost many fights.”
Elrond hid a sudden smile and Glorfindel chuckled before advising, “I do not believe that is a confession you should make known too widely, my friend.”
Sometimes Elrond would take a break from his work to lean a hip upon the balustrade of his balcony and watch Estel play in the gardens below. Today, when he did not acknowledge Estel's wave, the boy was not too surprised for Adar seemed to be staring at the mountains and frowning. Deciding that he must be thinking hard about something Estel went on with his game . . . such an old pavement and so many cracks to avoid stepping upon.
Something was coming. Elrond could sense it in the freshening breeze . . . a dilute and far distant breath of sulphur. Out of long habit, he rubbed his thumb across the back of the gold ring binding his finger. The Ring of Air felt chill against his flesh and yet, on this late summer afternoon, the air in the valley was pleasantly warm. His gaze was drawn, as it had been all day, to the mountains and sky to the south-east.
Elrond turned his back upon the view to find Elladan. “Our scouts report no unusual activity from the orcs but I have increased the guards on our borders. You are usually correct when you sense something amiss.”
“Thank you, Elladan.” He turned back to the mountains. “I am still uncertain of the nature of the threat; whether it be orc or weather, but the air is uneasy.”
“Have you consulted the other bearers?” Elladan asked with lowered voice.
“Galadriel senses only a gathering of air, possibly a storm brewing, and Mithrandir keeps his own council, as always.”
“Perhaps it is only a storm that you sense,” Elladan offered. “They are not unusual in these mountains after all.”
“Perhaps.” Elrond frowned, his gaze returning to the mountains and the first veil of thin grey cloud that began to graze their peaks. “You had best seek out Elrohir. Tell him to secure the livestock and clear the water meadows. We can prepare for the storm at the very least.”
Elladan left his father to his disquiet and Elrond called down to his foster son. “Estel, do not stray too far from the house. It is going to rain.”
“I won't, Adar.”
Half an hour later saw Elrond dressed in simple riding leathers and cloak and entering the stables. Elrohir was leading in a couple of horses as his father made for the stall housing Alagos. “Are you going riding, Adar? I thought you said there was a storm brewing.” Elrohir handed over his charges to others working in the stables then joined his father in saddling his horse.
“There is but I sense something more in the mountains. Its nature evades me so I intend to investigate more closely.”
Erohir looked to the open doors and the empty yard beyond. “Where is your escort?” He did not wait for a reply but turned at once to begin re-saddling his own mount.
“I have not selected one. All who are not already guarding our borders are needed to prepare the valley for the gathering storm. Even with my aid to turn aside the worst of it, we will be hard pressed.” Elrond kept one eye upon the cloud, thickening as it was driven in on a rapidly strengthening wind, as he adjusted girth and headstall.
Elrohir led forth his own spirited Chur. “Then I shall accompany you at least. Elladan is looking to the valley and Erestor and Faerwen, the house. Now that all the horses are stabled I can be spared.” Elrohir noted that his father bore no weapons, and offered silent thanks to the Valar that, having returned from patrol but two hours since, his own arms and cloak were still piled in a corner. Now he snatched them up, strapping them about his person with the efficiency of long custom.
Elrond leapt into the saddle and Alagos danced in place, sensing his rider's unusual agitation. Only minutes later two riders clattered out of the cobbled stable yard at the gallop, scattering the elves who jumped briskly out of their path.
“Where are we going, Adar?” Elrohir's voice could barely be heard over the din of the horse's hooves on the narrow, stone paved bridge.
“East. Up,” was Elrond's succinct reply as he led them onto a softer bridleway. For some time they followed its meandering path through the trees at a speed that the lord of the valley would have chided others for taking, but after a while uneven terrain forced them to slow to a canter and then to a walk.
Elrohir drew alongside. “The sky is darkening,” he commented as he craned his neck to look up through the canopy of dark leaves.
“And the wind is picking up, but it is not that which troubles me.”
“Then what is it?”
Elrond's frustration was clear in his sharp reply. “If I knew that do you think we would be out here?”
His son knew better than to take offence at this rare display of bad temper. “Is it orcs you sense massing?”
Elrond's ire dropped away as swiftly as it had arisen. “It has an orcish feel about it but I have strengthened our defences. They cannot tunnel into the valley and the passes are well guarded.”
Elrohir noted that they were now moving beyond the treeline and along one of Bruinen's larger tributaries, which ran down from the permanent snowcap of the mountain peaks above. “That does not prevent them from trying,” he commented wryly, his words tugged away by a sudden gust of wind that smelled strongly of rain.
Imladris had survived many attempts at invasion from the orcs living within their tunnels along her borders. Indeed Elrond often posited that the setting up of this elven stronghold was the very reason for their presence, this far from Sauron's stronghold in the south. Fortunately, despite their numbers, they usually posed no more than a nuisance, for Imladris was protected by a power more potent than sword and bow. Few but close family were certain of the nature of this power but many, including their enemies, harboured suspicions.
Elrond drew rein, leaning left to survey the river bed. “This usually flows more swiftly,” he commented as his assessing gaze followed the trickle of water up, to where it disappeared around a spur of the mountain.
Elrohir frowned. “Perhaps there has been a landslide further up.”
Elrond jumped down from his mount in order to pick his way carefully along the narrow bank and around the bend. He quickly disappeared from sight and Elrohir leapt from Chur's back, trusting both mounts to remain close as he hurried after his father.
“Adar! Be careful. We do not know what is around the . . .”
He had taken no more than two steps when his ears were assailed by a loud rumbling and grinding from above. Elrohir had a swift glimpse of a wall of grey bearing down on him and jumped back, just in time to avoid being hit by a torrent of churning water and rock. Amid the grey there was a tumbling flash of brown and black and he knew at once that Elrond was no longer above him.
Leaping onto Chur's back once more he pushed him into a headlong gallop, trying to catch up with the leading edge of the flood and knowing, even as he did so, that it was hopeless. He prayed that some bend in the course would slow the water sufficiently for Elrond to escape or be washed ashore. As though waiting for this very signal, there was a loud rumble of thunder and the heavens were cracked open to release a deluge of rain that swelled the already angry river. In the distance Elrohir heard the rush of a waterfall and pushed Chur even harder.
In his haste, he almost missed the smudge of brown and black that seemed to be part of a tangle of tree roots at the water's edge, just yards before the river disappeared over an abrupt ledge and thundered headlong into the valley hundreds of feet below. Elrohir pulled Chur to a halt so abruptly that the horse cried in alarm, rearing as his hind quarters skidded under them on the wet ground, and almost dumping his rider. As it was, Elrohir only had time to slap Chur's neck in apology before he leapt from the saddle and ran to the river bank.
Elrond was face down in the water and as his son rolled him into his lap he feared what he would find. “Ada . . . No.”
Elrond's face was raw and bloodied, his eyes closed. Elrohir bent a cheek to his lips, detecting no sign of outward breath, and he watched for the rise and fall of Elrond's chest. The brown riding leathers were intended to protect their wearer from minor hurts but Elrond had been rolled and tumbled in a boulder-filled torrent. What was left of the outfit only served as a frame for the bloodied mess of his lean body. There was no sign of movement in the exposed chest.
Elrohir jumped to his feet and bent to grab his father beneath the arms, dragging him onto flat ground and tilting back his head before checking that his mouth was clear. Then, he clenched hands above the centre of Elrond's chest and began to pump in fast rhythm, before bending to pinch his father's nose and blow into lips that were already turning blue. At only the second attempt he was rewarded by a sudden cough and he rolled the still unconscious Elrond onto his side to allow copious amounts of river water to drain from his nose and mouth.
It was the sudden arrival of a riderless Alagos at the height of the storm that first alerted the house that something was amiss. By the time Elrohir arrived, but minutes later, small groups of searchers were already assembling in the porch. All paused as they noticed that Chur bore two riders. Elrohir was soaked and the figure held securely before him, bound tightly in a grey hooded cloak that hid the face in deep shadow, was no less so. From the way Elrohir's burden swayed, and the wide spread of dark staining, it was clear that the second rider had sustained some serious injury.
“Somebody help me get him to the Healers Hall!” Elrohir's voice was lost in the howl of the wind but others stepped forward none-the-less, accepting what they now realised was their Lord's senseless form. A bright flare of lightening revealed his bloodied face, reflected in the glass of a window, behind which were the stricken features of a little edan. Elrohir saw Estel's lips form, “Adar!” before Gilraen dragged her son away.
“But why can't I see Adar?” Estel wailed. He had been standing outside the door to one of the rooms of the Healers Hall for what felt to him a lifetime, but everyone had steadfastly refused his pleas for entry. Dan and Roh leaned despondently against the opposite wall and he could tell from their silence that Adar was very sick.
“When I was poorly Adar stayed with me. Adar needs me,” he sobbed, even as his Mama drew him close to sit upon the bench at her side.
“Hush, sweetheart. The healers are still working. We would only be in the way until they are finished.” Gilraen bent to kiss his crown, using all her will to hold back her own tears for she feared that her son would not survive the loss of a second father. The twins were trapped in their own thoughts. Elrohir's face was haunted and Elladan wore a stony mask that forbade all attempt at comfort.
Lindir had arrived with his harp shortly after they, and beyond the door they could hear his clear tenor joining with Nestorel's light soprano, as they sang the ancient songs of healing. At any other time the melody would have brought peace to all who listened but this evening its effects could not seem to penetrate the gloom of their thoughts.
Above them, the heavens convulsed, spitting out an explosive clap of thunder that shook the very fabric of the building. Knowing that the house had withstood many such storms in its hundreds of years of existence, could not prevent everyone from flinching. Without Elrond's influence to soften it, the tempest fell upon the valley in a roiling fury few had experienced.
A slender and solemn elf wearing healers green slipped from Elrond's room, closing the door quietly behind her. She addressed the brothers first. “You did well to bear him here so swiftly in the teeth of such a storm,” she stated, calmly tugging free her dark hair from it's confining pins.
“How fares he, Nestorel?” was Elrohir's only anxious reply.
When the healer glanced down at Estel, Elrohir shook his head. “He saw us arrive and Adar has always made a point of telling Estel the truth.”
Nestorel nodded. “Elrond will recover. There are many injuries but he is strong. Lindir will remain with him.”
“May Este be thanked,” Elrohir murmured.
Nestorel calmly enumerated her charge's injuries. “He was struck on the head by something but already he shows signs of returning consciousness. I sense no long term damage there. As for the rest . . . the upper bone in his right arm was shattered. He has also cracked several of his ribs, and the tip of the bone of his right hip. It is a miracle that no internal organs were pierced. There are many lacerations however, the worst of which is to his left thigh. That is quite deep and long and we must watch closely over the next few days to ensure no mortification sets in.” Now she spoke directly to Estel. “His injuries look bad and will probably look angrier by tomorrow, when the bruising begins to darken, but it could have been much worse.” Her gaze returned to Elrohir. “Have you established the cause of the flood?”
Elrohir shook his head. “The mountain trails are too treacherous in this storm. Chur nearly fell several times just getting us back. As soon as it subsides I will send a party to establish exactly what occurred, but Adar seemed to believe that orcs were involved somehow.” He inhaled deeply. “I should have stayed closer.”
Nestorel touched his arm. “If you had, you would have been swept away too, and with injuries it is unlikely that either of you would have survived the storm until rescue arrived.” A bright flash, followed by a deep, rolling rumble, underlined her words.
Elladan squeezed his brother's shoulder. “At least you were close, Roh.”
Estel understood less than half of what he had heard. What he did understand was that his Adar would get better and now he dried his eyes and stepped forward to confront the tall healer. “Adar needs me. I should go and sit with him now.”
Nestorel looked down her long and elegant nose at such impertinence, softening when she saw his red-rimmed eyes. “If your Naneth permits, you may sit with him for a little while, although he is sleeping now and will probably not awaken before morning.”
Elladan spoke up. “I would like to sit with him too. We probably all do. Perhaps we could take turns?”
“Then, as Estel is so insistent, let he and I take the first watch,” Gilraen offered.
When Elrohir looked set upon objecting his brother pointed out, “You are still wearing your muddy riding leathers. I doubt Nestorel will even allow you across the threshold in that state.”
Elrohir did not need to see the healer's scowl to accept the truth of this. Elrond was very particular about keeping the Healing Halls scrupulously clean. “Very well,” he conceded with a scowl. “I shall bathe and change before returning.” Nestorel watched him stride away along the hallway at a brisk pace that promised an equally brisk return.
Elladan ushered Estel and Gilraen toward the door. “I shall just look in for a few moments and then I must see to the rest of the house. I am certain Erestor has all in hand but he will be awaiting news of Adar and there are others to be notified.” Arwen would not take kindly to learning of her father's injuries long after the event so a messenger must be sent to Lothlorien as soon as it was safe to do so.
Nestorel opened the door and followed them in, whilst also making a mental note that more chairs would be required in this room.
By dawn the storm had blown itself out, for even Nature at her worst could not sustain such violence for long. All about the valley Erestor had teams working to clear water courses and pathways, collect fallen branches and repair roofs. Elrohir would be looking in upon his father again later but for now he joined those checking fences and returning livestock to those fields and pastures that were not still draining after the deluge.
Estel yawned and stretched. He could hear someone using a hammer outside and frowned for a moment as he tried to recall why that should be. The thought popped into his head that the storm may have caused some damage and memory of the storm had him bolting upright. Adar! Looking about him he realised that he was in his own bed and he threw back the covers and ran to the sitting room, almost tripping over Celeg in his haste.
Gilraen sat at the table, calmly spooning creamed mushrooms onto a slice of toasted bread. “Good morning, sleepy head,” she smiled.
Estel was having none of this everyday politeness, however. “You took me away from Adar,” he accused with a scowl.
His mother continued to smile gently, allowing him some leeway on his manners this morning. “Your Adar is recovering well. You fell asleep at his bedside last night so Elrohir carried you here. It was long past your bed time you know.”
Only slightly mollified, Estel asserted, “But he needs me.”
Gilraen poured cool milk into a cup and added a large drizzle of honey to the small bowl of oatmeal in Estel's usual place setting. “If he does, then he needs you rested and fed. Come and eat your breakfast and, when you have bathed and dressed, you and I will go and see if he is awake.”
The sweet fragrance of warmed heather honey and the richer scent of mushrooms and toast was more than any child could resist. Estel trusted his Mama's assertion that Adar was recovering and that removed any guilt he may otherwise have felt for postponing his visit, so he clambered into his chair.
Celeg circled his chair a couple of times and then curled up beneath it. She had been fed some hours earlier but there was always the hope that Estel would sneak her something. Bacon or smoked fish were her preferred titbits but she would accept mushrooms if necessary.
After they had eaten Gilraen had sense enough not to insist that her son take the time required for a full bath but she did supervise a thorough wash. Estel chaffed at the delay and was practically dragging his mother along by the time they reached the Healers Hall. When Estel would have barged straight in, however, his mother restrained him.
“Let me just check that Nestorel is not changing your Adar's bandages,” she murmured. Estel hopped from foot to foot but stayed put as Gilraen opened the door a little and stuck her head around the edge.
“Come in, Gilraen.”
It sounded very quiet but it was his Adar's voice. Estel pushed past his mother and would have run into the room and leapt onto the bed, had she not stopped him by the simple expedient of grabbing a handful of the back of his tunic. “Gently, Estel,” she admonished.
Once he actually saw Adar the restraint became unnecessary. If he thought Elrond had looked sick the night before, as the healer had predicted, he looked even worse today.
Elrond lay amongst a mound of pillows, the light, down-filled quilt drawn up to his waist doing little to hide the bandages wrapped about his ribs, or the many dressings and scratches on his shoulders, arms and face. One eye was blackened and swollen shut, his bottom lip was split and puffy and his right arm was confined within splints and bandages. When he saw Estel he gave a small, lopsided smile. “Hello, Tittlepin.”
Gilraen shepherded her suddenly reluctant son to the bedside, settling herself into the chair silently provided by Lindir, who returned to his corner and took up his harp once more. Estel tucked himself uncertainly into his Mama's side, staring silently at Adar's face. Sensing his unease, Gilraen spoke first, even as Lindir began to pluck softly. “You gave us all quite a scare last night. How are you feeling this morning?”
Elrond took a careful breath and his words were a little slurred by the injury to his lip. “Better.”
Gilraen seriously doubted this for Elrond's skin, what was not hidden by dressings, was almost completely black or red. In deference to his male ego she did not try to contradict, however.
Estel studied his Adar. In the dimness of the room last night he had not noticed the swelling of one eye, particularly as its mate had also been closed. Now his voice was almost as thin as Elronds' as he whispered, “Papa had a poorly eye. Are you going to die like my Papa?”
Gilraen had to swallow back a cry of dismay and settled for hugging her son more tightly.
“Aie, Tittlepin! Come here.” Elrond held out his good arm to beckon Estel in and Gilraen helped her son climb carefully onto the bed. If Elrond felt any pain at the resulting jostling of his abused body he did not let it show on his face as Estel nestled into his side. Elrond wrapped his good arm about the narrow shoulders of this child of his heart. “I will be here for as long as needed.” In his very long life he had learned that one could never fully predict what may be around the corner; a fact that had been born out quite brutally yesterday. Yet he had also learned that sometimes children needed reassurance, and this was a promise he would at least do his utmost to fulfil.
Reassured, Estel relaxed in his foster father's embrace while Gilraen cleared her throat and blew her nose. When she spoke again Estel's mother was once more in full control of her emotions. “Can I get you something to drink, Elrond?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Unnoticed until now, Celeg leapt daintily onto Elrond's bed and tiptoed up to his head. There, lord and cat met eye to eye for a moment before Celeg bent to rub her head gently across Elrond's least damaged cheek. Niceties exchanged, Celeg settled into a ball at the invalid's right hip and her loud purr soon blended with the gentle notes of Lindir's harp.
Used to assisting in the Healers Hall, Gilraen poured a little lemonade into a feeder cup and slid a careful hand beneath Elrond's neck as he sipped from the spout. From his place at Elrond's side Estel watched closely, rubbing the ends of his Adar's long dark hair between his fingers. He could not remember ever having seen Elrond's hair free of its braids and clips, so he had never dared touch it before and was surprised at how silky it felt.
Elladan arrived as Gilraen lowered Elrond's head back into the supporting pillows. If he was surprised at seeing Estel upon the bed, at a glance from his father's one good eye he said nothing. Celeg, he gave not a second look, being very much aware that cats go where they will. “How are you feeling, Adar?”
Elrond tried another lopsided smile. “I am weary of that question. Better. What did you discover?”
Elladan allowed himself a small smile. His father would not be kept in the dark with regard to the goings on within his own small realm, but Elladan tried. “Nestorel said you were not be be bothered with such matters today.”
The spark of fire in Elrond's one functioning eye was not wholly unexpected. “Nestorel is in charge of this hall, not the entire valley. I will know how my valley and her people fair.” He winced as his ribs protested the volume of air required to produce a statement of such length.
“Very well. But if she discovers it was I who told you, I shall tell her that you leapt out of your bed and held me down.”
Estel moderated his giggle to a smirk when he felt his Adar tense at the jostling it caused.
Elladan came to the foot of the bed to make his report. “There must have been some sort of landslide just beyond that bend; perhaps caused by the rains last week. It dammed the river just beyond our border and orcs took the opportunity to weaken it in a few places, setting the simple trigger of a tree branch.”
“I remember it,” Elrond confessed.
“Yes. As soon as you stepped on it, the water broke down the weakened dam and you were carried away with the flood. It was luck that snagged your cloak on some roots or you would have been swept over the falls a few feet further on.”
“It seems Ulmo still answers prayer,” Elrond murmured.
All turned as the door opened once more to admit Nestorel. She frowned when she saw such a gathering but Elladan forestalled her protests. “I was just leaving, Lady. I only came to see for myself how he was doing.”
Gilraen arose also, reaching down to extricate her son as gently as she could, but Elrond protested. “Will you stay, Tittlepin? I feel better with you here.”
Elrond's cyclopean gaze pleaded with Gilraen and she sought permission from the healer. That lady only shrugged. “The dressings do not require replacing yet.” She fixed Elrond with a stern gaze that few others in the valley would have dared. “As long as you promise to sleep and Estel promises not to jostle you. You put on a good face, Elrond, son of Earendil, but I know how much pain you are in.”
There was a subdued chorus of, “I promise.”
Gilraen discovered that she was capable of smiling and even Lindir chuckled, unused to hearing such humbleness from his lord. Nestorel only shook her head as she left, pushing Elladan before her, and Gilraen settled back in her chair.
Estel looked to the corner where Lindir still strummed softly. “Does music really heal?” he asked.
Lindir smiled. “It certainly does for elves. Illuvatar sang the elves into being so music is a part of our fae.”
Estel settled more comfortably at Elrond's side. It said much that the usually stoic Elrond flinched, but he said nothing as he tried to compose himself for sleep. Pain prevented him from relaxing sufficiently, however. Then a high, sweet voice began to sing.
An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.
Lindir picked up the tune on his harp as Estel continued to add his own contribution to Elrond's healing.
A star was bound upon her brows,
A light was on her hair
As sun upon the golden boughs
In Lorien the fair.
There were many verses and by the time Estel reached the end of the lay, not only was Elrond asleep, but the child closed sleepy eyes to join him in healing dreams. Gilraen dabbed a tear from her cheek before covering her son with a light blanket. The song of Nimrodel was, perhaps, not what Nestorel would consider a healing song, but it seemed to have worked well enough this time. After all, it was not the words but the love behind them, that performed all healing.
When Nestorel returned an hour later she stepped into a room drowned in sleep. Gilraen slept in her chair and all upon the crowded bed were lost to the waking world. Even Lindir drowsed, glassy eyed, as his hands continued to pluck the strings of his harp. After a brief check of the fingers of Elrond's splinted arm and adjustment to a dressing on his chest Nestorel crept quietly from the room.
At the door she turned to whisper a simple blessing. “May Irmo and Este enfold you in their dreaming embrace.”
“Please do not fuss so, Nestorel.” Elrond gave a long suffering sigh as the healer draped his legs in a soft blanket.
“Oh hush. You have not the strength to resist me at present so you may as well surrender gracefully. Anyway, fussing is a part of my job.” The healer tucked in the blanket then made sure that a little hand-bell was set within his reach.
“And you excel at it,” her captive murmured with a lopsided quirk of his lips.
Nestorel decided to ignore the comment, instead ensuring that Elrond also had books and water to hand. When she had things ordered to her liking she stood over him, narrowing grey eyes above the slope of her long nose. “You will not leave that chair, Elrond. If you require anything you will ring the bell and someone will attend you.” She paused for dramatic effect. “If I hear that you have tried to get out of that chair I shall have you tied to your bed instead.”
Accelerated elven healing ensured that the bruises on his face were already morphing from green to yellow but still Elrond grimaced as an attempt to raise a brow pulled at healing scabs and stitches. He settled for asserting, “I very much doubt that.”
The lady pointed one long finger, it's nail short but perfectly manicured. “Try me if you wish.”
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Elrond withdrew. “I hope my copy of Aule and Yavanna is amongst these books, and I see no writing materials.”
Nestorel searched amongst the tomes upon his table, finally placing one gently in his lap. “There are no writing materials because you will be doing no writing until the splints on your arm are removed.” Her tone dared him to gainsay her in that matter.
“Your point is valid. When will the splints be removed?”
“When I ascertain that the bones have healed sufficiently,” was the lady's reply as she departed.
Alone at last, Elrond allowed his body to sag into the pillows. After two days his body was recovering well, aside from the wound in his thigh which had to be re-opened and drained earlier this morning. Were he honest with himself, Elrond had to concede that he was fortunate to be permitted to leave his bed at all, for it was only poppy juice that was holding his pain at bay sufficiently to do so. He closed his eyes against a stray sunbeam from the window, relieved that the swelling had gone down enough to at least allow a choice over whether to open his left.
He must have dozed for it was the sound of his book landing upon the floor that shocked him awake and he winced as his body protested his sudden tension. When he tried to bend to the side to retrieve it small hands beat him to the task. “Here, Adar.”
Accepting the book, Elrond yawned before reaching out a hand to cup Estel's face. “Good morning, Estel.”
Estel frowned. “It is afternoon. Are you sleepy? Nestorel said I could visit but that if you were sleepy I should leave.”
Elrond drew himself more upright, a task made difficult with his legs upon a footstool, several still healing ribs and with only one good arm to do so. “I was just napping.” He leaned closer to whisper, “In truth, I was bored. Draw up that stool and talk to me for a while.”
Estel willingly obliged, settling himself comfortably by his Adar's feet. “Are you feeling better, now?”
Elrond's smile was still a wee bit lopsided but he tried it on for size. “I am much better, thank you. But I do wish I knew what was going on around me.” He nodded to the window, with its broad balcony beyond. “I can see nothing from here.”
Estel beamed. “Oh I can tell you everything. Oops!” He slapped a slightly grubby hand over his mouth.
“What is it, child?”
“I'm not supposed to speak about the valley and such,” he offered sheepishly.
Elrond did not bother to ask who had issued that injunction. “Nestorel is a little too protective of her charges. Do not worry. You can tell me.” If he felt a little guilty about asking a child to go against the instructions of an adult, he told himself that he was the Lord of this valley, after all.
Estel relaxed. “What would you like to know? Faerwen hit her thumb with a hammer. The roof on the Hall of Fire is almost fixed. They found the missing horses and they are safe. One of them has had a foal. All the soot has been cleaned from Naneth's room. The cooks made mushroom soup for lunch. The fences in the south pasture will be fixed tomorrow. The pasture down by the river is so wet that when you jump up and down it wobbles ...”
Elrond held up a hand to stem the tide of information. “Let us take this one item at a time. The roof on the Hall of Fire was damaged? How badly?”
“Oh, it was only one corner. All the tiles slid down into the yard and they wouldn't let me go near in case any more fell. Faerwen and some others went up ladders to put them back but some of them are broken.”
Elrond blinked. “Elves, ladders or tiles?”
Now Estel was confused. “Elves, ladders or tiles?” he repeated.
“What was broken? The tiles, the ladders, or did someone get hurt?”
“Oh. Nobody was hurt, except Faerwen. She hit her thumb with a hammer and said a naughty word. Some of the tiles are broken and Erestor says he will have to get some more made. So they have covered the hole with some wood.”
“Those tiles are very old and will be difficult to duplicate. I should tell Erestor where we dug the clay.” Elrond looked about him, remembering with a frown that he had no pen or paper to make notes. “When you leave please tell Erestor that I wish to speak with him on this matter. What of these missing horses?”
“Oh that was exciting. Elrohir brought in all the horses but some ran off again when it was thundering. He found them in a cave and one of them was having a foal. It's a boy.”
Elrond's eyes twinkled. “May I safely assume that it is the foal that is a boy, and not its' mother?”
Estel frowned. “Don't be silly, Adar. A boy horse can't have babies.”
“Is that so? I am glad to have cleared that up.” Elrond discovered that this conversation really was a good way to ignore his pain. “Does the foal have a name yet?”
“I said we should call him Alagos, because he was born in the storm, but Roh. says that your horse is already called that. Roh. says he is to be called Fanui because he is grey, like the storm clouds.”
“That is a good choice and I am sure that Alagos will be happy that he does not have to share his name.” Elrond tried in vain to find a more comfortable position for his leg, suspecting that he was due for another dose of poppy juice. “What else has happened?”
Estel nibbled on a broken fingernail for a moment. “Glorfindel kissed Mama after she had her bath,” he announced with a grin.
Elrond blinked, for a moment distracted enough not to correct the child's nail biting. “In front of you?” Until now he had not been aware of any romantic feelings between the two.
The boy giggled. “Mama got all dirty when she was cleaning up the soot that came down the chimney when it thundered, so she had to have a bath. Erestor sent some people to help finish cleaning the floor and things.”
“So, was Glorfindel with them?” Elrond coaxed, worriedly.
“No. Glorfindel came because Mama had sewed his shirt. He said it was his favourite and he tore it when he was riding last week. When Mama gave him the mended shirt he gave her a great big kiss on the cheek and everyone laughed. I don't know why everyone thought it was so funny. I get kisses all the time.”
Elrond let go an internal sigh of relief. As he saw it, any romantic association between elf and mortal was doomed to end in pain. The thought of pain reminded him of his own and it was some relief when Nestorel entered at that moment.
She smiled as she saw invalid and child. Although pain was beginning to tighten the corners of Elrond's mouth he seemed much more relaxed and the healer wondered whether she should start prescribing and hour of Estel for all her charges in future. “I think it is time for your Adar to take his medicine and have another nap, Tithen Pen. You can come and visit him again tomorrow.”
Estel made no protest, only standing on tiptoe to give Elrond a kiss on the cheek. Adar held him for a long moment. “Thank you, Tittlepin. You always bring sunshine to my day.”
As Estel left he called over his shoulder, “I won't forget to send Erestor.” Then he was gone.
Nestorel measured some viscous liquid into a small cup of apple juice and handed it over. She waited until Elrond had taken the first sip before confronting him. “And why should he send Erestor to you?”
To give himself time to consider the reply Elrond pretended to have difficulty swallowing. “I only wished to see him for a chat,” he replied with a casual air that he hoped suggested he only wished a little pleasant conversation with an old friend.
His carer was not so easily fooled, however. “You wanted to consult with him on something to do with the valley. Is that not so?”
When others would have rolled their eyes, Elrond merely narrowed his. “I only wished to direct him to the clay deposits we use for roofing tiles.”
Nestorel was not easily put off. “And why would he be making roofing tiles?”
Elrond's mind ran furiously. To admit that he knew about the damage to the Hall of Fire would be to betray Estel. “We have just endured one of the worst storms for many years and you need to ask that? Some of our buildings are ancient and it would be logical to assume that some tiles were lost.” Elrond inwardly congratulated himself upon his skills in prevarication.
“The tiles on the roof of the Hall of Fire, for example?” Nestorel's glare could have frozen the southern seas of Harad.
Elrond swallowed the last of the medicine and hoped he would fall asleep soon. Unfortunately, he suspected that it would not be soon enough to extricate himself from this conversation. “It is one of our older buildings,” he replied mildly.
Nestorel's finger pointed at him again. “I have given instruction that you are not to be consulted on anything until you are sufficiently recovered. Estel may deliver his message but I assure you that Erestor will not be arriving. He is far too busy supervising repairs.” When Elrond would have interrupted she over-rode him. “And an excellent job he is making of it. The tiles are already firing. He does not need your assistance and you are in no condition to provide it if he did.”
Nestorel's prediction was correct. Erestor did not arrive in Elrond's room but the tiles were made and the roof of the Hall of Fire was repaired. Within a few years, when they weathered down, it would be almost impossible to distinguish new tiles from old.
“Not too fast,” Glorfindel warned as he took Elrond's arm to lead him into the cosy sitting room.
“I am perfectly capable of doing this alone,” Elrond replied peevishly, although he did lean heavily upon the elegant walking stick Nestorel had provided.
Glorfindel could feel his friend's body beginning to tremble with the exertion and hoped he would not have to subject him to the humiliation of being carried. It was with some relief, therefore, that he lowered Elrond into a chair that had been set by the fire.
Once seated one would not know that Elrond was still struggling to regain his health. All the scrapes and bruises had faded and the bones healed. Some work was required to restore full function to the broken arm but it was the injury to his leg which caused Elrond the most trouble. There had been some infection and it had only recently begun to heal properly.
“Hello, Adar.” Estel ran up, a small bag in his hand and a happy smile on his face. “Nestorel said I could help you with your arm exercises today.”
Elrond groaned inwardly, knowing the healer's game. He hated the exercises and Nestorel knew he would not refuse Estel. Taking the opportunity of Elrond's distraction Glorfindel melted away, knowing his friend hated showing weakness of any kind and it could make him a little cranky. He would wait until the deed was done before returning to assist him back to his bedroom.
“Nestorel said you should start the stretches without weights first.” Estel was in his happy place. He was helping his Adar and in his eyes there was no greater fun to be had. Celeg appeared at his side and stropped Elrond's legs for a moment before finding a patch of sunlight by the window and stretching out to watch the proceedings through golden eyes. Elrond narrowed his gaze but she only twitched two inches of tail in response. She had discovered that the two-legs could be quite entertaining sometimes.
Estel adopted a more serious tone as he prompted. “You need to do the five side stretches first, Adar.” He had been entrusted with a serious job by Nestorel and he intended to see it done properly.
Elrond complied, stretching his arm out straight to the side whilst Estel counted to four. Not waiting for further promptings he also did the forward and back stretches and then held out his hand to accept the small bag of sand as he repeated the exercise. He was pleased to note that the task no longer made his ribs ache at least. Bending his hand up to his shoulder was still fairly painful but he breathed through it determinedly. The wrist exercises were easier as they were intended only to return flexibility, rather than rebuild muscle strength.
A little later Elrond was more than ready to hand back the weight to a still smiling Estel. “You did much better today, Adar.”
Elrond dabbed at his face with a towel the child handed over, annoyed that such gentle exercise should make him perspire. He had not suffered any serious injury for some years and had blotted from his mind the time and effort required to recover fully. It was one thing to supervise the process in others but quite another to endure it himself, especially when being observed by a rather smug-looking cat.
Estel settled upon the rug at Elrond's feet and Celeg stood, stretched her back into an arch, then strolled over to curl up in Estel's lap. The youngster scratched her chin absently as he watched his Adar. “Elladan told me the story of the making of the dwarves but he doesn't make history as much fun as you do.”
Dropping the towel into his lap Elrond smiled. “It is always easier to tell the story when you were there to see it unfold.”
Estel considered this statement for a moment. “Did you see it, then?” His eyes, which had started to brighten with curiosity, dimmed again when his Adar shook his head.
“Even I am not that old. And Elladan certainly is not.”
“How old is Dan?”
Elrond's gaze drew inward. “I confess that elves think little upon such matters. I believe Elladan and Elrohir will be three thousand years old within a couple of hundred years.” He watched as Estel's fingers twitched, the small lips moving as they attempted to calculate, so he gave a clue. “Three thousand is a three with three noughts after it.”
Bright grey eyes widened. “I do not even have one nought yet, but I will soon.”
Elrond smiled as he shook his head slowly. “I believe I shall never understand the obsession to grow-up that possesses mortal children.”
Estel grinned. “We want to do the exciting things that grown-up's won't let us do.”
“And what would those exciting things be?”
Celeg was dumped from his lap as Estel sprang to his feet. She let out a small cry of annoyance before running to take shelter beneath Elrond's chair, where she glared out balefully at her young companion. The boy ignored her, caught up in his dream as he spread his arms wide. “I want to have a big sword and kill orcs like Dan and Roh. I want to see what it's like outside Imladris. I want to ride a big horse across the plains of Rohan. Dan says they're huge . . . the plains. I want to see the Golden Wood and the caves of the dwarves. I want to see the big cities in the south. I want to sail on a big river and watch the sea.”
His list was met with a chuckle. “That is a great deal to fit within one mortal life. I see, now, why you are in such a hurry.” Then he reached out to cup Estel's cheek. “But do not be in such a hurry to kill.”
Estel frowned, still living in the black and white world of the young. “But orcs are bad. They hurt you with the river.”
“They did, but they did so because they were bred to it. They have no more control over their actions than you have over the colour of your eyes. I will not kill orcs unless they first attack me.”
“But Dan and Roh often go off to kill orcs.”
Elrond's heart broke and he bowed his head. “And so you learn that even your own family is not perfect. Elladan and Elrohir have become trapped in hatred. Their mother was grievously hurt by orcs and for all these years they have been unable to forgive.” Then he lifted his face to study the image above the mantle.
Estel's gaze followed his foster fathers'. There hung a large painting of two people holding hands, looking into each other's eyes with what Estel considered to be a very soppy expression. Elrond was one of them. Behind them was a collection of buildings. “Adar, why has Imladris changed?”
Elrond had long since ceased to be surprised by the boy's quixotic mind and never failed to be amused by Estel's capacity to ask questions to which the only response could be another question. “In what way do you believe it has changed and, changed in relation to what?” Elrond held back a smile as he realised that upon this occasion he had answered the child's question with not one, but two of his own.
“Relation?” Estel frowned, not quite understanding that comment. “I only meant that the house in that picture looks different to how it is now.”
Elrond studied the beautiful painting and smiled. “That picture was painted over three thousand years ago. Most things change with time. Even the most carefully constructed buildings decay and must be rebuilt.” He frowned. “I believe the only part of the original structures still standing is the Hall of Fire. Others have either been replaced, altered or expanded and many of the buildings that you see today are part of the major remodelling done after I wed.” He shook his head with an inward smile. “Celebrian was most unimpressed with the state of the house when she arrived.”
Estel felt a little aggrieved that someone would find Imladris anything short of perfect. “I like this house. Nothing needs changing and Mama says it is much bigger than the house Mama and me used to live in when I was little.”
“Mama and I,” Elrond corrected automatically. “I am pleased to hear that you approve. Sadly, before I wed I paid little attention to the maintenance of Imladris and, as soon as Celebrian arrived, we worked together to repair and extend both house and gardens.”
“Is Celebrian the lady in the painting with you?”
Elrond's gaze softened. “She is. That painting was a presented by Glorfindel upon the birth of the twins and depicts Celebrian and me on our wedding day.”
Estel grinned. “Celebrian and I.”
“Celebrian and me.”
Estel decided to abandon that side topic. “She is very beautiful. Even more beautiful than Faerwen.”
His comment was met with a chuckle. “As one male to another may I suggest that you do not say that within Fearwen's hearing? Ladies sometimes do not take kindly to being compared with another and found wanting.”
Estel filed that piece of information for later life. “Where is Lady Celebrian?”
Elrond's face sobered. “She sailed for the West many years ago.”
“Didn't she like you any more?”
“I believe that she still liked me very much. Why do you ask?”
“When Curudir and Saeldis left last year they went together and Faerwen says she will not sail without Erestor. Why did your lady leave without you?”
Elrond glanced to the window. Beyond was a balcony which looked out over the rose garden he and Celebrian had planted. That garden had not changed since her departure for he had replaced fading bushes with fresh cuttings regularly down the years. For a long time Elrond was silent and Estel began to think that his Adar had forgotten the question.
When Elrond finally spoke his voice was barely more than a whisper and he did not turn, but rather addressed the view beyond the glass. “Her parents are Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel of the Golden Wood, beyond the mountains. One day, when Celebrian was making the journey to visit them, she was set upon by orcs. Captured, by the time Elladan and Elrohir brought her back to the valley she had been very badly hurt.”
“But I bet you made her better. You are good at making people better,” Estel averred, with all the confidence of the innocent in the infallibility of their elders.
“I healed her body but the orcs had been very cruel to her and that made her sad. She did not want to stay in Middle earth and hoped to find healing for her sadness in the West.”
Estel considered that reply for a while. “But why didn't you go with her?”
Elrond glanced to his hand, where it rested upon the arm of his chair. “I still have work here that will not permit me to depart.”
Upon a sigh, Elrond turned back to Estel's upturned face. “There are several reasons that you will understand better when you are older. For now I will say only that I must keep this house open as a refuge.”
Estel found a sharp edge on one of his finger nails and was just about to set teeth to it when he noted Adar's raised brow and put it down again. “How much older? As old as Dan?”
Despite himself, Elrond had to smile. “Not that old. Perhaps when you reach your teenage years.”
Estel did some calculating and sighed. “That's ages. And I bet you could leave if you really wanted to. Erestor decides which bedrooms everyone has when they visit, anyway.”
Elrond feigned hurt. “Estel, are you telling me that my services as lord of the valley are no longer required?”
Estel swallowed. “No, Adar. I only meant that if you wanted to join your lady I'm sure Erestor would look after the house.”
Elrond widened his eyes. “But who would teach any little edain who came to the valley? Erestor is much too busy, Elrohir has his horses to look after, and Elladan much prefers his art.”
Adar was right, of course. Elladan had taken Estel for some lessons but they were not as interesting as when Adar taught them. Then again, surely in only a few years Elrond would have taught Estel all that was needful? Did Adar mean that there be other children? “Do you get lots of little edain here? I thought I was the only one.”
“You are the only one at present but there have been others down the years and perhaps there will be more. Do you think I should abandon them?”
“No Adar. And I would not like you to go either. Nobody tells stories like you do . . . even Lindir.”
“Then I believe the matter is settled. I shall remain here for the moment and teach you all that I can.”
Estel came to his Adar's side, wrapping arms about Elrond's neck and resting dark curls upon his broad shoulder. “Good!” More perceptive that some would give him credit for, he looked into his Adar's eyes. “Did I make you sad when I asked you about your lady? I didn't mean to.”
Elrond wrapped an arm about the youngster, bending to place a kiss upon his brow. “Sadness is a part of life for if there were no sadness how would we recognise joy? You did not bring the sadness. It has been my companion for many years.” He drew back to look into the worried eyes of his foster son. “And you have brought me more joy than I have felt for a long time.”
Grey eyes cleared and Estel leaned in impulsively to kiss Elrond's cheek. “Then I shall bring you more joy. I shall make you laugh,” he declared. “Dan has been teaching me something new. Watch!” Dashing away a few steps he performed a forward roll, followed by a rather wobbly cartwheel.
When Glorfindel re-appeared later it was to discover a laughing Elrond trying to talk Estel through the form required to maintain his balance through a hand spring.
“Come along, Estel.” With a harp tucked under his arm and walking stick in his other hand, Elrond led the way into the Hall of Fire. Nestorel was still insisting that Elrond take life easy so he had volunteered to provide their music today.
Estel followed rather reluctantly and Glorfindel and Faerwen brought up the rear. “Why do I have to learn to dance, Adar?”
Elrond set his walking stick aside and settled into the chair Glorfindel provided. It was Glorfindel who replied. “You wanted to learn how to sword fight. Of course, if you have changed your mind I will be happy to depart. I was going to join Elladan and Elrohir on a tour of our borders.”
“I do want to learn to sword fight. But why must I learn to dance first?” Estel folded his arms and pouted a little, watching his Adar from beneath frowning brows.
Elrond only unwrapped his harp and Glorfindel set hands upon slender hips, unused to dealing with a young and sullen pupil. “Because you do not just wield a sword with your hand. You use your whole body, and if you have not learned to balance you will be spitted by the first orc you encounter.”
Estel blinked, his mouth dropping open. He was unused to such graphic images and swallowed back a little bile. He supposed he should get used to such things if he was ever to kill anyone. Suddenly, sword fighting did not sound quite so exciting.
“Glorfindel.” Elrond's admonishment was soft but firm. “Perhaps we could demonstrate for him.” He arose, shrugging off his loose outer robe, taking up his walking stick, and assuming the stance Estel had often seen sparring partners take.
Glorfindel frowned but then cast about them, finally finding a pole used to draw the long window curtains. He smiled ruefully at Elrond as he held it like a long staff. It was fully twice the length of Elrond's walking stick sword.
“Now, Estel. My leg is not yet fully healed so it will disturb my balance. Just as it would with someone who has not learned to balance their weight properly.”
Glorfindel met his friend's eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this Elrond? If you get hurt Nestorel is likely to hang me from the nearest rock pinnacle.”
“He has a point,” Faerwen added as she drew Estel out of the circle of potential battle.
Elrond chuckled. “Try your hardest, Glorfindel. It may be the only time that you manage to best me in a sword . . . or should that be . . . stick fight.”
His taunt had the desired effect. “Just remember that you asked for this,” Glorfindel warned as he rose onto the balls of his feet and began to circle.
Elrond remained still, his breathing steady, even when Glorfindel moved behind him. When he circled back to face his opponent, with the speed of a striking snake, Glorfindel lunged forward with the point of the makeshift staff. Elrond moved his arm with blurring speed to block the staff and Glorfindel danced away.
Elrond raised one brow. “Glorfindel, I cannot imagine that you have grown so lax in your training. Even Estel could have blocked that move. I do not know what Nestorel has been saying but I can assure you that I am not some ancient porcelain vase.”
Glorfindel's eyes narrowed. Suddenly he spun about, sweeping the staff in a wide arc that Elrond only partially blocked, the force of it driving him to one knee. Glorfindel stepped in at once to give Elrond a hand up. “Please tell me that I do not need to send for Nestorel.”
Elrond resumed his seat, rubbing absently at his healing thigh. “Nestorel will not be searching for a convenient pinnacle,” he replied, dryly. Now he focussed on Estel, who was glowering at Glorfindel in disapproval. “I am unharmed Estel but my injury ensured that I did not have enough balance to dodge the blow effectively. I was reliant entirely upon the strength and speed of my arm, whereas, by spinning, Glorfindel could use momentum to bring more power to his blow.”
“Then can't you just teach me how to do that?” Estel asked in one last attempt at mutiny.
“I could,” Glorfindel replied as he returned the pole to its storage place. “But then all you would have is a stock of set moves. You would have no ability to formulate your own or combine them and, generally speaking, it is the unexpected move that wins a fight. To create that you must be fully aware of what your body can do and be able to feel its centre of balance.”
Elrond took up his harp and began to pluck random strings, tuning it. “As with fighting, dance demands that we find our balance and control every part of our anatomy. Unlike fighting, generally speaking, nobody gets hurt in the process.”
Glorfindel returned, bowing low to Faerwen, who laid her hand in his as she performed a deep curtsey. “First we must learn how to stand.” Glorfindel motioned for Estel to come closer. “You are fortunate in having quite good posture but it would benefit from some help. Stand with your feet a little apart.” When Estel jumped up, landing flat footed and with his feet wide apart, Glorfindel sighed. “Place your feet in line with your shoulders.” Estel drew wriggled his feet closer together. “Better. Now imagine that there is a string, running up through your body from your waist and out through the top of your head. Imagine somebody pulling on that string from above.”
Estel tried to comply but did not seem to be able to manage until Glorfindel placed one hand upon the boy's tummy and ran the other up his spine from waist to head. The boy's eyes widened. “Oh. I feel taller.”
“Good. Try to remember how that feels and maintain it as you dance. You have found your centre of balance. The trick is to maintain that as you move. Now, watch as Faerwen and I go through the first figure of the summer solstice dance.” He took the lady's hand and Elrond began to play a swift light tune.
Much as Estel did not believe he would enjoy the process of dancing himself, he did enjoy watching elves dance. Faerwen and Glorfindel seemed to drift inches above the flagged floor as their feet traced the simple measure of the dance, their bodies a liquid river that flowed about the huge chamber. The boy's mind seemed to float upon the silver melody of Elrond's harp and it was some surprise when the last notes were plucked and he sank back to earth.
Glorfindel bowed to his partner and then beckoned his pupil. “I have chosen this dance because it is one of the simpler ones. It is called the Enderi Ribbon and is very ancient. Watch my feet and remember to stand tall. It goes like this . . . Cross your left foot in front of the right, step to the side with your right, cross your left to the back, step to the side with your right and keep repeating. There are variations but those basic steps will get you through. Oh … and up on your toes.”
Estel considered that those steps were quite enough, thank you. But he stood at Glorfindel's side and tried to follow.
Elrond and Faerwen watched in silence and Glorfindel noticed their eyes twinkling as Estel had difficulty sorting out left from right. Elrond spoke up quietly after three false starts. “Your right side is the one with your writing hand, Estel.”
Even so, there were two more false starts before Faerwen stepped forward to tie her scarf about Estel's right arm. Elrond took up his harp once more.
“Remember, straight back and up onto the balls of your feet. As a general rule, your heels should not touch the floor when either dancing or fighting,” Glorfindel added, as he took one of Estel's hands and Faerwen took the other.
Elrond struck a chord and Estel swallowed, trying to keep straight in his head all the instructions regarding steps and posture. When Elrond began to play the boy gave it his best try and because of this, despite Estel's stumbling feet, Glorfindel kept the trio moving. Somewhere around the sixth repeat Estel found his feet obeying him at last. He grinned up at Faerwen, who squeezed his hand in silent congratulation.
A little while longer they continued about the room, then the music slowed and, with a flourish, ended. Estel looked to his Adar's face and felt a warm glow suffuse him as he saw the smile of approval that grew there. “Well done, Estel. I knew that you could do it. You have very good balance. You need only learn how to use it.”
Estel looked up at Glorfindel, eagerness clear in his voice as he asked, “So, can I learn to fight now?”
Glorfindel looked to Elrond in exasperation and found no help in the lord's mild and suspiciously innocent expression. “Not yet, Estel. Only when you have mastered your balance will I allow you into the Warrior's Hall. Now, there are some variations to the steps that you would do well to learn.”
Before Glorfindel could demonstrate, Elrond held up a staying hand then turned Estel to face him. “Before we go on I would like you to do something for me, Estel. I suspect your Mama has already asked this but I would like to hear it too.”
When he waited Estel realised he expected a reply. Adar only did that when he wanted to be sure that he had someone's full attention. “What is it, Adar?”
“I want your promise that you will not enter the Warrior's Hall again until you are given permission to do so by an adult.”
Estel gnawed at his bottom lip for a moment and Elrond had to prompt him. “Estel?”
Releasing a long sigh, Estel touched a hand to his chest. “I promise.”
Elrond let him go. “Thank you. I trust you to keep your promise. Now, let us see what other steps Glorfindel wishes to teach.”
Estel's promise to both Mama and Adar, regarding entry to the Warrior's Hall held for several weeks, but when Glorfindel showed no signs of ever letting him touch a blade, the restriction began to chafe. Estel was growing more and more intrigued. It seemed to him that the promise to teach him how to fight had been only a ruse to persuade him to take dancing lessons, so when he thought it was safe to do so he began to sneak onto the balcony in the Warrior's Hall. If he crouched down just to the left of the door he could peep through a small crack at the juncture of the carved wooden balustrade and wall without, he believed, being noticed by those below.
He had been sitting for an hour today, and was just considering leaving, for there had been no visitors to the hall in that time, when he heard the door below swing open and soft footfalls enter. He put his eye to the crack, rearing back in surprise when he recognised the back of his Adar's stately gait. When he did not hear the expected call of censure he put his eye to the crack again.
Elrond had stripped down to breaches, soft shirt and shoes, and was standing in the centre of the circle painted upon the floor. Estel could see no sign of any weapon and for some moments his Adar only stood, hands loosely at his side, head bowed. Then slowly, as though listening to some music only he could hear, he lifted his arms out to the side and then up, as though drawing some perfect arc which met above his head. Bringing his hands together he drew them down to his waist and opened them as though holding a book. One step forward and the hands were offered out, as though pushing something, then drawn back as he pivoted precisely upon one heel. Estel was mesmerised by the slow and precise movements that had Elrond flowing about the circle like water stirred within a basin.
At the end of perhaps five minutes he stilled in the centre once more, his head bowed. When he lifted his head however, his gaze went unerringly to the crack in the balustrade. “Have you seen enough, Estel? Perhaps more than you should?”
Estel swallowed. There was little point in dissembling so he stood to face the music. “I'm sorry, Adar. I only wanted to watch and I have been very quiet, so as not to distract anyone.”
“And yet news of your regular, if furtive, attendance has reached my ears.”
Estel's eyes widened. None of the warriors he watched had shown any signs of noting his presence. Yet, he supposed he should not be truly surprised for elves always seemed preternaturally aware of the world around them.
Elrond continued, tapping one ear. “Your breathing would give you away, even had you not been noted climbing the stairs. It is fortunate for you that your presence was reported to me and not to your Mama.”
Estel made a study of his booted feet. “Will you tell Mama?”
“Come down here, child. No. I will not tell your Mama. But it is my hope that you will.”
Estel swallowed as he walked to the end of the balcony, where a spiral stair led down to the practice floor. Once there he made his way, with lowered gaze, to stand before his Adar. Estel expected to be chastised for breaking his promise so Elrond's next words were a surprise and a relief.
“As you are here, you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. The exercises you just saw are used by all sword masters to establish balance and suppleness. Come here and stand upon that spot in the centre of the circle.”
Estel could not help the grin that split his face as he complied. He managed to banish it, however, when he saw Elrond's raised brow.
“Stand with your feet slightly apart, as you would to begin a dance, and remember to stand tall.”
Estel complied willingly as his Adar took up a position to his left.
“First we breathe. I want you let you breathing become slow and even.” Elrond's voice became low and hypnotic. “When first you begin to concentrate upon your breathing you will develop a tendency to breathe more quickly, but I want you to resist that temptation. Breathe in to a count of four and out to a count of five.”
Estel tried to comply, wondering when they would get to the important matter, but Adar only began to count. It was difficult at first but after half a dozen breaths Estel found that his body began to relax and he had to remind himself to stand tall. All the while, Elrond counted softly. “Do not tense your shoulders. Let your hands relax. Good. That is much better.”
Elrond took a step forward so that Estel could see him and stretched his arms out to the side at shoulder height. “Now I want you to follow me. Breathe in as you lift your arms up above your head and out as you bring your hands back down to your waist.”
For a strenuous hour Elrond took Estel through the figures and still they had not put together more than a dozen moves, for the teacher insisted that his pupil perfect each before moving on. When Elrond finally called a halt Estel's clothes were damp with perspiration and his knees were wobbling. Adar led him to a bench at the side of the room and handed him a towel. Elrond was as cool and dry as could be, despite having gone through all the moves many more times than his pupil. He folded his arms as he watched Estel scrub at his face with the towel.
“It is not as easy as it first appears, is it?”
“No, Adar. But I still don't see how it will help me to fight.”
Elrond sighed, reaching above Estel's head to pluck a wooden practice sword from the wall. “Like this,” he replied simply. Without further word he took up position in the circle and drew several slow breaths. Then he began to move, slowly at first as he put together several of the moves Estel had just been taught, then more swiftly, until he was scarcely more than a whirling blur in the boy's astonished gaze.
At the end Elrond stood, still as a statue for several moments, and with not one bead of perspiration upon his high brow. Now he reached out to replace the wooden practice blade. “When you have mastered all of this exercise I may instruct Glorfindel to allow you to practice with a wooden blade. Meanwhile, I believe you are overdue for a conversation with your Mama.”
With those words, Elrond scooped up his outer robe from the bench and left the chamber with not one backward glance. It was unusual for Adar to be so brusque but Estel put it down to some lingering pain.
Estel followed at a much slower pace, caused not only by the tiredness of his limbs. The interview with Mama was not something he looked forward to. There had been times in the past when he had bent a promise but he could not remember ever having broken one so clearly and it left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Gilraen looked up from her embroidery in time to see her son step into their shared sitting room. Having been forewarned by Elrond, the set of her son's shoulders and downcast gaze were not unexpected and she set aside her work. She waited patiently as he crossed the room to stand before her, hands clasped behind his back in unconscious imitation of his Adar. When he did not speak, his Mama coaxed, “Well, Estel? What do you need to tell me?”
Estel met her gaze for only a second before resuming his study of an exquisitely patterned rug under his feet. “I didn't mean to be naughty but I was curious.”
“Curious about what?”
Estel circled one booted foot. “I went to the Warrior's Hall,” he confessed in a whisper. “I was very quiet and I made sure that I had finished all my lessons first,” he added in qualification.
Gilraen's face took on a stern cast. She set few rules for her son but, in her eyes, he was still too young to have anything to do with fighting. She had acquiesced to her child's pleas only when left with no alternative, so she was not inclined to make this easy for him. “I do not recall saying that you must finish your lessons or that you should be quiet. I do recall getting a promise from you not to enter the Warrior's Hall. On that both I and your Adar were very clear.”
Estel's grey gaze began to shimmer with as yet unshed tears. “I am sorry, Mama. I won't do it again unless you or Adar or Glorfindel tell me I can. I promise.”
Gilraen was not about to let him off the hook so simply. “You made that promise the last time that we spoke upon this matter, and now you have broken it. How am I to trust your promise now?”
A tear trickled down one small flushed cheek. “I don't know, Mama.” Estel sniffled as he tried to hold back a sudden flood of tears. He could not recall ever having felt so wretched. It was worse than being sick because at least being sick was not his fault. Now he was discovering that to break ones word had very serious consequences. Would his Mama ever let him out of her sight again? Would his heart ever feel clean again?
“I'm so sorry, Mama. What can I do to make it right? Please?” he pleaded as he began to sob.
Gilraen held out a hanky. “This is where you learn another lesson. There is nothing that you can do to make it right in this situation. The next action must be mine. I either never trust your word again or I forgive you.”
Estel accepted the hanky and swiped at his flushed cheeks. “What will you do, Mama? Please forgive me. I really won't break my promise ever again.”
Noting the anguish in his face Gilraen capitulated. “You are forgiven.” She held out her arms and Estel rushed in to lay his head upon her lap and wrap his arms about her waist.
“Thank you, Mama.”
Gilraen combed fingers through his sweaty curls. “I love you, sweetheart. I could only forgive you. But I hope you have learned an important lesson today. If you break your word it is forever worthless in the eyes of some.”
Estel's face was still buried in his Mama's lap so his words were somewhat muffled. “Yes Mama. I will remember.”
Setting a gentle hand beneath his chin, Gilraen lifted his head so that their eyes could meet. “I know and love you, so you are forgiven and we will put this behind us, but as you grow up others may have to put their trust in your word. In truth, as a leader, your word will be more important than your sword.”
“I understand, Mama.”
Now Gilraen dabbed at his eyes. “Yes, I think that you do but you have someone else to apologise to. Lord Elrond also asked for your promise. You had better hope that he is as forgiving as I.”
Estel's heart sank. Adar had said nothing of the promise but now that Mama mentioned it he realised that he really should make a formal apology. “Can I go and find him?”
Gilraen nodded. “Wash your hands and face first. You will probably find him in his private study at this hour.”
“Come in, Estel. I have been expecting you.” Elrond set down his pen and sanded the document he had just signed. Then he leaned back in his chair as Celeg leapt nimbly from his lap.
Estel approached with downcast gaze and had to swallow several times before he spoke. “I've come to apologise, Lord Elrond.”
The honorific got Elrond's attention at once. “Go on,” he coaxed.
In truth, Estel had been hoping that his first words would be sufficient but it seemed Adar wanted something more formal. Straightening his back and squaring his shoulders, Estel tried to meet his Adar's steely gaze but his voice quavered when he spoke again. “I apologise for breaking my promise, by entering the Warrior's Hall. Please forgive me?”
“I have already forgiven you in my heart, child, but it pleases me that you recognised the need to make your formal apology.” He arose and came around the huge desk to stand before his heart-son. Then, to Estel's surprise, he dropped to one knee so that they were face to face, laying a hand upon the child's shoulder. “I forgive you your deception and trust you not to break your word in the future.”
“I thought you would never love me again,” Estel wailed, and he all but fell against his Adar's chest to weep upon a velvet clad shoulder. Elrond wrapped strong arms about him, stroking the child's dark hair. “Aie, Tittlepin. Were you to break a thousand promises I would always love you.”
(And then they went down to the water to see the elves dance and sing upon the midsummers-eve. - A Short Rest: The Hobbit.)
Imladris was well into preparations for the Enderi celebration. The three midsummer days were celebrated with feasting and there would be dancing on Midsummer's Eve. From the year of his arrival in the valley Estel had attended all the festivities but was usually asleep long before the feasting was ended. Only last year had he managed to stay awake for long enough to watch the dancing.
Now there were only two weeks to go and the kitchens were so busy that Estel had been forbidden entry for fear that he would get in the way. Of course, that only made Estel even more curious and he loved to stand at the open kitchen window to watch. The fact that several of the cooks would slip him tidbits when his Mama was not around had absolutely nothing to do with this practice. No. Definitely not, Estel thought as he munched on a delicious pastry.
“There you are!”
Estel choked and Faerwen had to slap him on the back several times, resulting in the expulsion of a large shower of crumbs. When she felt the coughing had subsided sufficiently for Estel to be able to concentrate upon more than breathing, Faerwen continued.
“I waited for you in the Hall of Fire for ages. We were supposed to practice your dance steps.”
Estel wrinkled his nose. He had conveniently forgotten that appointment. “I forgot the time,” he offered in his meekest voice.
Faerwen folded her arms and frowned down at the young edan. “I doubt that. You will have to join in the dancing at some point, so you may as well do so this year. I do not understand your reluctance. Lord Elrond tells me you have a light step.”
Turning, Estel frowned, lagging farther and farther behind Faerwen as she led the way to the Hall of Fire. As they crossed one of the many shelving terraces Estel heard laughter below. Running to the low wall, in an effort to find anything to slow his arrival at the dreaded appointment, he was in time to see a large group of dwarves and a tall, grey clad person in a ridiculously large pointed hat, make their way across the narrow bridge.
“Look, Faerwen!” Estel joined in the general merriment around the sight of at least one of the dwarves dropping to hands and knees to navigate the parapet-less span.
His companion frowned. “It is not polite to mock, Estel. Some mortals do not cope well with heights and dwarves are more used to the narrow tunnels of their mines.” She touched his shoulder. “Come along now. Elladan has been waiting for some time.”
Estel obeyed, if a little reluctantly. “I wonder why they're here. They don't look like the usual traders and it's the wrong time of year for them.”
“I have no idea but I suspect you will have wheedled the information out of someone by supper time,” Faerwen replied with a grin.
She was wrong. Everyone seemed reluctant to discuss the matter so, after a couple of days, Estel decided upon a more direct approach. He knew where the dwarves had been quartered so he decided a stroll was in order. He found them sitting upon the lawn outside their suite of rooms.
“Where are your pack ponies?” Estel stood before the largest group of dwarves he had ever seen.
“In the stables - None of yer business” replied two at once.
One who seemed to be dressed better than the rest waved his companions to silence. “You'll get a better answer if you first give us your name and business.”
Estel grinned. He liked dwarves. They never hid behind words. “My name is Estel. What's yours?”
The speaker frowned, his eyes narrowing as he noted Estel's rounded ears. “I am called Thorin Oakenshield. What is a child of men doing living with elves? What is your family?”
Estel touched his ears a little self consciously. “I am Lord Elrond's foster son,” he replied evasively. He was not supposed to accost strangers unaccompanied, and now he realised why. He hurriedly tried to turn aside the conversation. “You only have ponies for yourselves and one for the baggage. Where are the ponies carrying your wares?”
“Wares? We are not some travelling band of tinkers!” a red haired dwarf bristled as he jumped to his feet. Estel did not think it possible but Thorin's frown deepened further.
It was another with a long white, forked beard who waved the others back. “Peace, Gloin.” He addressed Estel. “We are travellers seeking rest and council, Young Master. We have not come to trade.”
“Oh.” Estel bowed to the group. “If I caused offence I'm sorry. It's just that the only dwarves I've met before came to trade.”
Thorin sniffed and offered a grudging, “You are forgiven, youngster.” He went back to cleaning a very impressive looking long-sword.
White beard smiled. “Let me introduce you properly to our company.” He pointed to each dwarf in turn. “We are, Oin, Gloin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Bifor, Bofor, Bombur, Thorin, Kili, Fili, Dwalin, and I am Balin.” All but Thorin bowed with a murmured, “At your service.”
Estel blinked, very much aware that it would be some time before he remembered which name went with which beard. He had, however, absorbed enough manners to offer another bow, with his own reply of, “Estel, at your service and your family's.” He sincerely hoped that he would not be expected to provide individual service to each, however. With thirteen of them that could take up a great deal of his time and Elladan was rather a stickler for punctuality when it came to lessons.
Thirteen. Estel did a quick head count. Definitely thirteen. “Where are the others? There was a tall man and a boy.”
Oin looked up from his whittling of what looked to be a catapult. “Oh, Gandalf has gone off to speak with the elves and the burglar is somewhere in the gardens.” He yelped as Gloin gave him a hefty whack on the arm.
Estel's eyes widened. “Burglar? Does Lord Elrond know you've brought a burglar?”
It was Thorin who stepped in. “Have no fear, Master Estel or Who-ever-you-are. Our burglar only robs dragons.”
Balin rolled his eyes at Thorin as Estel's jaw dropped open. “Don't worry, laddie. The dragon is a long way off in our old home, Erebor. You've nothing to fear here.”
Estel was not fearful however. He was excited. “I thought dragons were only in history books. Are you all going to fight a dragon?”
“We understand he's not been seen in a long while, so we're rather hoping he's died of old age or gone off somewhere else, but if we have to we'll have a go at killing him. Either way, there's things in that mountain we'd like back.”
“What sort of things?” Estel asked, a little disappointed that the dragon was either dead or far away. He would like to be witness to a dragon slaying. It was sure to be very exciting.
Thorin stepped in before anyone else could reply. “Things that are nobody's business but our own,” he pronounced with some finality. “Do you not have things to do?”
Estel was wise enough to know when he was being dismissed. “Of course.” He bowed, determined to highlight this person's rude manners. “I am pleased to have met you, sirs. Goodbye and thank you for your time.”
While most of the others shuffled uncomfortably, shooting glances to Thorin, Balin smiled and bowed. “And I am pleased to have met you, laddie.”
Later that afternoon Estel slipped into the library and made for his favourite corner. There he found Celeg, already curled up on one of the giant floor cushions. She opened one sleepy eye in brief acknowledgement of his arrival then tucked her nose beneath her tail once more. Estel grinned before selecting a book and settling down in the cushion next to her. Celeg rolled over so that she was pressed against his hip, reaching out a paw to kneed at his thigh, and he obliged her by stroking her back absently as he found his page. Her purr revved up a notch at his touch, the only sound in the huge room.
Some pages later Celeg sat up, stretched and wondered off behind one of the tall book cases. Estel considered following, just in case she was up to mischief, but he was deep in the tale of Earendil the Mariner. It was only when a shadow fell across the page that Estel realised that he was no longer alone.
He blinked, bringing his eyes into focus on a set of large, black, boot clad legs beneath a shabby grey robe; definitely not the sort of fabric an elf would wear. He let his gaze climb until he met a thick and indeterminately coloured leather belt, from which hung a very business-like sword in its scabbard, and above that, a long grey beard. Beyond that was the figure's most arresting feature . . . sharp grey eyes twinkling amid a nest of wrinkles and shadowed by bushy grey brows. In the crook of one grey, clad arm the man held Celeg, who looked to be quite comfortable, thank you. Raised amongst elves from a very young age Estel could not remember ever seeing anyone who looked so ancient.
“Good afternoon, Estel.” The man's voice was rough and yet warm, in a kindly sort of way.
The lad tried to scramble up, a task made difficult by him being settled deep in a mound of cushions. He yipped as a strong hand gripped his arm, lifting him bodily and setting him easily upon his feet. He tugged his tunic straight before bowing low to this strange personage. “Good afternoon, sir.”
When he straightened he found the old man smiling down at him. “This lady tells me you belong to her. Were she a dog I would question that, but as she is a cat she is probably correct.” Celeg only purred smugly. Of course Estel belonged to her. This ancient personage was obviously someone of great perspicacity.
Estel blinked. “May I ask your name, sir, and how you came to be here?”
“You may ask and I may answer.” The old man waited.
“Er . . . What is your name, sir, and how did you come to be here?”
“I have many names. Olorin, some call me. Others, Mithrandir. Then there's Incanus, Tharkun and some other names which I will not mention in the presence of such youth, but you may call me Gandalf and I am travelling with some dwarves and a hobbit at present. As for your second question, we came by way of a rather precipitous zig-zag path down the mountainside. Perhaps you know that route.”
Estel shook his head. “I am not allowed beyond the river bank, unaccompanied.” He frowned. “But what is a hobbit? Is it some kind of animal? Adar is very particular about what animals he allows in the valley and how they must behave.”
Celeg purred down smugly from her high perch on Gandalf's arm.
Those ancient grey eyes twinkled more brightly. “Is he now? Then I shall be sure to tell Master Baggins to be on his best behaviour.” He held out Celeg and Estel accepted his little friend. Of course, Celeg decided that she was not at all happy to be passed about like a parcel and leapt from Estel's arms at once to stalk away in a huff.
The old man chuckled before turning away to follow Celeg from the chamber. He called back over his shoulder, “We shall meet again one day, Son of Arathorn.”
“Left, Estel. You cross with your left first.” Elladan took up his harp and played the refrain again.
Estel sighed as he watched his mother perform the dance steps perfectly at his side. It was difficult to see her feet, however, beneath her long gown. Estel tried to follow his foster brother's instructions.
“Cross front, side, cross back, side, now forward . . .”
Tripping over his feet once again, Estel stamped crossly. “I can't do it! I hate dancing!”
“Estel!” His mother frowned down at him and Estel hung his head, his murmured, “Sorry Elladan,” almost lost in the cracks between the floorboards.
“It's alright, Estel. Try once more,” his foster brother replied with infuriating patience. The music started and Estel tried extra hard. He had practiced this particular dance before many times but for some reason, today his feet would simply not remember the steps, and once more he stumbled.
“I know this one. It's the Lithe Line.”
Estel turned to the door, surprised to find a boy standing a few feet away, apple in hand. Then he looked more closely. The figure had large, hairy, bare feet and his face was not that of a child. Curiosity got the better of embarrassment. “Who are you?”
His mother cleared her throat and Estel blushed, performing a hasty bow. “Good afternoon, sir. My name is Estel and this is my Mama and my brother, Elladan.”
The newcomer performed a brisk bow in reply. “It is a good afternoon, isn't it? Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”
Gilraen and Elladan inclined their heads. “Good day to you, Master Hobbit,” Elladan murmured with a genuine smile.
Estel's eyes widened. So this was the hobbit. “You don't look like a burglar.” The words were out of his mouth before he considered.
Master Baggins pursed his lips a little ruefully. “So I have been told. Indeed somebody once said that I look more like a grocer, but my Mama always said that looks can be deceiving. You should never judge a book by its cover.”
Estel doubted that was altogether true. He could think of at least one book who's worn and dark cover more than summed up its ancient and weighty contents, but it would have been rude to say so and he was now guarding his tongue more closely. “I suppose you are right and I have never actually met a burglar before. Are you truly a thief?” Estel had always been told that theft was wrong.
At his side he heard his mother's sharp indrawn breath at the question and to his left the unmistakeable sound of Elladan smothering a laugh. It seemed that Estel's guard on his tongue was not as close as it should have been. The burglar drew himself up to his full height, which was about the same as Estel's. “I am not a thief.” He hesitated before explaining, “I have merely been engaged to 're-appropriate' certain items that were stolen from my companions.” His brows drew together before he added, “I'm not altogether sure it could be called theft if the items one is stealing were stolen from one in the first place.”
“I believe the discussion of that idea is best left to grown-ups,” Gilraen stated with a pointed nod toward her son.
“Quite right. My apologies, Lady.”
“Please call me Gilraen.”
Bilbo made another small bow and then took a last bite of his apple before casting about for somewhere to discard the core.
“Just throw it into the fire.” Elladan's brows rose as Bilbo Baggins lobbed the core perfectly into the heart of the fire, some distance away. He wondered how a hobbit would fair with bow and arrow.
Bilbo Baggins grinned. “Now am I correct in assuming that you are practicing the Lithe Line?”
“That may be what it is called in your Shire but here we call it the Enderi Ribbon. It is danced upon the mid-summers eve.” Elladan smiled at their guest. “Perhaps if Estel went through the steps you could tell us if it actually is the same as your Lithe Line.”
Estel shot his foster brother a look that would have been frightening in one of more stature. Elladan only grinned back wickedly and now it was Gilrean who had to smother a laugh.
Bilbo glanced from lady to elf knowingly. “Is it usual to hold hands or do you use kerchiefs?”
“We just join hands,” Elladan replied as he watched Master Baggins hold out his hand to Estel.
The lad only just resisted rolling his eyes as he accepted the offered hand. “I should warn you, I'm not very good at this.” He made one final protest. “I may stand on your toes.”
The hobbit only grinned. “I've been stood on by bigger feet than yours. I'm sure I'll survive.” He offered his other hand to the lady, who accepted it with a small curtsy.
Elladan struck a chord and nodded them in. Estel took a ginger step, crossing left foot over the front of his right. Bilbo and Gilraen followed his move so he stepped to the side with his right foot. Then it was left foot crossed to the rear and another step to the right. Somehow it was easier with Master Baggins and if Estel hesitated he only had to glance aside to follow what his feet were doing. For several minutes the three of them wove a line around the hall and soon Estel was grinning as his body began to move of its own accord. He was rather disappointed when Elladan began to wind the music to a close and hobbit and boy turned to bow to lady.
“My, my. Fancy that dance being known here too,” Bilbo announced. “I wonder how that came to be.”
“I think it not so surprising. We danced similar steps in my village upon Midsummers' Eve, although we dance in a circle and call it the Solstice Ring.” Gilraen led them all to some low stools by the fire, where a table had been set up with refreshments.
Master Baggins accepted a cup of elderflower cordial from her. “I wonder if dwarves dance it too.”
Estel sipped from his own cup. “I can't imagine them dancing with those big boots on.”
The hobbit chuckled. “I think you'd be surprised at how nimble a dwarf can be when he puts his mind to it.”
Elladan began to slip his harp into its padded bag. “It would be interesting to enquire. I believe Mithrandir intends to hold off your departure until after the three days of Enderi.”
“Does he now?” Bilbo noted with a smile. “I am pleased to hear that. I would like to explore a little longer. This is an altogether wonderful place.”
“I shall be sure to tell my father that you think so. You are welcome to wonder where you will, Master Hobbit.”
Estel swallowed, licking his lips. “What is Gandalf?” he asked.
Bilbo frowned. “I'm not altogether sure what it is that you are asking, lad.”
“Well . . . he looks like an old man but he doesn't move like one. Mama says that old men have round shoulders and walk slowly. Gandalf walks quickly and has big shoulders. He has a strange feel about him. He's like an elf on the inside but an Edan on the outside, if you know what I mean.”
Elladan and Gilraen sat back to listen to the conversation unfold. Elladan had known Mithrandir for some years and Gilraen had at least heard of him.
“Ahh.” Bilbo leaned close to his new friend. “Gandalf is a wizard,” he whispered. “And from what I've seen so far, a jolly good one. I would have been desert for a troll were it not for him.”
Estel's eyes widened. “Trolls! You've seen trolls? What do they look like? Are they very big? Do they smell as bad as people say? How did you escape?” He stopped when Bilbo held up a hand.
“Good gracious, lad. You're like a pump with three handles. Let me see . . . where do I begin? I suppose it all started some days ago when I was sitting in my front garden having a nice smoke before second breakfast.”
On midsummer's eve, after the feast, Estel noticed that dwarves, hobbit, wizard and Adar disappeared. He was curious about their absence but decided it would be rude to follow . . . and Mama was watching him too closely. If he was honest, Estel was actually starting to feel rather sleepy for it was long past his bedtime, so he curled up on a cushion at his Mama's feet and dozed for a while.
He had no idea how long he slept but he was awoken by Mama's soft voice. “Come on, sleepy head. The dancing is starting and you don't want to miss it after all that practice.”
Estel sat up and stretched, before rubbing the sleep from his eyes. All around him the elves of Imladris were beginning to line up. Friends and family sought each other's hands to see in the turning of the year together. Faerwen held Erestor's hand and Lindir held that of a laughing, dark haired elf that Estel recognised from a visit to the healing rooms some months earlier. Estel took his mother's hand and they joined Erestor.
Instruments were laid aside but voices now began to hum a soft melody. The air was filled with anticipation and Estel wondered what they were waiting for. Then he saw Adar talking with the dwarves, who shook their heads at something he said. But the old wizard and the hobbit nodded and Elrond led them to the head of the line. That was when the little hobbit spoke to Elrond, pointing down the line to where Estel and Gilraen stood. Elrond smiled and nodded and Master Baggins trotted over.
“I have been invited to join the dance but I confess that all these tall elves will be a bit hard on my little legs and arms. Would you mind if I joined you, Estel?”
Estel grinned. “Stand between me and Mama. Mama is still tall but not so much as Erestor.”
Gilraen made way for their new friend. “You are most welcome, Master Baggins.”
Elrond looked about the room and the humming faded. “And so, dear friends, we once more come to the end of the summer flowering and into the season of harvest. Now Anor runs faster and the stars of Elbereth shine longer in the heavens, to remind us of Cuivienen's shores where our people first awoke. Let us celebrate, then, this special eve with voice and body and heart.”
Lindir's voice began the song and others took up the refrain, their harmonies weaving a complex melody that feet could not help but follow. Bilbo leaned in to whisper in Estel's ear, “Left front cross,” and they were off. Elrond led the way and the stately line danced out of the Hall of Fire and onto the lawns before the house. From there they wove amongst the trees and down to the river, their voices joined by wind and water, owl and nightingale.
Above them the stars shone bright and clear and a crescent moon smiled benison upon elf, peredhil, man, dwarf and hobbit alike.
The next morning Estel slurped his milk noisily in his haste to quit the breakfast table.
“Estel! Manners, please,” his Mama chided gently.
“Sorry, Mama. Can I leave the table please? I want to see Master Baggins and his friends leave. He said they would be leaving this morning.”
Gilraen shook her head. “I am sorry, dear. You slept late this morning and Gandalf led them from the valley shortly before sunrise.”
Estel's eager face dropped. “But I wanted to say goodbye. I liked Bilbo.”
Gilraen reached into her pocket and produced a small coin which she laid upon the table between them. “Master Baggins called in and asked me to give you this. He said he had no time to bring much with him on the journey but this is a coin from his home. He hopes you will keep it as a memento of his visit.”
Estel picked up the tiny silver disk, with it's circle of ivy leaves around the words, “The Shire” on one face and the legend, “1 penny” on the other. “I wish I could go with him on his adventure. I would like to see dragons and dwarf mines.”
Gilraen smiled as she stroked her son's hair. “I am sure that when you are older you will have many adventures of your own.” And yet, a corner of her mother's heart hoped that he would not.
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