The Sound of Laughter by MP brennan

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Story Notes:

This was nominated for the 2013 Tree and Flower Awards where it placed first in the category "Favorite Story by a new author."

TaFA


Author’s Note: This story picks up two years after the conclusion of my story “While Hope Lasts” and incorporates plot lines and original characters from that tale. However, it should also stand on its own (hopefully). The original characters and their relationships will be (gradually) explained in-text. It is a two-shot, and the second chapter should be posted in a couple of days.

Special thanks to Cairistiona who went above and beyond the call of duty and really pushed me to make this piece better.

T.A. 2935


Estel ran to the edge of the balcony and pressed his face against the wrought iron. There were horses and Men in the courtyard. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but, no, these had to be Men. He’d never seen an Elf with that strange, scruffy sort of hair on their chins. He grabbed the railing and strained up on tippy-toes, trying to see over the top of it, but it was too high.

He was, after all, only four years old.

Giving up on seeing over the railing, he tried to stick his head through one of the gaps to get a better look, but it was no good. This was Mama’s balcony, after all. He couldn’t fit his whole upper body through the gaps, like he could with the delicate bannisters found elsewhere in the Last Homely House. No, this was the big railing—the one Mama had insisted they put in special after the last time she’d caught Estel leaning over to watch the birds in the trees below.

No matter. They were clopping through the gate, coming more fully into view—four Men on shaggy horses. They were dirty—both the Men and the horses—which Estel quite approved of. Elves and his naneth bathed entirely too much. They said Estel would be a Man someday, so Estel couldn’t wait to tell them that Men, apparently, didn’t have to take baths. The lead-most rider shifted in his saddle, and Estel saw something that made him grin and clap his hands in delight.

They had a boy with them. A small child with hair cropped close to his scalp sat in front of the tallest rider, petting the horse’s neck absently. The tall rider squeezed the child’s shoulder and then swung down from the saddle.

On the other side of the courtyard, a door swung open and Estel’s ada emerged. Ada’s face was strangely serious as he approached the men and spoke quietly to the lead rider. The man responded in grunts and monosyllabic replies, which was just rude, but then he turned and lifted the child from the saddle. As the Man hoisted the child down, Estel realized the other boy was far older than he. How old? Seven? Eight, even? Estel was admittedly not the best judge, but that was almost grown.

Yet, for some reason, the Man did not set the boy down on his feet. Instead, he settled him in his arms as the boy reached up to wrap his own arms around the Man’s neck. Ada said something and held out his hands, but the Man did not give the boy to the Elf. In fact, his arms seemed to tighten around the child. Ada sighed, his face taking on that long-suffering expression, like it had when Estel had told him that he wanted to be the first person in Arda to tame a dragon.

Then Ada gestured for the Men to follow him as Elhadron and Merendor came forward to take their horses to the stables. A moment later, they disappeared into the other side of the house, where the guest quarters were.

Estel turned and ran back along the balcony and around the house as fast as his legs could carry him. He found his naneth at the work bench in her garden, grinding up some leaves with a mortar and whatever that little club-like thing was called.

He grabbed the edge of the table, and Mama quickly pulled a bottle of oil out of his reach. “Nana,” he said in breathless Sindarin, “There’s a boy in the courtyard.”

His naneth didn’t look up. “There’s a what?”

Oh, right, he was supposed to speak Westron with Mama. Estel screwed up his face and tried again. “There’s a boy in the courtyard. Or, there was. Ada took him into the house.”

Mama’s face was absent as she set the ground-up leaf-mush aside and began to shred bits of bark into tiny, even pieces. “That’s not a boy, Estel. It’s a girl.”

Estel blinked. He knew, of course, that girls turned into Women like boys turned into Men, but he couldn’t recall ever actually meeting one. He was sure Mama was wrong, though; he’d seen pictures of girls in Erestor’s library, and they hadn’t looked anything like this child.

He gave his naneth a scandalized look. “He had hair shorter than mine!”

Mama still was not impressed. “Then she must have cut it.”

“He was wearing breeches and a shirt. No dress, no ribbons.”

I wear breeches when I ride horses. Does that mean I’m not a Woman?”

Estel cocked his head. It was true—he’d seen her riding Rohiridan. Occasionally, if she was in a good mood, she would even let him sit in front of her much like the . . . child sat in front of the Man. And while the Elleths he’d known usually rode sidesaddle in their skirts, maybe girls and Women were different?

He still wasn’t quite convinced.

“What’s he doing here?”

“Her name is Laleth and she is here to get well.”

“Ada’s going to heal him?”

“He will try to heal her.”

“Can I watch?”

Mama finally turned away from her herbs and gave him a sharp look. “No, Estel, that girl has troubles enough. You are not to bother her or your adar.”

Estel hung his head and nodded.

Not that he planned to obey.

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Estel tip-toed down the hall, silent as an Elf on his bare feet. Mama would be cross if she knew he’d taken his shoes off again, but it was nearly May—which was practically summer—so what was the harm? He’d just have to stuff his feet back in the uncomfortable things before he went back to Mama’s rooms. And find someone to retie the laces.

And it was worth feeling cold stone under his toes to be able to slip down the corridors of the guest wing, so quiet even Ada’s sharp ears didn’t pick up his footfalls, until he lurked in the shadow of an old statue right outside the room Ada used for healing. The oaken door stood slightly ajar, but Estel knew he’d not be spotted. The hallway was shadowy and grave, after all, and Ada insisted that the room beyond always be filled with light. Right now, the large bay windows stood open, with a soft breeze ruffling the gauzy curtains, making the sunlight that filtered through them ripple like water. The light washed over the warm, plaster walls and the rich wood of the furniture and the white linens of the bed that sat by the window.

The child lay in the bed, looking utterly peaceful. Estel could see the child’s face—could see its stillness, the closed eyes and slightly open mouth. The child could almost have been dead, but Estel knew better. Ada often made people sleep while he healed them; he said that was how bodies put themselves back together. Ada himself leaned over the bed now, one long-fingered hand resting on the child’s knee. Another tall figure stood beside him. Estel couldn’t see that one’s face, but he guessed it was the Man from the courtyard—the one who had carried the child.

“She has been like this for two years?” That was Ada’s voice, and he could only be talking about the child in the bed. So, it was a girl. Estel would have to remember to apologize to Mama. And then he’d have to tell Erestor that his storybooks were wrong about girls.

“She is much improved,” the Man’s voice was defensive, like Estel’s had been that time when he tried to explain how it really wasn’t his fault that he’d taken those caramels, but the cook just wouldn’t listen. “The right leg healed almost entirely within a few months. It is only the left that remains infirm.”

“And how long has that injury gone without improvement? Six months? Eight?” Estel couldn’t see Ada’s face, but he knew what it must look like: tight and tense with his lips pressed together until they went white around the edges. He knew, because that was the tone of voice Ada used sometimes when Estel finds him in his study poring over reports about orcs and monsters far away. It’s what he sounds like when he tells Estel that everything is well and that he’s not angry even though it’s as clear as daylight that he is but if Estel says so, Ada will only give a strained smile and say ‘Not at you, ion-nîn.

“A year.” The Man’s voice was quiet. Perhaps he suspected what Estel knew about Ada’s state of mind.

“A year.” Ada repeated the words slowly, as if in disbelief. “Twelve months or more she made no progress. Twenty-five since her injury. And with each day, her body gave up a little more on the thought of repairing itself.”

The Man stayed silent, which was probably smart.

After a moment, Ada let out a sigh that was more like a hiss. “You should have brought her much sooner, Arandur. It needn’t have gone this far.”

The Man—Arandur—suddenly tensed. “It was made clear to me,” he said, nearly matching Ada’s dangerous tone, “That a Dúnedain presence in Imladris could only rouse suspicion.”

Ada’s shoulders slumped a little and his voice grew quieter. “We could have made arrangements. There was no need for other children to suffer.”

Other children? Estel cocked his head and tried to edge closer for a better look into the room. Unfortunately, his eagerness made him step right into the statue which turned out not to be a statue at all, but a suit of armor that someone had left standing in the hallway for some reason. It clattered and rattled and Ada turned.

“Estel!”

The boy winced, but it was no use pretending it wasn’t his fault. That was the problem with being the only child in Rivendell—loud sounds and unexpected disturbances and mysterious broken things were always his fault. He pushed the door open timidly and stood studying his bare feet.

Ada sighed, but he didn’t seem angry. Not really. “Estel, if you’re going to eavesdrop, you may as well greet our guest properly.”

Estel bit his lip, trying to remember the greetings he’d been taught. He managed a jerky approximation of a bow. “Welcome to Imladris, Master Arandur.” His Westron was almost perfect. Mama would be proud. He looked at Ada and added, “What’s ‘eavesdrop’ mean?”

“It means listening in on your elders when you are supposed to be doing something else. Like brushing your pony, for instance?”

Estel ducked his head guiltily.

“And it’s Lord Arandur,” Ada added, his voice almost absent.

“Lord?” Estel perked up and inspected the Man with renewed interest. “What are you lord of? Do you have a fortress? Can I come see it?”

“Estel!”

He closed his mouth before he could ask a hundred other questions. “Sorry, Ada.” He looked at the Man. “Sorry, Lord Arandur.”

To his surprise, Arandur was now studying Estel with at least as much interest as Estel had shown for him. There was a strange expression on his face—one that fell somewhere between wonder and grief. “That’s alright.” His voice was slightly stunned, as if he’d just hit his head on something hard. Estel shifted uneasily from foot to foot.

At that moment, Elrohir arrived at a run. “I’m sorry, Adar!” he said, catching the doorframe to stop himself, “I swear I only let him out of my sight for a moment!”

Ada was smiling now. “It’s quite alright, ion-nîn, your brother is quite the escape artist. But, if you would . . . ?”

“Of course,” Elrohir reached down to scoop Estel up, “Come along, Estel, it’s time we were off to the stables.”

Estel found that he was not unhappy to go; the odd look in Arandur’s eyes made him uncomfortable. “’Ro,” he said brightly, as he wound his arms around the Elf’s neck, “Did you know that the storybooks are wrong about girls?”

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Elrohir was more careful after that. In fact, everybody was more careful—Mama and Elladan and Ada and Erestor and all of Estel’s occasional tutors kept him very busy. There were letters to learn and figures, too, and once he learned how to brush his pony he got to ride him. There were walks in the garden with Mama and imaginary dragons to slay (or tame) with ‘Ro and evenings in the Hall of Fire where he couldn’t scream or run around, but if he sat quietly and was good Glorfindel would tell a story so exciting it made Estel’s heart sing. And Elladan and Elrohir stayed home for weeks without ever leaving Estel to go fight “real” monsters in the forest.

But, Estel never saw the girl and caught only a few glimpses of the scowling Man. He’d watched and waved as the other three Men got back on their horses and rode off into the wild only a day after arriving. The other Man—Lord Arandur—mostly stayed in the guest wing where the girl was and where Estel was not allowed to go.

Sometimes he would catch Mama staring wistfully out the window, but she would never tell him what was wrong.

But, he never forgot about the strange child with the close-cropped hair and he never stopped looking for an opportunity to meet her properly. So, when a servant interrupted Estel’s writing lesson with a dusty old book that made Erestor’s face light up, Estel saw his chance. Sure enough, the Elf turned away from Estel’s clumsily-written Tengwar and took the tome. He was muttering excitedly—something about “hand-scripted first editions”—and took no notice as Estel quietly put his slate aside. As Erestor pored over his newly-arrived treasure, the boy tiptoed out of the library, hardly daring to breathe.

Once he was safely out in the hallway, he broke into a run—not his fastest run, since he still had a habit of careening into walls when he ran full tilt, but a quick trot. His luck held; the corridors between the library and the guest wing were empty and all the doors were unlocked. Lord Arandur was nowhere to be seen.

He pushed open the door to the girl’s room. Three weeks had wrought a great change in the room beyond. Fresh-cut flowers sat on the windowsill, but that was the only part of the chamber that was tidy. The bed clothes lay in a rumpled heap at the foot of the bed, as if she had thrown or kicked them off. A few small toys sat on the bedside table—dolls and wooden animals and the like—but a larger number lay in strange heaps against the far wall along with an empty drop spindle and an untouched needlepoint. A pair of crutches rested against the wall. They were just like the ones Ada had made for Mama that time when she stepped in a rabbit hole, except much smaller.

The girl herself was no longer sleeping, yet for a moment, Estel wasn’t sure that she was truly awake either. She lay flat on her back with her arms folded across her chest. Her eyes were open and fixed on the arched beams of the ceiling. Estel wondered whether maybe Mama was wrong and Mannish children could dream-walk with their eyes open as the Elves did. Except, he’d never seen Elladan or Elrohir wear that sort of angry scowl while they walked in dreams. For a moment, Estel wondered whether he should turn around, run back to the library, and try to sneak in before Erestor realized he was gone.

Instead, he bounced over to the bed with a smile and tugged on the sleeve of the girl’s nightgown.

“Hi! I’m Estel. What’s your name?”

She blinked and tugged her arm away. “Laleth.” Her voice was dull and flat.

Estel cocked his head. That was a pretty enough name, he supposed, but it meant “laughter,” and he couldn’t think of anyone less likely to laugh than the dead-eyed girl before him. That didn’t seem like the sort of thing he should say though.

His eyes lit on a book that lay beside the bed. He snatched it up eagerly and rifled through the pages. This was not a stuffy “hand-scripted first edition” like Erestor’s precious tome, but a proper storybook. The pictures were fewer and further between than he was used to, but made up for that by their beauty. There were delicate pencil sketchings of swords and bows and expansive ink drawings of mountains and armies and leering monsters. The words were in Westron, but he knew all the letters anyway. Well, almost all the letters.

“Will you read to me?” he asked brightly, “Mama says by the time I’m as big as you I’ll be able to read anything, but I don’t think I wanna learn because then who will read to me? Will you?”

She snatched the book from his hands and hugged it to her chest. “No.” She still hadn’t looked away from the ceiling. Estel glanced up to see if maybe there was something interesting up there. It looked like the same old beams and plaster to him.

Estel bit his lip, but then shrugged. Maybe Laleth didn’t like books. He pulled a large marble out of his pocket. “You want to play ringer with me? I’ve got an extra shooter you can borrow.”

She looked at him for the first time. Except it wasn’t a look but more of a glare. “I can’t!” she snarled. Drawing up her right leg, she kicked away the thin sheet that covered her.

Estel’s eyes went wide. Her left leg, from hip to ankle, was bound in a bulky splint with strips of wood and stiff, white bandages. This was much worse than when Mama had turned her ankle in the rabbit hole. He dropped the marble onto the sheets and peered at the girl’s leg. “Does it hurt?”

Laleth was scowling at the ceiling again, her face even more pinched than before. Her voice, though, was rising and losing its flat tone. “Leave me alone!”

“But I wanna help!” Estel cried, “Maybe I can make it better! I wanna try!”

“No!” she snapped. Snatching up his marble, she threw it over his head, so hard it left a dent in the wall before falling into a pile of other discarded toys. “Go away! I don’t want you here! You’re not my brother!!”

Estel stumbled back a few steps and fell on his butt with a thud. He stared up at Laleth, confused and hurt by her sudden outburst. “Of course I’m not . . .”

But, she wasn’t looking at him. She wasn’t looking at the ceiling anymore either. Her eyes were screwed shut and her face twisted like a crying infant’s. Though her jaw was clenched tight, she began to scream—a sound that started high like a wounded animal’s cry but quickly turned into a wail.

The hallway suddenly rang with footsteps that sounded as heavy as a troll’s. Even as her cry grew in volume, Laleth picked up the book and pitched it after the marble. The source of the pounding steps—not a troll, but Lord Arandur—rounded the corner just as the volume crashed into the wall. Estel scrambled to his feet as the Man pushed past him to reach the girl. Laleth had begun to thrash wildly, the sheets twisting around her. Quickly, Arandur sat and pulled her into his lap, his arms wrapping around her upper body to hold her tight. She continued to fight and kick and make those terrible keening sounds.

Just as Estel was beginning to panic, his ada rounded the corner with no less speed than Arandur, but a far lighter tread. “What has happened?” Ada asked, his voice quick, but low.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Arandur growled, his harsh tone standing in stark contrast to the gentle way he was stroking Laleth’s hair, “She’s having another fit.”

Without another word, Ada strode over to a cabinet in the corner, put a key in the lock, and opened it to reveal jars of herbs, oils, and salves. Estel ran to him and tugged on the hem of his tunic. “Ada? What’s happening, Ada? Is Laleth alright? I’m sorry, Ada, I just wanted to make it better. Can’t I help? Ada?”

“Elrond! This is no place for the boy.” Arandur snapped.

“Not now, Estel,” Ada said more softly, but just as tersely, “Just go.”

Estel backed away, his eyes filling with tears. Turning, he ran from the room—ran full tilt, not even caring when he banged his shoulder against the doorjamb. He raced down the hallway and out a side door and kept running until he reached his secret place where no adults ever found him. The chestnut tree at the edge of the forest was ancient—as old as Elladan and Elrohir, maybe. Estel squeezed into the hollow in the trunk and pressed himself back into the cramped, dark space. The smell of earth was all around him—a comfort. He breathed deep and tried to stifle his tears.

It was a long time before he succeeded.

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The afternoon was waning before Estel finally ventured out of his hiding place. The grounds were quiet. For once, no one seemed to be searching for him.

His nose was still running. He wiped it on his sleeve.

Laleth scared him. She was bigger than he was. He’d seen the dent his marble had left in the hard plaster of the wall. If she’d thrown it at him instead, it would have hurt.

And he still didn’t understand what was wrong.

He sniffed. The trouble was, the Men in stories never ran away from the things that scared them—never hid in chestnut trees. They faced the scary things. Head on, as ‘Dan would say.

He spent the whole walk back to the guest wing wishing that someone would come along to chide him for giving Erestor the slip and haul him back to his room. But, no one did, so he had to keep going.

He stopped in the shadow of the suit of armor. This was far enough, surely. The door was latched, but if he pressed his eye against the keyhole, he could make out tall shapes moving within. Laleth lay still once more. Ada leaned over her, doing something to her leg while Arandur paced back and forth, back and forth.

The screaming had stopped, for which Estel was immensely grateful.

If he listened closely, he could just make out Ada’s voice.

“You can take your ease, Arandur. She will sleep for a few hours more.”

“I’ll stay.” The words were said in the grunting tone that seemed to be Arandur’s default.

After a moment, Ada spoke again, his voice even quieter than before. “She has not damaged the leg—only knocked the splint loose and twisted the padding. The bone grows stronger by the day.” He sighed. “But the soul-sickness . . .”

“I know,” Arandur said woodenly, “Nothing you can do.”

“I didn’t say that.” Ada sounded a little miffed. “But, it will be a long road back, if she manages it at all. It would be easier if Laleth had family around her. Her mother ought to be here.”

“She has two other small children who also need her.”

“Yes, her twins are a year older than Estel, are they not? They could all dwell here for a season. It would be good for my foster son to have playmates.”

“Lothiriel is to wed Belegion in a few weeks’ time.”

“Her dead husband’s brother?” Ada sounded disapproving. “Is that proper?”

“It’s not unheard of,” Arandur’s words were defensive, though Estel was not sure what for. “She is a free woman and may wed whomever she likes.”

“Of course, it’s merely a shame for Laleth. It is difficult,” his words were now quite pointed, “To be isolated from one’s family for so long.”

Arandur growled something unintelligible.

“Have you spoken to your sister?” Ada prompted gently.

“Gilraen and I have said all there is to be said,” Arandur snapped.

Estel’s eyes widened. ‘Gilraen’ was Mama’s name!

“You opposed bringing the boy here,” Ada said quietly, “You are hurt that your sister went against you. But, will you allow that to stand forever between you?”

“I have supported her decision.”

“Yes, you have leant her your authority, as acting-chieftain,” Ada said, “But, perhaps she needs a brother’s love more than a chieftain’s support.”

“You go too far, Master Elrond,” Arandur said, his voice low and angry, “It is my family that you speak of.”

Ada was silent for a long time.

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Estel stirred as a gentle hand brushed through his curls. He opened his eyes and blinked blearily. Had he fallen asleep? He slowly uncurled from where he’d lain, nestled against the wall at the base of the armor display.

Ada knelt beside him, carding his fingers through Estel’s hair. Without a word, he scooped the boy up and stood.

“Wha’ time is it?” Estel asked as his arms came up to encircle Ada’s neck.

“Nearly suppertime,” he responded quietly.

Estel buried his head in the Elf’s shoulder. “Ada,” he began tremulously, “I’m sorry.”

Ada shifted Estel to his hip as he began to walk towards the boy’s rooms. “Whatever for?”

“I didn’t mean to upset her. Laleth. Jus’ wanted to see what she was like.”

Ada let out a soft sigh. “It was not your fault, child. Nor hers. She is sick at heart.”

Estel pressed his face against a silk tunic.

He asked no more questions.

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Mama dumped one more cup of water over his head and then held out a large towel. As quick as a cat, but not quite as gracefully, Estel hopped out of the tub and burrowed into the soft linen. If, in the process, he splashed a bit of water on Mama’s gown, he considered that fair turnaround.

“Mama,” he said for perhaps the dozenth time, “How come I have to take baths, but Lord Arandur doesn’t?”

“Arandur has taken many baths since he arrived,” she repeated wearily. As she toweled off Estel’s hair, she added, “And, someday when you’ve spent weeks in the wilds far from any bathtub, as he has, you’ll appreciate bathing a bit more.”

Estel made a face. “Nuh uh!”

But, he could tell from her face that she was unwilling to take up the debate.

There was something different about Mama—a strange weariness. Estel had seen it growing for weeks. Her face was tight, like she was wary and sad and tired all at once. Her voice had nearly caught when she said the name ‘Arandur.’

“Mama,” he said, “Ada said Arandur is a lord. What’s he lord of? Can I go see his castle?”

“He doesn’t have a castle,” Mama said absently, “He comes from one of the Dúnedain villages across the Bruinen.”

Estel sighed. When grown-ups said ‘across the Bruinen,’ they just meant ‘really far away.’ “But, if he’s a lord, how come he was in the wilds?”

“He had to bring Laleth here.”

“But, why? Is she his son?”

“Girls are daughters, not sons.”

“Daughters?”

Ieldnath. Not ionnath.”

“Oh. Is she his daughter?”

“No. He simply feels responsible for her.”

Estel bit his lip. ‘Responsible’ was one of those tricky Westron words. Sometimes it meant one thing, sometimes the opposite. Mama didn’t think Estel was responsible enough to not break her favorite vase, but if he did break it, then he would be responsible for that. It was very confusing. But, as far as he could remember, responsible was something you were, not something you felt. “How come?”

“Never you mind.” Mama tried to usher him out into the bedroom, but Estel twisted away.

“How come you get that look when you talk about Arandur? Does he make you sad?”

“Never you mind.” Her voice was now distant, but the pinched look was more distinct than ever. Estel hated seeing that look on Mama’s face. He turned away and darted into the bedchamber.

Some of Mama’s supplies were strewn across the counter under the window—the oils and salves she made, the bandages she wove for Ada. Estel ran to the counter, grabbed a short length of bandage material, and twisted it into a ring. Draping the towel around himself like fine robes, he climbed up onto Mama’s bed and placed the linen on top of his damp curls. Giggling, he turned to her as water dripped down onto her bedclothes. “Look, Mama, I’m a king!”

She laughed as she swept him up in her arms and held him close. “Yes. Yes you are.”

But, even her laughter sounded sad.

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The next morning found him sitting outside Laleth’s room once more, trying to spin a small top. When the door creaked open, he quickly forgot the toy. Arandur stepped out, his face drawn.

“Are you her ada?”

Estel’s question seemed to take the Man by surprise. His face flashed with that strange, pained yet awed expression he’d worn when he first seen Estel. “Of course not,” he said after a moment, “Her father is dead.”

Estel looked back down at the top in his hands. “Yeah,” he said, “So’s my papa.”

“I am sorry.”

There was a hitch to Arandur’s voice. Estel looked up at him inquisitively. “Maybe you are her ada,” he suggested, “Adas take care of you. Even if you haven’t got a papa anymore.”

Arandur swallowed hard. He knelt before Estel and met his eyes. “And does your ada take care of you, child?”

Estel flashed a smile. “Of course. He’s Ada.”

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That night, Estel was allowed to stay in the Hall of Fire until far past his bedtime. He sat on the hearth and played with his wooden knights while the Elves sang songs and told story after story. Unusually, Ada contributed by regaling Estel with tales of dragons and their misdeeds.

He seemed determined to impress upon Estel that dragons were not to be tamed.

For hours, Mama did not appear to spirit Estel away.

When, at last, she came, her eyes were red, but the tension was gone from her face. She picked Estel up and squeezed him tight—almost too tight. Estel wiggled for a moment, then stilled and patted her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Mama?”

She sniffed and swallowed hard. Estel felt her smile. She’d been crying, but for the first time in weeks, she didn’t seem sad.

“Nothing, my baby,” she murmured, “Nothing at all.”

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Estel bounded through the garden, his arms outstretched, the hem of his traveling cloak clutched in sweaty hands. He was flying! Flying like Eärendil through the sky! The leafy branch tucked in the back of his collar was actually Vingilot’s mast, and the flapping wool in his hands made its shining sails. The bits of mulch and gravel that flew before his feet were all the hosts of Morgoth.

A flash of color caught his eye. He skidded to a stop so fast he almost fell over. Vingilot’s sails fluttered to the ground to land among the hosts of Morgoth, all of them forgotten for the moment.

In a neat flowerbed beneath the cherry trees, there grew a stand of irises almost as tall as Estel. The green stems stood straight and proud, like soldiers at attention, capped with purple blossoms like intricate helmets. All but one.

At the very edge of the bed drooped a flower with a bent and broken stem. Careless feet—most likely Estel’s—had trod on it before its petals had ever had a chance to open. Somehow it bloomed, nonetheless, though the stem had healed crookedly such that the delicate satin petals lay limp on the ground. Insects had nibbled at the blossom until it lost its furled scrollwork.

Estel plucked the flower gently from the base, taking only the blossom so that the leaves could live again. He held it up in front of his face, letting it swing slowly back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. The bugs had chewed tiny tears into the petals. They fluttered and drooped like rags.

Or, depending on how you looked at it, like ribbons.

It was beautiful, to Estel’s eyes.

When Laleth finally awoke, she found a ragged flower on her bedside table.

TBC

Author’s Note: Hope you enjoyed! There will be one more chapter to this tale, which will incorporate several time jumps and will focus more on Laleth and her recovery. Reviews of all kinds are deeply appreciated.




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