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Gilraen blinked back the tears that had fractured the candle flames into a thousand tiny sharp-edged stars and scolded herself fiercely. She knew why there were here. She even agreed with the reasoning – she would rather, by far, have her son grow here in safety than take his chances outside this haven with a ruthless enemy seeking him out before he was even old enough to wield his own cutlery. It was just …
She looked at the small boy playing with his wooden horse in the corner of this great hall, almost lost among the groups of tall, elegantly-clothed elves. They smiled at the child as they stepped round him, while some bent to greet him and admire his toy – and he looked up at them with his great grey eyes, serious as no babe his age should be and lisped his answers in unaccented Sindarin.
He was so alone.
No elf-child had been born in Imladris in centuries – and no boy of Ara … Estel’s age had been fostered beneath this roof since Valandil. And even he, she thought, had been older – and had been surrounded by others too young to join in the war that had seen so many of them orphaned.
‘Gilraen?’ Elrohir’s soft voice stirred her from her brooding. ‘Are you all right?’
She tried to smile. She had grown up accustomed to the occasional sight of Elrond’s sons among the patrols – grown more familiar with them in the few short years that she and Arathorn … but she had never been entirely comfortable with them. Cold-eyed – remote – they had reputations as implacable warriors and ruthless hunters of the dark creatures that shadowed Middle-earth. When they had brought her husband’s body home, she had seen them angry – not a sight she particularly wished to repeat – and they had seemed suddenly … different. Alien and intimidating – gleaming and unimaginably ancient.
‘He seems content here,’ Elrohir remarked, following her gaze to the small child absorbed in his game.
She could not help it. The tears spilled over, finding trails down her cheeks as she pressed her lips together, unwilling to show this elf how much she hurt.
Elrohir took her hand in his and ran his thumb comfortingly across her knuckles. His fingers were warm and strong and surprisingly reassuring. ‘What is it?’ he asked, keeping his eyes discreetly turned away from her face. He waited patiently, watching the child play under the eyes of the elves around him.
‘How is he to grow up to be a normal man when he is always alone?’ Gilraen sounded weighed down with worry and Elrohir’s fingers stilled against her hand. ‘I do my best,’ the child’s mother continued, ‘but I am his naneth – how can I be a companion and a friend to him as well? The two roles contradict each other – I cannot both lead him into mischief and scold him for it.’ Elrond’s son remained so still that the woman stole a glance at him, but his fair face was shuttered against her. ‘He should be out playing in the mud,’ she said sadly, ‘soiling his clothes and evading his chores with others of his own age. Instead…’ She gestured at the sober child. ‘He is too good,’ she declared.
Elrohir’s lips twitched. ‘That is not a complaint often heard from the naneth of a young boy.’
She pulled her hand back. ‘Perhaps not,’ she said, slightly offended that he seemed to find her amusing, ‘but not many young boys find themselves in this situation.’ She gazed in disillusion at the tall, beautiful elves inhabiting the hall. ‘There are plenty of people here who can teach my son to be a worthy descendant of Númenor – but who can be young with him? Who can teach him to be proud of who he is?’
‘Now that, I think, is a role his naneth is more than capable of performing,’ Elrohir said, making the colour rise in her cheeks. ‘And as for the rest…’ He grinned at her in a way that made him look far less … apart. ‘Elladan has trouble behaving like an adult at the best of times. While being offered the opportunity to lead a youngster into mischief – now, who could turn that down?’
Gilraen blinked. Was this elf … half-elf … saying what she thought he was? She looked from him to the child. How old were Elrond’s sons? Too old by far, she was sure, to be friends with a boy who was little more than a baby.
‘He is little – but he will grow,’ Elrohir said, and there was an echo of ancient sorrow in his voice. ‘Only too swiftly.’ He linked his fingers and rested his hands on the lap of his dark robe. ‘And he has already shown himself to be a fast learner.’ He smiled. ‘Elves do not have their children close together as do men,’ he instructed her. ‘My brother and I are among very few who have been able to grow up with their siblings – yet we are no less brothers to those who are born centuries later.’
‘You would do that for my son?’ She looked doubtful. ‘He has no call on you!’
‘He is kin,’ Elrohir said simply. ‘My cousin. And he is Arathorn’s son. And you are right – he needs more than physical care: he needs family.’ The look of mischief he turned on her gave her a qualm. ‘You may come to regret the situation,’ he warned. ‘I am sure my adar would tell you that the days of Elladan’s and my youth were – interesting. To say the least. Are you really sure you want your son to learn what it has taken us years to perfect?’
He looked younger, Gilraen thought. More boyish – as if he had determinedly put aside some part of a dark shadow that marked him. And he seemed to have no doubt that his brother would follow his lead – there was no suggestion that this would require consultation and debate. She swallowed. It would take some getting used to – she really was not at all sure that she could look on millennia-old elves as older sons. But how could she refuse? Her son’s need prevailed.
‘You would be brothers to Estel?’ she asked.
‘Brothers,’ he confirmed. ‘We will teach him how to play – and how to evade the resulting trouble as much as possible.’ He smiled, but his eyes were oddly remote. ‘And I am sure that Adar will be eternally grateful to you.’
Elrond frowned. If he had not known better, he might have thought that he had been transported back more than two thousand years – to a time when he had never been entirely sure what pressures parenthood would put on him next.
Someone – Gilraen, he thought incredulously – sounded as exasperated as ever Celebrían had when the twins’ ingenuity had led them to explore boundaries that no-one had ever thought to set.
He rose and headed to the open window. The cool freshness of the spring day stirred the curtains and the watery sun brushed his skin with an illusion of warmth. He looked out over the balcony to scene below and his lips twitched. He had wondered many times whether mothers stood like that – hands on hips and shoulders raised as they leaned towards the object of their wrath – to make themselves look more intimidating – like a bear on its hind legs.
His firstborn moved almost imperceptibly to one side, shielding the creature behind him from view – reminding his father of one memorable occasion when his sons had sought to introduce a wolf cub into his household.
‘But Gilraen…’ Elrohir protested mildly. ‘You said you wanted Estel to play in the mud …’
The Lord of Imladris winced. He doubted that his son would be permitted to get away with such a reckless disregard of maternal sensibilities. It was almost as if Elrohir was being deliberately provocative. Well – the twins would learn through painful experience that a mother could be as dangerous as a dragon in defence of her young – and that the wounds she administered could sting as much as any orc blade.
Elrohir moved his head slightly, his dark hair gleaming like silk in the pale yellow light, and he raised his chin to wink unobtrusively at the tall figure leaning over the balcony.
‘He will clean,’ Elladan assured the anxious mother. ‘It is only honest dirt.’
The – mud-monster – behind his son chose this moment to emerge from shelter, clearly failing to recognise the signs of danger. Well, Elrond thought with a wave of intense amusement, he was young yet – the boy would learn.
‘Nana!’ the child said excitedly. ‘Baby frogs!’ He hauled with him what must have been one of the largest cooking pots ever filched from Imladris’s kitchens. Yet another group of females who would be seeking blood, Elrond decided ruefully – if he remembered the pleasures of raising sons correctly. A wave of water splashed over the rim and the child looked panicked as some of his frogspawn escaped.
‘No matter,’ Elrohir swooped to the rescue, scraping up the slimy mess efficiently in his larger hands and returning it to the pot. ‘They will come to no harm, Estel. The water will clean the eggs off – and see? The little tadpoles are still swimming safely in their protection.’
‘Tadpoles?’ Gilraen’s ire seemed strangely deflated – and she looked almost uneasy. Could it be that this daughter of the Dúnedain had not yet become inured to the sheer quantity of unsavoury detritus that tended to accompany growing sons? Elrond looked at her with sympathy. Such innocence would not last much longer.
‘Can we keep them, Nana?’
Even from the balcony, Elrond could see the sparkle in the child’s eyes – and the pleading on his face. He doubted that Gilraen had the experience – yet – to resist the child’s enthusiasm.
‘They would prefer to live in the pond,’ Elladan intervened – and the relief on Gilraen’s face made Elrond’s shoulders shake. ‘If we put them in Adar’s fountain, they will be safe enough – and we can watch them grow.’
Elrond thought he could accept that. Better by far to have frogs in the courtyard than to have them leaping around inside the house. It would seem that his sons had learned something over their turbulent youth.
‘We will bathe him, Gilraen,’ Elrohir promised. ‘And get the frogspawn out of his hair – and return him clean and undamaged.’
Estel gazed up at the tall elf, beaming his contentment at being in their company, and Gilraen’s face twisted. ‘See that you do,’ she declared – and whipped round, retreating before her son could notice her distress.
Elrond withdrew quietly, leaving his sons to deal with the child and the tadpoles – and the general indignation that would doubtless ripple from the adventure. It had been a long time since he had seen such total trust and confidence in the faces of his sons. A long time since they had believed that he could set all wrongs right with no more than a word. A long time since he had seen them look at anyone the way they had looked at Estel. He had seen them protective – he had seen them watchful – but it had been long centuries – five of them – since he had seen them playful. It would be worth an invasion or two of frogs to see the light of mischief shine in their faces again.
He sat rather heavily in the carved chair behind his desk and rubbed his hands over the time-smoothed figures that his wife had chosen to form the arm-rests. He missed her still, as intensely as he had on the day her spirit had retreated to safety – as intensely as he had when she had set foot on the ship – and he would miss her until at last they could be reunited. Elrond closed his eyes. If the presence of this … this small descendant of his brother’s line could free the child within his sons and allow them to become themselves again, he knew Celebrían would be grateful – whatever else came of it.
A smile tugged at the elf lord’s lips. Frogs! Whatever would it be next? It would seem that the tranquil elegance of life in Imladris was about to be stirred as it had not been in far too long. He only hoped they were all ready for the change.
‘I have heard Gilraen say…’ Glorfindel sat back and eyed his companions smugly, ‘that if she never again hears the words, ‘Elladan says,’ it will be too soon.’
The woman looked at him in horror, a bright blush colouring her cheeks as she turned to the Lord of Imladris.
‘I remember Celebrían telling me – forcefully – that she was sure the Valar had inflicted you on us from some perverted sense of humour purely because they were sick and tired of hearing the sound of your name,’ Elrond said meditatively. ‘I think that was about the time that you were introducing the twins to the joy of caring for their ponies – and no-one in Imladris was left in any doubt that Glorfindel was the fount of all wisdom.’
The warrior inspected his nails modestly. ‘I do my best,’ he said.
Elrond laughed. ‘Do not worry, my dear,’ he told Gilraen. ‘I have plenty of experience with star-struck youngsters – and know only too well how irritating it can be. Particularly,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘when your child willingly performs tasks for his hero that he has doggedly refused to do for his loving parent.’
‘Elladan told Estel that if he wanted to grow as tall as your sons, he would need to exercise – to increase his strength,’ Gilraen said. ‘And Estel decided that the bed was the perfect place to bounce – until he tumbled off, taking the table down with him.’
‘Did he hurt himself?’ Elrond asked in some alarm.
‘A bruise or two.’ Gilraen shook her head. ‘Nothing of import.’
‘Did Elrohir not break his wrist tumbling off his bed?’ Glorfindel frowned.
‘Only because Elladan landed on top of him.’ Elrond took a sip from his glass. ‘They tended to do everything together – at least until they were considerably older than Estel.’
Glorfindel smiled. ‘They were very amusing.’
‘You might have thought so,’ Elrond said somewhat acerbically. ‘You did not have to sit up with the twins at night after you had told them tales of monsters and battles.’ He smiled at his friend’s look of protest. ‘At least,’ he amended, ‘not until Celebrían insisted that their night fears were your problem. You were always putty in her hands.’ He raised an eyebrow at Gilraen in wry camaraderie. ‘Remember that,’ he suggested. ‘Glorfindel might be a terror to Balrogs and assorted creatures of the Dark – but he is susceptible to the wiles of ladies and small children.’
Gilraen smiled and ducked her head in acknowledgement. She had been afraid that in agreeing to live among elves, she would be completely alone – cut off from all her kind – but she found that she shared something with them that went beyond species. She and Elrond were parents, first of all, and in that they had an equality that she had never expected to find. More, they had both lost – and mourned always – a most beloved partner. A partner with whom they expected, someday, to be reunited. It did not seem to matter that elves were beautiful and incredibly ancient – and experienced beyond her capacity to understand; that they shone with a gleaming light that made walking in the starlit gardens quite disconcerting; that they spoke of the natural world as if they were in constant conversation with it. There were times when she felt as if she were talking to family.
A slender hand waved dismissively. ‘Your sons have taken over my role,’ Glorfindel pronounced. ‘And there are two of them – I doubt I will be called upon to ensure that Estel knows how to – er – express his originality. I shall simply sit back and watch.’
Gilraen attempted to suppress her smile, turning her head so that Glorfindel could not see her face – but she was too late to avoid Elrond’s notice.
‘You think he is deluding himself?’ he murmured with pretended confidentiality.
‘Estel is most impressed that Glorfindel can tell his heroes what to do,’ she said. ‘And that they obey him without debate.’ Her smile widened. ‘I have seen the way my son looks at Lord Glorfindel – and I doubt he will escape the attentions of a most admiring child. Especially when Elladan and Elrohir are absent from Imladris.’
Glorfindel’s sigh was overly dramatic – but it fooled neither of his audience. ‘I suppose I will do my duty,’ he said with apparent resignation, but his smile told a different story.
‘And, again, I am left to be the disciplinarian,’ Elrond observed. ‘I hope – very much – that, one day, a time will come when I shall be able to provide entertainment for your children while you attempt to instruct them in the merits of hard work and responsibility.’
Surprised, Gilraen blinked – and felt comforted. She was alone here, in important ways that no mere male could understand, but she was not without support. She might never feel entirely at home, as her son undoubtedly would; she might always hanker after the life that might have been hers – but she was accepted into the family of the Last Homely House as one of them. She would not have to parent her son alone, but could lean on the experience and wisdom of some of the greatest elves of Arda and, amongst them all, they would raise a son of whom Arathorn would have been proud.
‘While we are on the subject …’ Glorfindel crossed one long leg over the other and sipped his wine provocatively as they waited for him to finish, ‘I believe the stable cat has produced a very fine litter of kittens – and Elrohir has promised to take a certain young Dúnadan to visit them once he has broken his fast.’
Elrond met Gilraen’s eyes in silent enquiry, and they came to an immediate unspoken agreement. ‘No pets,’ Gilraen said firmly. ‘Estel is far too young to give any creature the care it needs.’
Glorfindel grinned. ‘Let battle commence,’ he declared. ‘I look forward to it.’
Elladan smiled ingratiatingly. It was not that he had avoided the kitchens over recent centuries – he had happily raided the larders whenever it suited him – but this was different. For this he required the good will of those whose days were spent creating the dishes that made their way into the dining hall.
‘You want what, my lord?’ The cook folded her arms over her voluminous apron.
‘Please, Iavas,’ he said, his voice oozing charm, like honey dripping from a comb.
Behind him, one of the assistants gave an undeniable snigger.
This was not going well. Elladan continued to smile, but he felt its edges beginning to fade. No-one could maintain so much hopeful enthusiasm in the face of such indifference.
‘Please?’ his little echo chimed in.
The cook’s face softened as she looked down at the child. ‘You want to cook?’ she asked.
‘Elladan said that when it was their nana’s begetting day, they would make spiced biscuits,’ Estel said, fixing his grey eyes on the tall elleth. ‘And decorate them with sugared violets.’
‘Is is your nana’s special day, little one?’
Elrond’s son kept his mouth shut. Clearly this little one was more than capable of winning his own battles.
‘Will you help me?’ the boy said.
Iavas crouched down to meet the child at his own level and extended her hand to touch his. ‘You will have to wash your hands,’ she said seriously, ‘and we will find you something to cover your clothes. If your minder agrees to deal with the cleaning up, we have a bargain.’
Sighing resignedly as the trap closed, Elladan nodded. As he recalled the situation, he and Elrohir had sprinkled flour liberally over the kitchens, rolled out the dough and spent the time the lopsided biscuits needed to cook in nibbling stolen lengths of the raw mixture. He had no memory of cleaning anything being part of the game. But then, at that age, he had shed his filthy clothing at night to don clean apparel in the morning with no idea of the work involved in restoring one to the state of the other. ‘I am sure Estel will join me in returning the kitchens to their present state,’ he agreed.
‘He might,’ Iavas said dryly, ‘but you will get the task completed much more effectively if you leave him in a purely supervisory capacity.’
Elladan looked at his conspirator and smiled – a much more genuine smile than the one he had offered Iavas. ‘Come, Estel – let us prepare you for the magic of cooking. Your naneth will be amazed when you bring her special spiced biscuits you have made yourself!’ He swung the child into the air before tucking him securely under his arm and making his way confidently to the bowls of warm water kept for the purpose.
Shaking her head, Iavas disappeared into the store room to fill a crock with flour and select the relevant spices. She placed them on a big, well-scrubbed table and retrieved the chilled butter and honey jar before seeking out the decorative cutters that had – a very long time ago – been made for two other children to use to delight their mother.
All in all, she decided, as Elladan inserted the trays into the oven, Elrond’s son had managed better than she thought he would – both when it came to recreating something he had not made since he became adult and in managing the boy. Little Estel leaned over the table attempting to find any last traces of dough to taste, flour in his hair and honey round his mouth, but he had stirred the mixture and shaken in the spices for Elladan to beat – and the warrior had allowed the child to roll out the paste, not even showing signs of exasperation when the dough stuck to the rolling pin, and then let Estel choose which shapes to cut.
She watched Elladan curiously as he moved the child’s fingers gently out the way and swabbed the table down. It would need to be done again, of course, and the floor washed, but at least he had made no attempt to convince her that he should be allowed to escape the task – and the look on his face as he talked with the boy was … She drew an unsteady breath – gentle. Loving and amused and kind – as he had used to look, so long ago. Before that day.
Iavas realised that he was speaking to her, his eyes soft and hopeful, like the ellon he had once been, and she blinked, unsure what could bring such a look of pure entreaty to his face, before remembering both the look and its cause.
‘You can have a little of my powdered sugar,’ she granted grudgingly. ‘A very little – just enough to make a little icing. And a few of my crystallised flowers.’
‘I told you Iavas was kind,’ Elladan whispered in the child’s ear, loud enough that she was sure to hear. ‘She likes to make you think that she is sharp-tempered, but in reality she is generous to a fault.’
The child laughed, too young to understand fully, but old enough to know that he had just spent a delightful afternoon playing with things that smelled and tasted good. He reached out to the elleth and wrapped his arms round her, offering her a sticky kiss and a whispered, ‘Thank you’.
She clasped his warm body to her and stroked his wavy hair.
Elladan grinned crookedly. ‘Endearing, is he not?’ he said. ‘You think you will keep him at a distance, but he finds his way into your heart, whether you will or no.’
‘Children do,’ she said. ‘And then they stay there.’ She looked at him. ‘Whether they will or no – and you will do anything you can to make them happy.’
Elrond continued working on the papers before him, reminding himself that he was far too controlled to need to look at the small figure creeping up on him. Besides, if he looked at the child, Estel might take fright and flee. His adjutants had been, he thought, only too effective at impressing on the boy that Elrond was far too important to be disturbed – never, apparently, thinking that Elrond might very well appreciate this particular distraction from his work.
The child had clearly been spending far too much time with his sons, Elrond reflected, remembering the games he had played with two small ellyn trying to sneak up on him and steal his pen from between his fingers. He could not recall when they had grown too big for the ritual – he just knew that he had missed it when it was no longer part of his life.
He dangled his hand temptingly, flicking the pen backwards and forwards in an effort to entice the child closer while he placed his other hand over his brow, murmuring as if he was trying to decide what to write next.
His sons, he rather thought, had slipped onto the balcony, probably arriving by way of the vines that twined over the wall – why would they consider entering by the door when there was a more inventive method of reaching the space? – doubtless determined to relish the spectacle of their father being pounced upon by a small boy.
They had, he had to admit, trained the boy well. Estel had taken advantage of every piece of cover in the room, wriggling behind sofas and under tablecloths in a roundabout route that had given the elf lord every chance to prevent the encounter, had he so desired. At one point he had, in fact, been rather concerned that the child might squirm out of the room without ever reaching the polished wooden table that served him as a desk – but the young Dúnadan had proved to have a better sense of direction than he had feared.
Although he was beginning to wonder if the child had managed to get himself trapped in his latest hiding place.
That, or fallen asleep, exhausted by the sheer effort of his elaborate approach.
It amazed him, how much difference the presence of this one child had made to the household. Elrond’s hand slowed and he leaned back to gaze blankly at the elegant distribution of furniture in the impeccable room. One child – and the atmosphere of the sedate haven had changed, warmed by his enthusiasm, livened by his curiosity, stimulated by his growth. Had they stagnated over recent centuries? Had he stagnated? Flattered himself that he was offering a refuge, but sealed the valley away so that none could approach it – so that none could approach him? Was his sons’ abandonment of their home – his daughter’s absence in the Golden Wood – more due to his paralysis than their restlessness? Had he been trying to preserve a past that would never – could never – be replayed here, where he had once lived through the happiest days of his long life?
The cry of triumph that accompanied the ambush made him wince – and Estel snatched the pen from his loose grip and held it up, dancing out of Elrond’s reach, a broad grin splitting his face from ear to ear.
Elrond laughed. Despite his awareness of the threat, he had still been caught out. His sons had clearly included refinements to their teaching that it had taken them years of practice to acquire.
‘Why is your pen a feather?’ Estel stopped and brushed the white tip across his cheek. ‘Does it not tickle?’ He squinted at the now slightly-bent tool.
‘I like it to be a feather,’ Elrond informed him. ‘It is more practical to strip it clean – but why should I be practical all the time?’ He smiled. ‘And you catch more fish with feathers,’ he teased.
‘Am I a fish?’ Estel crowed with laughter and then wove round the table, opening and closing his mouth like one of the large golden fish that lurked in the lily pool, before letting Elrond catch him and pull him up into his lap.
The child sprawled against him contentedly for a moment, his prize still clasped in his hands. How had he and Celebrían ever contented themselves with three, Elrond marvelled? Or did parents somehow forget the delights of small children amidst the stresses of raising them to adulthood?
‘Can I write?’ Estel demanded, reaching for the ink pot.
With remembered skill, the master of Imladris deflected his aim and drew a scrap of paper towards the hopeful scribe simultaneously. ‘May I…’ he said automatically.
A snort at the window reminded him of the so-far hidden presence of the twins.
‘You may as well join us,’ he said, ‘since your apprentice has achieved his goal.’
‘There are others in Imladris beside us who need to spend rather more time enjoying themselves,’ Elrohir observed, as he led his brother into the room. ‘We thought it was about time we attempted to discover whether your reflexes were as sharp as ever…’
‘Only to find them sadly lacking.’ Elladan shook his head with mock disapproval. ‘You used to be much harder to catch out.’
‘I am out of practice,’ his father said defensively, guiding the child’s hand as he dunked the quill into the ink and proceeded to scratch at the blot he had made before abandoning the pen in favour of using his finger to spread the ink.
‘I hope that is not Erestor’s preferred irremovable ink.’ Elrohir sank to sit cross-legged on the hearthrug. ‘Or you will find yourself very unpopular with Estel’s nana.’
Elrond looked at the smear of black round the child’s mouth and splashed on his tunic. ‘I shall not worry,’ he said brazenly. ‘I am sure Gilraen will know who to blame for his appearance – and, rest assured, it will not be me.’
Gilraen finished the tale – the bold Ranger escaped peril and made it home safely to his loved ones – purely for her own satisfaction, as her son had collapsed into the boneless sprawl of the sleeping young before she was halfway through the story. She drew the covers over the child and ensured that he was warm – an effect of the wide windows and the elves’ indifference to temperature was that Imladris, although beautiful, tended to be cold – and smiled wistfully as he wrinkled his nose and turned to burrow into his pillow.
‘Sleep well, my little one,’ she murmured, before turning to leave the room.
One of Elrond’s sons was standing in the doorway – which, she was unsure. She could now, she thought, tell them apart when they spoke – there was no denying that they were very different, for all they looked identical – but at first meeting, she still found herself straining for clues. It must be irritating for them, after all, to have people constantly asking for identification.
‘I was enjoying the story,’ he said with a slight smile. Elladan, then. At least, she thought so.
‘I did not make it up,’ she apologised. ‘It is just a variation on one my mother used to tell me – and, I suppose, that her mother told her when she was small.’
‘Most stories have their roots in the same hopes,’ he said softly. ‘That the heroes win through and everyone lives happily ever after.’
‘That and the talking animals,’ Gilraen said dryly.
Elladan flashed her a smile of such brilliance that she blinked. ‘There are always the talking animals,’ he agreed. ‘Our favourite was a friendly dragon named Smudge who could not breathe fire like the other dragons.’ He offered her his arm to provide a formal escort to the sitting room in this family wing.
Gilraen hesitated. While she was more comfortable here than she had been, she still felt that she was imposing an unwanted presence on Lord Elrond’s family in their private time.
‘Please,’ he said, sensing her unease. ‘Adar requests that you should join us – and we will not be so far from Estel’s room that we will not hear him if he wakes.’
‘You might hear him,’ the boy’s mother pointed out.
Elladan grinned. ‘I promise we would let you know instantly,’ he said. ‘We are most definitely not prepared to deal with a wailing child when his naneth is available to rush to his rescue.’
A pair of dimples suddenly made Gilraen looked as young as she truly was. ‘You will have to learn one day,’ she retorted, more boldly than she would have imagined relatively few months before.
‘Possibly.’ Elladan opened the polished door and ushered her through in front of him. ‘But not for a long time yet! I am not ready for the responsibility.’
‘I have been using that argument for years.’ Glorfindel rose and poured two more glasses of wine. ‘But your adar has refused to pay any attention to my wisdom and insisted that you should shoulder it anyway.’
Elladan grinned in acknowledgement, clearly completely accustomed to his mentor’s insults, and turned to Gilraen. ‘That tale you were telling,’ he said with unexpected seriousness. ‘Could you repeat the start for me? I think…’ He hesitated. ‘It seems familiar.’
Eyes wide, the woman recited the opening phrases of the story. Elladan’s face sobered and he sat down shoulder to shoulder with his brother.
‘Some of the details…’ Elrohir met his twin’s eyes. ‘Aragost was Chieftain then, was he not? And – who was it? Iandúr?’
‘I think so.’ Elladan sounded contemplative. ‘I wonder if all such stories have a base in truths long past.’
Gilraen suddenly found it difficult to breathe. She had come to think of these elves as young – much as everyone else in Imladris did – but they were, of course, nothing of the sort. ‘You knew Aragost?’ she squeaked.
‘Not well,’ Elrohir assured her – as if that would make any difference.
Elrond stretched his hand out and rested it on hers. ‘It makes no matter,’ he said earnestly. ‘Pay attention to here and now. We cross each other’s paths only briefly – and what is important is to make the most of the time we share.’
She attempted to smile. She had known, after all, that these elves had seen whole ages pass before them. ‘Well – at least I suppose you will have no difficulty in teaching Estel the history of his people – since you have been there throughout it all.’
‘I am sorry,’ Elladan apologised. ‘I did not mean …’ He smiled. ‘It is a token of how well you have settled among us,’ he said lightly. ‘I had not thought that it might disturb you to have us speak of past centuries. I will not do it again.’
‘No!’ she protested. ‘I will grow accustomed.’ She inhaled deeply. ‘And I would like to hear tales that have not been told in many years. They should not be forgotten.’
‘They will never be forgotten.’ Glorfindel’s eyes looked distant, as though he was looking into a past that only he could see. ‘Not while the elves remain to remember them.’
Gilraen raised her chin. ‘And if, at the same time, you could be persuaded to reveal the history of your friendly dragon…’ she said with determined cheerfulness, ‘I could always do with a bigger store of stories about talking animals!
Elrohir stretched, relishing the softness of the mattress beneath him and the dryness of the warm quilt. The sheets were smooth against his skin and smelled of sunshine and summer days – and wrapped round him like a hug. It was good to be home.
It was even better to be home, listening to the relentless rain beyond the window and knowing that he would not be spending the day on the back of a bad-tempered horse, huddling in a wet cloak with water dripping from the end of his nose.
In fact, he would not mind spending the whole day in this bed.
He allowed himself to sink back into a pleasant haze, awake enough to enjoy the comfort, sleepy enough to find inaction perfectly satisfying.
It was the slight change in air currents that roused him – and that only because he was close enough to the perils of patrol to be alert to possible danger. The door was being pushed open. Slowly and cautiously. Not Elladan – he would not feel any need to respect his brother’s rest. And anyway … He opened his eyes just enough to peer at the figure creeping towards him.
‘You knew it was me!’
The child seemed to feel that the greeting was enough of an invitation and he flung himself trustingly at the recumbent elf. Elrohir dragged his arms free of the confining sheets just in time to prevent a solid bundle of boy impacting with his belly and curled protectively away from the kicking feet.
‘You have grown, little one!’
The child squirmed with cheerful ruthlessness until he had managed to insert himself under the quilt with the top of his head tickling Elrohir’s nose.
‘Should you not be honouring Elladan with equal attention?’
‘He said I should come and see you,’ Estel informed his hero. He dug his elbow in the elf’s ribs as he turned to fix serious eyes on him. ‘He thought you might be lonely.’
Elrohir opened his mouth to offer a suitably expurgated response to his brother’s suggestion – then closed it abruptly. After all, the warmth of the child in his arms and the trust in the young face were worth far more than a few hours of extra rest. ‘Do you know, Estel, I think he was right,’ he said amiably. ‘Even if I did not know it until now.’ He gave the child a hug. ‘What have you been doing while we were away?’
He listened with half an ear to an extended monologue on the activities of this youngest member of Imladris’s household – one that seemed to include a lot of ‘and Glorfindel … and Erestor … and Nana … and Iavas … and Mothwen … and Lindir’. He suddenly focused in on an unexpected addition.
‘What did you say, Estel?’ Elrohir propped himself up on one elbow.
‘A foal, Elrohir,’ the child said, his face glowing. ‘Cerch has had a foal – it is little, but its legs are so long and it can run faster than I can.’
‘Not that – before. Who took you to see the foal?’
The boy sounded completely matter of fact. It would seem that, to him, he had just made a simple statement of fact. Elrohir considered the word. Arathorn, he thought with a pang of grief, would not be taking any part in raising his son – and Gilraen was unlikely ever to marry again, even if she had had any opportunities to meet others of her own kind. And, really, there was only one person in Imladris likely to be given that title by the little fosterling.
‘What does your nana say about your calling Elrond Ada?’ he asked gently.
The child let his dark lashes droop over his eyes and would not answer.
‘You have your own adar, Estel – an adar who would have been very proud of you.’ Elrohir stroked the untidy hair away from the boy’s face and held the child’s cautious look. ‘But he cannot be here – and I do not mind if you want to share my adar. Only we must not hurt your naneth’s feelings.’
‘Nana does not mind,’ Estel said simply. ‘She said my Da would not mind either.’
Elrohir sighed. ‘A boy needs an adar,’ he said.
The bed rocked as the child bounced. ‘Nana said that!’ he announced in surprise.
Elrond’s son leaned back against his pillows. Widows were only too plentiful among the Dúnedain – and many children must grow up without fathers. It did not seem unlikely that they were prepared to share the responsibilities of paternity among those who were available to fulfil them. Even children with living male parents would be more likely to receive their fathering from any available grandsires while their own fathers were on patrol and far from home. If Gilraen could accept this, then so could he and his twin. And it would be good for Elrond. Not to mention amusing to watch.
‘Come,’ he said, making up his mind. ‘Let me get up and we will go and find something to eat. Then you can take me to the stables to see Cerch’s foal – and tell me more of your adventures.’ He grinned. ‘After all, if my adar is to be your adar, that makes you my brother.’
The child’s eyes opened so wide that the whites showed clear round each grey iris. ‘Brothers?’ Estel asked.
‘Brothers,’ Elrohir agreed. ‘You, me and Elladan – we will be a team.’ He offered a big hand to the boy in a grip that just felt – right. ‘Brothers to the end.’
Elladan turned and grinned at the small boy. ‘Come on, Estel,’ he whispered. ‘Elrohir is waiting for us in the stables.’
‘Will Nana not mind?’ the child asked anxiously. ‘She always comes to get me up in the morning.’
The elf glanced up at the balcony. ‘She will not mind,’ he assured the boy. ‘She knows that brothers like to spend time together.’
Above them, Gilraen forced herself to smile serenely. She had given her consent to the twins’ proposed expedition. It would not, after all, benefit Estel to feel that he was tied to her apron strings. He spent too much time with her as it was – and it would be good for him to be outside and in the care of males. Even if those males were the Elrondionnath.
‘They will look after him,’ Glorfindel’s sun-warm voice assured her. ‘They know that they would be in peril of their lives should anything happen to Estel.’
‘I am not that fearsome,’ she said, watching until the three were beyond her sight.
‘They learned long ago that mothers are not to be taken lightly,’ he remarked, shaking his head at a warning glance from Elrond. ‘Celebrían was an adoring naneth – but she had her limits and they knew better than to cross them.’ He sat down at the table and started to cut an apple into thin rings. ‘Do you remember when they took it into their heads to dispose of that ellon who kept following them – what was his name?’
‘Barion,’ Elrond supplied.
Gilraen looked alarmed.
‘They were only children,’ Glorfindel assured her quickly, ‘and they did not harm their little admirer – they simply played hide and seek with him. They told him to hide – and slipped off while he waited for them to find him. The child fell asleep – and his naneth was in a state of panic until he was found curled up in a hollow tree.’ He poured himself some tea and took an appreciative sip. ‘The twins confessed to their naneth what they had done – they were always courageous, if lacking in sense.’
‘But they learned,’ Elrond interjected. ‘And rarely repeated their mistakes.’ He smiled at Gilraen. ‘They will care for him.’
‘I do not doubt it,’ she replied with assumed confidence.
Elrond’s eyes contained far too much understanding. It was, she thought, almost … indecent … that a male – even if he was an elf and old enough to remember the War of Wrath – should be able to see her worries so clearly.
‘Make the most of the freedom,’ he suggested. ‘He will be back before you know where you are. My wife would seize such moments to indulge in scented baths and do things to her hair – it always seemed to make her remarkably content.’
It was easy enough for him to say, Gilraen decided crossly, as she left them discussing the order for the day’s activities – but she suspected that Celebrían had spent rather more time than her husband realised pacing the floors of Imladris anxiously awaiting the return of her enterprising elflings, no matter how calm a face she had presented to their adar.
Stopping suddenly, she leaned against the wall. This was the first time since her son had been born that they had been separated like this. The first, but it would be by no means the last. She closed her eyes as a feeling of loss clutched at her heart. This was just the beginning. The first steps in her child’s growth from baby to boy to youth to man. He would leave her more and more easily and go where she would not be able to follow. Her eyes stung and a sharp tingle – as if she had been making pickles – caught at the back of her nose and closed her throat. And she would have to learn to smile as he left her behind. He was his father’s son – Arathorn’s son – and he had duties that would take him far beyond the life she led.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder and Mothwen folded the young woman into her arms, rubbing soothingly on her back. ‘They do not think,’ the elleth said. ‘To them, it is … a rite of passage. Something of which to be proud.’
‘It is,’ Gilraen said defiantly. ‘It is the beginning of another stage.’
The housekeeper said nothing, but simply continued to hold her as if she were a child until the woman relaxed and released a deep sigh.
‘He is the only child I will ever have,’ Gilraen said, her voice small and hollow. ‘The only legacy his father left me. I do not wish to let him go.’
‘But you will do it anyway,’ Mothwen said simply. ‘Because you must. You love them and raise them and free them to follow the path set before them.’ She gave the woman a quick hug. ‘But he is not leaving you yet, Gilraen. You have many years yet to guide him into becoming the man he will be.’
‘Many years – and a lot of mending,’ Gilraen sniffed, determined to put her moment of emotion behind her. ‘At least I should be able to get that finished – and maybe I will have time to start on the new clothes he needs.’
Mothwen smiled. ‘He will return in rags, if Elrohir and Elladan have anything to do with it,’ she agreed. ‘Filthy, exhausted and only too happy to have his nana bathe him and tuck him up in his bed.’ She shook her head affectionately. ‘They do not know how to do things by halves,’ she said. ‘It has always been all or nothing with them.’
‘They are good to Estel.’ Gilraen was not altogether sure if Mothwen thought their interest was a good thing or not. ‘And,’ she declared, ‘they are good for him. He needs what they can offer. I am just being silly.’ She pulled back from the elleth and straightened her back. ‘I have work to do yet,’ she smiled. ‘And I had better begin.’
‘What is the matter, little one?’ Glorfindel slid to the ground, regardless of his clean garb, and squeezed himself into the hollow behind the fruit bushes. He refrained from touching the child, who was both filthy and distressingly … liquid … but he eased his handkerchief out of his pocket and proffered it. After all, he had plenty of others and could well dispense with this one.
The child gazed at the white cloth blankly.
One would think, Glorfindel thought with some irritation, that the boy had no idea what to do with it. They remained at an impasse for a few moments, then the elf surrendered. With a heartfelt sigh, he spread the cloth and held it to the child’s nose. ‘Blow,’ he commanded.
Orders like that, Estel could understand.
He did as requested and Glorfindel folded the handkerchief fastidiously before using a clean corner to wipe away the tears and dirt. He inspected the child’s face and decided that he was now prepared to approach the boy more closely.
‘They will be back soon,’ he said gently, tucking the cloth into the boy’s belt. ‘They have other tasks besides being your playmates, Estel.’
The boy’s lip wobbled and his eyes filled with tears again. ‘I do not want them to get hurt,’ he said.
Glorfindel gathered up the child and drew him onto his lap. ‘They are very unlikely to get hurt,’ he said, too honest to deny that it was a possibility. ‘I taught them myself,’ he told the boy, ‘and they are very good warriors.’
‘But warriors get injured. Like Timbras.’
‘Sometimes they do,’ Glorfindel said, ‘but mostly the patrols come and go without any problems and you just have not noticed them.’ He hesitated. ‘Elladan and Elrohir have been on patrol many, many times.’
‘I do not want them to go.’
Glorfindel eased his long fingers through the tangled hair. ‘No,’ he sighed, ‘but they will go anyway – because it is their duty.’ He rocked the child soothingly. ‘Would you not rather wish them a good journey than have them leave without your saying farewell? They will be sorry if you are not there when they ride out.’
‘Perhaps they will not leave.’
How long had it been since Elladan and Elrohir had hidden his saddlebags in an attempt to prevent his own departure on some errand beyond the borders of Imladris? Glorfindel smiled at the memory. They had been rather older than Estel, he thought. Old enough to come up with a scheme to hold him back, at any rate. ‘They will still go,’ he said steadily.
Estel sighed explosively. ‘It is not fair. Can they not wait until I am big enough to go with them?’
Glorfindel’s lips twitched. ‘I am sure that you will ride out with them one day, Estel. But first you will have to learn to be a warrior fearsome enough to pass my very stringent requirements. I do not let just anyone bear arms in defence of Imladris, you know.’
‘Will they still be here?’ Estel asked with a sad acceptance. ‘Or have I missed them?’
‘I think you will find that they are delaying their departure as long as they can in the hope that you might be found.’
The child turned and wrapped his arms round Glorfindel’s neck and the elf rose with some difficulty, clasping the boy to him. ‘Be brave, little one,’ he said encouragingly. ‘It is not easy to be the one saying goodbye – but a smiling farewell makes it easier on those who must go.’
A slight movement made the elf look up. Gilraen put a finger to her lips and moved out of sight – doubtless to let those anxiously seeking the child know that he had been discovered and consoled. He grinned wryly. She clearly trusted him to deal with Estel’s sorrow – and he only hoped she knew what she was doing. He really did not feel adequately qualified for the job of comforting the child.
‘Who will play with me when Elladan and Elrohir are away?’ Estel sounded as mournful as if he was going to be forced to spend the next weeks shut away from all contact with other living beings
‘Your nana?’ Glorfindel suggested. ‘I daresay she knows lots of games that boys your age like to play.’
The child sighed, clearly unconvinced.
‘You could spend more time with your adar.’
‘Ada knows everything, but I do not think he is very good at playing,’ Estel objected.
‘Perhaps it is time he learned,’ Glorfindel said. ‘Maybe Elladan and Elrohir did not train him properly when they were young.’
Estel leaned back and placed one grubby hand on either side of Glorfindel’s face to gaze into his eyes. ‘Silly,’ he said disapprovingly.
‘Very probably.’ Glorfindel laughed. ‘I will help you,’ he promised. ‘We will make a point of extracting your ada from his study to play with you at every opportunity.’ He gave the boy a quick hug. ‘But first, let us join Elrond and your naneth to wish your brothers a safe journey and a swift return – and then we will plot our campaign.’
The elves wove round each other in an elaborate dance that had nothing to do with – well – dancing, and everything to do with knowing exactly what part they played in setting up the wide halls of Imladris for a celebration that left Gilraen wide-eyed. And, she smiled, looking down at the child whose hand she held firmly in hers, had Estel so bemused that he was likely to trip over his own feet in his desire to see and take part in everything. It only went to prove how much he had grown – and how much he belonged here. This was not the first time he had been present when the elves readied themselves to celebrate the longest of the star-filled nights and welcome the turn of the year, but it was the first time he had been old enough to be filled with such anticipation.
The first time – Gilraen drew a steadying breath – the first time, she had sat beside her son’s bed, shutting out the sounds of a joy that seemed to have no more place in her world, cutting herself off from the life of this place that was to be her home. The year after that … well, Estel had been too young to stay up late into the dark evening and nobody had said anything when she had withdrawn to sit by the fire in their rooms and think of happier times.
But now – Estel’s excitement would ensure that she would be one of those taking part in the celebrations. She had not required Elrohir’s coaxing or Elrond’s carefully-worded invitation – not once Elladan had done his work in letting Estel know the delights in store for him as the youngest by far of those attending the night’s events. The look in her son’s eyes would have been more than enough.
‘Estel!’ One of those fixing evergreens turned towards them and beamed her a bright smile. ‘Can you come and help? We need someone with small fingers for this job!’
When she gave a nod of assent, Lindir swung the child up to his shoulder and carried him off to offer whatever aid they could find for him to provide.
‘He will help Mothwen decorate the halls,’ a voice said in Gilraen’s ear. ‘Then Iavas will summon him to decorate gingerbread and Elrohir will take him out to the stables to ensure the horses have fresh hay – and Lindir and he will sing all the traditional songs Estel can remember. By the time you see him again he will have sticky hair full of grass stems and leaves and look as if he has never seen a bath.’ Elladan sounded delighted at the prospect.
‘I will try to get him to have a sleep this afternoon,’ Gilraen said doubtfully, ‘or he will never last until tonight.’
‘We will do it.’ Elladan grinned. ‘He will come and sprawl in front of the fire with us while we tell him stories – and never notice that he is taking a nap until he wakes up refreshed in time to eat supper.’
‘One day your cunning will catch up with you,’ Gilraen observed.
Elladan’s grin widened. ‘But not this day,’ he said.
Gilraen looked round her. ‘I cannot believe how different it feels this year.’
‘Imladris has become your home.’
Had it? Gilraen turned the words over in her head. She did not think that was entirely true. If anyone asked about her home, she would probably still talk about her parents’ house, even in preference to the place where she had spent the few short years of her marriage. No. What Imladris had become was her son’s home. Seeing it through his eyes had made it a place where she was comfortable – but without him, she did not believe she would be willing to remain here.
‘You have all been so kind to us,’ she said. ‘How could we not be happy here?’
‘It takes more than kindness to make someone happy,’ Elladan remarked, ‘although its absence can be enough to make for great unhappiness.’ He tilted his head to inspect the woman. ‘I hope that you will dance with me this evening.’
Gilraen returned his gaze. ‘I do not know,’ she said frankly. ‘I am not that well-acquainted with the customs of the elves. I would not like to find that I am breaking some age-old shibboleth.’
‘Would I?’ Elladan placed his hand on his heart as if he were deeply wounded – but a smile lurked at the corners of his mouth.
‘Nana!’ The charge of an excited child across the floor gave Gilraen an excuse not to reply. Not that she needed to – Elladan knew perfectly well that any suspicions she might have would probably be justified.
Elrond’s son intercepted the boy smoothly and tossed him into the air, swinging him round to face his mother. Estel crowed with delight as he wrapped his hands firmly in Elladan’s hair.
Gilraen smiled. For all it looked at a casual glance as if the twins were indifferent to her son’s safety, she knew perfectly well that Estel was as secure in their care as he was in hers.
‘Nana, can I … may I help Iavas in the kitchen? She says she does not know how she will get the baking finished if I do not give her a hand.’
‘That is not fair,’ Elladan protested. ‘Why is she asking you to help her instead of me? Anyone would think that she did not trust me.’
The boy leaned back, confident that his foster brother would not drop him. ‘You can come, too,’ he suggested. ‘I will ask Iavas if you can help. You and me and Elrohir. We can do it together.’
The warmest and most gentle smile Gilraen had ever seen brightened the elf’s face as he looked from the child towards her. She nodded her agreement silently, unable to speak past the lump in her throat. This was why she found herself content here, she realised. It was more than the house. She had found a family.
‘Of course it was an accident.’ Gilraen kept her voice determinedly steady, feeling quite proud of her control and completely unaware that both twins flinched at the strained hollowness of the tone. ‘I am perfectly well aware that none of you would have done it deliberately. Yet it is broken nonetheless.’
She cupped the pieces in her hands as if trying to absorb the memories the broken pot had held. She had so little that came from … before. So little that reminded her of a life that had promised so well. She knew that it seemed insignificant in this beautiful haven, where every piece of pottery, every glass, every piece of hammered pewter showed an artistry developed over more time than she could easily imagine, but this had been hers. Chosen by her husband, gifted to her on his return from some patrol that had led him through a town large enough to have a potter, carried here among the few clothes and trinkets she had had time to gather.
‘I am sorry, Nana.’
Estel sounded so miserable that it was apparent who was really to blame for the incident that had left the bowl on the floor. A faint flicker of amusement warmed the cold core and spread. His foster brothers stood by him, willing to share the burden of guilt – but her son was reluctant to hide behind them. The flicker became a flame of pride. Her son. Hers and Arathorn’s. He was what mattered here – and he was far more precious than any mere thing.
Gilraen placed the pieces on the chair and knelt to embrace the child. ‘You did not break it on purpose,’ she said forgivingly, ‘but I have told you before that you must not throw balls inside the house. There are too many things that can be damaged.’ Estel rested his head on her shoulder and, once his face was hidden, attempted to sniff back his tears. He was still little more than a baby, she thought, stroking his hair – and she was tempted to let the incident pass without further comment. He was upset enough. Only … She sighed. ‘Give me your ball, Estel,’ she said. ‘You may not play with it again until tomorrow.’
The ball of stitched patches of brightly-coloured leather was handed over without debate and Gilraen placed it in the chest she kept by the window. ‘You may ask for it again in the morning,’ she reminded her son as his lip began to wobble.
‘And I have something that perhaps we should do today,’ Elrohir said gently. ‘You will be too busy to have time to think much about your loss.’
‘But first let me wash your face.’ As she moistened a cloth to wipe the tears from her son’s cheeks, Gilraen failed to observe the swift glance – and practiced wordless conversation – that passed between Elrond’s sons. Elladan moved slightly to block the woman’s view of the chair, while Elrohir swung the child into his mother’s arms and stretched his arm behind her to guide her out of the room.
‘We will have lunch now,’ Elrond’s son suggested, his sincere gaze meeting and holding Gilraen’s eyes. ‘And then I have a job with which Estel can help me while you get on with your work.’
The child who bounced into the light-filled room where the seamstresses of Imladris gathered to do their stitchery appeared to have forgotten the incident already. Gilraen felt a pang of guilt. It was not that she wanted him to brood over his misdemeanour – but it did not seem fair that she should be left mourning her small treasure whilst its destruction had faded from his recollection.
One of the twins hovered beyond the doorway – and doubtless the other was nearby. It seemed unlike them to hold back. The mere fact that this was a female refuge would not normally have deterred them from following her son into the room.
‘Nana,’ Estel said again, and his eyes were shining like water under moonlight, while his face was bright with anticipation. ‘Come and see!’ He grabbed her hand with fingers that were actually shaking with excitement. ‘Come and see now.’
‘Patience, little one.’ She reproved him gently, smiling at his enthusiasm. ‘Let me finish this.’
Estel drew a deep breath and stood – quivering like a hunting dog awaiting permission to retrieve a fallen bird.
‘Go with him.’ Long elven fingers removed the small garment from her hands. Mothwen smiled. ‘I will finish the seam for you – I would not wish to see Estel go up in flames!’
The child flashed her a bright smile as Gilraen rose and followed her son and the elleth blinked. Such eagerness for life – it made the serenity of Imladris seem – dull.
Gilraen paused at the door to their rooms. She had not expected Estel to bring her here – his fervour had suggested puppies at the very least – but … She looked around the room, but it was a moment or two before she realised that there was nothing missing. She released the warm fingers and stepped over to the bowl.
‘Be careful with it until the glue has had longer to set fully,’ Elladan suggested. ‘Normally we would have left it until tomorrow – but Estel thought that you would be happier to have it returned to you tonight.’
Gilraen turned the pot over cautiously. Even knowing it had been broken, she found that she could barely see the joins. Even the smallest fragments had been returned to their proper places. ‘It is beautiful,’ she said simply, looking at the small boy who was bouncing on the balls of his feet, a hopeful look on his face. She smiled. ‘It has been given to me twice,’ she stated, ‘and is doubly precious for that.’
‘Estel worked very hard,’ Elrohir told her. ‘He did not complain once – nor ask to leave before the task was finished.’
She stood the bowl in its customary place and opened her arms to catch the small boy, holding him close, her face shining with pride. ‘He is his father’s son,’ she said.
‘He is beginning to realise that he is different.’
Elrond frowned. ‘He has always known that,’ he said. ‘We have made no attempt to keep from him the fact that he is a child of men.’
‘Known, but not realised.’ Gilraen sighed, for her son’s obvious pain made her ache for him. ‘He was little enough not to think about what it meant – but now … There is always someone to tell him – kindly, because no-one in Imladris is anything but kind – that he cannot expect to be as good as they are in something or other, because he of the Secondborn.’ As Elrond’s lips tightened, she made haste to continue – she had no desire to start a conflagration. ‘Estel thought he was just too young to do what others can – but he is coming to understand that he will always lag behind.’
‘That is not true,’ the lord of Imladris declared. ‘The race of men, I find, learns quickly and achieves far more than many of those who have done little with uncounted centuries care to believe.’
Gilraen raised a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Have you not missed off the final word, Lord Elrond? Where is ‘considering’? It dangles unspoken at the end of much praise.’
‘Have I ever said anything …’ for once, the smooth tones were almost heated, ‘to suggest that I think less of Estel for being of the Dúnedain?’
‘Of course you have not,’ she denied, ‘but a difference that is overlooked is still a difference!’ She stopped and drew a steadying breath. ‘He needs to know that being a man is just as good as being an elf – and how is he to learn that, surrounded as he is by those whom he can never emulate?’
Elrond’s jaw tightened, as if he wanted to say more, but instead he pressed his lips together and turned to look out over the gardens.
Silence brooded in the airy room. There was no answer, Gilraen thought bleakly. They were here to protect her son – and consequently he would be kept apart from all those like him, until finally he was thrust out into the world – educated, elegant, equipped for elven diplomacy – and left to make his way, quite unprepared for the rough and tumble life that was the decay of Númenorean authority.
‘He is not alone,’ Elrond said abruptly, ‘in growing up as a gosling among cygnets.’ His long fingers picked at the smooth surface of his robes as he kept his attention on the unmoving plants. ‘He will survive it – perhaps, even, benefit from it.’
The woman said nothing. It seemed best – clearly nothing she could say would soothe wounds whole ages old.
‘I will do what I can to help him understand,’ the Peredhel said, ‘that different does not mean less. That, often, it calls on a strength of character and courage that takes its possessor far beyond the mediocrity of those who are contentedly at home in their surroundings.’
Gilraen bit her lip. She did not want her son to rise to heights no other man could reach – she wanted him to be comfortable in his own skin, proud of what he was. ‘He is only a little boy,’ she said, knowing not how to explain her worries.
‘He reminds me of my brother.’ Elrond’s words sounded squeezed from him. Eyes deep as fog on an autumn night and hiding just as much turned to settle on her. ‘He may be man rather than elf, but he is family.’
‘He does not know that.’ She hesitated, then continued with gentle ruthlessness. ‘And it would not matter anyway. He must learn to be a man among men if he is to fulfil his destiny – and he cannot do that if all he sees when he looks at himself is a second-rate elf.’
‘You are the best equipped to teach him of his heritage.’
‘But I cannot mention anything that will help him take pride in who he is!’ Gilraen snapped. ‘History is all very well, but he is a child. He needs to learn about himself in relation to the world, rather than wallow in lists of noble kings and legends of great heroes! He can no more aspire to be Beren than he can to be Glorfindel!’
Elrond looked down.
‘Your sons do all they can,’ Gilraen told him, mollified by the Peredhel’s clear admission of helplessness. ‘But they cannot be children for him. However much they understand, they still surpass him – and doubtless always will. He needs equals.’
‘And equals he cannot have. Not and stay hidden.’
‘We are going round in circles,’ Gilraen sighed. ‘We can see the problem – but not the solution.’ She inspected the folds of her skirt where they draped across her feet to rest on the gleaming floor. ‘I am afraid,’ she added softly, ‘that we are raising the child to become a man who will be fit only to be alone. One who will fit in nowhere and will have no place to call home – no people to whom his heart calls.’
‘He is one of a long line of Dúnedain to spend years in Imladris.’ Elrond tried to sound encouraging. ‘His father did not find it hard to go home.’
‘His father did not consider himself to be your son. He knew who he was when he came here – and who he would be when he left.’ Gilraen would not allow herself to be deluded. She was Estel’s only lifeline to the world of men – and, through her, he must learn to value a heritage that seemed a thousand leagues from the tranquil gardens of Imladris.
‘Estel …’ Elrond hesitated, reluctant to speak of something that was no more than an uncertain feeling. ‘Estel needs to learn the lessons we can teach him here,’ he said finally. ‘He will need to follow a path that none else can see – let it take him beyond the limitations of expectation.’ He drew a resolute breath. ‘I will do my best by him – we will all do our best by him. He is different – none can deny that – but in that difference may well be the salvation of us all.’
‘Watch,’ Elladan said softly.
His brother lifted an eyebrow in imitation of their adar, but obligingly joined his twin in peering over the beflowered balcony.
In the garden below, a small figure issued orders to a series of attentive wooden figures, moving them to take up different positions in what appeared to be a frequently replayed battle scene.
‘What is it?’ Elrohir asked. ‘Estel has been winning wooden wars since he could walk – and his warriors have been just as regularly revived to fight again another day.’ A tinge of sadness darkened his tone – he and his brother knew only too well that real battles had a way of turning on those who entered into them. They were only home now because they had arrived overnight with two gravely-injured Rangers in desperate need of what care their adar had been able to offer – one of whom lingered between life and death, while the other had lost half his sword arm.
‘But see how he has set them out.’ Elladan was intrigued. ‘If he organised flesh and blood warriors like that, he would stand a fair chance of bringing them off unscathed.’
Elrohir leaned on the rail and looked down at the boy sprawled on his stomach on the grass, one leg kicking rhythmically at the air as he moved his mounted warriors forward. ‘It is just chance.’ He dismissed the strategist below them. ‘He is far too young to understand the placement of troops.’
‘A pincer movement,’ Elladan observed. ‘Cutting off the retreat of his toy wolves and leaving them with nowhere to run – except into the path of his hidden archers.’
‘He must have been enduring Erestor’s lengthy lessons on the First Age.’ Elrohir watched the boy affectionately. ‘He listens better than we ever did.’
‘He does not have the distractions,’ his brother declared, an expression of excessive virtue on his face. ‘I was always faced with the presence of a fellow student who would have preferred to be in the stables.’
‘That must have been it,’ Elrohir said dryly. ‘And there was I thinking it was I who was led astray by someone who was desperate to escape to the training field.’ He continued to watch the oblivious child. ‘Although I do not recall Erestor indulging us with descriptions of battle tactics. Such lessons came from Glorfindel – and much later. Once we were already beginning to learn that there was more to war than the display of individual skill.’
The child began to gather up his fallen warriors, putting some to one side and lining the others up as if to await the services of the healers.
Elladan subdued a snort of amusement. ‘He is already thinking of the aftermath, as well. I think we need to go and divert him, my brother, before he makes us look any slower at picking up the subtleties of command.’
‘He is growing quickly.’ The mournful tone returned to his brother’s voice. ‘Soon, we will be drilling him in swordplay and teaching him the skills he will need to survive the wild. Childhood is short – and his is half spent.’
His twin glanced at him. ‘He has a good few years yet before Adar will count him grown – and his Naneth will not send him out into the world until he is ready.’ He rested a comforting hand on Elrohir’s arm. ‘He will have time to play.’
‘He is alone too much.’
Elladan grinned. ‘Well – that we can solve.’ He leaned over the balcony and whistled. ‘Hey there – commander!’
The child below them twisted, throwing out a hand to support himself as he sat on the uncomplaining injured warriors, and wincing even as a broad grin spread across his face.
‘Elladan!’ he whooped. ‘Elrohir! I did not know you were home.’
‘Home and hungry,’ Elrohir said. ‘Meet you in the kitchens? See if you can persuade Iavas to liberate some of her honey cakes in celebration of our arrival!’
‘Then we will kidnap you – and carry you off before Erestor demands your presence in the schoolroom,’ Elladan added. ‘We need a day away from duty – and you are more than welcome to join us.’
Estel’s face fell. ‘But would not that be … be irresponsible-and-discourteous?’ He combined the words into a declaration that was clearly an echo from more adult lips. ‘Nana says …’
‘Nanas always say,’ Elladan informed him. ‘But, if we were perfect already, what work would they have to do to improve us?’
Elrohir slapped at his brother’s arm. ‘I will beg you off for the day,’ he assured the boy. ‘Education does not always require time spent in a schoolroom – some of the best lessons are learned elsewhere. Erestor will … humour us!’ He cast a grinning glance at his brother and muttered, ‘At a cost.’
‘He will relish having some time to himself,’ Elladan declared. ‘He might even be grateful – trying to educate the young must be a rather … wearing experience at best.’
‘Pack away your warriors, Estel,’ Elrohir advised, ‘and then go and charm Iavas into providing a picnic. We will spend the day in the woods – while Elladan teaches you everything he knows about tracking.’ He raised an eyebrow at Elladan as Estel scooped his toys into his kilted-up tunic and headed hastily for the house. ‘Which should not take long,’ he murmured provocatively and ducked expertly to avoid his brother’s retaliation. ‘Come on,’ he said more buoyantly. ‘I will deal with Erestor if you will negotiate with Gilraen. Let us spend a day in search of our inner elfling!’
Brotherhood 14 Hurt
Gilraen’s skirts rustled as she walked the length of the quiet corridor, only to turn and pace back in the opposite direction before repeating her restless measure. It was an indication of how skilfully Lord Elrond had integrated her into the tranquil stream of life that was Imladris that it was only at times like this that she felt like … like a flapping pigeon among drifting swans.
‘It is better you wait until Adar and Elrohir have had time …’
‘I should be with him,’ she said fiercely. ‘I know not why I let you persuade me …’
‘Adar never let Naneth come back in until after he had finished the splint,’ Elladan said with unflustered composure, leaning one shoulder against the wall, so still he might almost have been one of the statues adorning the alcoves. ‘He said she remained calmer – and so found it easier to comfort us, if she had not been present when …’
‘It is not as if I have never set a bone!’ Gilraen stopped and prodded an accusing finger at the tall figure. ‘I should never have let him out of my sight.’
‘You cannot lead him round by the hand until he is grown,’ Elladan told her logically. ‘He will have to learn that some mistakes have painful consequences. Better to gain that understanding while Adar is around to mend the results than discover it at the wrong end of an arrow.’ Elrond’s intrepid warrior son took a wary step back as the woman’s hand turned to curl into a practised-looking fist.
Gilraen drew a deep breath and forced herself to lower her hand. She was no longer a child – and adults did not settle their disputes with violence, however great the temptation. Estel’s injury was not Elladan’s fault. Not really. Small boys did fall from trees. She should not blame Elrond’s sons simply because they were supposed to have been caring for her son at the time.
‘And what mistake did he make?’ she asked, refusing to conceal her wrath entirely.
Elladan blinked. ‘He believed that he could – without supervision – repeat the actions of a full-grown adult – one who has had years of training and centuries of experience,’ he said frankly. ‘He is too young to realise his limitations – and too bold for his own good.’ He eyed the woman cautiously. ‘He is like his father,’ he added. ‘Arathorn’s courage was always … indomitable.’ A faint reminiscent smile emphasised an obvious sorrow. ‘It is not often that my brother and I are the voices of caution – but there were times when your husband’s strategy alarmed even us. But he was right, more often than not.’
Gilraen’s choked protest drew him back to the present with alarm, but the look on her face led him to place gentle arms round her and pat her back reassuringly.
‘Estel is all right,’ he assured her. ‘A simple fracture – and children mend quickly. He will be bad-tempered for a day or two and after that our main problem will be keeping the splint on long enough for him to mend.’
‘I wish …’ Gilraen reined herself in, but Elladan’s glance of mild enquiry persuaded her to continue. ‘I wish it were possible for me to keep him safe. To protect him and stand between him and what life will demand of him.’
Elladan sighed, but remained silent, allowing the woman to provide her own answer.
‘It hurts,’ she said, ‘to know that all I can do is try to teach him and then stand back while he fights a battle he is unlikely ever to win.’
The hand on her back stilled, and Elladan made no effort to hold her as she drew away. ‘How do you think it feels,’ he asked, ‘to do that over and over? To know that every child you love will become a man – and wither, and fade?’ His eyes closed, he did not see Gilraen’s stare. ‘We watch,’ he said – and his gaze held hers suddenly, so that she could not look away, ‘and offer all the support we can, but, in the end ...’ His musical voice sounded harsher than any she had heard in the dream-like serenity of Imladris. ‘Sending warriors into the world is a thankless task – but it is needed. Without the Dúnedain – without all the boys taught here – would the world of men still stand? It is hard to be a mother,’ he added more softly, ‘but it is how you serve.’
Gilraen placed her hand on his long fingers and squeezed comfortingly. ‘Let us abandon the self-pity.’ She sniffed determinedly. ‘Estel will be all right – and you will help him grow into the man he should become and I will not keep him a child … and … and has Lord Elrond finished yet? Anyone would think he was trying to keep me away from my son!’
‘Valar forbid,’ Elladan said dryly. ‘He is not so foolhardy.’
Both turned to the opening door, so that Elrond raised a defensive eyebrow as he met their glares. ‘He is sleepy,’ he said calmly, ‘but will not settle until he sees you both. He apparently feels he needs to apologise to you, Elladan, for spoiling the day – and he wants to be sure his nana has forgiven him for frightening her.’
Only quick reflexes enabled him to step out of the way of Gilraen’s headlong rush to her child’s bedside, but his hand stopped his son from following immediately behind her. ‘What did Estel do, my son?’ he enquired. ‘He seemed very concerned that I should not blame you for his injury.’ Elladan lifted his chin slightly, but did not speak. His father held his eyes implacably, refusing to permit the evasion. ‘You are old enough to know the difference between tale-telling and sharing information. I am not about to intervene in what is clearly a matter for the two of you, but I want to know.’
‘How you and Naneth survived our childhood, I shall never know,’ Elladan surrendered. ‘As soon as an idea pops into Estel’s head …’ He rolled his eyes. ‘He attempted to cross the stream by running across a branch, evading the fact that we had forbidden him to walk on the ice – while failing to realise that the wood was slippery.’
Elrond inclined his head in a slow nod. ‘He will need entertaining as he heals,’ he remarked. ‘And I am sure that, in a day or two, he will be very relieved to have you and your brother replace his mother’s care with something more … casual.’ He smiled. ‘It will be good for you all,’ he added cheerfully. ‘A learning experience.’
‘You are still our little brother, Estel,’ Elladan declared, inspecting the silver hair and white beard mischievously, ‘for all you look as venerable as Mithrandir.’
‘You are the only ones now who call me that,’ the King of Gondor and Arnor said wistfully. ‘Who remember me as a child.’ He sighed. ‘I have now reigned so long that there is no man living who knows a time before my rule. I have begun to learn, I think, something of what you accepted in calling a child of men your brother.’ His eyes brooded like storm clouds edged with light on an aching abandonment that he had never expected. ‘Those I loved as brothers – their children and their children’s children: all gone.’ He blinked and looked apologetically at the twins, two half-elves who looked young enough to be his grandsons. ‘I am sorry, my friends. You have more courage than I – I find that now I tend to keep my distance from those whom I would once have chosen as friends.’
Elrohir gripped his sworn brother’s arm with a hand that was smooth and untouched by time, but the eyes that met Elessar’s were fathomless with age and experience. ‘You cannot keep apart from the world, Estel,’ he said. ‘It does more harm than good in the long run – we are meant to care for others we meet along our path through life, even if we touch each other but briefly.’ A swift smile brightened his face. ‘And you were impossible to resist – a bundle of energy that turned Imladris upside-down and obtained everyone’s attention quite unconsciously. You had us all dancing to your tune – and that was part of your charm.’
‘And then,’ Elladan added, ‘there was Gilraen … She was – numb. Broken and foundered and cast adrift.’ He looked at Elessar and turned away, hunching his shoulder in an airy attempt at a shrug. ‘You have seen it in others – and are wise enough these days to understand. She needed family as much as you did. Brothers to support her – sons to scold. Kin close enough to be proper family. Those whom she could help.’
‘And she did.’ Elrohir said with complete sincerity. ‘Without question – her courage and selflessness cut deeper than she knew. Lanced festering wounds and opened us to … a child.’ He studied his brother-in-law. ‘You will always be with us, Estel. Always.’
The ageing king ducked his head to examine gnarled hands. ‘I would never,’ he said, ‘have had the arrogance to present my heart to your sister, had I not been so young. If I had not been so … unaware of the frailty – the impermanence of men.’ Fleetingly, he met Elladan’s silvery eyes. ‘Had I known then how swiftly the years would fly past ... I would have seen her – admired her … loved her, even, but …’ He stopped long enough to draw a steadying breath. ‘I do not have much longer,’ he said bluntly, ‘and I know – now – that in dying, I will cause her death, the end of the Evenstar, whom I love more than life.’
‘Her choice,’ Elladan told him softly. ‘Do not be so arrogant as to think you could have denied her that.’ He smiled – and if the smile was shadowed, it was hidden from his foster brother. ‘Arwen is no cipher to be disposed of by fate – or by her overly-protective kin. She knew the cost of loving you long before you understood it – knew it, accepted it, and would not change it.’
‘Our sister is as determined as ever Lúthien was,’ Elrohir remarked. ‘If she were not permitted to follow you, she would make Lord Námo miserable until he interceded with the One to make possible your reunion in that place to which elves cannot go.’ He raised his face to bask in the sunlight. ‘The Lord of Mandos set a precedent – and she would not relent until he agreed to permit her to follow it.’
‘You cannot fool me,’ Elessar said darkly. ‘I know you would rather take her home.’
In the breeze that always blew in the high gardens above the city, the roses nodded their agreement. ‘We would, of course,’ Elladan admitted finally. ‘But we would take you, too, little brother. You and our nephew – our nieces. All our family. But it cannot be.’
‘We will be reunited,’ Elrohir said with total conviction. ‘In Eru’s time – when Arda’s purpose is fulfilled.’
Elessar sighed, leaning against the cushioned back of the chair he now favoured over sprawling on the grass. ‘I would not have you endure the passage of so many ages mourning those you have lost.’
‘But remembering those we have loved?’ Elladan spoke gently. ‘You would not rob us of that?’
‘You will go west?’ It was a simple enquiry – a hope – no royal command could force his foster brothers into doing what he wanted.
‘When the time comes,’ Elrohir informed him, refusing to make any promises as to when that would be. The twins exchanged a sober glance. They had seen men approaching their end before – many times – friends and brothers-in-arms; distant kin – but they had never been … they had never been Estel.
‘Tell Adar that now I understand,’ Elessar smiled sadly. ‘That I understand, and I am sorry.’
‘He knows,’ Elladan told him. ‘He has always known. It grieved him to part from Arwen – and from you – as much because he felt that, in leaving when he did, he had failed you both as because …’
‘The parting would endure as long as Arda?’
‘Adar understands sacrifice.’ Elrohir said. ‘Sacrifice and loss and endurance. But he deals with it – because he understands love and faith and trust, as well.’ He took his brother’s hand between both his own and squeezed gently. ‘You lead the way, little brother, that is all. Look after our sister – and make sure the circles beyond the world are ready for us when at last we come to join you.’
‘That day will come, Estel,’ Elladan declared with absolute certainty. ‘Be sure of it.’
This has been written for ... ages. Since January 2007. Posting it does not mean that there won't be other episodes with young Estel. There very probably will.
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