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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.’
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