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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.’
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