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A/N: Labor Day weekend (in the US) = more time to write! Yay! :-) Hope you all have a good one, wherever you are!
His head hurt, and his arms were … heavy, and his mouth was dry.
So dry. As if he’d been chewing on wool, or powder.
He tried to move, and suddenly hands were there, and a voice.
“Shh, son. It’s not safe yet. Shh.”
A hand held his head, and a waterskin pressed to his lips. He gulped the wet, bitter liquid, and the pain and heaviness and awareness faded.
His stomach lurched and he rolled over, heaving. The world spun and the nausea rose, sharp and overwhelming. He curled around himself, confused and sick. His gut cramped again and he moaned—or whimpered. Hands gripped him, brushing sweaty hair gently back from his face.
“Ah, I’m sorry son, I’m sorry. My fault, I think I gave you too much that last time.” Another spasm overtook him, and the hands braced him, held him. “That’s right. Get it out, get it out.”
He was … sick. He must be sick. But why? What had happened?
“That’s right, son. Your da’s got you. Just breathe. In and out, just breathe.”
The voice wasn’t right. He swallowed against another cramp and tried to open his eyes, but the light blinded him and pain lanced through his head. The voice wasn’t right, and the words weren’t right, and the … the hands weren’t right—short, calloused fingers instead of long, cool, slender hands.
“That’s right. You’ll be all right, I’ve got you. Nice and slow, just breathe.”
His head spun again, like that time he’d snuck into the wine cellar and spent all day testing the various bottles. Blackness painted his awareness, hazy spots swam before him even with his eyes closed, and he sank gratefully back into sleep.
Estel opened his eyes, and for a moment wished he hadn’t. His head throbbed and his stomach rolled slowly, gently, and he could barely lift his arms. His mouth tasted as though a mouse had died in it. He blinked up at the pale sky, squinting even against the overcast day. He fingered the coarse material beneath his fingers, felt the grain of cheap wood planking beneath, and wondered vaguely just what had happened.
His brain didn’t seem to be working properly—it took him far too long to focus. When he finally managed, confusion and fear nibbled at him through the heavy sluggishness. Hide and seek. He was supposed to be on a hide and seek.
This didn’t … Estel tried to raise his head, but the attempt cost far too much effort. He relaxed again, feeling only thin layers of rough cloth between his head and the wood, and drew in a long breath. What did he remember? He searched back through the muddy layers for something solid.
He had been delayed getting out of the House. He had finished packing quickly after leaving Elrond’s study, but as he gathered his final gear he had stumbled across several history tomes stacked toward the rear of his desk and remembered with something like panic that he was to have finished his essay on the rise and fall of Annúminas before he set out. Erestor would not be best pleased that he had forgotten. Still, he was half-finished, and Elrohir wasn’t due to set out until nightfall. He had decided the bit of delay would be worth it. It ended up taking nearly three hours, and by the time he finished Estel was beginning to wish that he had simply left the essay until his return, regardless of the displeasure his carelessness would inspire. Erestor hadn’t been at his desk, but Estel had left the completed essay for him and scurried toward the rear stable exit. The stables were usually not terribly busy in the early afternoon—at least, not like they were in the mornings and approaching dinner—and with luck no one would take notice of him. There was no need for Elrohir to know that Estel didn’t have quite the head start he’d been planning.
In fact, the only person he saw as he slipped out the door was the unfortunate Man, Jerold Ferrier, marching with a large pack toward the stables. As Estel watched the Man stumbled and his pack went flying, scattering its contents. Estel hesitated, for he was not to interact with the strangers who came to Imladris. Remembering his father’s words about all that the Man had suffered, though, he could not simply watch him stagger about gathering his things. He approached on soft feet, scooping up a packet of wound powder and a bundle of bandages.
“Are you certain you should be going? Master Elrond is the best healer there is—he can make you well much faster than if you leave and try to tend yourself along the way.”
Ferrier jumped and swung around on him, and Estel danced quickly back, hoping that he hadn’t made the Man angry. The intense dark gaze softened as it beheld him, though, and Ferrier reached out to him, gripping his shoulder tightly.
“No, no. Can’t stay here.” The Man’s face was flushed, and Estel wondered if it was from activity or fever. Perhaps both. He was certain that his father would include an analgesic with whatever herbs he sent with Ferrier—if the Man chose to even take them, once away from Imladris—but wondered if he shouldn’t have a dose even now. Whatever the case, Estel didn’t much care for the hand on him, and sank down away from it to gather a simple tunic from the grass. Ferrier nodded. “Yes, that’s good. Bring it to the stables, will you? They’ve given us … given me a wagon. Bring it.” He turned and moved away, leaving Estel to stare in disbelief after him. He’d meant only to help, not do it all himself. Shaking his head, he scrambled around collecting the rest of Ferrier’s supplies, stuffed them without order into the pack, and ran the rest of the way to the stables.
Elrond had apparently authorized a small, light wagon for Ferrier, as the Man had lost his own in the accident which had taken his son’s life. Estel found it and the Man on the far side of the building, and hurried over to toss the pack into the open bed. Then …
He thought hard, but couldn’t remember anything after that, and his heart jumped with dread.
Fear lent him the strength that he’d been lacking. Estel forced himself up, clawing at the low upright boards that formed a corner just behind his head, and stared over them at a broad, overgrown, empty plain. Dread blossomed into full-blown panic.
Where was he? This was surely nowhere in Rivendell …
A creak and a scrape sounded behind him, a soft “Whoa,” and he whipped around, coming face to face with Jerold Ferrier. All thought left him.
Estel dove over the near sideboard, landing hard from the back of a wagon that hadn’t even stopped moving. If there was any pain he didn’t notice it. He scrambled to his feet and weaved frantically down the shallow dirt track, back away from the direction the wagon was pointed. He heard a voice calling and heavy footsteps following, but he ignored them, scrabbling back up when he pitched forward over a hidden rock, diving off of the track into the high grass for better cover. How long he might have gone on like this Estel had no idea, but Glorfindel’s voice snapped in his ear.
“Where are you going?”
He slammed to a halt, panting. Where was he going? His tutor in all things tactical had scolded and at times bodily held him back time and again during their training exercises, when Estel would have hared off into the unknown without surveillance or plan. Now, Glorfindel’s voice continued.
“It is possible you may find yourself in a situation where running without any kind of a plan might the right option, but they’re not as common as you seem to believe. Mostly, it will just cause more trouble than you were in at the start. Now think!”
Where was he going? He swung around hard, and Ferrier, who had been following, slowed. Estel eyed the vast open land around them and realized with a sinking dismay that he had no idea where they were. He would be able to determine east from west easily enough, but he had no idea how long he’d been asleep or what direction Ferrier had taken them.
They could be anywhere.
“Where are we?” he demanded, hating the high pitch of his voice. Ferrier held out his hands, perhaps making an attempt to be soothing, and took a cautious step forward.
“You don’t need to worry, lad. They won’t find us. That Elf he sent along, he never saw you. Never knew you were there. I kept you safe. They won’t—”
“Where are we?”
Ferrier took another step forward, and Estel stumbled back. At this movement, the Man’s hands dropped and his shoulders slumped. “Ah, Nate.” Sorrow laced his words, and Ferrier shook his head sadly. His eyes glittered wetly. “I hoped you’d see, once we were away. Thought the sleep would be good for you.”
Nate? Estel sucked in horrified a breath. This Man thought that he was his dead son … “I’m Estel,” he snapped, and wished that his voice didn’t shake. The Man shook his head and moved forward again, slowly, as if calming a spooked horse.
“Lad, I don’t know what they did to you, but can’t you see? They’re tricking you, Nate, they’re—”
“I’m not Nate.”
“Surely you can see.” Ferrier was close enough now that Estel could make out his flushed features, the sweat trickling from his brow. It was warm out, but not that warm … “Remember what they looked like, lad, remember what they talked like and how they dressed, then look at us. They’re Elves! We’re not, boy. We don’t belong—”
“I’m not your son!”
Ferrier flinched as though Estel had struck him and stopped moving forward, but he also didn’t back away. For the moment, it was enough. Estel wrapped his arms around himself and wished he wasn’t shaking, that his head and stomach didn’t hurt, that he could think …
He wished he was home.
“But you are not,” Glorfindel reminded him.
Estel took a long, deep breath. He was not home, and now he had to deal with what he had, not what he wished he had. He surveyed their surroundings again, the flat country rolling endlessly away on every side. There were no structures to be seen, and very few trees. It was barren and strange to him, after the deep forests of Imladris. The ground was damp from recent rains but not overly wet, so at least the past day must have been dry. If the clouds building to the west were any indication, it might not remain that way long. Whatever tracks they had left might easily be washed away.
Tracks. At last, Estel’s thoughts focused on his family. Glorfindel and his brothers would be looking for him, of course, and they would find him—there was no way that this Man could outsmart Elves, no matter how hard he tried—but how long would it take them? How long before they even started to look? They weren’t expecting to see him for the next two days, at least. And how long would it take them to figure out where to look? There were other reasons he might have gone missing, most of them probably far more likely than what had actually occurred. The realization chilled him even in the warm, damp air, and he shivered, tucking his cold fingers against his sides. With a late start and all the rain, it could be weeks …
“So. What is your first priority?”
Estel was grateful when his mentor’s voice once again stalled the encroaching panic. He set immediately to the question. He needed to find out where he was. That would mean finding people, or some sort of landmark at the very least. Of course, a landmark probably wouldn’t help him here, since he wouldn’t know what it meant anyway. And he couldn’t very well just walk off onto the plains and hope that he came across a farm or a town. He could follow the track, but he had no idea where it led, or if it even led anywhere—it was possible that Ferrier had known of it and cut cross-country from some other road, or had even stumbled over it by accident. He eyed the Man, who was hovering in place watching him. Glorfindel’s voice came again.
“Good, but even before that?”
Before that? Estel drew in a breath. His own safety. He needed to make himself as safe as possible.
But, how could he do that? He wasn’t safe. He was lost in the middle of nowhere, with a Man who was ill and crazy with grief, who had hidden Estel from his family because he thought that Elrond had been hiding his dead son from him …
No! Estel forced his mind back to his task. Make himself as safe as possible. Very well. What were his options? How could he do that? He was unfamiliar with this land, he didn’t know where to find food or shelter, he didn’t know what kind of predators might make this area home. He didn’t know what direction to go, or how to find people…
His eyes fell on Ferrier again, and he sucked in a breath. The Man knew (presumably, at least) where they were. Ferrier had food, and the horse and wagon—although it seemed that at some point he had traded the Elves’ light wagon for a smaller two-wheeled cart. Estel refused to think about the fact that it would make it that much harder for his family to track him. Ferrier would also have to stop for supplies at some point, and that meant people. Maybe even a town or village. Someone, at least, who might tell him where he was and what direction was home.
But, he drugged you! his mind screamed. Without conscious thought, he took another step back. Ferrier had taken him away from home, and he had drugged him for probably days on end. Estel forced those thoughts away and made himself survey the Man more closely. Ferrier, noting this, straightened, holding out a hand.
Estel noted the Man’s flushed face and swaying stance. He definitely wouldn’t be trapped with Ferrier, then, when he finally decided that it was time to leave. The Man was ill, and even in good health he was unlikely to be anywhere near as fast as Estel. He would have to be careful that Ferrier didn’t try to drug him again … but somehow, he didn’t think that would happen. The brown gaze pinned on him now was nothing but gentle and regretful, and a faint touch of sympathy rose despite his fear and anger. Ferrier had been trying to save his son. Once out of danger, he surely wouldn’t keep him drugged and unconscious.
Besides, Ferrier might not even have any of the drug left. If he had been using something that Elrond had sent for his own illness and hurts—Estel didn’t know all of their names, but he knew that there were analgesic herbs that acted as sedatives at higher doses—he might have run out already, using them at doses to keep Estel asleep. It also meant Ferrier wouldn’t have been using it for himself, which probably explained the Man’s flushing and sweating.
When it came to it, though, he didn’t have any answers about what Ferrier had done or would do. He would just have to be watchful, careful to taste a tiny bit of everything before eating.
He would have to be watchful. Estel shivered again. Did that mean he was staying? He stared once more into the lands around them, then looked back at Ferrier, silent and sad and hopeful. As unlikely as it seemed, he thought maybe he really was safest for the moment with Ferrier.
At least, he could think of no better options.
Estel scrubbed at his itching cheeks and sniffed, only just realizing that his eyes and face were wet. He wiped angrily at them both then moved forward slowly, giving the stationary Man a wide berth as he approached the cart. Ferrier stayed back, patient now that Estel was joining him again, even if not full willing. Estel scrambled over the sideboard into the back, huddled in the corner, and rested his head on his tucked-in knees.
Please, come find me. Please, come find me.
Making himself remember his father’s words about all that this Man had suffered, Estel forced himself not to flinch away when Ferrier ruffled his hair once before silently climbing onto the seat and setting them off down the track again.
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