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The inn … smelled. When they had first entered, the wave of smoke and grease and (Estel reluctantly sniffed at himself) people and other unidentified scents had been overwhelming. He couldn’t remember ever having gone for so long without a bath—even camping or training they would jump in the river once a day with a bar of hard soap to scrub away the dirt and sweat. He wondered if maybe Men didn’t worry about such things, because no one else in the inn seemed to notice or mind. After about a half an hour, though, it didn’t really bother him anymore either. Estel wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but at least it meant that he could use his mouth for eating rather than breathing. The stew was greasy, but he had only recently regained his appetite. He was so hungry that he gulped it down all at once and asked for seconds. Ferrier was quick to agree, ruffling his hair in what Estel had quickly come to recognize as the Man’s preferred gesture of affection. The jerky, nuts, and bread they carried on the cart were growing quickly stale.
Not that Estel had eaten much of it. After the raw energy from his first surge of panic, the post-sedative hangover had crashed back down, leaving him drowsy, sluggish, and nauseated. He spent much of the following days dozing in the nest of blankets that Ferrier had made for him, thankful he hadn’t tried to run. He would have starved or been eaten by predators in very little time. The nausea lasted the longest, lingering even after he was able to remain reliably awake for any length of time. The swaying, bumpy cart made it worse—they had left the track for a wide road several hours after Estel woke, and Ferrier was making all speed toward their destination, wherever that might be. Fear and tiny insects and a wet, rotten smell when the wind blew from the north added to it, and in the end he ate only because he knew that both Elrond and his mother would insist on it. Also, Ferrier seemed distressed by his lack of appetite. “I know you don’t feel well, son, but you’ve got to eat!”
Ferrier himself didn’t seem to be getting any better, if his continued flush and the dry rasp in his voice were any indication. Once he had recovered sufficiently, Estel rummaged through the bags in the cart, only to confirm his fear that whatever his father had sent with Ferrier at the start of his journey was either used or discarded. He did find a single small bag of chamomile tea at the bottom of a pack, accompanied by detailed instructions in Elrond’s flowing script. The sight of his father’s handwriting nearly brought him to tears. He wiped his eyes dry and detached the paper gently from the pouch, slipping it into a pocket before returning the tea to its home.
So, he could do nothing for the Man. Still, even if all he wanted was to flee and hopefully never see Ferrier again, Estel found himself worrying for his companion. He remembered Elrond’s words—“I fear that Jerold Ferrier has had more than his share in the past months”—and was strangely reluctant to leave the grieving man alone. He had heard from his father and his mother, his brothers, Glorfindel, Erestor, Tasala the cook and Faurín the horse master and many of his friends and teachers in Imladris about the terrible loneliness and pain that came from the death of loved ones. Surely there must be some other way than to just abandon this Man to his illness and heartache.
Surely his father wouldn’t approve of such a thing …
No plan presented itself, though, and Estel was quick put such thoughts aside for later. He had made another discovery during his search of the packs—a crude map that detailed (as far as he was able to tell) Ferrier’s travel route. On its own, he might not have been able to make anything of it, but it was enough to verify for him what he had already guessed about their location.
“In central Eriador,” Erestor’s voice lectured smoothly, “the Great East Road runs between the Weather Hills and then the Midgewater Marshes to the north before entering Bree-land, and a range of hills known as the South Downs to the south.” When Estel had questioned the loremaster further, Erestor had described a marsh as something of a stagnant pool on a larger scale, filled with soft, treacherous ground and, in this case, tiny biting insects.
Estel suspected that this marsh lay now to the north, given the rotten smell and the little insects that kept snacking on him. To the south lay a long line of hills that he had somehow, in his first panic, either completely missed or had possibly mistaken for cloud buildup. Either thought made him flush with embarrassment, and he was thankful that neither his brothers or Glorfindel had been witness to such an error. Their road, then, must be the Great East Road. When Estel pictured Erestor’s map in his mind he was frightened and disheartened to think how far they had already traveled. He wondered how far behind them his family might be—they might have spent several days looking for him in Rivendell, fearing a fall into a stream or cave or some other sort of weather-related accident—and then forced himself to think about something else instead. He didn’t want to cry again, it would only make his dry, gritty eyes even worse.
He was reviewing the map again—absently tracing the cross-cuts drawn in places where the Road took a particularly wide turn, attempting to read the undecipherable scribbles that lined the margins and underscored a few of the longer detours, wondering if this had been Ferrier’s planned route even before the accident that had taken his son’s life—when the inn appeared. Early evening was upon them, and Ferrier called back, “Think we’ll stop here and get supper. I want to talk to the stable master too.” Estel nodded silently. He tucked the map away into Ferrier’s pack and eyed their destination, nervous to be meeting others for the first time since … Well. He wasn’t sure what to do. Ferrier had stolen him, but had not harmed him—he had been kind and affectionate, in fact, and Estel thought the Man had probably been a good father. Also, Ferrier was still sick. Anyone in this inn, however, would be a complete stranger. Estel couldn’t be certain that telling his story would make things better. His father had always kept him sheltered from the eyes of outsiders, and although he didn’t know why, he did know that it was better not to be seen by some people.
How could he know who to trust?
The question sat uneasily as they entered, and remained as Ferrier ordered food and drink and Estel sat down to his first meal since babyhood in a structure built by Men. It was lower than anything in Imladris, darker and smokier and more cramped. The ceiling was stained, and the tables and chairs were sturdy but battered. It held nothing of the airy grace of Rivendell, but the talk and laughter, the shouted orders and insults, the ease between the innkeeper and the entering customers were welcoming. He had expected … he wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but he had gotten the sense from many Elves—though not his family or teachers—that Men were an angry, violent lot. Estel knew a moment of relief that this sample, at least, did not seem to fit that description. Then, his attention was distracted by a completely different sight.
Men he had seen. His mother’s cousins and some others of her people came regularly to Imladris—though he had met only a few—and even if Estel was not allowed near the infirmaries when strangers were present, he had nevertheless at times been exposed to his father’s patients. Other than his mother, however, Estel had never (to his memory) seen any girl of his own race. He watched the young waitress cross the room, delivering bowls of stew to one table, gathering empty mugs at another, laughing with a third. He had little to compare, but thought that she was possibly only a few years older than him. Her hair was straight, an odd light-brown color that lacked the brilliant sheen of Elvish locks. Her face was rounded, her figure full with soft curves that he had never seen on any Elf maiden. Her manner was easy and friendly, not formal. Both the innkeeper and the customers spoke to her with far less deference than would be shown in Rivendell to even the most humble of maidens. She did not seem offended, however, and Estel supposed that this must be usual behavior. He wondered if all girls were treated this way. He could not imagine his mother, always gracious and friendly, responding well to some of the things that made this girl laugh, even if none of it was quite improper.
The waitress noticed him looking and flashed a grin as she passed. Estel blushed and pretended to be fascinated with his stew.
“I’m going to go out back and find the stable master.” Ferrier pushed back his chair and stood. “You stay here and finish up if you want.”
Estel nodded, his stomach tightening. This was his chance, then—but his chance for what? What should he do? Ferrier patted his shoulder and walking away. Estel watched him as he approached the innkeeper and spoke briefly. The other Man nodded and motioned toward a low door at the rear. Ferrier ducked out the door, and then Estel was alone. He took another bite and chewed slowly, trying to work up the courage for … well, anything. Would anyone believe him if he told them? And what would happen to Ferrier if they did? The Man was sick, not bad … He was startled and nearly choked when Ferrier’s chair abruptly scraped back beside him. The young waitress dropped into it, and her face was serious, a startling change from the laughter of only a few minutes before.
She just looked at him for a long moment, and Estel fidgeted uncomfortably, wondering what she wanted. Before he had made up his mind to ask, she spoke. “Is your da all right? He seems … don’t know, but he seems not well.”
Estel was surprised. She had been busy with her duties. He saw, but then, he already knew. He had almost decided that maybe it wasn’t so obvious as he thought, since neither the innkeeper nor their own server had commented. Estel shrugged. “No, he’s been … sick.”
She frowned. “So, he’s getting better?”
He hesitated. “No.” Her eyebrows rose, and Estel had a sudden urge to confide in her, if only about Ferrier’s condition. “He has a fever. I don’t know how bad it is, but we don’t have any medicine, it’s … gone. And he doesn’t … think he’s sick, anyway.”
Her lips pursed. “How far are you going yet?”
Estel shrugged again, making a guess based on the scrawls on Ferrier’s map. “To someplace called Archet, I think, or around there.”
“A couple of days on the road still. But you’ll be going through Bree, no doubt. They’ll have a healer there, and you can get some fever powders.”
“I don’t think he wants them.” Estel sighed and pulled his feet up onto the chair, tucking his chin onto his knees. That was the problem, really—or, one of many. It would be different if Ferrier knew he was sick, but as it was he was likely to just keep going until he collapsed.
The thought was not comforting, either for his sake or for Ferrier’s.
The waitress frowned for a moment, but then suddenly grinned. “Don’t you go anywhere.” She stood quickly, gathered Ferrier’s empty stew bowl, and whisked away, leaving Estel feeling a little stunned by the abruptness of it all. Across the room, the innkeeper back out of the kitchen door laden with plates, then turned and delivered them onto the bar for the servers. Estel watched the scene for a moment, gathering his courage once more. Surely he had to try … something.
He slid off of his chair before he quite knew what he was doing and approached the bar. The innkeeper was filling mugs, and looked up as he approached. “More? Where’s your bowl?”
Estel shook his head. “No, I … my da’s sick.” The word felt bitter and strange in his mouth, but there was no time to think about it. The innkeeper nodded.
“I saw he didn’t look quite right. Marsh fever? It’s been bad this year.”
He had seen. Estel suddenly felt entirely lost, and frightened, and alone. If he had seen, why hadn’t he said or done anything? In Rivendell, illness was treated with speed and skill. Did they not care about such things in the world of Men? The innkeeper filled another mug.
“Lad, this is an inn, not an infirmary, and there’s no healer this side of Bree. Unless your da wants to rent a room and rest up, there’s nothing I can do for him here.”
Suddenly, the homesickness overwhelmed him. “Can you send a message?”
Another full mug hit the bar. “If you keep on, you’ll hit Bree about the same time a messenger would. Maybe before, as I’ve no one to send until tomorrow. Anyway, the cost for—”
“To Rivendell,” he blurted desperately.
The innkeeper actually paused in his work to stare over the bar. “Is this a joke?” Estel shook his head, and the Man snorted. “Lad, I don’t know what’s in that mind of yours, but the Elves are not going to come and heal your da. You’d best just go along to Bree and—”
Now, the innkeeper was becoming annoyed. “I’ve not got time for this. Go back to your da and—”
“Can you at least keep a message from me, in case they come?” He was beginning to panic again, despite his attempts to stay calm. Estel tugged frantically at his hair, pulling out the fine silver-tipped tie that had once belonged to his brother Elladan. “If they ask, can you give them this and—”
A call came from beyond the kitchen door. “Sorry, lad. Don’t think the Elves are coming. Go on now.” The Man shook his head and turned, disappearing into the next room. Estel watched him go, then gulped back tears and scurried back to his table, flinging himself into the sturdy chair. He had been stupid, and he’d messed it up. He shouldn’t have talked about Rivendell. He should have—
A hand appeared before him. Estel looked up into the waitress’s face then quickly away again, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his arm. She shook her hand impatiently.
“I’ll take it.”
Estel sniffed. “What?”
“I’ll take it.” She gently extracted the hair tie from his grip. “Uncle Darl’s a good man, but it’s suppertime and he’s busy. Got no time for anything else.” She sank into Ferrier’s chair, examining the fine silverwork with wide eyes. “Why would Elves be looking for you?”
It had sounded ridiculous in Darl the innkeeper’s mouth, and Estel didn’t want to see the same laughter behind her eyes. Anyway, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He shook his head and hugged his knees to his chest, avoiding her gaze. Her voice was soft.
“Are you all right?”
He had never been less all right in his life. Estel buried his face on his knees and tried not to think about Ferrier or home or his mother or father or …
“Kerra! Up, girl! There’s plates to take!”
Her chair scraped quickly back. “I’ve got to go.” She touched his shoulder, and the simple gesture sent a shiver through him. When Estel looked up, she was holding out a powder packet. “Here. I use this for my …” The girl—Kerra—blushed suddenly. “Well, you never mind what I use it for, but it helps a bit for fever too. Not very strong, but it might help some, and it don’t taste like anything.”
If it didn’t taste like anything, then Elrond couldn’t have heard of it—which also probably meant that it wouldn’t do much. Estel was so grateful for her kindness that he didn’t care. He snatched the packet from her and nodded, tucking it into his pocket.
She squeezed his shoulder again and hurried away, slipping the hair tie into a pocket of her apron. Ferrier’s voice called out behind him. “Nate! Let’s go, boy! We’ve got time yet before dark!”
Estel located the Man in the rear doorway, gesturing for him. He sighed and hugged his knees tightly to himself once more, then unfolded and went to join Ferrier. Kerra hurried past bearing three full plates, and she gave him a sad, sympathetic smile and a friendly little wink. He stopped for a moment to watch her go, her laughter rising and full hips swaying as she plunged back into the growing crowd, then slipped out the rear door into the inn yard.
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