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Estel was not much surprised when they reached the stables to find that Ferrier had traded their cart for a wagon and their horse for a sturdier farm-type animal. After the scene in the inn, he didn’t have room for any new discouragement—he understood that this would be yet one more set of tracks for Glorfindel and his brothers to pick up, if they had managed to follow this far, but the thought stirred only mild interest. He crawled over the rear boards and settled into a corner as Ferrier exchanged a last word with the stable master, took the reins, and guided their new horse out of the stable yard. Estel pulled his knees up, rested his chin on the upright board, and stared dully at the passing scenery. It was several minutes before he noticed that they were not making their way back to the Road, but were instead following a good-sized track that ran on a more northeasterly course.
He lifted his head, eying the new surroundings. Not far from the inn, the track turned slightly and plunged into a wide wooded area. Having grown up in the forests of Imladris, it was an unexpected comfort to be surrounded by the trees. He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, inhaling the dusty wood smell, the perfume of fading tree flowers, the sharp scent of the unfurling green leaves. He could almost pretend he was home.
Almost. And now he didn’t know what they were doing—this detour was not marked on Ferrier’s map.
Estel sighed and opened his eyes. “Where are we going?”
“The Chetwood,” Ferrier proclaimed, waving vaguely around them. “Talked to a man in the stables who said there was good farmland cut into some of these woods, especially once you get past Staddle. Said this track is well-kept, and joins up with a road again at Combe, if we still want to go on.” If they wanted to go on? Estel sat up straight, his dull façade fading. He had told Kerra that they were going to Archet. If she did somehow speak to his family, that would be where she sent them.
“I thought we were going to Archet.”
“Maybe.” The Man nodded slowly, rubbing at his brow. “Maybe. But, I think it’ll be worth it to see what’s out there. You know we don’t have money for land of our own yet. I’m hoping to hire on somewhere and save up for the next few years. Might be someplace to do that before we even get to Archet. Worth checking out, I say.”
It was a good plan, for Ferrier’s purposes, and there was nothing that Estel could say against it. He nodded and returned his chin to the wagon board, drinking in the woodlands as they passed. He had not realized just how alien the flat grassland around the Road had seemed to him until now, surrounded by the familiarity of the trees. The passage of time blurred, and the evening gave way to a quiet, still dusk. He was watching two chipmunks chase each other around the trunk of a venerable old oak when the wagon suddenly slowed to a halt right in the center of the track.
Ferrier did not speak or move, and after a moment Estel sat up, uneasy. “Da?” The word still stuck in his mouth and made him feel vaguely disloyal to Elrond. He was unsure how else to address the Man, though, and had no wish to upset him further—for either of their sakes. His tentative query was met with silence, and Estel rose to his knees. Ferrier had never just ignored him. Estel’s mouth dried and his stomach twisted. If Ferrier became truly ill, what would they do out here in the middle of a strange forest, where he knew neither the land nor the people? Estel shuffled closer, eyeing the bowed head and slumped shoulders. “Da?”
“Head hurts,” the Man mumbled, releasing the reins to dig at his temples with the heels of his hands. Estel caught a glimpse of one sleeve with the movement, and of the damp pinkish patch spreading on the light fabric. He had not known where the Man had been injured during the accident that had brought him to Rivendell, or if he had suffered more than one hurt, but it seemed that whatever dressing or stitching Elrond had applied to his arm was no longer holding.
“The dressing must be changed and the wound cleaned often at the first, several times per day even, in order to ensure that infection finds no hold.” Estel remembered the words vividly, hovering beside Elrond as his father cleaned a gaping wound in the leg of an outer scout who had been caught up in a rockslide coming out of the mountains. “If left to grow soiled, the dressings themselves may encourage and nurture the spread of any fledgling infection.”
That likely explained the fever and the headache, then—Estel very much doubted that Ferrier had given the dressing a second thought since departing Imladris. He had not tended it since Estel had wakened, certainly. His heart sank. Could he clean and redress an infected wound? He had never done so, and had never even watched very carefully during his father’s demonstrations. The process and the sight itself had always been too distasteful, the blood and pus and torn flesh and soiled dressings. Now, he regretted behaving as such an infant.
Estel fumbled Kerra’s powder from his pocket, turning the small packet in his fingers. She had said that it wasn’t strong, and it would likely be useless against infection. It was all they had, though. If it helped even a little against Ferrier’s pain and fever, it would surely be better than nothing. He dug their large waterskin from beneath the baggage and unearthed a battered cup from one of the packs. Estel filled the cup and then, checking to be sure that the Man wasn’t watching, dumped half of the powder into the water, swirling until it was no longer visible. Kerra said nothing about how much to give, but the packet was small and could surely hold no more than one or two doses.
“Da?” He crept forward again. When Ferrier looked around, he held out the cup. “Have a drink. Perhaps you need more water.”
Ferrier shook his head. “No, lad. My stomach’s not right, I don’t—”
“But you’ve not been drinking enough water.” Estel pressed against the rear of the seat. So near to Ferrier, he could smell the sickly sweet scent of the Man’s wounded arm. He tried to ignore it, forcing his own rolling stomach into submission. “Please try.”
Whether it was the forced pleading in his tone or whether Ferrier was too weary to argue, the Man relented. He took the cup and drank down the water in two quick gulps. “You’re a good lad,” he murmured, ruffling Estel’s hair as he handed back the cup. Estel bit his lip, set the cup aside, and forced himself to focus on the injury. Up close, he could see the stiff dried material, dark and reddish in patches, that told of previous seepage as well. He swallowed hard.
“Da, should we look at your arm? We could rewrap—”
“I’m just going to sleep for a while. I think a night’s sleep will do me good.” Ferrier thrust the reins toward Estel, who grabbed at them without thinking. The Man climbed painfully over the seat into the rear of the wagon, stretched out amid their baggage, and was still. In moments, strained shallow breathing filled the air.
Estel stared at the sleeping Man, running the reins absently through his hands. What now? They were sitting in the middle of the track. If anyone else came … The horse flicked a fly absently from his ear, drawing Estel’s attention. If anyone else came, he would worry about moving at that point. It was nearly dark already, the light from the waxing moon filtering in pale patches through the trees. Surely it was unlikely that there would be much traffic throughout the night.
He hopped from the wagon and spent a moment considering whether he should try to unhitch the horse. He had some experience with both horses and wagons, of course, but the Elvish versions were generally smaller and lighter. At least, Elvish horses might be as tall, but in sheer bulk this was the largest horse he had ever seen. He inched close to the wagon poles, but as he reached out the horse flicked his tail at another fly and stamped one massive hoof. Estel skittered back, hovered for another moment, and decided the horse would be fine as it was. He did urge the gelding closer to one side of the trail, staying as far from the massive animal as possible, and tied the reins around a low-hanging tree branch. The horse came quietly, and Estel risked a pat on its nose before retreating to the edge of the track and stretching out on the cool ground.
It was long before he slept, his mind whirling around a thousand different thoughts and fears. The woods quieted with the coming darkness, then after a time came alive again with the night noises so familiar from years of camping and training. They were both comforting and painful. He watched for a time as a possum nosed through the underbrush, then disappeared quickly as a deer with two fawns picked her way through the trees. An owl’s bass call sounded behind, and a short screech as some rodent lost its life to the predator. He saw a bobcat, its eyes glinting in the moonlight. The cat paused for a brief moment, eying either Estel or the horse, and the gelding stamped uneasily, snorting. The bobcat wandered back into the underbrush, and the owl hooted again overhead. Ferrier’s strained breathing rose in background refrain.
Eventually, exhaustion and loneliness pulled Estel down into sleep.
Ferrier slept until the early morning hours, alternating through the night between drawing his cloak tightly around himself and throwing it fitfully off again. The Man began to toss more forcefully as the first hints of color intruded upon the blackness of night, muttering a refrain that Estel, awakened by the creaking of the wagon, could not quite hear. Ferrier did not fully wake for another hour or so, however, and so Estel dozed too as the forest grew light around them and the morning birds joined together in their daily chorus.
When the Man did finally rise, he stumbled off into the woods without a word. Estel stood quickly, wondering if Ferrier might be hallucinating and if he should follow. The Man returned in short order, however, weaving slightly on his feet. “Get in, lad. Time to be off.”
Estel hesitated. “Should we not eat first?”
“You can eat in the wagon. I’m not hungry—my stomach’s not quite settled.”
Anxiety, always so near the surface now, surged. “Da, you need to eat.”
“Nate!” Ferrier clambered onto the seat, attempting the feat twice before he finally managed. “Get in the wagon now, boy!”
It was the first time that Ferrier had shouted at him. Despite the Man’s weakness, despite his generally amiable ways, Estel’s mouth dried. He scurried to obey, scrambling over the rear boards and scraping his shin along the way. He ignored the brief flare of pain, settling into his accustomed spot in the rear corner of the wagon.
He didn’t want Ferrier to be angry with him.
He huddled silently as they started off, knees hugged tightly, and remained so for nearly half an hour as they wound along the track through the spring-washed forest. Finally, however, Estel crept forward to their food pack and extracted a bit of jerky and a handful of nuts. He was hungry—starving—even if Ferrier was not. He considered asking again if Ferrier would have something to eat, but decided not to risk it. It was probably best not to ask about the arm again, either, as badly as it needed to be cleaned and rebound. He eyed the last bit of powder in Kerra’s pack. The Man had been rubbing at his brow already this morning and probably needed it—but Estel was not ready to draw attention to himself even for that. Perhaps if Ferrier allowed them to stop for lunch he could sneak it into the Man’s water then. Estel slouched back into his corner, stared blindly into the surrounding trees, and wished that he was either brave enough to make the attempt now or brave enough to just run.
He was neither, though …
They left the trees after a time, driving along one edge of a wide flat area that had been cleared for farmland. Estel had not often visited the farms of Imladris, but he saw that this field had been recently plowed, deep rows scored across its length in the rich dark soil. At the far side of the field, three figures moved around a low, pony-drawn wagon. They were planting—not seeds, but leafy seedlings. On another day he might have asked Ferrier what kind of field this was. Given the events of the morning, however, he remained silent, watching. One figure went slightly ahead of the others, apparently making holes in the soil. One took the seedlings from the wagon and placed them in the holes, and one seemed to be watering and … something else that Estel could not make out. He focused avidly on the work, losing himself in the repetition of it all. They were halfway to the woods again before Estel saw what he had been missing.
“Halflings!” he breathed, and his heart leapt. A Halfling had come to Imladris a couple of years ago, but Estel had not been allowed to see him or any of the Dwarves who were his companions. He had resented Elrond’s protectiveness then more than usual, for when would he have another chance to see a Halfling (or Dwarves, for that matter, although for some reason that hadn’t seemed as important at the time)? Now, he scrambled to the near side of the wagon and stared openly. The Halflings were indeed short—shorter than him even, he thought, although it was difficult to tell for certain from across the field. Curly brown heads bent to their task, and Estel saw that they wore no shoes or boots. Otherwise, however, their dress appeared much like that of the Men they had left at the inn. Troubles for the moment forgotten, he gaped unashamedly until their wagon reached the tree line and plunged in, blocking the small farmers from sight. “Halflings,” he whispered again, and grinned as he settled back again despite his fears of the morning.
It wasn’t long before they came out again on the edge of another field. Estel was rising to his knees to search for more Halfling farmers when a sharp, close movement caught his eye. He turned quickly, in time to see Ferrier list slowly to one side and lay slumped across the wagon seat.
Panic stole his breath. Estel dove for the reins, still held loosely in the Man’s hands, and pulled the gelding to a halt. Then he grabbed Ferrier’s shoulder and shook. “Wake up!”
The Man responded to neither the voice nor the shaking. He lay still, face flushed, breathing shallow and raspy. Estel tried again, but when it brought the same results he looked desperately around, praying that this field, too, would be occupied.
It was. He rolled off of the wagon seat, landing hard, then picked himself up and flew across the well-plowed earth. “Help!” The farmers looked up as he approached, two Halflings and a Man. The Man moved to meet him. “Help, please,” Estel gasped, half-sobbing with fear and exertion. The Man put a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Slow down, lad. What’s happened?”
“My … my da.” He could barely pant out the words. “His arm … infection … won’t wake up.” The Man followed his wild gesture across the field, then nodded.
“All right, lad. Don’t fret, we’ll get him.” He looked around. “Arti, head for the house, tell the missus we’re coming.” One of the Halflings nodded, dropped a tool like a wooden peg into the seedling wagon, and started off across the field. The Man looked to the other Halfling. “Horlin, don’t know how long this’ll be. I hate to—”
“You just take care of that boy,” the Halfling nodded toward Estel. “I’ll have a bit of elevenses, then see what I can do out here. Won’t be much, but it’ll be better than nothing, aye?”
The Man nodded. “Thanks, Horlin.” He gripped Estel’s shoulder then, turning him back toward Ferrier’s wagon. “Let’s go then, lad.”
The farmer examined Ferrier briefly when they reached the wagon, shaking his head. “He’s down, right enough.” He motioned for Estel to help, and together they moved the unconscious Man over the back of the seat and into the wagon bed. “My missus is a right good hand as a nurse, lad. Knows what she’s about. Let’s just get your da to her and see what she has to say.”
Estel scrambled into the rear of the wagon and stared blindly out, purposefully avoiding the sight of the insensible Man beside him. He just wanted to go home… The farmer settled in the seat and clucked to the horse. In very little time, he was pulling the gelding up before a small, low wooden home. The Halfling, Arti, was there, as was a tall, spare Woman who approached the wagon with firm steps even before it had fully halted.
“What’s this, then?”
The Man swung down. “Infected wound, looks like. He’s fevered and passed out.”
The Woman hitched up her skirt and climbed onto the seat, then over onto the bed, crouching beside Ferrier. Estel stirred. “It’s his arm.”
She looked around, startled, then nodded and moved to examine Ferrier’s arms. She located the problem area quickly and ripped open the sleeve, exclaiming at the odor which burst forth. “How long since this dressing’s been changed, lad?”
Estel shrugged, then ventured. “A week?”
She shook her head, muttering beneath her breath. “It’s not a wonder that he’s in this state, then, that’s for certain.” She motioned to her husband. “Marks, you get him into the house. Put him in the second bedroom, I’ll have the children sleep in the main room.” She looked around at Estel. “Are you hurt anywhere, lad?” When Estel shook his head, she nodded briskly and climbed down from the wagon bed. Marks and Arti climbed back in. Estel huddled into the corner while they lifted Ferrier over the side of the wagon—the Halfling must be stronger than his stature would suggest—and bundled him into the cabin between them. The Woman motioned to Estel as she followed. “Come on, then.” He trailed her into the house, and she motioned vaguely as she followed her husband and the Halfling into a back room. “You stay here out from underfoot, lad. I’ll let you know when there’s something to hear.” Then she was gone with the others, closing the door behind her, and Estel was left hovering the doorway of an unfamiliar home, unsure what to do next.
A rustling sounded to one side, and he looked around. A tiny girl sat at a scrubbed wooden table before the half-eaten remains of a meal. She stared at him, and Estel stared back. There were no other children in Rivendell at this time—no children of Men, certainly, but no elflings either. He had never seen such a small person, and had no idea what to say to her—or if he should even say anything. Estel lingered on the threshold, waiting for his heart to slow, wondering what was happening behind the rear doorway. He could hear the Woman’s voice, and the Man’s, but not their actual words. The door opened and he straightened, but the Man hurried past Estel without a second glance, disappearing into the yard. A small voice interrupted his musings.
“I’m Cora. I’m …” she paused, and held up four fingers.
“Ah … hello, Cora.” Estel paused, then added, “I’m Es … Nate. I am, um, twelve.” Cora nodded, seemingly satisfied, and another voice spoke from behind him.
“I’m Sander. I’m six.” Estel turned and found a young boy on the other side of the room, holding a broom. Apparently the boy—Sander—had been cleaning when they arrived. Sander looked toward the back room. “Is that your da?” Estel hesitated, then nodded. It seemed easiest. “Is he sick?”
“He’s … hurt, and it’s making him sick.”
Sander nodded gravely. “My da was sick, but ma made him better.”
Ah. Unsure of an appropriate response, Estel nodded and drifted into the room. There didn’t seem to be anything for him to do, and the Woman obviously didn’t need him. He located an out of the way corner and curled into it as Marks returned, bearing a pitcher which slopped water as he passed. Arti hurried out past him as he opened the rear door, searching the room with a quick brown gaze and sending a sympathetic smile to Estel as he, too, slipped outside. Cora slid off of her stool and approached, hunkering down on the floor to watch him with wide eyes. Estel looked away. Sander continued an unenthusiastic sweeping of the far side of the room.
Arti hurried back in, bearing several bottles and a stack of linens. Estel watched him vanish into the rear room, then buried his face in his knees.
He wanted Elrond, he wanted his mother, he wanted—
“Do you know any stories?”
Estel raised his eyes, baffled. “Stories?” Now wasn’t a time for stories … Cora nodded. From the corner of his eye he noticed Sander waiting for his answer as well, and realized that they didn’t know Ferrier, they didn’t know him, and they didn’t understand most of the situation. They had simply met someone new and were looking for entertainment while their mother was otherwise occupied. He took a long breath. Stories. Unbidden, Elrond’s voice rose into his mind, smooth and soothing, and his mother’s, laughing over some silly tale told by her own people. The knot in his chest loosened, just a bit, and before he knew what he intended, he was nodding.
Cora grinned and scooted closer. She wrinkled her nose as she came near, reminding him again how long it had been since he had bathed. The child wasn’t deterred, however, and settled firmly against his arm, staring up with wide eyes. Estel was startled—were all children this friendly?—but her warm weight was comforting and he did not pull away. Sander abandoned the far side of the room, drifting over with his broom to sweep aimlessly at a small area before the hearth. Estel hid a wan grin, remembering such actions of his own, then closed his eyes. He had not often heard this story in his mother’s tongue, and never the shorter version with which Elrond had regaled a small boy of Cora’s age. The Elvish chant rose swiftly from his memory, though, and if tears sprang to his eyes, the translated words also followed easily from his lips.
“The leaves were long, the grass was green, the hemlock-umbels tall and fair, and in the glade a light was seen of stars and shadows shimmering.” Sander abandoned all attempts to look busy, dropping both himself and his broom onto the hearthstones. “Tinúviel was dancing there to music of a pipe unseen, and light of stars was in her hair, and in her raiment glimmering.” * Cora sighed happily, burrowing closer, and Estel lost himself in the tale.
*The Lay of Leithian, of course. :-) Taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.”
A/N: Though I’m not sure of the details of how pipeweed was farmed, I’m assuming it was pretty much like tobacco farming today (or rather, two hundred years ago). The info I used came from the North Carolina Digital History web site, an article called Tobacco Farming the Old Way. Was quite interesting (at least, I thought) …
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