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Estel finished the Lay—the carefully shortened child’s version which overlooked dungeons and werewolves and lost hands—and moved on to one of his mother’s stories, this one about a prince of Men who had been cursed to become a frog by the evil Witch King and the Elvish maiden who was reluctant to offer the kiss that would return him to his rightful form. The children were giggling with abandon, Sander clutching his stomach and Cora rolling on the floor at Estel’s feet, when Marks reappeared out of the back room. The farmer carried two bags, and he motioned the little ones to follow as he crossed to the outer door.
“Come. You’re going to your grandmother’s.”
“Nooo!” Both children howled a noisy denial. Cora, to Estel’s dismay, flung her arms around his ankles and burst into a spate of noisy tears. “Nate is telling us a story!” she wailed. Their father was unimpressed by the drama.
“Now then.” He shoved one bag at a pouting Sander then bent, hooked an arm beneath Cora, and pulled her bodily away. “Enough of that. We’ve got no time for this, miss—I’m to bring Healer Camellias to help Nate’s da once you’re settled. You’ll not want to hold that up, right?”
This objection was clearly not something for which the girl was prepared. She hung limply in Marks’s grasp, sniffling but otherwise quiet. Sander, however, rose quickly and took the second bag from his father. “I hope your da’s all right, Nate,” he murmured. The child’s brown eyes were warm and sincere, and Estel nodded. “Thank you for telling us about Lúthien and all the rest.”
The Woman appeared in the rear doorway. “Cora!” she snapped. “Get you going now, child!”
Cora huffed, but scrabbled to find her footing. Marks took her hand, nodded Sander toward the outer door, and looked around at his wife. “I’ll be back as soon as may be.”
“Sooner, if you can.” She pressed her lips together, and Marks nodded, grim-faced, before following his young son into the yard. The Woman watched them go, eyes softening, then turned her gaze on Estel. He straightened and did his best to meet her eyes. Fetching a healer only made sense, given the severity of Ferrier’s illness, but still he wondered what it might mean. “Come, lad.” Estel scrambled up and joined her before the door of the sickroom. “Now.” She placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “I am Luanna, and you are … Nate?”
“It’s not fair! Why can’t I see the Halfling? I never get to see anyone!”
“Estel.” Gilraen pulled him close, drawing him up onto her lap despite his lanky frame. “You know your ada loves you.” Estel nodded reluctantly, relaxing into her embrace. He was too old for such things anymore, but out of the public eye he still craved the comfort of his mother’s arms. “Then you must also understand that he does not make these decisions to be unfair or because he does not know how difficult they are for you. He thinks only of our safety.”
“Safety from what? I know he doesn’t like Dwarves, but the Halfling isn’t bad, is he?”
“Of course not!” His mother stroked his hair. “The Halfling is not bad, and neither are the Dwarves. For that matter, most people are not.” She frowned. “And, it is untrue to say that your ada dislikes the Dwarves.” Estel lifted an eyebrow, and Gilraen laughed softly. “Mostly untrue.”
“Then why can I not—”
“Oh, child.” Gilraen sighed. “It is the nature of people to talk, and the nature of Rivendell to be remembered and discussed. That’s not wrong, of course not—but one word to the wrong person about the child of Men that Master Elrond loves, and people may begin to wonder …”
His mother had never actually explained why this might be dangerous. Estel had pondered the question for himself over the next several days, though, and had decided that perhaps Elrond was afraid an enemy might try to use Estel to hurt him somehow. His father was powerful and wise, and surely had enemies. Estel still didn’t like having to miss out on the Halfling and other visitors, but having a reason made it easier to obey.
This situation, though, was completely different. How was he to ask for help without explaining to this Woman who he was?
“Lad?” Luanna placed her hands on her hips, brows rising. Estel looked away and nodded. For now, until he’d had some time to think, it was probably better to just agree. Luanna frowned, studied him for a brief moment, then moved on. “And your da’s name?”
Estel couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Jerold. Jerold Ferrier.”
She nodded. “All right, then. Can you tell me what happened here?”
What had happened? Estel thought back to Elladan’s words. “The … the track washed out near a stream, and pulled the wagon down in. Da … Da went with it.”
The Woman glanced toward the yard. “That wagon?”
“No. We got a different one.” That was true several times over, in fact.
“When was this?”
“Two … weeks ago?” It sounded about right.
“And there was no place to have his wound treated properly?”
“It was treated properly!” Estel protested. This wasn’t Elrond’s fault … Luanna held up one hand.
“Lad, I’m not saying that—”
“It was, but he didn’t think he was sick and didn’t want to stay. And he didn’t ever look at it or change the dressing.” Estel hunched his shoulders. “He wouldn’t let me either.”
“Hmm.” Luanna looked back toward the sick room. “What did he tear it on?”
“I don’t know.”
She studied him again, then sighed. “Have you eaten today?” He shook his head—the jerky from that morning surely didn’t count—and Luanna motioned him toward the door. “You can go in and sit with your da for a bit if you like, and I’ll make you up a bit of something. Supper will be mostly catch as catch can tonight, I think.”
Estel shied away from that thought. He wanted Ferrier to get better—he did—but that didn’t mean he wanted to spend the day in the Man’s sickroom. Luanna pressed his shoulder.
“The arm’s covered, lad. You’ll not have to see it.”
She didn’t know, and if he was really Nate he surely wouldn’t refuse. Estel took a deep breath and slipped into the back room.
It was small, with a single bed pushed into one corner and a long high window. The air was close and still, and smelled strongly of blood mixed with the sharper tang of some disinfectant. Ferrier lay upon the bed, bare-chested, with his injured arm stretched out alongside him. As promised, it was draped with a light cloth, though already a red stain was starting to seep through. The Halfling, Arti, was bundling a pile of soiled cloths into a tub set on the floor, and looked up as Estel entered. His gaze was compassionate, and Estel looked away. It felt … almost like stealing, somehow, to accept sympathy meant for the real Nate Ferrier.
“And how are you, lad?”
“Fine, thank you.” Estel eyed Ferrier for a moment more, then retreated to the opposite corner and slid down to the floor, tucking his knees to his chin. Arti looked from Estel to the sick man and back again, brow furrowed, before gathering up the tub of cloths.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, thank you.”
The Halfling hesitated. “Well, I’ll be back, or Luanna. And if you need anything, just poke your head out the door. We’ll not be far away.” Estel nodded, and Arti moved past him. Estel leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, wishing for a familiar voice to rise suddenly in the outer room.
None did, of course.
He was dozing when Luanna reappeared, frightening him out of half-formed dreams filled with rivers and wagons and strange Men. “I’m sorry, lad, I didn’t mean to startle you.” She lowered her voice and pressed one long finger to her lips. “Let’s not wake your da, yes?” Estel nodded and stood, rubbing at his eyes. Luanna turned him toward the door. “There’s food waiting on the table for you. You can eat and come back after.”
He had no intention of returning, not if he could help it. Estel ducked through the door and started across the outer room, but as the latch clicked behind him he suddenly started to shake. He stood still for a long moment, unsure what was wrong with him, hugging himself tightly and fighting back unexpected tears. Finally, the shudders stilled and the tears dried. Estel took a long, shaky breath, straightened, and crossed to the table. Gathering the bread, meat, and cheese, he decided that he would rather be outside—even the large room felt as if it was closing in on him—and stepped out into the yard. Ferrier’s wagon had been pulled to the side yard, against the barn. The horse, he suspected, was either stabled within or pastured somewhere. Somehow, Estel didn’t really care. He crossed to the wagon and climbed in, comforted by the solidity of the stone structure at his back. He nestled into his corner, nibbled at the cheese, and turned absent eyes toward the darkening sky.
Night was upon them when Marks returned, but the sky was clear and moonlight washed the yard in a silvery glow. Estel saw two more Halflings, a male and a female, climb down from the wagon and approach the house while the farmer urged the horse on toward the barn. The door swung open before they could knock, Luanna silhouetted in the doorway. All three disappeared inside, and within minutes Marks joined them. Estel slouched back into his shadowy nest. He wondered what was happening—how Ferrier was doing and what the healer could do for him that the farmer’s wife and the Halfling hadn’t already—but he was not yet ready to go back inside.
He wasn’t sure if he would ever be.
Perhaps a quarter hour later, Luanna, Marks, and Arti reappeared. They stood together on the porch for a time, speaking in low voices and occasionally glancing in his direction. Estel knew they must be discussing him, and was not surprised when Arti finally crossed the yard toward his hideout while the farmer and his wife went back into the house. The Halfling stopped before the wagon, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his trousers.
“Come on, lad. Get your things and come with me.”
Reluctantly, Estel crawled out of the wagon. He wondered what new questions the healer would have, or if she would just ask the same ones over again. He was prepared this time, both to talk about Ferrier’s illness and with a slightly altered version of his own story, but he was also nervous, and tired, and still hungry. He wished it could all wait until morning. The thought of facing the farmer and his wife and the healer and the other Halflings all at the same time left him queasy.
Arti lifted an eyebrow. “No bag?” Estel shook his head. The Halfling nodded, almost to himself, then patted Estel’s arm gently. “Well then, come along then.”
He didn’t take them toward the house. Instead, they walked around the barn to the foot of a shallow hill which rose sharply and then gentled out again before the cleared land faded once more into forest. As they approached, Estel was surprised to see what looked like a round wooden door nestled right into the hillside. Arti walked up to it, pulled it open with a grunt, and motioned Estel inside.
For a moment, Estel hesitated. Was this … was it a cellar? Why were they taking him to a cellar? Would they let him out again, or …
“Get you in, lad. This is my home, you’re to stay with me for the night.”
Arti lived in a cellar? Estel glanced uncertainly at the Halfling, who nodded, then he cautiously approached the opening. Once at its edge, he saw well-cut stairs leading down into the hole, a faint orange glow outlining the steps and softening the darkness beyond. Behind him, Arti sighed and the door hinges creaked.
“Never seen a Hobbit hole before? We live underground, lad, at least when we’re able. I’ll be right behind you. Nothing to be frightened of, I promise.”
Underground? He didn’t know that about Halflings. Then again, he didn’t know much of anything about Halflings—they had not, as a people, been included to any great extent in his studies. Slightly reassured, Estel crept forward and carefully navigated the stairs. He heard Arti behind him, heard the door thump shut, and then light flared as the Halfling lit a lamp set into the stairway wall. Estel stopped, blinking against the sudden brightness, and Arti moved past him, lighting two more lamps at the base of the stairs and then crossing the room to stir up the fire.
The fire. There was a fireplace underground! Estel looked around him, and forgot his fear in a rush of delighted awe.
It was a whole little set of rooms, all under the hill. The sitting room was cozy but not cramped, with a couch along the rear wall and two armchairs set near the fireplace. A colorful braided rug covered most of the stone floor. The warmth from the newly stirred fire reached him even across the room, and Estel shivered suddenly. He had not realized how chilled he’d become, sitting for so long in the early spring evening. Doorways, each rounded, were set on either side of the fireplace, and an open rounded arch led into another room—though it was dark and Estel was not able to see what lay beyond. The ceiling was low, barely higher than Estel’s head, and planked with well-polished wooden beams of a warm honey coloring. The whole hole was simple and inviting.
Estel took a long, deep breath, and for the first time in over a week felt himself relax a little. Perhaps things would be all right after all.
“Well, lad? Not as frightening as all that, is it?”
Estel offered the Halfling a shy grin. “It’s wonderful.”
Arti snorted. “Don’t know about that, but it’ll do.” He beckoned Estel and moved toward one of the low side doors. Estel followed, trying to see what might be past the darkened arch.
“What is a Hobbit?”
“What?” Arti frowned back at him.
“You said a Hobbit hole. What is a Hobbit?”
“Why, it’s me! It’s us, I mean. It’s what we call ourselves.” Arti lifted an eyebrow. “You come from folk who call us Halflings, I suppose?” Estel nodded, and the Halfling—Hobbit—snorted. “Half of just what, I’d like to ask.”
Put that way, it did seem … wrong. Estel bit his lip. “Sorry.”
Arti patted his elbow. “Don’t be, it’s neither here nor there.” He opened the door and lit a lamp just inside, and Estel found that they had entered a small bedroom. A bed sat against one wall, covered with a warm quilt and with a low trunk at its foot. A stand stood against the opposite wall, holding two pitchers, a large bowl, a cut of soap, and several thick hand towels. Arti motioned to it. “You get yourself cleaned up a bit, and I’ll see about finding you something to wear overnight.” He eyed Estel. “You’re a tall youngling, aren’t you?” Without waiting for a response the Hobbit hurried away, leaving Estel alone.
So great was the comfort and safety of this simple room that Estel might have cried, had the thought of the waiting water not driven all else from his mind. He scrambled across to the washstand and found both pitchers full, one with cold water and one … He actually groaned out loud as he stripped off his soiled shirt, then seized the pitcher of warm water—not too hot but not tepid either, and it didn’t occur to him to wonder how there happened to be water of just the right temperature waiting for him—and poured some into the bowl. He grabbed one of the towels and the block of soap and thrust them both into the water.
Halfway through his wash, Arti knocked. “You decent, lad?” Estel called an affirmative, and the Hobbit entered with a folded garment. “I think this’ll do it. Let me know when you’re done.” He disappeared again into the sitting room, and Estel returned to his scrubbing.
It was not as good as a bath or a dunk in the river, of course, but when Estel was finished he felt better than he had since waking a week ago in the back of Ferrier’s cart. He unfolded the garment that Arti had provided and found it to be a nightshirt. It would likely have reached the floor on a Hobbit, although it fell barely past his own knees. His exposed legs and feet were a bit chilled, and he tugged the quilt off of the bed, hoping that Arti wouldn’t mind. Wrapping it around himself, he opened the door and slipped back out into the sitting room.
The second room was lit now, and he heard Arti moving about there. He crossed to look inside. It was a kitchen, and the Hobbit looked up from stirring a steaming pan. “There you are! Shirt fit all right?” Estel nodded. “Good! Why don’t you go sit by the fire, and I’ll be out in a bit?”
He obeyed, settling on the rug as near to the fire’s warmth as he could manage. Arti appeared a few minutes later. The Hobbit raised an eyebrow to find him on the ground rather than in a chair, but said nothing. Instead, he held out a large mug.
“Careful with that now, it’s hot.”
Estel took the mug and sniffed at it, smelling the tang of cinnamon. He took a cautious sip. The flavors of warm milk and honey and cinnamon filled him, warming a path down to his stomach. He sighed and closed his eyes, taking another sip. Arti moved away, and Estel realized suddenly how rude he had been. His mother would be horrified.
“Thank you,” he called into the kitchen. The Hobbit reappeared, bearing a tray.
“You are most welcome, lad.” He crossed to Estel and sat the tray onto the rug before him. Estel stared. It held two meat pies, several thick slices of bread, a hunk of white cheese, and several glazed scones. “I know there wasn’t much for supper, with all that was happening. Thought you might want a little snack.”
This was what the Hobbit considered a snack? Estel didn’t stop to ask questions. He nodded, mumbled another ‘thank you’, then dove into the food. Arti watched him for a moment, chuckling softly, then disappeared into Estel’s room. For a few minutes all was silent as Estel ate and the Hobbit cleared up the remains of Estel’s wash. That finished, Arti took Estel’s mug and refilled it, then settled into one of the armchairs. He took out a pipe—from the windows and balconies of Imladris Estel had seen visiting Men with these, and had pestered his brothers until Elrohir had finally explained—filled the bowl, and set a match to it. Smoke rose up, a spicy and—despite his brothers’ opinions—not altogether unpleasant scent. Estel finished the second meat pie and the cheese, then sat back with one of the scones, nibbling as he gazed into the flames. His stomach was full to bursting, and drowsiness was settling hard upon him.
Arti stirred. “Now then, lad. Let’s talk a bit.” The pleasant sluggishness evaporated. Estel looked around quickly, and the Hobbit held up a hand. “Don’t be getting upset, now. We need to know what’s happened, though. I think you’ll agree with that, aye?” It was true. Estel nodded and pulled his knees to his chest, huddling inside the quilt. Arti eyed him for a moment, then sighed. “Well then.” The Hobbit leaned forward. “Now. We’ll want to know details of the accident, of course, if you can give them. They’ll make no difference tonight, though, so that can wait until morning.” Estel nodded again, and Arti continued slowly. “There’s something else I need to know from you, though, and you must not be angry with me for asking, if it turns out that all is as it should be.”
“What do you mean?” Estel frowned, uneasy.
The Hobbit held his eyes with a firm, gentle gaze. “We—Luanna and Marks and meself—would like to know how the two of you came to be together.” Estel blinked, startled, and Arti smiled softly at his surprise. “You’re no more a born son of that Man in there than I am, lad, that’s for all to see, and while that’s well and good on the surface, something doesn’t seem … quite right, if you understand me. So.” The Hobbit nodded, encouraging. “You tell me if it is.”
They knew. He didn’t know how, but they knew, and Estel felt the first surges of panic. He had to make them understand …
“He’s not bad, he’s just sick.”
Arti’s expression stilled. He eyed Estel and nodded slowly. “All right. I believe you.”
Estel stared down at the cheerful rug, twisting the quilt in his hands, and suddenly it was all pouring out of him. “He was sick, and his wife and his little girl died from it, and then his farm burned. And he was going with his son to someplace new, and then there was an accident and his son died. My brothers found him and brought him home, because Ada is a healer, but he was hurt and sick and so sad about his family that he thought his son didn’t really die but that Ada and my brothers were hiding him, which doesn’t make any sense, but Ada told me that you never know what grief and sickness will make someone think or do. Since he was angry with Ada he wouldn’t stay to get better, and I saw him on his way out and stopped to help him when he dropped his bags, and …” Tears swam at the edge of his vision, and he swiped at them angrily.
Estel sniffed, refusing to meet the Hobbit’s gaze. “My father.”
Arti sat back, and his eyes were bleak. “Lad, do your folks have any idea where you are?” Estel shook his head and rubbed at his eyes again, though it was fast becoming a losing battle. The Hobbit closed his eyes briefly, then took a long breath and stood. “All right, then.” He approached, and laid a comforting hand on Estel’s head. “It’ll be all right, lad.”
“He’s not bad,” Estel insisted. Somehow, it was important to make them understand. Arti stroked his hair back, the gesture awkward but comforting.
“I know, lad. I know. We’ll get this all figured out.” The Hobbit gently ruffled the hair he had just smoothed, then patted Estel’s shoulder again. “It’ll be all right, it will.”
Estel nodded, but even with Arti’s reassurance, he still wasn’t certain. He hunched beneath the warm quilt, blinked back tears, and stared into the crackling flames, grateful that someone knew but wondering how these people, nice as they were, could help him get home when he couldn’t even tell them where home really was.
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