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It was dark when Estel woke, which meant nothing in an underground room. He pushed himself up from the feather-stuffed pillow and mattress, squinting in the faint light that filtered from the partially open door. He still wasn’t able to see much, so he climbed off the bed (which had not quite held the whole length of him but had been deeply comfortable all the same) and crossed to the doorway. He expected the light to come from a torch or maybe the fire, but when he stepped into the sitting room he saw that it was daylight, shining from a small, round window high up on the wall that he had not seen the night before. The light was bright yellow, not the softer light of morning, and he wondered how long he had slept. A quick search of the sitting room and kitchen and a tap on the second door brought him no closer to an answer. He was alone.
In the absence of direction from Arti or anyone else, he returned to the bedroom to dress for the day and discovered that his clothes were missing. On the stand beside a full pitcher of water, clean basin, and new towel was a folded shirt, trousers, and undergarments. On top of the pile was an odd bit of leather that he didn’t understand—it looked a bit like two belts crossed and sewn together at one point, though instead of buckle and holes a large button was sewn at each end. Estel studied it for a moment, then laid it aside to pull on the new clothes. They were too large, though not by much, and he wondered whose they were. He had not seen anyone the day before who might fit them. Holding up the pants with one hand, he returned to the leather piece. It took several minutes before he discovered corresponding holes in the trousers themselves. He tried a couple of different configurations before he managed to attach all of the buttons so that they lay smoothly, then pulled the long loops over his shoulders. He stood there for a moment, feeling ridiculous with the overlarge pants hanging from his shoulders on this … not-belt. There was nothing else for it, though, and finally he went in search of his boots. Those at least were where he had left them. He put them on and slipped out of the room, wondering what he should do next.
His stomach rumbled, and Estel decided not to stay in the Hobbit hole alone. For all he knew, he might be waiting for hours. He crossed the sitting room, climbed the steps, and let himself out into the farm yard, shading his eyes against the blinding daylight. A quick glance at the sky told him that it was past noon, and he blushed, embarrassed. He hadn’t intended to sleep for so long.
The yard, too, was empty as he crossed toward the house, but he saw his clothes hanging out with other wash on a line and their—Ferrier’s—horse grazing behind the barn. He stepped onto the porch and the door swung open. Luanna stood with her hands on her hips, studying him.
“Estel, is it?” Arti had told them, then. He had said he would. Estel wondered if the Hobbit had even waited until morning, or if he had returned to the house with all he had learned as soon as Estel had fallen asleep. He nodded, and Luanna motioned him inside. “You’ve slept through breakfast and lunch, but I put some back for you.”
Estel ducked his head, stepping past her. “Thank you.” Luanna steered him to the table, then went to retrieve a covered plate from an open cupboard. She plunked the plate down before him and rubbed his back briefly before moving off to pour a cup of water from a clay pitcher. “Estel.” He looked up, but she was merely repeating. “What manner of name is that? It sounds …” She paused, frowning. “It sounds like something Elvish, almost.”
He wondered what people knew of Elves here, so far from Rivendell. It mattered not. Estel nodded, looking away. He generally preferred the truth, and disliked lying even when it seemed his only choice. “It is. My … my family lives very near the borders of Rivendell. We … we are neighbors and friends.” Indeed, his brothers spoke fondly of the few nearby villages of Men, and Estel knew that some of the children in those villages had been named for Elvish scouts who were particular friends or who had aided the family in some way. “Some of us are named for them.”
Luanna’s eyebrows rose. “I see.” She sighed, sitting across from him. “You are truly far from home and family then, child.”
He hunched his shoulders, understanding what a nuisance he and Ferrier must be for these people. “I’m sorry.”
“No.” The farmer’s wife stood quickly, shaking her head. “Lad, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.” She came to him and squeezed his shoulders gently. “And from what I hear, you deserve a good apology yourself.”
“I don’t care about that,” Estel whispered, and was embarrassed anew when more tears swam into his eyes. He had cried enough over the past days, and he forced them back, angry. “He’s sick, he didn’t know. I just want to …” He couldn’t finish, couldn’t say it out loud without the risk of sobbing like a little child. Luanna seemed to understand. She squeezed his shoulders again, then dropped a light kiss on his head before moving away. He was thankful, but he wished that she was Gilraen instead.
“You finish your food.”
Estel sat still for a moment, then took a deep breath and obediently returned to the pile of bread and ham and fried potatoes. It was different from what he was used to—the bread was coarser, the ham slices thicker, the potatoes greasier—but simple as it was, it tasted wonderful and filled his stomach with a warm, heavy fullness. He might have gone immediately back to sleep in the nearest corner or chair, regardless of his late rising, had Luanna not sat down again across from him, watching him expectantly.
“Now, you tell me what’s happened.”
He hesitated. “Arti …”
“Arti told us what you said last night, but I’d like to hear the tale from your own mouth.” It occurred to Estel suddenly to wonder where the Hobbit was. He looked around, but they were alone in the room. Luanna smiled faintly. “Arti and my husband are back in the fields, lad. It’s planting time, and that pipeweed’ll not be putting itself in the ground.”
“Oh. Of course.” Estel flushed, but before he could feel embarrassed the rear door swung open and another Hobbit entered from the sick room. The Hobbit executed a brief, shallow bow when he saw Estel at the table.
“Ah. Your other guest is awake, then.” The Hobbit crossed to the table and climbed onto one of the high stools that had been pushed up between the chairs. “I’m Creston Sandheaver, at your service. My wife Camellias is the healer for these areas south of Staddle, and we’ve been here through the night with …” he hesitated, then finished diplomatically, “with your companion.” Creston accepted a cup of water from Luanna, nodding his thanks. “It’s good to see you up and about, lad. It was quite the tale old Arti had to tell us.”
Luanna nodded. “Estel was just about to—”
“How is he?” Estel blurted. Luanna’s were not the only raised eyebrows, and Estel shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “He … so much bad has happened to him, I just … Will he get better?” He focused on Creston, just come from Ferrier’s room. The Hobbit exchanged a glance with Luanna, and after a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. Creston turned back to Estel and sighed deeply, clasping his hands atop the scrubbed surface of the table.
“That arm was the worst of it. He had a few other bumps and bruises, but most of those were half healed … might have even been full-healed in some cases, if his body didn’t have the fever and that arm wound to fight.” Creston exchanged another glance with Luanna, and Estel’s stomach tightened.
“Will he get better?” Estel demanded, his voice rising. Something like panic was beginning to set in, and he didn’t know why … Luanna crossed to Estel again, pulling him tight against her.
The Hobbit nodded. “He’ll be well.” Cres offered a wry smile. “The arm, though …”
“What about his arm?” Estel tried to rise, but Luanna held him in place. The Hobbit’s voice was gentle.
“We had to take his arm, lad.”
Estel stared, then shook his head. Surely he had heard the Hobbit wrong. So many awful things had already happened to Ferrier, surely this couldn’t ... “You were supposed to help him,” he whispered, and Luanna’s arms tightened around him. “No!” He tried to pull away. “Nothing else bad was supposed to happen! Why did—”
“Estel, shh.” Luanna knelt and turned him into her, holding him tight. A little voice in Estel’s mind reminded him that it was stupid to be upset—this was only the way things worked, and even Elrond himself had been forced to take a limb at times—but he was sobbing into Luanna’s shoulder and trying to push away from her at the same time, and then another, smaller pair of hands turned his head and he found himself staring into the eyes of a Hobbit female. She gave him a little shake.
“Enough, lad.” Camellias, for this must be the healer, held Estel’s gaze. Her voice was soothing. “Calm down. Deep breaths.” She drew in a long breath, and unconsciously Estel echoed her. Camellias nodded, encouraging, and repeated the process. Slowly, Estel felt the panic drain away, replaced by a deep weariness. Finally, he relaxed against Luanna. Camellias nodded and gently released him. “Good, lad. Very good.” She smiled and squeezed his arm. “Now, I am Cam, and I am the healer. I understand your da is a healer as well.” Estel nodded. Luanna’s hand stroked his hair. “So. You’re a good lad to want the best for Master Ferrier. Since your da’s a healer, you must know that this sometimes happens, yes?” Estel nodded again, reluctantly. “Master Ferrier will be well, though, do not doubt it. With the infection in his arm gone, the rest is not so severe, I think, that he won’t recover. He will need to relearn how to live, with only one arm, but it can be done, and he will have help.”
Estel looked to Luanna, who nodded her agreement. The farmer’s wife glanced toward the two Hobbits, who seemed to acknowledge some unspoken request and both withdrew across the room.
“Estel.” Luanna gently reclaimed his attention, drawing away in order to face him. “These clothes you’re wearing?” Puzzled by the shift in topic, Estel looked down at the too-big shirt and pants. Luanna smiled faintly. “They belonged to my son.” Estel frowned, picturing little Sander crouched on the hearth. Luanna shook her head, guessing the direction of his thoughts. “Not Sander, of course. I had a son with my first husband. He was a good boy, and not much older than you are now when he and his da were killed in an accident at a neighboring farm.” Estel sucked in his breath, and she nodded. “Marks and his wife lived nearby—she passed away in childbirth only a few weeks after mine were taken from me.” The farmer’s wife took Estel’s hand and squeezed it. “If not for each other, who knows where either of us would be now … but we learned to lean on each other, and we survived. So you see, we here understand Master Ferrier—not his particulars, perhaps, but we know what it is to lose so much and be all that’s left. He’ll find all the help he needs with us, never fear.” Estel stared into her eyes for a long moment, horrified and yet also strangely relieved. It was, somehow, as if a giant weight had been lifted from the center of his chest. He still felt bruised, but he could at least breath again. Finally he nodded, calm enough now to feel a stirring of regret for his earlier behavior.
“I’m sorry.” He looked around to Cres and Cam, who were standing together across the room. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Of course not, lad.” The Hobbits took his words as their cue, returning to the table once more. Cres patted Estel’s shoulder as he passed, and Cam squeezed his hand. Luanna, too, returned to her own chair, delivering Estel’s empty plate to a wash tub along the way.
“So.” She smiled at Estel, and her gaze was reassuring. “Let’s look to helping you as well, now. Go on, lad, and tell us all you can. We’ll get you home, never fear—even if it does take some doing.”
In the end, it was decided that Estel would leave with Cres the next morning for Staddle.
“But … I told Kerra that we were going to Archet. If she tells my brothers that, they won’t go to Staddle,” Estel protested. “It’s not on the Road at all. They won’t know to—”
“But if they don’t, if they haven’t managed to track you that far—and I have to say I think it unlikely, even if they’re as skilled as you say—what then?” Marks, who had returned with the onset of twilight and was eating supper at the table with Arti, shook his head. “Darl’s not got anyone he can spare for a long trek, he keeps only one runner and that for short messages to Bree or Staddle. If it turns out no one’s come looking for you, we’ll be needing to start with you back east, and we won’t be finding anyone at Darl’s inn for that kind of journey.”
Estel wanted to protest that Elladan and Elrohir were that skilled, that Marks didn’t understand the abilities or the determination of Elves—but he couldn’t, and suddenly he was tired and lonely, even in a roomful of people. Perhaps Marks was right. Surely even his brothers or Glorfindel had not been able to track him so far in a week’s time, especially along the Road. It wasn’t highly travelled—in fact, he had seen no other travelers during their whole journey—but between the partially-paved Road and their several detours, it was difficult to believe that anyone from Imladris could be so close behind. Estel sighed, hugged his knees to his chest, and nodded.
Cres smiled sympathetically. “My cousin has an inn in Staddle. He’ll know how to find someone trustworthy who can take you all the way back, if need be. The Road will be the easiest way toward the east in any case, whether you come down this way again or go over the hill and start from Bree. That means passing Darl’s inn from wherever you start. If anyone’s been there looking for you, you’ll either meet them on the Road or hear about it when you reach the inn.”
It seemed the their best choice—their only choice—and so Estel ate an early breakfast with Cres, Luanna, Marks, and Arti the next morning before the sun even rose. Only Cam was absent, keeping her watch over Ferrier. Estel wondered briefly if he should ask to see Ferrier before they went. It felt like it would be the right thing to do, given all that they had been through. He didn’t really want to see the Man, though. He wanted Ferrier to get well, but he truly didn’t care if he never saw the Man again. No one else suggested it either, so in the end Estel kept silent. This seemed vaguely cowardly, but he pushed that thought away, accepted a lunch pack and a kiss from Luanna, then trailed out the door behind Cres without looking back. Ferrier was in good hands now. There was no reason that Estel should feel responsible for him anymore.
The Hobbit, with Estel close behind, turned north along the main track as the sun made its appearance over the eastern trees. The morning was pleasantly cool, with a hint of heat to come, and the air was ripe with the scents of grass and heavy spring flowers and rich plowed soil. Birds chattered around them, and small animals rustled through the trees. Slowly, the tight knot in Estel’s chest began to ease. He was free of Ferrier, and even if he was still lost and without his family, he had found people to help him—both him and Ferrier. Surely he would be on his way home soon.
The Hobbit, striding steadily along with one hand clutching a stick and his own lunch pack swung over his shoulder, lifted his voice in a walking song.
To Bree I go,
It's on the Road
twixt East and West
is their abode.
Once there, I'll sup and
ale will flow,
but until then
to Bree I go.
To Staddle I hie,
It's on the Hill
Behind which Bree
is standing still.
Once there, I'll prop me
feet up high,
but until then
to Staddle I hie.
To Combe I trek,
the southern towns
and forest green.
Once there, I'll light
my pipe and rest,
but until then
to Combe I trek.
To Archet I hike,
It's in the woods
off to the North
for years it's stood.
Once there, I'll sleep me
but until then
to Archet I hike.
It was nothing like the music of the Elves, which was always lyrical and stately even at its lightest, but it was very like the silly songs that his mother had always spun as she straightened their rooms or worked her embroidery or planted in one of the gardens ringing the Last Homely House. Despite a pang of longing, Estel’s spirits sluggishly rose. Cres’s gravelly voice was cheerful and spry, and the tune was easy to follow. Before they had traveled too many miles, Estel found himself humming along.
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