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They took two full days and a half to reach the meeting place, just to the northeast of Archet. Estel suspected that on his own, Dorhaur would have arrived more quickly. Although he managed to keep pace for several hours’ time, however, Estel quickly grew weary—as gangly as he was, his legs could not match those of the tall Ranger, and he was unused to days filled with nothing but travel. His walk to Staddle with Cres Sandheaver had been leisurely by comparison. Dorhaur eventually noted Estel’s flagging energy and stopped to rest, insisting that the boy drink and have a quick snack from Darlo’s well-stocked bag. When they moved on, the Ranger set a significantly slower pace. Estel was grateful, though he was also vaguely ashamed at the necessity. For his part, Dorhaur did not evidence any obvious annoyance at the change, and so they continued to work their way slowly north.
Estel kept a close eye on their surroundings as they travelled, trying to impress the feel and shape of their path in his mind and how far they might have come, both to the north and to the east. He questioned Dorhaur during their brief breaks about the specifics of Bree-land geography, hoping that his questions sounded casual and not calculating.
“How far from Staddle to Combe?”
“How far from Combe to Archet?”
“How far from Archet to Bree?”
“How close to Combe are we now?”
“How far to the north and east of Archet will we be?”
Dorhaur responded patiently enough, even to sketching a crude map of the Bree-lands in the damp dirt beneath a large-ish rock, pointing out locations of the various towns and other landmarks—the hill, the Road and its tributaries, various bodies of water, the shape of the Chetwood around it all. Finished, he scuffed away the shallow drawing and rolled the rock back over, leaving no sign. Estel was an avid student, storing all new information away for future consideration. The more he learned, however, and the farther they traveled together, the more he began to question whether he would truly need it. Nothing about the Ranger offered indication that he intended anything other than the help he had promised. It could be that Dorhaur was attempting to lure him into a sense of trust, and it would not do to lose all caution. Still, Estel began to warily hope that his mother’s people, far more widely traveled than the Bree-landers, would indeed see him safely home.
Or, as near to home as he could allow them. It would be foolish to abandon all vigilance.
Darlo’s food lasted them until the final morning, and when they reached the meeting site just after noon they were forced to lunch on the jerky and hard bread in Dorhaur’s pack. The Ranger had been definitely right, Estel thought with distaste—it was barely worth having. He lingered over the last of it, absently tearing the dried bread to shreds as he studied the little camp.
It was a little clearing, scraped to earth in the center and obviously much used, tucked amongst the trees on a gentle slope that ran eventually down into the village of Archet. The town was not visible from their site, but a brief walk brought them to a small rise from which the outermost of its wooden and stone structures could be seen.
“A little privacy from curious eyes is oft a much needed blessing,” confessed Dorhaur, his tone both sour and amused. “We are near enough here to gain some advantage from the settled land, such as it is, yet out of sight of suspicious eyes.”
“Are all the people of the Bree-lands suspicious of you?” Estel asked, remembering Darlo’s reaction to the Ranger.
Dorhaur laughed shortly. “They are suspicious of all they do not know or understand.” He shrugged, and moved back toward the camp. “It is as well, truly. Terrors there are in the northern wilds, and creatures not to be trusted. Such things are not as far from this place as one might hope—frighteningly close, at times—and it behooves townsmen such as these to put up a guard against all, rather than make any attempt to pick and choose.”
It made sense, Estel supposed, but still it seemed somewhat unfair.
The camp itself was empty, though evidence in the fire ring, still warm at the very center, and fresh scuffing about the packed earth spoke of recent occupation. “I was not to arrive for another day, so my captain will not yet expect me,” Dorhaur confessed. “I do not believe he will have gone far, as we were to travel out together from here. Still, it may be tomorrow before we see him—I know not his intentions in leaving camp.” The Ranger, finished with his own meager meal, leaned back against a tree, stretching his long legs with a sigh of content. “I’ll not protest an opportunity to sit for a while, I confess. We will rest, then see about tracking down something for supper.”
Estel’s entire body ached, and the thought was indeed attractive. More attractive, however, was the idea of something other than a repeat of the same disappointing meal. He approached Dorhaur cautiously, and when the Man raised an eyebrow at him, nodded hesitantly at the small hunting bow strapped to the Ranger’s pack. “I can hunt for supper.”
The eyebrow climbed higher. For a long moment Dorhaur surveyed him, and Estel stood still beneath his gaze, trying to appear patient. Finally, the Ranger nodded. “This immediate area should be safe enough. Go no farther in any direction than the overlook by which we viewed Archet.” Estel nodded agreement, and waited for Dorhaur to unstrap the bow and hand it over, rather than reaching for it himself. This earned him a brief look of approval, and Dorhaur offered a small quiver. “I do not carry many arrows—be sparing with them, and return them if at all possible.”
Estel nodded, slung the quiver over his shoulder, and strung the little bow with quick, practiced movements. Dorhaur watched him, expression unreadable, but he nodded again when Estel had finished and settled once again against the tree.
“I wish you luck, for both our sakes.”
No one direction seemed more likely than the others, and so Estel chose at random, slipping into the trees toward the North. Once out of sight of the clearing he halted, slowed his breathing, and listened for a long moment, opening himself to the sounds of the forest. Birds chattered. Old leaves rustled. Wildlife, smaller than that he sought, scurried among the leaves and grasses. Gradually he began to move forward, keeping his step light and silent, eyeing the brush and other growth about and between the trees.
“Rabbits will prefer an area of deep cover,” Elladan’s voice reminded him, though it was scarcely necessary any longer to consciously remember his brother’s teaching on this subject. “Once you find a place with close, thick growth, be still. Wait. It will take time for any that heard your approach to venture from hiding.”
He was familiar with many of the good hunting spots in Rivendell, and did not often need to exert much effort in finding a likely patch of brush or bramble or weed. It was a good exercise for him, here in this strange forest. After twenty minutes or so of creeping in a wide arc toward the southeast, slipping around rocks and over the occasional fallen limb, Estel came upon a low, thick tangle climbing over and around the fallen trunk of a great oak. He halted and brought an arrow to rest lightly against the bow, feeling fletching and undrawn string with his fingertips, then settled in, waiting.
The vast, soothing silence of the Chetwood worked on him, giving ease to the tension in his muscles and the tight knot that had resided in his chest for so many days. Estel reminded himself that he was hunting, not napping, and refocused, turning sharp eyes on his chosen overgrowth.
“Do not spend your time looking for an entire rabbit—you may miss many good opportunities,” Elladan continued. “Look for an ear sticking out, or light glinting against an eye, or a splash of white that is the tail against wood or leaves. Rabbits are often not as hidden as they believe, and you are—hopefully—much smarter than they.”
Estel grinned faintly at the old joke, and let his eyes roam about the area even while his body remained motionless, searching for signs that a better supper than stale jerky and old bread was near.
He returned with two rabbits, a cluster of mushrooms, and several handfuls of early berries wrapped in the hem of his tunic. Dorhaur accepted the offering with a bemused cant of his head, inspecting the mushrooms and berries carefully while Estel skinned the rabbits. Finally the Ranger nodded, eyes glinting once more with unspoken approval as he popped a berry into his mouth. Estel paused, looking up from his task.
“I can survive on my own.” It was something of an exaggeration, even he knew, but the successful hunt had done much to assuage his bruised pride.
Estel turned back to his task too quickly to see the amused smirk aimed in his direction.
Dorhaur built up the fire and cooked, producing a meal that was slightly dry but far more palatable than another from his pack would have been, especially when the mushrooms and berries were added in. After, he gathered their waterskins and motioned for Estel to follow. “You did not hunt in the direction to find the stream, but I will show you it. It will be good for you to know, for the time we are here at least.”
It was a cheerful, swift-moving brook, larger than the word ‘stream’ would suggest but too small to be thought of as even an undersized river. They filled the skins and then sat for a while on a large, smooth rock overlooking the water, silent as the light dimmed and the shriek of cicadas replaced the birdsong about them, before returning to their camp.
“From whom did you learn your woodcraft?” Dorhaur asked, shaking out their single bedroll and laying it near the fire.
Estel, who had been feeling sluggish and almost peaceful after the interlude at the water’s edge, tensed as thoughts of his family returned. “My brothers.”
The Ranger nodded thoughtfully. “They taught you well. You know much, for one of your age.”
Estel shrugged, embarrassed now that Dorhaur openly spoke a word of praise. “They are the best,” he declared, remembering their many lessons and camping trips. “They are great hunters and trackers and …” he avoided adding ‘warriors’ at the last moment, not wishing to stir Dorhaur’s curiosity too far, “and I always wanted to be with them.” That, at least, was the utter truth.
“I see.” Dorhaur smiled faintly, barely visible against the orange fire. “It is well when our brothers are of a kind to be emulated.”
“Do you have brothers?”
Teeth flashed, gleaming in the flickering light. “Aye, two. And a sister.”
“Are they older than you?”
“Nay, younger all.” The Ranger shrugged, and motioned Estel toward the bedroll. “I know not, but perhaps my siblings have spoken well of me to others. I hope I may have earned the same manner of praise from them as your brothers have from you.”
Estel grinned shyly, slipping under the blanket. Dorhaur stirred up the fire, then turned back toward him, silhouetted against the flames.
“I do not believe that we will have trouble from any creature tonight—you say you saw nothing to give warning while you hunted, and we are nearer to Archet than true danger is likely to come. It is one of the reasons we chose this place.” The Ranger belted on his sword as he spoke. “I intend to make a sweep of the area, nevertheless. It is wise to always be cautious in a new place.” Estel nodded, though it was unlikely that Dorhaur saw. He had been told the same often, and by many. “I do not know how long I may be gone, but I will take care not to move beyond shouting range. If you need me, you need only call and I will come as swiftly as I may.”
Estel nodded again, not terribly concerned about the possibility of attack by any unknown woodland creature. The small forest noises continued undisturbed, and the fire was near. Dorhaur settled his sword with a final jerk, checked his knife, then melted into the tree line. Estel curled into the blankets, his face toward the warmth of the fire, and stared into the glowing embers.
He missed his brothers. He missed his home. He was starting to worry about his mother, now without any notion of his whereabouts for more than two weeks, and he wanted her to know that he was (for the most part) well. How long would he have to wait before he could finally be on his way?
He had been trying to reach Archet for most of the night. He could see it down the hill, hidden under the leafy boughs of the flowering spring trees, but no matter how he ran, it never seemed to come any closer. He was not entirely sure why he needed to go there—he had some vague idea that his brothers might be waiting for him, but surely that was a fruitless hope. Why should Elladan and Elrohir be in Archet when they lived in Imladris? Surely he should be going to Rivendell instead …
Voices echoed in the trees around him, overlapping and confusing.
“Estel!” That was his mother, and she too seemed to be in Archet, although this made even less sense than would the twins’ presence there.
“Estel!” That was Dorhaur, and Estel bolted from the Ranger. He would not go with him, to live among strangers on the banks of the nearby stream. Dorhaur pursued him, demanding that he return the portion of Darlo’s picnic lunch that he had eaten, accompanied by a large, ghostly form that Estel knew somehow to be his captain. He dove behind the nearest tree, but a rabbit chased him away from its hole and he was forced to run back the way he had come.
“Estel!” He turned, and Arti motioned him into a cellar dug in the center of a grove of trees. Estel started toward the Hobbit, but balked when Sander and Cora climbed out, insisting that unless he told them the story about the boy who had been stolen from home and wandered in lost circles for the rest of his days, they would not let him in. He wasn’t certain he knew this story, and was trying to remember it when a crash shook the bushes behind him.
“Estel!” Elrond appeared, shaking his head. “You were not to speak to any strangers. Now that you have done so, you must remain with him.” He motioned to the bush, and Jerold Ferrier stumbled out, holding out his single hand
“Nate! Come on, boy! We’ll find someplace to grow pipeweed, and work there until we have money to buy Combe. It’ll only be a few years.”
“Estel!” It was his mother again, but this time she did not seem to be in Archet. She appeared behind him, shaking her head. “Why did you worry me thus? You must stay in Archet now.” He tried to protest that he didn’t want to, and that Elrond said he must stay with Ferrier in any case, but was interrupted by Cora and Sander, who had come again begging for their story.
“Estel!” Glorfindel shook his head, and Estel wondered where the Elf-lord had come from. “You ran without thinking. Why do you always do this?” Erestor stepped up beside him, adding, “The Marshes. You should be going to the Midgewater Marshes.”
“But,” he protested faintly, backing away from them all toward the only open spot that seemed available to him. “I don’t want to go to Archet, or live with Ferrier, or go to the Marshes. I want—”
“We’re in Archet.” Elrohir crossed his arms, and Elladan looked down his nose at Estel. “Why should you not want to go there?” Elrohir shook his head at his twin. “In any event, it’s taken me entirely too long to find him. Perhaps he does not wish to train with us anymore.”
“You’re not …” Estel protested, trying to make sense of it all. “I do! But I …” He backed away, and his foot came down suddenly upon empty air. He shrieked, falling, and clutched at a root growing out of the bank. His arm jerked and his shoulder twisted, but it broke his fall enough to leave him in an uncontrolled slide rather than a head-over-heels tumble. He crashed through small brush and slammed into a wall of dirt, weeds, and small rocks. For a moment Estel lay motionless, aching, then he opened his eyes to the silvery, moon-washed dark.
Where was he? He pushed himself up, noting the twinge in his left shoulder and thankful that his head didn’t seem to hurt much. He squinted around, noting the steep-ish banks to either side, the trees overhead, the rocks and scrub scattered along the sides and unlevel ground upon which he sat. He seemed to have fallen into a ravine of some sort.
How …? Understanding washed over him, along with a surge of shame. He had not sleepwalked for years, except for that one time he had been so nervous about his first solo recital in the Hall of Fire …
Estel had no idea how far he had come from their camp, or in what direction he had traveled. He sighed, sat still for a long moment more, then slowly pulled himself up, using a twisted bush for balance. Standing, rubbing at his sore shoulder and stomping his scraped leg, he peered first one way and then the other, trying to decide his best course of action. Nothing jumped immediately out at him.
Now, he thought, might be a very good time for Dorhaur to come looking for him.
A/N: No … I do not hunt—rabbits or anything else. But a 2010 article in Game and Fish magazine online called, helpfully enough, “Rabbit Hunting with a Bow,” gave me some good tips … :-P
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