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A/N: So, I had time this weekend, and not much over the coming week … :-)
“What are you doing down there?”
Estel jerked out of a light doze. He blinked, then glared up at the dark figure crouched on the upper edge of the ravine—though Dorhaur wouldn’t see it in the dark. His entire body hurt. He was scraped in a dozen places from his attempts to scale the crumbling bank, his shoulder throbbed, and a long, sharp thorn had stabbed through the sole of his boot and into his foot. The spring night wasn’t actually cold, but it was cool, and a chilly damp had settled into his clothes and fingers. He tucked his hands beneath his arms and squinted at the Ranger.
“Can you get me out?”
Dorhaur shifted. He peered one way along the rift, then the other, then leaned out and over to inspect the bank below. Finally, he grunted a negative. “I don’t think so, not here. This gully becomes shallower several miles to the south, but here the banks are high, and the soil not hard-packed enough to hold firm its rocks and bushes.”
“I noticed,” Estel grumbled, and what might have been a soft huff of laughter drifted from above.
“You are fortunate to have fallen in this spot. Only a little to either side, and you would have landed on rock rather than brambles and bare earth.”
“I saw that, too.”
In truth, it had frightened him to see how close he had come to cracking his head, or perhaps an arm or leg, on sharp rock instead of the dense scrub in which he had landed. He had tried to use those rocks to his advantage, climbing upon them to bring him closer to escape. They did not add much height, however, and the banks rising above them were damp and crumbling. After the first bush uprooted in his hands, Estel moved back to his original landing spot. The bank was not so steep there, which had given him some hope. He managed to make his way about halfway up at this site, but with each try a root or rock or bush upon which he had been depending gave way, or the soil itself crumbled from beneath him. He had continued with his efforts until his arms and legs shook, and his grip was no longer strong enough to support him. Filthy and exhausted, he huddled at the bottom between rocks and bushes and hoped that the Ranger would be able to track him in the dark.
“Are you well?” Dorhaur’s voice drew him back to the present.
“Mostly. I’m bleeding in a couple of places and my shoulder hurts.”
“Hmm. You are fortunate you took no further hurt.”
“I know.” Somehow, he didn’t feel fortunate.
Estel sighed, embarrassed anew, but there was no way to avoid the truth. “I … was sleepwalking.”
It was a difficult thing to admit, but Dorhaur seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps he’d known others who had done so. Perhaps it simply wasn’t quite the curiosity among Men that it was for the Elves, among whom it was not known.
“All this way?”
Estel glanced around, though another look at the same ravine and the same sky was unlikely to tell him anything new. “How far did I go?”
“Far enough,” Dorhaur muttered. He stood, rubbing at his jaw. “And away from civilization, such as it is, rather than toward it.” Estel looked away. He blew on his fingers, then tucked them beneath his knees. There didn’t seem to be much he could say to that. The motion, however, seemed to shake the Ranger from his bemusement. “In any event,” Dorhaur continued briskly, “I suspected that something must be amiss. You left a trail even a blind Hobbit could follow, and if I’ve learned anything of you in the past days, it’s that you’ve no interest in being followed by blind Hobbits.”
The comparison—analogy? metaphor? Erestor would be in despair if he knew how little of his grammar lessons Estel truly retained—was so ridiculous that it surprised a giggle out of Estel. Dorhaur’s answering chuckle joined his, and Estel suddenly felt a little better. The Ranger paced along the edge.
“I have a rope in my pack, we will be easily able to pull you out with that. It is still at the camp, though, and I don’t like to leave you here alone.”
“How long will it take?”
“An hour, there and back. Perhaps less. It would be quicker in the daylight.”
Estel was silent, surprised. He really had gone a long way. In the past, his sleepwalking routes had always been short and had remained safely within the family wing. Of course, as Dorhaur said, he could not travel as quickly in the night-darkened forest. Estel considered. He was not anxious to sit alone in the dark for another hour, but doing so knowing that the Ranger was working to free him was better than huddling at the bottom of the ravine for the rest of the night and then yet having to wait longer while Dorhaur retrieved his rope.
The Ranger demurred. “Estel …”
“Please! I’m cold, and I don’t want to stay down here all night!” Judging by the moon and stars, it was barely past midnight. Many long hours yet stretched before him.
This seemed to be upon Dorhaur’s mind as well, for he wavered. “It will not be comfortable—I do not dispute it. We are farther out than I prefer, however.”
“We can’t be that far, can we?”
The Ranger sighed. “It does not require much distance. There is little buffer between the settled Bree-lands and the northern wilds.” Dorhaur hesitated, then shook his head. “No. I will remain. It is not unknown that dark creatures may venture into this area, even so near to the Bree-lands. When the sky begins to lighten I will return for my pack. Most creatures of the wild seek their rest at that time, and I believe you will be safe enough then.”
It was not what Estel wanted to hear. As much as he disliked the idea of spending the night in the ravine, however, Dorhaur’s caution had made an impact. He mumbled unenthusiastic agreement, and settled back against the damp earth of the bank.
“I am sorry,” the Ranger added sincerely. He folded to sit near the edge so that Estel could still see him.
The boy sighed, tossing a small rock across the narrow distance. “It’s not your fault.”
“Neither is it yours.” Estel looked up from his study of the opposite bank. He could just make out Dorhaur’s shrug. “It is not something you may control. My cousin often sleepwalked when he was young—my aunt and uncle found him outside of their home in the night more than once.”
“Really?” Estel’s heart lightened. “Did it … did he stop, eventually?”
“Oh yes. By the time we were adults and he joined his first patrol, it was many years behind him.” The Ranger chuckled. “I was under strict orders, on pain of a severe beating, that no one should ever know of it from me.”
Estel laughed softly. He was silent for a long moment, picking leaves off of the bush he had landed on, then admitted, “It’s embarrassing. I don’t know anyone else who does it.”
Above him, Dorhaur stretched. “Well, think of it in these terms, perhaps. It may be uncomfortable, but if it is the worst problem you ever face, you will be the most fortunate Man in Arda.”
Put that way, it did seem something of a minor issue. Other than the fact that he was stuck in a ravine in the northern wilds in the middle of the night. Estel leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Thinking about it all night would only make the hours creep by more slowly.
The night was still dark when he jerked awake. He sat up slowly, trying to understand what had disturbed him. A glance showed Dorhaur still above him, facing now toward the south. Estel slowed his breathing and sat in silence. For a long while he heard nothing, and he was about to lay back again when brush crackled. There was no chance that it was the wind—the night was still and heavy. He froze, his heart racing, ears straining. Another rustle, and the snap of a breaking branch. His breathing came quickly now, and he rose to a crouch.
“Dorhaur?” The Ranger turned, and as he did so the sound of a faint, undulating growl reached Estel’s ears. He shot to his feet. “I think there’s something down here!”
As Dorhaur rose swiftly, cursing, a large, hairy form leaped easily onto the nearest rock. Estel stared into the glinting eyes for two heartbeats that felt like forever, noting almost absently the rustling behind it that meant more were still to come, then he flung one of the sharp smaller rocks directly into the warg’s face—from his brother’s descriptions, he guessed these could be no other than the evil wolves of the Enemy—and scrambled the other way. The creature yelped in pain, growls exploded into snarling and barking, and Estel scraped both of his knees scrambling over the rock behind him.
A roar of a different sort distracted the wargs, and a shower of loose rock and earth as Dorhaur scrambled down the steep incline and crashed into their midst. “Estel, move!” he snapped, crouching low as the wargs turned their attention to this new, more immediate threat. The Ranger ducked one’s leap and struck out with his sword at the legs of another. A yelp and a thud, and one of the wargs scrabbled backward off of the rock. It tried to rise again, but Estel, hovering still just beyond the next rock, flung a fist-size stone at its eye. The blow did no more than stun it, but Dorhaur was able to work himself between Estel and the others, yelling.
“Go! Keep moving!”
It was difficult to tell, in the darkness and tight quarters, how many there were, but as Estel scrambled back across the uneven terrain he counted at least three separate creatures—possibly four, if the one they had struck down still lagged behind. Dorhaur struck at one, kicking a second back as well before diving to join Estel among the more jagged landscape to the south. The wargs sailed over the rocks, and Estel continued his backward flight, tripping over obstacles and throwing any missiles near to hand over his shoulder at their pursuers.
“Keep them away from my head!” the Ranger snarled as one skimmed his ear, but took advantage of the confusion caused by a rock in the nose to surge forward and slice at the creature’s neck. It did not move in time, and the pack was one down. The others paused, sniffing at the body, and Dorhaur hustled Estel farther along their only available path, clutching the boy’s collar tight in his free grasp. “Go, go!” he urged, and looking around, Estel saw that the pursuit had resumed.
A weird howling rose as the wargs leaped again after them, chilling Estel’s blood. Dorhaur’s breathing was heavy at his back, his silence broken by muttered curses as he too stumbled over rock and downed branches. The Ranger shoved Estel once as the wargs drew near. “Keep going!” Then he pivoted, meeting the closest with a fierce yell and ducking to strike a blow beneath as the creature rose to strike. Shrill yelping rose, then cut off as the warg fell away, but Dorhaur cried out as well. Estel pulled up and darted back, fear choking him.
“It’s nothing, go!” The Ranger seized him by the collar, nearly lifting Estel from the ground with the force of his momentum. They rounded several smaller rocks and climbed a larger one, more of a boulder really, but before Estel could jump down the other side Dorhaur pulled him to a halt. “Look there!” He pointed, and in the moonlight Estel saw dark slashes against the ravine wall. “Roots! The tree is large, they may hold. Climb, we cannot outrun them forever.”
Estel balked. “What about—”
“Now! Up!” Dorhaur snarled, and heaved Estel toward the wall. Estel scrambled to obey, afraid to distract the Ranger now that the remaining wargs were upon them. He leaped, grabbing for the first dark rope of wood, and relief turned his knees to jelly when it held. He braced against the soft incline and reached for the next. It too held, but the third was smaller and ripped away in his grasp. Estel seized the solid one again as he slid down and clung tightly, unaware that he was sobbing in terror as the battle rejoined below. The wargs were snapping and snarling, and Dorhaur was yelling, although from pain or exertion or to frighten his foes it was impossible to tell.
Estel tore his gaze away and searched frantically for another root, digging in with his toes for balance, but a familiar deep thrum and hiss distracted him. Below, one of the wargs yelped, and the cacophony fell to a single snarling creature and Dorhaur’s intermittent shouts. Bodies broke smoothly over the ravine edge, sliding past him in a rush of glittering steel and flowing hair, dark and bright in the moonlight. They fell upon the remaining warg and Estel gaped after them, too baffled by the shock and confusion to fully understand what was happening.
That voice he recognized. He whipped around again, clinging frantically to his root and staring past the outstretched hand that hovered above him. “Ada?”
He could not see the face beyond, but the hand shook impatiently. “Estel, take my hand!”
“Ada!” he shrieked, and leaped for Elrond’s grasp. He nearly missed his father, even as close as he was, but both of Elrond’s hands closed around his, hauling him up. Estel did not wonder at this, though his father seemed to be hanging over the edge without even bracing himself. He scrabbled to find holds in the soft soil, lurching upward even as Elrond’s hold drew him steadily toward the surface. When he reached the edge, another hand seized his garments and helped to draw him over. He flung himself across Elrond’s lap even as the Lord of Imladris pulled away from the edge, and the strong, slender arms closed tight around him.
“You are safe, I have you.” The sounds of battle below had ended, but Estel had ears only for his father’s soothing words. “I am here, you are safe.” Estel buried his face in Elrond’s neck and clung to him, feeling the gentle kiss pressed to his temple and the shift of Elrond’s body as his father moved them both away from the edge. Beyond them, voices called, and the sound of something heavy—perhaps a pack—thumped onto the ravine floor. Then, another hand cupped his head, drawing him away from Elrond’s embrace for a solid kiss on the brow.
“Estel.” Elrohir was laughing, but his voice trembled as well. “You need not go to such lengths next time to win our game.”
Tears were still tracking down Estel’s cheeks, but he hiccupped a laugh at his brother’s words. “I didn’t win, though. You found me.”
“Yes.” Elrohir pressed his forehead and nose fiercely against Estel’s, and the hand cupping the back of Estel’s head tightened. “We did.”
Estel sighed and nestled back against Elrond’s shoulder, relishing his father’s arms and his brother’s embrace. He heard Dorhaur’s voice below, mingled with Glorfindel’s and Elladan’s, and was relieved that he need not be worried for his friend’s life. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Estel closed his eyes and, despite the rush of activity around him, was almost immediately asleep.
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