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Elrond pulled up his horse as Elrohir, currently tracking, signaled for a halt and leapt from his own mount. Only ages of practice kept him from voicing his frustration in a string of language of which Celebrían would certainly not have approved as his son examined the narrow track and the overgrown plain surrounding it. Their pace since leaving Imladris had been agonizingly slow, given Ferrier’s tendency to wander from the Road, and their stops many. At times the Man’s reasoning was clear—certain larger loops of the Road could be avoided by branching out on less-defined paths and tracks that had long been cut into the surrounding wilds. At times, however, Ferrier’s departures made little sense, and they had been forced to conclude that either Ferrier was lost in fevered confusion, or the Man was attempting to confound any pursuers.
The thought that Ferrier might be thinking clearly enough to put forth such an effort did not bring him comfort.
In truth, they had learned very little to comfort them over the past days, and though he knew no answers would be soon forthcoming, Elrond found that his mind and heart still seethed with the unanswered questions. Had this Man stolen Estel out of some misplaced sense of retribution, because in his madness he believed the Elrond and his people had taken Ferrier’s own son from him? Or had his illness provided some other reason, some vague notion which would make sense only within the confines of his own mind? It mattered not, Elrond supposed—at least, not at this time. What mattered was whether Estel was well, whether he was frightened. What mattered was finding his son, and returning him safely to his home and his mother. What mattered was the great hope which would be shattered if by some chance the child came to harm.
What mattered was that his own heart, so reluctant at the start to open itself as father to a child of Men, could not now easily bear that child’s loss.
Elrond took a firm grip upon himself, turning away from fruitless speculation and instead to what they did know. They knew that Estel had likely been drugged during those first days (and with herbs you gave the Man!), and that Ferrier no longer drove the wagon the Elves had provided him. That discovery had provided a moment of anxiety, until they had indentified the man’s next conveyance.
“It is ours.” Elladan leapt lightly into the wagon bed, examining the wood. “See?” He looked up at his brother, who peered over the sideboard. “Here is the burn mark from when that spark caught the hay ablaze.” Elrohir nodded, and Elladan turned a frown to their surroundings. The wagon sat behind the blacksmith’s shed in a small village which lay roughly ten miles south of the Bridge on the banks of the Mitheithel. Its presence explained Ferrier’s deviation, at least in part, but opened a new host of speculation. “Could they still be here?” The doubt in Elladan’s voice was, Elrond felt, justified. They had questioned a number of residents as they followed the tracks through, and no one remembered a Man who matched Ferrier’s description, or a boy who matched Estel’s. Given this find, however, they would need to engage in a more systematic questioning, which would take time. Elrond bit back his irritation and was dismounting when a voice rose behind them.
“Here now! What are you—” A large man rounded the structure. He took in their party at a glance, and when he spoke again, his tone was conciliatory. “Lord Elladan. Lord Elrohir.” He shoved two massive hands into his pockets, nodding. “I am sorry. Never can tell who might be poking about where they don’t belong.”
“Indeed.” Elladan hopped back to the ground, and the brothers greeted the smith. Elrond’s sons were known in the village, as they had often over the centuries detoured from their path to and from the northern wilds to ensure that these people were well. It was, Elrond had always felt, the least they could do as neighbors. The smith returned their greetings, then glanced toward the remaining members of their group. The request for an introduction was plain, and Elladan obliged. “Karvin, this is Lord Glorfindel. Glorfindel, Karvin son of Kalvin.” Glorfindel, who had not dismounted, nodded, and Karvin returned a brief nod of his own. Glorfindel was known among some Men, but apparently not these. Elladan moved on. “And this is my father, Lord Elrond.”
That, of course, was a name the smith did know. His eyes widened, and the Man executed a clumsy bow. “Lord Elrond. It is an honor, sir.” Elrond returned the greeting, hiding his impatience with practiced aplomb. As it often had in the past, this simple courtesy served him well—no sooner had the exchange ended than Karvin queried, “I expect this is no stopping off point for you. Is there something you need?” He gestured toward the wagon. “I’ve only had it a couple of days, so I can’t speak to its soundness, but if you’re in want of a—”
“Actually, we are more interested in the Man who left it with you.”
Karvin snorted, shaking his head at Elrohir. “Ferrier, he said was his name? An odd one, that, and no mistake.”
Relief hailed the smith’s acknowledgement, if not the words themselves. “In what way?”
“Well …” Karvin frowned. “He wasn’t well, he or his boy—that was plain as day.” The smith, clearly unaware of any reaction among his listeners, continued on. “He wouldn’t take any help, though, or stop off for any length of time. My wife tried, of course, but he was set on getting back to the Road as quick as could be.” The smith raised an eyebrow. “You know this man?”
Elladan responded, for which Elrond was grateful. He was still attempting to move past the Man’s casual implication that his son was not well. Ai, Estel … “He was in Rivendell for a time, and left against my father’s best judgment. For himself, of course, he may make such a decision, but we worry for the boy.” Elladan hesitated. “What can you tell us of him?”
Elrond silently applauded his son’s discretion. Karvin crossed his massive arms. “Not much, really. I didn’t even know he was in there until the very end, after all the packs were moved over.”
“Oh, aye. He wanted something smaller. Saw I had an old two-wheeled cart off to the side and offered to trade for it. Said they were in a hurry—didn’t say why—and that they would go faster in it.” That, unfortunately, was likely to be true. The smith shrugged. “I got it in trade, never really had much use for it, so I didn’t see any reason not to do the swap. The wagon I can haul supplies in, at least.”
“Where did the cart sit?”
Karvin motioned toward a spot not far from their current position. Elladan and Elrohir drifted off to study the ground around it, though much of their attention was clearly still focused on the smith’s words. Elrond prompted the Man.
“Right. At the last, after his packs, Ferrier climbed up into the wagon and asked if he could hand his son out to me.” His son. Elrond wondered if those had truly been Ferrier’s words, and what implications they carried, if so. There was, unfortunately, no way to ask without drawing more attention to Estel than they had already been forced to do. He let the question lie. “I said yes, of course, and he handed him over, then took him back and settled him in the cart. The lad never woke. Never even stirred.”
His gut tightened. Elrond pursed his lips, exchanging a glance with Glorfindel. “Did he seem flushed or feverish?” It was an impossible question, he knew, as the Man had known of no reason to pay attention to such things. To his surprise, however, Karvin shook his head.
“Not that I could tell. I’ve had three of my own,” he responded to Elrond’s glance, “and I know a sick child when I hold one. He was heavy asleep and limp as a rag doll, but no warmer than he should have been.” The Man shrugged. “I figured he was on the mend, maybe, sleeping it off.”
Drugged, then. The thought of the Man Ferrier, himself ill and not in his right mind, dosing Estel with pain and sleep herbs left Elrond cold.
“Adar!” Elladan caught his eye and gestured briefly, indicating that they had found the new trail. Elrond nodded, then returned his attention to the smith.
“We must be off, but if we may, our—”
“Adar!” Elrohir’s voice cut through his contemplation, and Elrond blinked, returning his mind to the present. The other three had all dismounted, and were gathered at a single point. His sons were crouched at ground level, but Glorfindel stood, eying him. Elrond could see the vague concern in his friend’s expression, but he ignored it as he slid easily down and approached. Elladan motioned to the packed earth as Elrohir began to creep slowly along a line away from the track. “Estel.”
He did not ask if they were certain—his sons had been trackers for nearly three thousand years, and had long ago surpassed him in that particular skill. Instead, Elrond eyed the earth to which Elladan pointed, noting the faint signs, then looked after Elrohir. His other son had halted some yards away, and now stood, gazing not back toward them but out across the open land.
“He was running.” The words were flat, and sent a shiver through Elrond. A wave of anger, too, swept him—how dare this Man steal his son, drug him and frighten him and take him into the wild? Elrohir was speaking again, and Elrond forced himself to focus. “The path weaves, as though he was unsteady on his feet.” Elrond exchanged a disbelieving glance with Glorfindel. Could the Man possibly have kept Estel drugged for so long? There was a little comfort in the knowledge that the herb supply Elrond had prepared for Ferrier could not have lasted much longer—but only a little. “He stopped here, then turned back.” Elrohir finally turned back as well, rejoining them. “He returned more slowly, but he got back into the cart before it moved away again.”
Glorfindel nodded, murmuring, “Well thought, youngling.” He scanned the barren land, and added what they all knew. “To set out on his own from here, without supplies or protection or means of conveyance, would have very likely meant death.”
And so Estel had been forced to return to his abductor. From the expressions upon the faces of his sons and his friend, Elrond was not the only one to find such a situation intolerable. As one, they remounted and took again to the trail.
The inn sat on the Road at the eastern border of the Bree-lands, and Elrond was not surprised when the trail led them around into its stable yard. It was the first structure or sign of habitation for days, and Ferrier would be low on supplies, even if he had purchased additional in the village where he had traded out the wagon. A cart such as the one the Man now drove simply didn’t hold much, not alongside both a driver and a passenger. The Elves drew up in the yard, catching the attention of several Men who loitered near the stable door. The Men exchanged long glances then ambled slowly over, one muttering something that sounded like, “ … have a fit when he sees this,” before falling silent. Elladan and Elrohir ignored them entirely, splitting off the moment their feet touched earth to search for sign of the cart’s passing in the hard-packed, well-traveled yard. Elrond and Glorfindel moved to greet the yard’s occupants.
“Can we help you with something?”
The Men were wary, their stance and expressions tight. It was, Elrond thought, understandable, if regrettable. Elves spent little time in this portion of Eriador, and the residents here had quite possibly never seen one of his kind. Perhaps it would be best to simply move along with their business, trusting a matter-of-fact approach to set these Men at ease. He nodded briefly. “I am Elrond Eärendilion. My companions and I search for two people, a Man and a boy travelling together in a two-wheeled cart. Their trail leads here. Have you perhaps seen any sign of such a pair in the past days?”
The Men glanced at each other again, then one shrugged and nodded toward the inn. “Darl’s the one you want—he owns the place.”
It was not an answer, but for the moment it was enough. Elrond nodded, turned, and made for the inn, Glorfindel at his heels.
“I hope this Man does not indeed ‘have a fit’ when he sees us,” Glorfindel murmured. “We have little time for such things.” Elrond shook his head. He assumed the phrase to be a figure of speech, but in the end it mattered little. They needed answers, and if these people were required to suffer some discomfort in order to provide them, then so be it.
This was taking entirely too long, and he wanted his son back.
They did not pause at the rear door, but pushed it open and swept inside. Business was slow in the mid-afternoon, with only a few occupied tables to gape at them as they crossed to the bar. A Man bent behind it, wrestling with the tap of a large wooden keg.
“Be right with you,” the Man puffed without looking up. Glorfindel leaned against the bar, eying the Man’s progress. Elrond turned his own attention to the main room. It had been many centuries since he had last been in such an establishment, but the basics did not appear to have greatly changed. The rough-hewn tables, low stained ceiling, and odor were all as he remembered, as were the furtive glances cast by the patrons. At one time he might have found it amusing to return their stares and watch them scramble to look at anything else, but that too was many years past. He allowed his own gaze to slide past them, completing his survey of the room before looking back to the bar. Glorfindel, apparently through with waiting, straightened and addressed the struggling Man.
“May I offer any assistance?”
The Man glanced up then, already shaking his head, and stopped abruptly upon sight of them. His face drained suddenly of color, turning such an alarming shade that Elrond feared for a moment the Man might swoon. It was … an odd reaction, even for a Man not expecting Elves to appear in his bar. Elrond made ready to catch the Man if he did go down, but thankfully the barkeep gathered himself and straightened. He cleared his throat, then again, before speaking.
“Are you here after that boy and his da, then?”
It was … not what he had been expecting. Elrond turned raised eyebrows to Glorfindel, then looked back to the Man—Darl, he presumed. “What can you tell us?”
Darl ran a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly. “I didn’t believe him, I thought …” He turned a pleading glance upon the Elves. “Why would I have believed him? It didn’t seem possible.”
It seemed that Estel had asked for help of some sort, then, and been turned away. Elrond understood the logic of the Man’s words, but found himself uninterested in soothing Darl’s guilt. “What can you tell us?” he repeated.
The barkeep shook himself. “They were—”
“Adar!” Elrond looked around. Elladan and Elrohir strode quickly to join them, nodding briefly to the Man, who managed a stricken nod in return. Elrohir spoke. “The cart is here, and the horse—the stable master says that Ferrier traded them for a wagon and a sturdier farm animal.”
Elrond resisted the urge to scream. “Have you found the track?”
His son nodded. “Aye. The Man indicated that—”
A sharp gasp cut him off. They turned as one to see a young Woman hurrying across the room, plucking frantically at her bound-back hair.
“My hair tie!” Estel exclaimed, bouncing a little. Elladan produced it with a grin and a flourish, handing it over.
“Your hair tie.”
Estel returned the grin, excited that his idea had actually worked and pleased to have his tie again. He seized it and began to pull his hair back. He had missed it over the past days—hair in his face had become a constant annoyance, and he had already decided that he would always carry a spare, just in case. As he worked, a thought occurred to him.
“I told her Archet, though.”
“Indeed, and she repeated all that you had said—the young Woman was quite concerned for you—but the stable master told us of a conversation he had with Ferrier regarding the woodland track, and we were able to find tracks that we were confident belonged to the wagon he described.”
Estel nodded and looked down, suddenly shy. “She was nice. She listened to me.”
His father sighed. “The innkeeper was a good Man too, Estel. He was simply too busy to pay attention to what was before him.” Elrond rubbed Estel’s back gently. “It will be some time before he does such again, I believe.”
Glorfindel tilted his head. “Did Ferrier discuss his final plans with you, then?”
None of them had yet asked much about his time with Ferrier, and Estel saw concern creep into Elrond’s expression. He didn’t mind talking about it, though—now that it was over and he was safe, it was easier to feel sorry for the Man.
“No, but I found a map in one of his packs. At least, it was more of a drawing, but I remembered the maps Erestor showed me and it made a little sense to me.”
“Ah.” His father smiled. “Erestor will be pleased.” He lifted one eyebrow. “He did ask me to tell you that your essay on the fall of Annúminas seemed … rushed.”
Estel gaped. How Erestor could even … He suddenly saw the twinkle in Elrond’s eyes, and realized that he was being teased—by his father, or by Erestor, or possibly both. He giggled, and his father’s rich chuckle joined him. Estel pulled up his knees and rested his chin on them, content in the presence of his family, and was about to ask more about their journey when another voice spoke from behind.
“He’s awake, then.”
Estel twisted around, and his heart fell.
Was this Dorhaur’s captain? Why else would he be here?
It didn’t really matter. If he was here, there was nothing Estel could do about it. Still, Baradhald was one of his mother’s people he had been allowed to meet a few times in the past, and Estel couldn’t help wishing now that the Man crossing the clearing to join them at the fire was anyone but him.
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