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“You’ll be taking the Road back?”
Dorhaur looked up, turning his attention from his stew and from the chattering boy sprawled on the ground at his side. As he had suspected, Estel was an engaging child when he felt safe and was surrounded by those he considered family—polite and brash and earnest in turns. He reminded Dorhaur much of his own youngest son, and the thought had crossed his mind more than once that the two boys would get on well together. He banished those musings almost immediately, of course. He and his were but common folk of the Dúnedain. Even did Estel not live in Rivendell, this boy was their Chieftain. His compatriots would be drawn from among their leadership and the children of their leadership, the other important Dúnedain families.
People like Captain Baradhald.
His skin crawled. Perish that thought.
The atmosphere in the little camp still held all the dark expectancy of an approaching storm, even hours after he had awakened in the mid-afternoon. Its source was easily apparent. The tension between his captain and the Elves had not noticeably eased since their first confrontation. It crackled yet in the air, evident in their every exchange. Dorhaur was grateful for his relative safety on the edge of the camp, where he might observe without taking part. He was in turns fascinated and horrified by his captain’s seeming intransigence in the face of their Elvish allies. For their part, the Elves appeared to be doing their best to simply ignore Baradhald, to varying degrees of success. Even more interesting, however, was Estel’s reaction to the other Man. It was quite clear that their young Chieftain held no love for his father’s cousin. Any time Baradhald moved or spoke, the clear grey eyes would fix him briefly with a dark glare before returning to whatever tale or task had previously held the boy’s attention.
Dorhaur wondered what lay behind those burning glances. It could be simply the obvious grudge between Estel’s Elvish family and Baradhald—but he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Eventually. We will take a straight path from here to Amon Sûl, then will join with the Road to the east of the watchtower.”
Elrond, Dorhaur had noticed, seemed to be doing most of the speaking when it came to his captain. The others paid heed, but mostly kept their silence. The Ranger wondered if it was because the Lord of Imladris was leader of their small party, or because he was the most patient.
This was, he was coming to see, a necessary trait when dealing with Captain Baradhald.
Baradhald frowned. “You would take him through the wilds?”
Elrond’s jaw tightened, but his voice remained mild. “We will make better time in the open than in any attempt to retrace our route through the villages of Bree-land. Truly, at current time the Road is no more or less safe than the wilds for those who come prepared and vigilant.”
Baradhald apparently disagreed.
“It is foolish to take such a risk.”
Dorhaur almost choked on his stew. Was the man insane, or merely dim-witted? It was of course Baradhald’s duty as a captain of the Rangers to offer opinion and concern regarding travel through the northern wilds—assuming he had a legitimate concern, of which Dorhaur was at this point by no means certain. For himself, he believed Lord Elrond to have the right of it. Wargs might be common still in the wilds of Eriador, but the orcs’ numbers in the north had been low since the White Council’s action at Dol Goldur and the battle at the Lonely Mountain. For a party comprised of members such as Lord Elrond, his sons, and Lord Glorfindel, a journey from Archet to Weathertop should prove little challenge. No one had asked him, however, and he had no intention of drawing attention to himself at the current moment. Even if his captain truly did doubt the safety of such a route, however, Baradhald might have approached it differently. One did not simply say such things to those who had been battling the forces of the Enemy for so many centuries longer than they—not without a far greater familiarity than he understood his captain to have with these people.
One of the twins—Elladan, he thought—stepped to Elrond’s side, scowling. “And yet, it is ours to take.”
Glorfindel slid smoothly in front of Elladan, nudging him back with one foot. The son of Elrond obeyed, though his frown did not ease. “Come. You surely understand, Captain, that we would take no unnecessary risk in this?” Confidence and calm radiated from the blond Elf in waves, such that even Baradhald could not remain unaffected. The captain only grimaced in response, then glanced across the camp toward Estel.
Beside him, the boy stiffened.
“Captain Baradhald.” Elrond’s tone was tight, and Dorhaur sensed that even Rivendell’s Lord was at the end of his endurance. “Your concern as Estel’s kindred is noted and appreciated.” Baradhald raised a sardonic brow. “Yet, decisions regarding his safety were given over to me long ago. I do not deem this to be an excessive risk, and I would not keep Estel from his mother, who grieves his absence, any longer than necessary.” The message was clear, if couched in polite words—this discussion is closed. “You are welcome to disagree privately, if you choose.”
The two surveyed each other for a long moment, and then Baradhald nodded once. “My man and I will accompany you until you reach the Road.” He grinned sourly. “I’m sure you won’t mind the additional swords, on the off chance that your … assumptions prove inaccurate.”
Dorhaur flinched, and a soft growl of protest drifted from beside him. He laid a light hand on Estel’s shoulder, and felt the muscles rock-hard with tension.
Elrond only inclined his head. “As you wish.”
Dorhaur gaped as the little knot in the center of the camp broke up, various combatants—it was a strong word, but none other came easily to mind—drifting off to their own pursuits. He had not been planning for any sort of excursion to the eastern portions of Eriador. Indeed, he had been hoping for a quick visit home before setting out upon his next patrol. A glance at the child beside him stilled any stirrings of protest. Such an opportunity would not present itself again, and in any event, he wished Estel to remember the Rangers well from his brief foray into their lands. He knew not how many others of the Dúnedain the boy had met, in what circumstances or for how long, but he would not leave this cousin of Arathorn as the boy’s final memory of his own people before returning to Rivendell.
Elladan flung himself down beside them. “You,” he pointed to Dorhaur, “will stay on your horse if we do meet with any manner of danger between here and Amon Sûl. I will not have that wound torn open again unnecessarily.”
Dorhaur exchanged a quick glance with Estel, whose expression had shifted from scowl to smirk in the space of a heartbeat. He quirked a brow, and the boy smothered a giggle as Dorhaur then looked back to his healer.
“As you say.”
Elladan flopped back, full length upon the ground, and heaved a long sigh. “The Man irks me.”
There was nothing to say to that. Even Estel, who had been talking nonstop in some capacity since Dorhaur awoke, remained silent, rolling a round orange stone—or, was that a marble?—on the packed earth before him. Elladan apparently required no response, however. He closed his eyes and relaxed with a sigh against the cool, shadowed grass beneath the tree. Slowly, his jaw relaxed and the rigid tension left his frame. Estel shoved the marble into his pocket, ducked around Dorhaur, and stretched out beside the Elf, resting his head on Elladan’s shoulder. A strong arm pulled the boy tight against his brother, and then both were silent.
His brother. It was odd to think of them in those terms, Elf and child of Men, but it was clear to him that they did indeed view each other as such. Dorhaur eyed them again before leaning back against the solid trunk and closing his eyes. He understood in a general way his captain’s concern. It was, after all, truly no easy thing to accept that other than the Lady Gilraen, this boy—the Chieftain of the Dúnedain people—knew only Elves as his close kin and companions. How would Estel manage himself among them when he returned? The lad had done well enough among the people of Staddle, as far as Dorhaur had been able to see, but two days was not a year, or ten years, or fifty. It was an entirely different thing to visit among a people than to take them for one’s own. Would Estel be able to do that? Would he be able to form a true kindred bond with the Dúnedain, having been raised away from their race, their land, and their travails?
It was a disturbing question, and one with no ready answer.
He opened his eyes. “Captain?”
“We will escort Lord Elrond and his party to the Road at the east of Weathertop. Be ready to leave at first light.”
Dorhaur nodded. “Yes, Captain.”
Baradhald returned the nod briefly, then disappeared again into the woods. It was just as well—perhaps the atmosphere would ease in his absence. Dorhaur closed his eyes again, flexing his injured thigh. In the end, such speculation mattered not. The Dúnedain leadership had obviously felt that Rivendell was the safest place for their young Chieftain, and most importantly, the Lady Gilraen had felt so as well. As Dorhaur understood his captain’s concerns, he also understood the fears that could have lead to such a decision. The remnant of the northern kingdom was beset by ever increasing dangers as the years passed, and no child could be guaranteed safety from either the Enemy’s forces or the hardships of the land itself. It was possible that the lad would have reached manhood safely, but with the doors of Rivendell open to them, why take such a chance? In any event, he was certain that neither he nor Baradhald was the first to ask such questions. Estel’s mother and the Dúnedain leadership, as well as Lord Elrond himself, would surely address any issues surrounding their Chieftain’s reintegration into his own people when the time arose.
Baradhald would do well to realize the same, as he obviously held no sway over matters. Dorhaur wondered, in fact, why his captain persisted. The man was not stupid, of that Dorhaur was—nearly—certain. Baradhald knew that his grousing would change nothing. What, then, did he hope to gain by this constant sparring with Estel’s guardians?
Could it be that the man was simply set on making as miserable as possible those who opposed his own opinions?
Dorhaur shuddered. Surely there was some other explanation. Still, Baradhald had been recently transferred to captain a low-activity area with a patrol of highly experienced, solitary Rangers. It could easily be read that leadership wished to be free of him as well.
That would be … fantastic. Truly.
Dorhaur sighed, relaxing into the warm spring evening. One thing only was clear to him, as he drifted again into a light doze. He was thankful that most of his patrols were taken apart from Baradhald’s direct supervision. Respect for his captain would not come easily to him again.
Estel was excited to be off, and woke long before first light. He lay quietly for a while, feeling the heavy warmth of Glorfindel’s arm over him. He had awakened partway through the night from vague, disturbing dreams, and had rolled out of his own bedroll to nestle against his nearby friend’s back. Feeling him there, Glorfindel had rolled over, tucking both his arm and his blanket around Estel. Neither had stirred again that night. He knew not whether Glorfindel had truly slept or had only slipped into waking dream as the Elves did at times, but none had roused Glorfindel for a watch, and Estel himself had slept soundly.
Now, however, he was awake and ready to leave. He had seen Men and Hobbits in the past weeks, Hobbit holes and inns, Women and children, and they had all been amazing—but he was ready to be home again. He wanted to put his memories of Ferrier, of their journey and of the man’s illness and sadness and lost arm, behind him. He missed his mother, and worried over Elrond’s admission that she was sad and missed him. He wanted her to know that he was safe and well. He missed his own bed, and food from the kitchens, and regular baths.
He wondered how long until daybreak.
A rustle sounded across the campsite, and in the moonlight he saw Baradhald appear from the woods in the direction the horses were picketed. The Ranger captain crossed to Elrohir, who was sitting guard, and the two spoke briefly for a moment. Baradhald nodded once, then disappeared back into the trees. Elladan stirred, then rose and began to build up the fire. Dorhaur too sat up and stretched, a long lean shadow in the flickering light. Estel let out a long, slow breath.
Soon. They would leave soon.
His eyes wandered of their own accord back to the place where Baradhald had vanished. Why did it have to be him? Of all the Rangers in the north, why couldn’t it have been someone else? He knew that his father and the rest of his family didn’t get along with the Man, and he knew why. Baradhald hadn’t wanted his mother to bring him to Imladris after his father—his mother’s husband, the Man who had sired him—had died. Estel didn’t know why. He loved Imladris, and he was happy there. Why did it matter whether he grew up with Men or Elves?
And why did Baradhald feel like it was any of his business, anyway?
What Elrond and his Elvish family didn’t know about, though, were the fierce arguments the Man had started with Estel’s mother both times he had visited, in the privacy of Gilraen's own apartment. Gilraen had stood up to him, defending herself and her decision—Estel’s mother was a strong woman and not easily intimidated—but she had cried after Baradhald had finally stalked from their rooms. Estel had urged her to tell Elrond, but she had demurred.
“Baradhald is not often here, Estel. Better to just not make things more difficult for everyone than they already are. He will be gone soon.”
Estel didn’t understand, but he took her words to heart, and didn’t tell anyone—even her—about the times that the Man had cornered him during those same visits and had tried to convince him that he would be happier among his mother’s people. Baradhald hadn’t yelled at him, but had coaxed and bribed instead, spinning stories of family and holiday feasts and playmates Estel’s own age. His own children, the Man had said, would be more than suitable companions—his son was only three years younger, and his daughter was exactly Estel’s age. If Estel would only tell Gilraen that he wished to live among her own people, if he would press the issue, she would surely not refuse him.
He didn’t want to live anywhere else, though, and had told Baradhald so. It had not made the Man happy.
He didn’t understand it. The other Rangers Estel had met over the years seemed nice enough, though he had really barely spoken to them other than brief visits and maybe a meal or two. Baradhald, though … His mother had told him before the first time he had been introduced that they were allowing the meeting because his father’s cousin was concerned for him, and they wanted him to see that Estel was happy and growing up well. He supposed that made sense, but he wished there had been some other way.
Baradhald frightened him a little. Estel had always been more than glad when he finally left Imladris.
And now he was here with them for several more days. Still, his father and brothers and Glorfindel would be nearby the whole time. Surely there would be no time for the Ranger captain to harass him. Anyway, this meant Dorhaur would be with them for a while longer as well, and Estel was happy about that. He had grown to like the Ranger, and would be sorry to see him go.
He wondered if Dorhaur could ever visit Imladris. It would be fun to have someone come to see him rather than his mother or Elrond or his brothers. Maybe he would ask.
“Up, youngling.” Glorfindel shook him gently, then rolled to his feet.
They ate quickly, packed up, and doused the fire, then made their way to the horses. Baradhald had saddled and bridled his and Dorhaur’s already, and all that was left was to fasten their bags and be on their way. Estel was disappointed not to see his own little mare, but Elrohir shook his head.
“Brennil is not accustomed to the long days we must ride in order to return home swiftly. She would not have been able to keep up.” He patted the horse they had brought for Estel, a calm grey gelding who sniffed at the boy with interest. “Hethu will be pleased to bear you home.”
Estel rubbed the soft nose, and took the apple Elrohir offered. Hethu crunched it, then nudged him again, knocking him gently off balance. Estel laughed softly, then swung up and settled, working hard not to bounce with anticipation and confuse the horse. The others mounted as well, and then Glorfindel took the lead away from the little campsite and the Bree-lands.
Much of the morning was spent still within the trees of the Chetwood, though the forest thinned as they made their way toward the east. Just before lunch they finally broke free onto a wide grassy plain, rolling with low hills. Estel laughed as they sped up, allowing the horses to finally stretch their legs. The feel of the wind and the horse moving beneath him was wonderful, after the days of riding in a cart and walking, and he enjoyed every bit of their pace before they finally pulled up for a brief lunch.
“We are not yet in the Weather Hills,” Elrond responded to his questions as they ate. “These are not of their stature—they are simply an unnamed set of hills to the east of the Chetwood.”
“When will we reach them?”
Elrond laughed, dusting crumbs from his tunic. “Not today.”
It was an answer which Estel had come over the years to understand might mean anything from the next morning to the next week. Still, he supposed that his father couldn’t say with absolute certainty—they would surely need to take the wilds as they came. He fell silent, finishing his own lunch, and as the others began to remount, blurted a question that had been on his mind since the day before.
“Ada, how did you know that they had to remove Master Ferrier’s arm?”
The Elves halted, glancing at each other. Finally, Elrond sighed. “It is a somewhat involved piece of our journey, and I have no wish to shout it at you as we ride. Either you may wait for camp tonight, or you may ride with me for a time and I will tell you the tale as we go.”
Without hesitation, Estel reached up to be pulled onto his father’s horse. Elrond settled Estel before him, and together they started again across the plains.
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