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A/N: I will be out of town on vacation next weekend, so it is highly unlikely that you will see a chapter from me for a couple of weeks. Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! :-)
It was soothing to be within the trees once more. These first vestiges of the Chetwood were not so large or so aware as the forests of Imladris, but still a tranquility shimmered within—sound muffled by leaves and undergrowth, scent rich and green, trunks strong and solid, roots stretched deep. A thread of calm stole into his fëa, and Elrond saw it mirrored as well in his companions’ postures. Intensity and purpose remained, but something brittle had bled away from them. It was as well. The tension which had driven them over the past days would eventually wear at their focus and edge if not countered, and they could not afford to begin making mistakes.
No. His son was depending upon them.
Yet again, he pondered the details they had learned at the inn. First and foremost, Estel was well—walking and talking and thinking, at least. Although … Elrond was not entirely certain what to make of the tale they had been told there. If the innkeeper and his niece were to be believed—and he saw no reason why they should not be—Estel had not reported to either of them that he had been stolen. He had not even given them his own name. Both had referred to him as Nate. No, he had only requested assistance for Ferrier, referring to the Man as ‘my da’. He had asked a message to be sent to Imladris, but again only in the service of Ferrier’s health. Even in handing his hair tie over to the girl, Kerra, he had reported nothing but what he assumed to be their final destination.
What was Estel’s purpose in this? Did he fear that he would not be believed, as indeed he had not been already? Or … or what? Was it possible he understood that it was unwise for him to be connected directly to Imladris? He knew, of course, that he was not allowed interaction with those who came to Rivendell from beyond its borders. He complained about it often enough, however, and Elrond had not considered that the boy had put any real thought into the matter, other than filing it away as yet another arbitrary parental restriction.
This, though, suggested otherwise.
That was an … interesting … thought.
Movement drew his attention back to the task at hand. Elladan had joined Elrohir on the ground, and they were consulting in low tones. Elrond kept one eye on his sons, and studied their surroundings. The track had been winding along the edge of several cleared fields—pipeweed fields, he thought—and they were on the edge of one of those now. Three farmers worked a patch of ground across the clearing, and he was unsurprised to see that two of them appeared to be Halflings. The little folk were numerous in this corner of Eriador, and it was difficult, or so he understood, to find a pipeweed venture without finding at least one Halfling alongside. Even as he watched, the farmers seemed to notice them, and after a brief consultation, the Man and one of the Halflings started in their direction.
His sons rose. “Something happened here,” Elrohir reported. “Estel ran from this point, but returned, along with another. Not Ferrier—the boots are not right, and in any case Ferrier does not appear to have left the wagon. This new Man seems also to have climbed aboard. At least, his tracks do not return to the field from here.”
Elrond nodded toward the approaching farmers. “Perhaps these will have some manner of news.”
His sons swung around to face the Bree-landers. Glorfindel remained upon his horse—an ingrained precaution, though one that Elrond thought likely unnecessary here. The Man and the Halfling puffed to a stop before them, eyes wide. Before Elrond could speak, the Halfling blurted, “Are you here after Estel, then?”
Elrond gaped for a moment, relief and surprise robbing him momentarily of speech. Could it be that their frantic search was at an end? “You have him?” he finally managed.
The Man shook his head, and Elrond’s heart sank. “Nay, but he was here.” He nodded down the far length of the field, where a house and barn were just visible. “Come up to the house, and we will tell you what we know and set you on the right path.”
Still righting his rapidly shifting equilibrium, Elrond nodded. The Elves fell in behind the Man and the Halfling as they made their way along the worn track toward the house.
“Marks Miller,” the Man introduced himself as they went, “and this is my partner in business, Arti Hilldweller.” Arti nodded up at them but remained silent, his energy bent upon keeping pace with their long strides.
“Elrond Eärendilion.” He paused briefly, and was relieved when the name brought forth only a polite nod, without recognition. Far better for these people to believe that a number of random Elves were searching for the boy, rather than the Lord of Imladris himself. “My sons, Elladan and Elrohir, and Glorfindel,” Elrond completed the introductions.
“Sons,” the Man murmured, eyes flickering between three. Ah, yes. Elrond had known enough Men over the ages to understand the difficulty and wonder of the Second-born, when faced with Elvish generations. For Men, who measured time in decades rather than ages, the concept that children, parents, and grandparents (many did not even think beyond) remained all of equal strength and vigor throughout the centuries was indeed nearly impossible to grasp. Elrond smiled gently, and Marks shook himself. “Beg pardon.” He picked up the pace again. “The lad said he was from a village near Rivendell. He said his brothers were trackers and would be searching for him, but I suppose his folks appealed to you as well?”
The words set off a flurry of glances among the Elves, which Marks was fortunately too far ahead and Arti too far behind to see. Elrond turned his gaze from an unreadable communication between his sons to lift an eyebrow at Glorfindel. Though these people had been given his correct name, it seemed that Estel was indeed purposely hiding his ties to Imladris—or softening them, at least. He was as disturbed as he was relieved. It was well that the tale of a child of Men living in Imladris was not being spread throughout Eriador, but this also meant that Estel understood a larger purpose behind Elrond’s admonishments to remain away from outsiders in Rivendell.
What did Estel believe that purpose to be?
Now was not the time, of course, and Elrond turned his mind firmly away from this new problem. Still, it would need to somehow be addressed after their return to Imladris. He had always known that Estel would begin to wonder as he grew older—the child was intelligent and curious, and would eventually demand explanations beyond ‘it is for your safety’. He hadn’t, however, expected it so soon.
Faced with this evidence, Elrond recognized his miscalculation for what it was. The boy was highly trained and educated, and had no companions other than adults. Estel was mature beyond his years, if Elrond’s memory of other fosterlings of Isildur’s line served him. Their secret would need to be handled with greater care as he progressed in age and wisdom.
For now, Elrond would merely be glad for a simple explanation in this situation.
“His mother was understandably distraught,” he hedged, and Marks nodded. “We set out in pursuit as soon as was possible.” As soon as they had realized that his son had not even been within Imladris for days. Even now, it stung.
The farmer nodded again, then drew up. They were near the house now, and the Man held up a hand to halt their progress, turning uneasy eyes to Elrond. Elrond straightened, disquieted by the sudden alteration in the Marks’s behavior. The knot of his sons and Glorfindel tightened around him, and a humorless smile touched the Man’s lips in response. The Halfling, Arti, joined them, and after a quick glance settled beside his business partner. Marks began to fold his arms, then caught himself and dropped them back to his sides. He took a long, nervous breath.
“I understand that Estel’s people will want some say in Jerold Ferrier’s fate. It’s only right, considering, but if I may, I’d like to ask you to hear us out before you try to take him—not least because he’s still very ill and in no condition to be moved, much less traveling any distance.”
Elrond blinked, startled. As one, his sons swept forward. “Ferrier is here?” Both Man and Hobbit nodded, easing back from the sudden brittle intensity. Seeing the farmers’ trepidation, Elrond took an iron hold on his own swirling wrath and called his sons back.
They turned on him, protest surging as a flame in their eyes. Still, his sons’ own long years had served them well. After a brief instant, they nodded and drifted back to him. Glorfindel touched Elrohir’s shoulder as the twins returned, and Elrond brushed Elladan’s arm, half support and half warning. He looked back to Marks and nodded curtly.
“It will be as you request.”
Marks and Arti exchanged a clearly relieved glance, then started again for the house. As they approached the porch, a Woman appeared from around the far side, drying her hands on her apron.
“Marks!” She altered her course toward them. “I’m just finished with the sandwiches, I’ll be bringing them out as soon as I—” Her words fell away as she caught sight of the Elves, and she looked quickly to her husband. “Ah.”
The Man put a steadying arm around his wife, kissing her cheek. “Luanna, these are Elves from Rivendell, come in search of the lad.” He looked back to the Elves, gesturing to the woman at his side. “My Lords, this is my lovely wife, Luanna.”
Luanna spared her husband an eye roll and a shake of the head as she stepped forward to greet them. “My Lords, welcome to our home.” She was visibly flustered, yet her hospitality remained unimpaired. She gestured toward the house. “We have more than enough to share. Will you eat our midday meal with us while we tell you what’s happened here these past days?”
Elrond inclined his head. “We thank you, mistress. We have not yet taken our own repast.” This might add time they did not wish to spare, true, but he did not wish to either frighten these people or to leave an ungracious memory of the Elves of Imladris. In any event, it would not do to prevent hungry people from their own meal for what may yet be a lengthy conversation. The Elves spoke briefly to their horses, then followed their hosts inside.
The home was small, but tightly built and scrubbed clean. At the edge of his senses, Elrond smelled the distinct odors of blood and antiseptic as he entered. These reminded him of who else awaited them within, and he forced himself to focus firmly on their hosts. His attention could not be allowed to wander from such news as these people had of his son.
Jerold Ferrier was, after all, secondary to their purposes.
As his gaze rested on the table, he discovered two small children watching them with wide eyes and open mouths. Without thought, his lips curled into a smile, and he offered a shallow bow. “Greetings, little ones. I am Elrond. And who might you be?”
Luanna cast him a glance, her face softening. She crossed to an expanse of smooth wooden counter and began to put together more sandwiches. After looking toward their father, who nodded, the boy replied, “I’m Sander, and this is my sister Cora.”
Elrond motioned to his companions. “These are my sons Elladan and Elrohir, and my friend Glorfindel.”
Their eyes remained wide. “You’re Elves,” Sander stated bluntly. Arti choked on the dipperful of water he had drawn from a pitcher against one wall, but Glorfindel grinned and moved to take a chair. As always, his joy lit the room.
“Indeed we are, and most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Arti finished his drink, and Marks and Luanna visibly relaxed. The others seated themselves as Luanna began to transfer food to the table. Marks turned to his children. “These Elves have come searching for Estel. You remember that he told us he lives near the Elves in Rivendell? His ma and da asked if they would come looking for him.”
“Nate told us stories!” the little girl crowed.
“His name is Estel,” her brother corrected, then looked back to their guests. “He told us about Beren and Lúthien.”
“And a prince who turned into a frog!” Cora piped up, not to be outdone. She giggled, and Luanna shook her head.
“Enough, children.” She looked to Elrond. “They only spent a few hours with the lad, but he was kind enough to entertain them while we worked with …” Luanna hesitated, as if suddenly realizing what she was about to say, then pressed on. “With Master Ferrier. As you see, they were much taken with him.” Elrond smiled at the image, accepting two thick slices of bread with roasted chicken between, and fried potatoes alongside. Estel had no chance to interact with other children in Imladris—something both Elrond and Gilraen routinely regretted—but he was indeed a kind boy, and Elrond had no doubt that he would be good with younger children if given the chance. The stories mentioned were certainly ones that Estel would have chosen. They had long been favorites. Luanna finished setting out the food and looked over the table. For the first time since they had entered, she hesitated. “I know it’s likely not what you’re used to, but it’s—”
“I’m certain we will be more than satisfied,” Elladan cut her off gently.
“Indeed,” Elrohir added, “it smells quite appetizing.”
She turned pink and nodded, then joined them at the table. Elrond favored his sons with an approving glance—he knew that both were still seething, and appreciated this effort—and for a few minutes no one spoke as they turned their attention to the meal. Finally, Luanna looked to her children, who had fallen to playing in the last of their potatoes.
“Sander, wash your sister up, then stay outside and play. Don’t go beyond the barn.” Both children seemed ready to protest, but a stern glance stilled them, and after a long moment’s glare, Sander grabbed Cora by the sleeve and hauled her toward the outer door. Elrond watched, lips twitching, as the little girl dragged her feet and whined. When the door closed behind them, Luanna sighed.
“I am sorry for that. They do dislike missing anything new.”
“You have no need.” Elrond turned a raised eyebrow upon Elladan and Elrohir. “They are not unlike my own sons, when small.”
Both of his grown sons rolled their eyes, and Luanna chuckled softly. “I do suppose all children have some similarities.”
“I assure you, mistress, they do.” Elrond smiled, then drew in a long breath. Around him, the levity drained from the room. He glanced at his companions, then back at their hosts. “Now then. What can you tell us of Estel? You say he is no longer here, but that Ferrier remains. How is this?”
The Elves listened then as the three detailed the events of Estel’s arrival—Ferrier’s collapse, the healer’s arrival, and their growing suspicions regarding the relationship between Estel and the Man.
“He wasn’t …” Luanna groped for some explanation, then sighed. “Despite that Estel called Master Ferrier ‘da’, the lad had no connection with him at all. It was very clear. Given also that they looked nothing alike, we decided that it would be well to be certain.”
Elrond nodded slowly. “I thank you. It is not everyone who would presume to question such a situation.”
“You are right, of course. As we discussed among us that night, though, we would hope that someone would ask if it were our children taken and alone, my Lord.”
“Indeed.” Elrond closed his eyes briefly, thanking the Valar for brave, perceptive people. Then, he nodded to Luanna, obviously the spokesperson for the three. “Please continue.”
She did so, detailing how Estel had confided in Arti—being careful, Elrond noted again, to paint no direct relationship between himself and Imladris—and how that same night, the others had aided the Halfling healer in removing Ferrier’s infected arm. The news cut him deeply, and he sat back, covering his face with one hand while he pondered this development.
It seemed that his decision to allow Ferrier to leave Imladris had gone wrong on any number of levels. It had been made after much deliberation, and with hopes for the Man’s best interests, yet in hindsight it had been the catalyst for much pain and suffering.
Well. He could not have known, and it would do no one any good to dwell on it now. No one, not even the Valar, could always make the correct decisions. Glorfindel touched his arm gently, and Elrond remembered where he was and who he was with. He removed his hand, sitting up quickly.
“My apologies,” he offered to the three watching him from across the table. He hesitated, but decided that no explanation was needed—fabricated or otherwise. “Please continue.”
They were clearly perplexed, but moved along with their tale.
“We had no idea his family would have come to you for aid, of course, and no real hope that his brothers, trackers though they may be, could find him across so many miles,” Marks finally brought the recitation to a close. “We thought it best to see what could be done about finding someone willing to take him home. Our healer’s husband has a cousin with an inn in Staddle, and agreed to take Estel there to ask after options.”
Elrond exchanged a glance with Glorfindel and his sons, chest tightening. If a person had been found in Staddle who had agreed to do this thing, as unlikely as it seemed given the reports of the Dúnedain regarding this area, they might yet be tracking for some time—and that was leaving aside the question of whether such a volunteer would be someone with his son’s best interests at heart. Elrond swallowed the impatience and paranoia. Halflings were careful of their children, or so he had always understood. Surely they would not send Estel off in the hands of someone less than trustworthy.
They nodded. Arti’s shrug was pained. “We’re that sorry, but we didn’t know how likely it were that anyone would really be coming for him all this way, and thought as this was best.”
“Cres—Creston Sandheaver, who took him—said his cousin had some ideas, but that it would be a few days before they could speak to the Man in question,” Marks added. “Cres couldn’t stay, but his cousin Darlo agreed to keep the boy and see that he got set off in the right direction.”
They seemed to think nothing of shuffling a distressed child from one person to the next. Still, Elrond reminded himself, it was more than many might have done, and it wasn’t as if this Halfling had left Estel with someone unknown to him. Family bonds among the Halflings were strong. Elrond took a long, deep breath, then nodded.
“Very well, then, and we thank you. It seems that Staddle will be our next destination.” And perhaps they would make better time, there being no reason to track this leg of the journey. The Halfling, Sandheaver, had verified that Estel had made it to the town, at least. He sighed then, leaning back into the solid wooden slats of his chair. “And now, it seems, to Ferrier. You removed his arm, you say. Did this arrest the infection? How does he now fare?” As he spoke, Elrond opened himself to the faint odors that he was certain their hosts could not detect, testing to see if he could learn anything of the Man’s condition by scent alone.
All three tensed, exchanging wary glances. Finally, Luanna spoke.
“My Lords, I understand that Estel’s family has every reason to demand justice. It is a terrible crime to steal a child. But …” she glanced to her husband, and Marks nodded, reassuring. Luanna caught Elrond’s eyes with her own, gaze firm. “I beg you to consider his condition. He has been so very ill. You may remember that Estel himself told us Master Ferrier believed him to be his lost son. He did not know what he was about. He did not hurt the boy, other than to frighten him. Surely … surely retribution would serve no purpose here.”
Around him, the twins and Glorfindel were still as stone. For himself, Elrond understood and agreed with everything that the Woman said.
And yet, this was his son …
“Ferrier drugged the boy.”
Glorfindel shot him a glance from beneath lowered lids. Luanna drew in a breath and sat back. Her eyes darted briefly again to her husband, then Arti, and she nodded slowly, biting her lip.
“To take him from home, I suppose? To keep him quiet during travel?”
Elrond merely nodded. There was little purpose in adding details. To his surprise, it was Marks who leaned forward, speaking earnestly.
“Estel is well, though, or he was when he left us.” The farmer motioned then to his wife and his business partner. “We understand that what Ferrier did was wrong, make no mistake about that. But, all three of us also know what it is to lose everything. There’s no describing the toll it takes. It’s … unimaginable, and if this is where his mind took him ...” Marks shook his head. “Forgive us for asking this, my Lords … but please. If you think that his folks would be in any way understanding, please consider leaving him here with us.”
The Man was not eloquent, but his plea was heartfelt. For himself, Elrond was beset with a flood of images—Celebrían, Gil-Galad, Elros, his parents. Each of them had been like a dagger to the heart, and yet he had not been alone. Had he been ….
Had he been, he knew not what he might have done.
Elrond released a long breath and closed his eyes. “Yes. I believe his parents would be amenable.” He had not yet forgiven, and his anger remained, but surely this was right. And Gilraen … even if Gilraen could not make such a decision, she would wish to.
Yes, this was right.
Abrupt stirring sounded from all sides, yet he did not look to either his sons or Glorfindel. This was his choice to make. He opened his eyes, and returned his stare to their hosts. Luanna’s eyes glistened, and Arti’s. Marks clutched his wife’s hand. “Thank you, my Lord.”
The decision was made and past, but he could not discuss it further, even to acknowledge thanks. Elrond returned to his original question. “How does Master Ferrier now fare?”
Luanna sighed and stood. “He has been better, and he woke for a while yesterday, but his fever is up again today and his sleep deeper. I fear another infection. I have been considering calling for the healer—I think she will need to see him again.”
Elrond stood as well. “I am a healer. I will see him, if you wish.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “I would much appreciate it. Sometimes it takes a while to track Camellias down.” Luanna motioned toward one of the doors at the back. “Go in, if you please, and I’ll follow. I need to bring fresh water and bandages.”
He took a breath and then, still without looking toward his companions, made his way to the sickroom. Behind him, Glorfindel’s measured tread followed. Elrond paused before the door, one hand upon it, smelling more strongly now what lay beyond. Without giving himself any more time, he pushed the door open and entered.
The scents of blood and antiseptic were overpowering within, and too the underlying thread of infection. Luanna was correct, then—some infection yet remained. Elrond turned toward the bed, and caught his first glimpse of Ferrier, lying still and pale, a bandaged stump where his arm had been. He was utterly unprepared for the wave of sheer, breathtaking fury that washed over him.
This Man had stolen his son.
This Man had drugged and frightened a child, and taken him far from his home.
This Man had ignored his healing advice, to the severe detriment of himself and others.
This Man might have destroyed everything—might have left the Dúnedain leaderless, the line of Isildur bereft, and the great Enemy unopposed by the single remaining Hope of Men—and it would not have mattered, when Sauron reigned over Middle Earth, that he was ill and knew not what he did.
He felt Glorfindel’s hand squeeze firmly upon his shoulder. Elrond was still shivering with reaction when Luanna bustled past him, arms full with pitcher, basin, and bandages.
“Estel really is such a good, sweet boy. He was so worried for Master Ferrier, so upset when he heard that we had to remove the arm. He just kept insisting that Ferrier was sick, not bad.”
Elrond drew a shuddering breath, and spoke tightly. “Forgive me, mistress. I will return shortly.” He spun on his heel and marched blindly through the outer room and outer door, into the yard. He was aware, on some level, of his sons beginning to rise and Glorfindel motioning them back down again, but could spare no thought for what his abrupt departure must have looked like. He strode across the yard and finally stopped at its edge, staring without sight into the encroaching woodlands. A strong shoulder that he recognized as Glorfindel’s came to rest against his, and for a long moment they simply stood in silence.
Finally, when he trusted his voice, he murmured, “My son puts me to shame.”
Glorfindel snorted softly. “Your son learned compassion from you.” Another moment passed, then his friend added, “You made the right decision. Still, it is far easier to forgive the one who harms us than the one who harms those we love. You know this.”
“I do.” Elrond took another long, deep breath. “I did not expect …”
“You cannot predict everything. Not even your own reactions.”
“Indeed.” How often over the past weeks had he reminded himself of that very thing? He stood silently for a while longer, soaking in the comfort and support radiating from Glorfindel, then sighed. “Very well. That infection will not, I think, heal itself.”
“Are you certain you are ready?”
Elrond offered a brittle smile. “I am.”
Together, they made their way back into the house and to his waiting patient.
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