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A/N: I know prairie dogs aren’t native to the UK, but I have decided that Middle Earth has them. ;-)
“What are those?”
As the afternoon wore on, the open country which had been so disconcerting while traveling alone with Ferrier began to seem less so, safely surrounded by his family and the two Rangers.
“Those?” At his elbow, Dorhaur chuckled. “Those are called prairie dogs.”
Ever had Estel been curious, and surrounded by the untamed tangles of a wild new land, he found himself suddenly beset by dozens of questions. His companions were hard-pressed to keep up, though they made a game attempt.
“Why dogs? They look more like … like squirrels.”
His brothers and Dorhaur were free with their lessons, drawing his attention to various species of grasses and shrubbery not to be found within Imladris, describing tracking methods specific to areas of open plains, even once pointing out a warg print—days old, Elrohir first confirmed—and drilling the boy on the differences between it and that of a common wolf.
“How am I to know? I was not present when they were named, I assure you.”
For reasons unknown, Estel had expected the wilds to be barren—as devoid of color and life as they were of settlements and people. This was far from so. Patches of flowering grass stretched for great distances, staining the hills yellow and purple. Copses of trees and fruit-bearing bushes held birds and rabbits. Hawks stooped, grasses rustled as small creatures raced for safety, tracks of bear and elk wandered regularly across their path.
“They’re funny. Why do they stand up like that?”
Eventually, however, questions faded as the true vastness of the surrounding lands and the sky above wrapped itself around him, impressing deeply upon his mind and soul. The miles fell away beneath Hethu’s hooves, bracing wind whipped at his clothes and hair, scents of clover and skunk and dusty grass swirled over all. Despite the wind and the rustling grasses and the scurrying animal life, the wilds were still in a way Estel had rarely known in Rivendell’s forests—something about the immense open space seemed to soak up sound and movement, settling silence upon them like a warm, heavy cloak.
“They guard against predators and other danger. If threatened, that one will warn the others. The entire colony may then flee underground to safety.”
“So, they stand watch—like us.”
He felt small here—a speck against the tremendous reaches of Middle Earth—but not frightened. No, instead he felt … free, stirred by the brisk wind and a strange sense of … rightness. (Was rightness a word?) Somehow, in some way he couldn’t understand, he was connected to this grass and this sky and this sun. Estel took a long breath and wondered suddenly what it would be like to explore all he wanted here, to wander alone with only himself to depend upon and this land as a guide.
“Estel! Pay attention, else Hethu walks directly into one of their holes.”
“Baradhald or Dorhaur, know you how far these colonies extend?”
“The active areas vary from year to year, but old colony sites extend far in every direction through this area. We should slow, for the horses’ protection and ours.”
“Very well. We will continue until dusk, then stop. There is no call to risk a broken leg or neck traveling through such a warren in the dark.”
Maybe one day he would know. The thought sent Estel’s blood racing, and he hoped that it might be so.
“Glorfindel, take Elladan and scout the area.”
Beside Dorhaur, who had pulled his mount’s bridle and was in the process of unsaddling the gelding for the night, Elrohir paused in untangling his horse’s mane. The Elf glanced quickly around, then leaned closer. “I will wager my remaining maple candy that your captain suggests it should be he who does the scouting.”
As tempting as the offer sounded—the Lady Gilraen’s maple candy was indeed, Dorhaur had discovered, the best he had ever tasted—he knew better.
“My man and I will scout the area.” Baradhald’s voice carried across their chosen campsite. “I am certain you all have experience in the wilds, but we Rangers are more recently familiar with them.”
“No bet,” Dorhaur breathed, as Elrohir stifled a snort and turned back to his horse. Dorhaur shook his head and leaned it briefly against his mount’s shoulder before resettling saddle on blanket and reaching under to recapture the girth. He had, it seemed, moved too quickly. The gelding gave him a reproachful look, but he only patted its neck and tightened the buckle.
Lord Elrond’s voice was mild. “If you wish to accompany Glorfindel, I’m certain that Elladan will be more than happy to remain. However, we have been riding for many hours, and Dorhaur is injured. His bandage must be checked, and his leg rested.”
“It’s only a scratch. He will be fine to ride scout for a while longer.”
He had been wrong. The man was an idiot. Dorhaur shook his head, confident that his horse’s bulk hid the motion from Baradhald’s view. Maybe he hadn’t spent enough time previously with his captain to recognize it, or maybe their Elven companions brought out the worst in the man. Maybe he simply hadn’t been able to believe that Dúnedain leadership would truly appoint someone like Baradhald to a position of authority over other Rangers.
On the other hand, for all of Baradhald’s brash tactlessness and lack of social graces, he was related to the Chieftain—and that counted. As much as Dorhaur would have preferred to believe such things didn’t exist among the Dúnedain, he knew that he would be fooling himself. He glanced across the site toward Estel, who was gathering branches and kindling from beneath a tangle of scrubby bushes. Had their current Chieftain known, he suspected the boy was highly unlikely to approve of any familial appeal to seal a promotion for his father’s cousin.
That was some comfort, at least.
“It’s deeper than a scratch—I cleaned it myself.” Elladan’s tone was sharp. “He’ll take no lasting harm, but after a day like today it will certainly hurt.”
And it had, several hours back. By this point, his entire thigh had gone numb. Though he might consider that somewhat preferable, Dorhaur suspected that his healer would not necessarily find it so.
“Very well.” Baradhald remounted, straightening in the saddle. “As you say, then.” He looked toward Glorfindel, who remained yet upon his own mount. “Come. I will take point.” He wheeled his horse and trotted out of camp.
Glorfindel followed with a twitch of his reins, turning raised eyebrows in an entirely too bland expression toward the Lord of Imladris as they went. Dorhaur pressed his head against the leather of his saddle and muttered, “Why is he like this?”
He hadn’t intended the comment to be overheard, but Elrohir snorted a laugh. “Do not ask that question in front of Elladan, lest you find yourself subjected to a well-practiced diatribe on that very topic for the next several hours. He can be quite eloquent regarding your captain, given opportunity and a listening ear.”
Dorhaur winced, turning his head to peer at the son of Elrond. “I offer my deepest apologies for my superior’s behavior, my Lord. I know it is not my place, yet—”
“You have no need.” Elrohir held up a staying hand. “We have known him for more years than you, and he has always been thus.” He shrugged. “He is a self-important braggart, with less reason to be so than many I have known, but we are not often forced to bear his company. We will survive.” The Elf moved closer, shooing Dorhaur away from the horse. “Go. I will care for your mount. Sit and allow my brother to see to your leg.”
He hesitated, but Elladan appeared at that moment, shaking his head. His expression was darker than that of his twin’s. “Does the man even know your name?” he grumbled, running a hand down the gelding’s neck and then moving to scratch between the dark ears. The horse flicked an ear and sighed contentedly. Dorhaur sighed as well, much less content than his mount.
He didn’t know why this habit of Baradhald’s should bother him—it wasn’t as if he saw his Captain often, and he knew well by this point that the man’s respect mattered little to him—but it did. It was, in fact … strangely disheartening. Dorhaur snorted. Well. He was not often forced to bear Baradhald’s company either. He, too, would survive. He shifted without thought, and his leg nearly gave way beneath him. Elladan swooped in to steady him, and guided him across to the fire that Estel was feeding with a small pile of kindling.
“Sit. I’ll get my pack.”
Dorhaur settled, stretching out his leg with a groan of pure relief. It was good to be on the ground for the night. Estel finished with the kindling and went to crouch near Elrond, who was laying out stores from one of the packs.
“Did you meet Darlo Sandheaver too, Ada?”
Elrond nodded. “Briefly.”
Estel bounced slightly, the twitchy energy a welcome reminder of the child he still was despite the somber maturity that Dorhaur had seen from him. “Well?”
An amused smile played across the Elf lord’s lips. “We were not long in Staddle, my son. There is not much for you to hear.”
“Then you can tell it while you prepare dinner, yes?”
Elrond chuckled outright, and Dorhaur heard as much relief and deep affection in the sound as amusement. It was obvious that his young Chieftain was well loved by these Elves out of legend. “Very well, then.” Estel settled happily. Elrond, too, folded to the ground with a pliant grace as he continued to delve through the pack. “We reached Staddle in short order from the farm, of course. There was little point in delaying once I had had seen to Master Ferrier’s well-being …”
It had been many centuries since he had seen so many Halflings in one place, and Elrond suspected that he was staring as openly as some of the townsfolk as they rode through Staddle. The little folk were rare, however, and rarer still was this minute corner of Middle Earth where Halflings and Men lived and worked in harmony. They made their way through the streets toward the hill at the western edge of town, for Arti had informed them that Darlo Sandheaver’s inn lay near to that area. Elrond marveled as they approached at the profusion of paths and colorful round doors cut into the earth itself, pondering anew Eru Ilúvatar’s wondrous designs in the creation of his Children. Though Halflings were of the Second-born, yet their ways were different from those of Men, and they offered variety and a set of gifts to Arda which were entirely their own.
The Dusty Mathom was easily found, and barely had they trotted into its yard when the door opened and a stout Halfling emerged. He stood gaping as they came to a halt, but even as Elrond moved to dismount he shook his head.
“Nay, if you’re after Estel, you’ll not be finding him here.” Elrond froze in mid-dismount, and the Halfling motioned to the building behind him. “You’re more than welcome to come in for a drink and a bite, of course, but the lad’s long gone.” Darlo Sandheaver—for Elrond suspected rightly that this was the inn’s owner and proprietor—shook his head. “If I’d known you were so close after him, I’d have fought harder to keep him here, that’s certain.”
Hiding a scowl of frustration, Elrond settled onto the ground and offered a shallow bow toward Master Sandheaver. “You found someone so quickly to escort him so far east?” He had hoped, given what he knew of the Bree-lands and its people, that Estel may still be here in this Halfling’s inn, attempting to find someone to take him back toward Imladris. It was, apparently, not to be. Uneasily, he wondered why Sandheaver might have felt the need to ‘fight’ to keep Estel in Staddle, and the Halfling’s scowl did nothing to reassure him. Sandheaver’s next words eased that worry, but added another.
“Aye, assuming he’s to be trusted. He went off with one of them Rangers.” Mistaking Elrond’s surprise, he held up both hands, hurrying on. “I tried to talk him out of it, that Ranger’s never been any trouble but you never know with drifters and the like, do you? Still, Estel wouldn’t change his mind, and they’ve been gone since yesterday morning.”
They were getting close. Elrond’s spirits rose slightly, even as he pondered this news. A Ranger added … unexpected complexity to an already tense situation. He made no attempt to correct Sandheaver’s misapprehensions involving the Rangers—it was an image the Dúnedain cultivated, much as at times they wearied of its effects—but wondered if the Halfling could tell him more.
“Can you tell me this Ranger’s name?”
“Name?” Sandheaver’s brow furrowed, and he thought for a moment before shaking his head. “He might of said it, but it didn’t stick. We around here have always called him Scowler,” he added, somewhat shamefaced, “on account of how sour he always looks.”
Well. That meant nothing, really. Elrond himself would likely be sour if he was forced to spend much time in a town of people who called him ‘Scowler’. In any event, this unknown Ranger’s mien, too, may have been as much image as reality.
“In which direction did they go?”
Sandheaver motioned vaguely back the way they had come. “Off to the west. Don’t know what the plan was after they left town—that Ranger just kept saying he was better suited to get the boy home than any of our lads, and that he’d take care of it.”
Likely, that assertion was accurate. It was not likely, however, that a solitary Ranger would simply take Estel in a straight line between Staddle and Imladris—or, wherever the boy had decided to claim as his home nearby. They would require supplies, and surely the Man could not simply disappear into the wilds without informing someone of his whereabouts and mission. He would need to report to a superior or partner before beginning the journey. And with Estel along …
Elrond nodded briefly to Sandheaver and swung back into his saddle. Elladan and Elrohir were already on their way back through the town, probably intending to get a start in locating the new trail. Tracking a Ranger and Estel through uncultivated land was an entirely different prospect than tracking an ill Man in a wagon or a Hobbit on a walking trip. Already Elrond chafed at the perceived delay, but he put that aside as best he could. There was no reason to beg trouble before it happened. Rangers were skilled, but Estel was still learning and his sons were more experienced than either. There was no reason to suspect that the trail would be hidden from them for long.
He politely refused Sandheaver’s second offer of food and drink, thanked the Halfling for both the information and for caring for Estel during the boy’s time in Staddle, and then returned with Glorfindel onto the town’s main thoroughfare. His sons had disappeared, but they would not be difficult to locate. Elrond sighed as they cantered out, annoyed beyond reason at this new twist. He should be proud that Estel was proving himself so resourceful—and he was—but at the moment, he was more concerned about his son in the hands of Rangers. The boy would be well looked after, no doubt, and the Dúnedain were more than equipped to bring him safely across the northern wilds, but the secret of Estel’s existence was not widely known and the Rangers were, as a whole, intelligent Men. Elrond prayed they were able to find his son before it became obvious to Scowler—whoever the Man might truly be—that Estel was more than simply a lost child.
Estel gaped. “That’s it?”
Disappointment edged his voice, but Elrond’s grin widened. “I told you that we were not there long.”
The boy sat still for a moment, then huffed softly. “I guess not.”
Elrond raised one eyebrow as he stood, collecting the cold supper he had prepared for all. “You expected more?”
Estel shrugged. “No, not really.”
It was an … odd reaction, as the boy had been unrelentingly cheerful throughout the day. Elrond sent a vaguely puzzled frown over his shoulder at Estel as he rounded the fire. Dorhaur, accepting his meal from the Elf lord, noted that the boy had again taken out the orange marble and was rubbing it absently, rolling it back and forth between his palm and his knee. Ah. Marbles was a common enough game in Staddle, and he wondered …
“What did you do there, other than play errand-boy to a Hobbit?”
Estel grinned, straightening, and Dorhaur knew he’d caught the right of it. In this instance, Estel was truly more interested in talking than in listening. He had likely, in fact, been waiting for an opportune time within Elrond’s tale of Staddle to begin his own. Elladan, who had returned to sit beside him after putting the healing supplies away and cleansing his hands, paused between bites of bread and snorted softly. “Now you have done it.”
Dorhaur shrugged. “Boys his age like to talk.”
Estel began a rambling tale about a free morning and group of Hobbit lads and children of Men who had taught him to play a new game, brandishing the marble as evidence.
“Don’t we know it.”
The grumbling was affectionate, though, and Elladan listened to the lad’s story as intently as his father, who had returned to his seat beside Estel.
“You draw a circle in the dirt, and put the other marbles inside …”
As the long-winded explanation of the game progressed, broken by regular side discussions regarding the other children who had played along with him, a pensive expression stole across Lord Elrond’s face—subtle, but undeniably present. It was fond and regretful at once, and Dorhaur wondered at it, until the next time Estel laughed about the rough joking between the other boys.
“All the others kept telling Nob he would never be any good, but they weren’t really saying it to be mean, and he didn’t care, anyway. He just laughed too.”
Elrond uttered a tiny hint of a sigh, unnoticed by Estel. “Yes, that is often the way of boys. Your brothers were much the same when they were young.”
Dorhaur surveyed the two across the fire from him, Elf lord and child of Men, and realized suddenly—truly, though he had known the fact before—that Estel had no friends his own age, and would not as long as he remained hidden away in Rivendell. It stole his breath away, to think of what the boy was missing. Estel surely had friends among the Elves, of course, and the Lords Elladan and Elrohir functioned as his brothers. No matter how the Elves teased, though, no matter how they played and laughed and spent time with the boy, it could not be the same between adult and child as it was among children of similar age. Dorhaur thought of his own sons. They lived on a rural farm and did not see others daily or even weekly, but they visited with cousins and friends for holidays and harvest and birthdays. They knew the joys and anger and anguish of friendly and not-so-friendly competition, of jokes meant only for young ears, of fighting and laughing, of getting each other into and out of trouble all far from the overseeing eye of any adult who ‘knew better.’
What would it be to grow up utterly devoid of such things? He would not wish it for his own sons, nor for any other child, in hiding or no. The Elves of Rivendell loved his young Chieftain, that much was certain, and Dorhaur was glad for it. Estel deserved such a devoted family. Still, it seemed … unfair, and Dorhaur silently cursed the evils that made such a sacrifice necessary.
He suspected, from the Lord Elrond’s expression and demeanor, that the Master of Rivendell, too, had already spent much time pondering this very thing, and regretted the fact deeply.
Well. Dorhaur finished his supper and leaned back, stretching his back and legs, feeling the warmth of the fire on one side and the crisp chill of the spring evening on the other. Estel chattered on, ignoring his waiting meal. Hoofbeats beyond their camp site announced the return of Glorfindel and Captain Baradhald. There was nothing for it, truly, and very little other option. The Enemy would not stop searching for the Heir of Isildur simply because he was only a child. Dorhaur watched as Estel sprang up and bounded over to Glorfindel, starting over his tale.
If nothing else, what should have been a routine patrol over the course of a few weeks had instead given him a new perspective on many things, and much on which to think.
He hurt. His arms hurt and his legs hurt and his back hurt and his backside hurt. They had been riding forever, and they weren’t getting anywhere, and they would never get where they were going.
“How far yet?”
The land stretched flat and featureless all the way to the horizon. Every now and again, a gust of wind from the southwest would carry with it the heavy, rotten scent of the Midgewater Marshes. He hadn’t even seen a stray prairie dog for hours … although, why a prairie dog would even want to live on this boring, stinking plain was beyond Estel. Even the line of the Weather Hills, a solid bulk off to the east, did little to break up the monotony.
“Half of an hour less than the last time you asked.”
They would never get there.
He had never realized that you could get so sore just riding a horse. Estel rode often, and he was a good rider, but he had never done nothing but ride for two days straight. How could his brothers and Glorfindel stand to do this for days on end? He supposed they just got used to it, eventually, but it seemed as though you had to go through a lot of pain to get there. Maybe he would just walk everywhere when he was grown.
At least his father seemed to be quite as uncomfortable as he was.
He should feel bad for thinking that, but he really didn’t. He would hate to be the only one who needed a break more often than the others.
Of course, if neither one of them needed more frequent breaks, they might get there faster. But, there was no use thinking about that, because it wasn’t going to happen.
They were never going to get there.
Estel fixed his eyes on Hethu’s shoulders, watching the muscles bunch rhythmically beneath the glossy coat. Thud of hooves, muffled by the long grasses, reached him from before and behind, and it was close work to pick his own mount’s out of the mix. Listlessly, he began to count.
He needed to get home to his mother. Gilraen probably thought something awful was happening to him.
He hoped Baradhald wouldn’t insist on coming all the way back with them. Not only did he dislike the Ranger captain, but he didn’t want the Man upsetting his mother.
He probably wouldn’t come, though. His family and Glorfindel were all annoyed with the Man—who was blind if he couldn’t see it—and probably wouldn’t let him. Maybe Dorhaur could, though. He enjoyed that Ranger’s company, and Gilraen would want to meet the Man who had saved him from the wargs.
That probably wouldn’t happen either, though. Not many Rangers came to Imladris, and he was used to seeing the same faces over and over—both those he had met, and those he just spied on. Maybe Dorhaur wasn’t one of the ones who got chosen for missions like these. He didn’t see why not, though. Maybe he could ask his father to ask whoever led the Rangers if Dorhaur could come next time they sent Men, now that he knew about Estel anyway. Elladan and Elrohir seemed to like him—maybe they could ask his father, too.
Wait. Had he messed up?
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d messed up.
Now he’d have to start over.
Estel dragged a sigh from the depths of his toes, and restarted his count.
He looked up, following Elrond’s gesture over the plain before them. In the distance, a single flat-topped hill rose before them, its surface jagged with what could only be the ruins of some high structure once built upon it. Estel looked back to his father, eyes wide.
“It is the watchtower of Amon Sûl, which Men call Weathertop.”
The northern wilds were so amazing.
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