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Beyond Imladris  by PSW

Daylight was left to them when they reached the base of Amon Sûl, but as it was the likeliest campsite in the surrounding area, and as the Rangers would there be leaving their company, Elrond called the night’s halt.  Estel was glad.  He would be happy to be rid of Baradhald, for although the Ranger captain had barely spoken to him over the past days, the Man’s general attitude added a sour note to the excursion.  He would be sad to part with Dorhaur, though.  He wasn’t ready for their acquaintance to end, and resolved again to ask Elrond if anything could be done to allow Dorhaur to visit Imladris.

Also, he was desperate for a chance to explore the ruined watchtower.

Estel’s disappointment was keen when Glorfindel settled them in a flat, protected hollow against the hill’s northern base.  “We’re not going to camp on top?”

Elrohir snorted a laugh, ruffling Estel’s hair.  “Nay, little brother.  We would be far too exposed there—any campfire, no matter how small, could be seen for many miles in any direction.  It would be as a beacon to draw all comers, friendly or no.”

“If it would stay lit at all,” Elladan added.  “The wind is strong upon its peak, even for such a relatively minor elevation.”  He looked to Estel.  “Think you it is called Amon Sûl* for naught?”  To be honest, Estel had never pondered the fact.  Elladan continued.  “The tower ruins offer little shelter.  In fact, they serve more as wind tunnel than wind block.  We would need to guard the fire ceaselessly.”  He glanced around their position.  “Even here it is breezier than we might wish—we are exposed to the wind from both the west and the north.  Still,” he added, tossing a grin into the face of Glorfindel’s mock scowl, “it is, I suppose, better than exposing our entire site to eyes from the Road or from the east.”

“You suppose correctly.”  Glorfindel nodded, relieving his horse of its packs.  The others followed suit, stacking the bags against the sharp rock rise at their backs.

“Can we at least go up and look?” Estel pleaded, and his father laughed aloud.

“Ai, Estel, I have indeed missed you.”  Elrond dropped one arm about his shoulders and hugged him close.  “Yes, of course.  I would not have you stay over the night at this place without such an opportunity.  It is one of the reasons I chose for us to stop.”

Estel grinned.  “Thank you, Ada.”

“You are most welcome.”  Elrond released him, then gestured around.  “I would have you gather wood and kindling to last the night before any of that, however.”  Estel sighed—he’d known his father’s easy acquiescence was too good to be true—but did not protest.  In camp, everyone did their part.  Elrond nodded approvingly as Estel moved off, eyeing the ground, and continued.  “Glorfindel, take Baradhald and scout to the north and west—ensure we are secure.”  The Ranger captain scowled at the order, but followed the Elf lord to their waiting horses without complaint.  “Elladan and Elrohir, scout ahead.  We will be reaching the Road in short order.  I foresee no difficulties, but I would also prefer to avoid other travelers if possible.  We have been too exposed upon this journey as it is.  The chances of meeting others are unlikely, but if we share the Road I would like to know it.”  The twins nodded and returned to their own horses, cutting south and out of sight around the hill.  Elrond looked to Dorhaur, the last remaining of their party.  “How is your leg?”

The Ranger nodded, flexing the injured thigh.  “Much improved.  It is stiff, but not nearly so painful as yesterday evening.  A short walk to stretch the muscles might not go amiss.”

Elrond nodded slowly.  “Perhaps.  Do not overexert, but it is true that a slow, easy walk would likely be beneficial, as you say.”

“You should come with us to look at the watchtower!”  Estel bounded over, carrying an armful of kindling and larger branches he had gathered from beneath several scrubby bushes dotting the campsite.  He grinned up at Dorhaur even as Elrond started to shake his head. 

“Estel, the path is steep.  I am not certain that—”

“You could not prevent me,” Dorhaur assured him, clapping Estel’s shoulder and returning his grin.  The Elf hesitated, glanced between his two beaming companions, then threw up his hands in mock surrender.

“Who am I to even try?”  He lifted an eyebrow at the Ranger.  “If it becomes too much …”

“It will not.  I have climbed steeper with much worse injury.”  Dorhaur waved a dismissive hand and offered a reassuring nod to Elrond—who did not, Estel noted briefly, seem overly reassured—then directed Estel’s attention up the hill.  Not many of the ruins could be seen from the ground at such close range, but even so Estel followed Dorhaur’s gaze.  “The remains of the southern wall are more intact than those of the others, and there is yet much to see, if you know where you look.  You will see the open slots in the wall where defenders would have gathered to repel the enemy during battle and siege, and where the platforms would have held them aloft.”

Estel grinned at both the Ranger and his father, dropped his armful of wood with a clatter, and bolted off to find more.  He wished that he had paid more attention when Erestor had spoken of Amon Sûl and its history.  At the time, though, the watchtower had been just another old, dull place amongst a score of old, dull places he would never see.  Now, though …  Now he was here.  He could see the crumbling stones, he would soon be feeling them beneath his touch.  He bounced happily, snapping dead branches off the bottom of one of the low bushes.  Now he would have something to tell Erestor when they got home.  Even if his teacher already knew Amon Sûl’s history, the Elf hadn’t left Imladris in almost as long as his father.  Estel’s description would definitely be the more current.  He grinned and scampered off to the next clump of bushes, some two hundred feet away.

The pile of wood seemed excessively large by the time that Elrond declared it sufficient, but finally Estel’s father declared that they were free to climb to the tower.  The three made their way around the hill’s base to a steep, winding path set into its side.  The path switched back and forth up the incline, mostly worn to overgrown earth but still defined in a few places by short, crumbling stairs.  Estel scrambled up at breakneck pace, barely hearing his father’s words of caution from behind as he flew over loose stones and collapsing stairs.  He reached the summit well ahead of the others, and burst onto the flattened, paved surface that was the peak of Weathertop.

Even in ruin, what was left of the massive stone blocks which had once formed the walls of the ancient tower were incredible.  He entered the remains between two weathered blocks set on either side of him, what must once have been the anchor stones of some great entryway.  Each was nearly as tall as he was, and Estel felt suddenly small.  These were not, he saw, the usual size of the tower’s building blocks—those which had formed the outside walls were somewhat smaller, though still quite large in their own right—but he saw that a matching pair flanked another entrance directly across from him.  At least, one did, though the other was nothing more than a broken off base.  Had the tower been standing, he thought, he would not have been able to see that entrance.  Debris from several inner walls sprawled between them, some still several blocks high and some utterly razed.

He stood still, the wind billowing his shirt and blowing his hair into his face, eyes flickering from place to place as he took it all in.  The south wall was indeed more intact than its fellows, rising yet some twenty feet above the pavement.  Openings built into the stone at regular intervals must be the arrow slits Dorhaur had mentioned.  Near the wall’s ragged top edge, the remains of a great, heavy stone stairway clung yet to the inside, held up by two layered stone supports which had somehow escaped the destruction.  The stairs broke off abruptly where the western wall would have stood.  Several inner arches still stood about, their more stable design serving them after the walls to which they had been attached had fallen.

The long, smooth paving stones which had formed the flooring were cracked and chipped.  Not one, so far as Estel could tell, had escaped some sort of damage.  Plants grew up through many of them now—grass and tall flowering weeds, scraggly bushes and even one twisted, indeterminate tree which was putting forth its spring buds.  Rather than reassuring, the signs of life within this dead place were … oddly disturbing, as if their existence somehow mocked the memory of those who had built here, had fought and died here, had sought to tame this place for their own.  A crumbling stillness shivered about him, and he jumped, startled, when Elrond’s hand came down upon his shoulder.

“Estel?”  Elrond’s raised one brow, and he turned his own gaze toward the ruins.

Estel shrugged, embarrassed, and moved away.  “A lot of people died here, didn’t they?”

Elrond and Dorhaur exchanged a glance over his head, then the Ranger drifted into the ruins, leaving Elrond to nod slowly.  “Indeed.  Many.  This site was of great strategic importance to Elendil and his people after, not only because of its placement, but for … other reasons as well.”

“The Palantír.”  This he did remember from his lessons—who could fail to be intrigued by such a source of magical communication, and over seemingly endless distances?  Elrond turned a startled gaze upon him, and Estel returned it, puzzled by the reaction.  “Erestor taught me.”

“Did he?  Already?”  Elrond voice was soft, musing, and Estel wondered why it mattered when he was taught of the Palantíri—they were mostly lost, after all, and had no bearing up him in any case.   Before he could ask, however, Elrond continued, pacing slowly around the edge of the ruins.  Estel followed, less wary now that his father was near.  “Very well.  Yes, because it held one of the Palantíri.  It became, in addition, a source of much strife and contention after the kingdom of Arnor was divided.”  The tenor of Elrond’s voice indicated that he considered this tale to be now at an end, but Estel tugged at his father’s sleeve, regaining his attention.

“Tell me.”

Elrond hesitated.  “This you have already heard, I do know.”

“Yes, but … it’s not same.  We’re here.”

“Indeed, we are.”  Elrond turned his eyes away, gazing long upon the fallen evidence of ancient glory which lay around them.  “It is not a tale for bedtime.”

Estel pressed briefly against his father’s arm.  “Then I will sleep with you tonight.”

Elrond snorted.  “So that we may both spend half the night awake?”  Estel began to protest, but Elrond cut him off with a sigh.  “Very well.  But only a piece of it.”  The Elf nodded as Dorhaur fell in beside them, gathering his thoughts.  “After the death of Eärendur, the kingdom of Arnor was divided among his sons.  The divided kingdoms fell quickly to squabbling amongst themselves, and as Amon Sûl stood at the meeting of their borders, near constant disputes arose over its true lordship.”

Estel listened raptly, his gaze wandering the stones and the weeds and the wild land beyond as Elrond told the sad tale, Dorhaur’s low voice adding comment or substance on occasion.  The shifting alliances, the battles, the fall of once proud descendants of Númenor into pettiness and chaos.  Anger stirred as story unfolded, and disgust, and a bitter wish burned in the pit of his stomach that Men—his own race—were not capable of such weakness and such evil.

“King Arveleg I of Arthedain fell during the final destruction of the watchtower, at the hands of an alliance between Rhuduar and Angmar.  The Palantír was saved from capture by the—”

“Angmar.”  Estel’s brittle tone surprised even himself.  “The Men of Rhuduar allied with Angmar.”  He knew this already, but it had only been dry history until now.  Surrounded by the evidence of that terrible alliance, his revulsion overtook his good sense.  “I wish I really was an Elf.”  He kicked savagely at an unoffending chunk of rock.

Both Elrond and Dorhaur snapped around, staring.  Estel moved back, away from the shock in his father’s gaze and the hurt in Dorhaur’s, but lifted his chin.

He would not take it back.

“Why would you say such a thing?”  Elrond’s voice was deceptively calm, a tone which Estel had learned throughout his life to approach with the utmost respect.

He stared, baffled.  “Why wouldn’t I?  Men squabble with each other and ally with evil!”

His father’s eyes narrowed.  “Men are not the only race to quarrel amongst themselves, Estel.  All races do so, and will until Arda ends.”

“But not all races join themselves with Angmar!  Elves may fight each other, but they stood together against Morgoth and Sauron.  Everyone knows that Men are weak.”

“Everyone knows this?”  Dorhaur’s voice was low and tight, and Estel knew that he had deeply offended his friend.  Elrond held out one hand to the Man, his eyes never leaving Estel.  Dorhaur pinned the Elf with an angry, accusing gaze, but stilled.

“And who is everyone, my son?”

Estel hesitated, then looked away from his father’s piercing gaze.  “Not everyone,” he admitted, realizing finally that he should have kept his mouth shut.  He shuffled his feet, adding, “Not you.  Or the twins, or Glorfindel or Erestor or …”  Estel shook his head, looking back up.  “But many do.  They don’t think I hear them, but I’m a Man, not deaf.”

Elrond’s lips tightened.  “I see.”  He took a long breath, and let it out slowly.  “I assure you, everyone will not say such things again.”  Estel had seen that light in his father’s eyes, and knew that within a week of returning Elrond would likely know every Elf who had made such a statement within the bounds of Imladris, whether Estel had overheard or no.

It made no difference.

“But Ada, I—”

“Think you that Men have lost all valor?”  Dorhaur stepped before him, folding his arms tightly.  “Think you that all have sworn allegiance to the Witch King, or to Sauron?”  He stepped closer.  “Think you that I spend months away from my wife and my children, protect Men and Hobbits who would see me driven from their towns, and patrol the wilds pitting myself against Orcs and wargs without any sense of duty or loyalty or compassion?”

“No!”  Tears flooded Estel’s eyes, and his gut twisted.  He stepped forward.  “No, I’m sorry!  I shouldn’t have said it!”

Dorhaur closed his eyes briefly, then nodded and scrubbed at his jaw.  “Yet, you still wish it.”

Estel hesitated, then glanced toward Elrond.  His father was an Elf—Peredhel, truly, but it amounted to the same—and his brothers, his teachers and his friends.  Everyone he knew was an Elf, except for his mother.  Imladris was his entire world.

How could he not wish it? 

Still, he had never meant to say it aloud.

He nodded miserably.

Dorhaur nodded again, and let out a long, slow breath.  Elrond, too, sighed, then stepped forward and took Estel’s shoulders, gently turning the boy to face him.

“Estel … I would that I had realized you felt so.  I did not, and for that I must apologize.”

“Ada …”

“No, Estel.  You must listen now.”  Estel nodded reluctantly, and Elrond continued.  “I have not taken a child of Men as my own before.  It is no excuse, yet it must serve as reason for now.”  The Elf took a long breath, and his fingers tightened.  “Your wishes are understandable, my son, growing up as you have among only my people.  And … I admit that I have wished the same for you at times.”  Dorhaur turned a raised brow on the Elf.  Elrond ignored him.  “In the end, however, we must accept—not only accept, but embrace—that we are each what Eru Ilúvatar made us to be.  You are good and strong, full of valor and love, and created from His thought a child of Men.  Do you believe Him mistaken?”

There was only one possible answer to that.  “No!” Estel gasped, horrified.

“No.”  Elrond nodded, approving.  “Then we must learn to rejoice in what you are, not in what we might wish you were.”  He drew Estel close, embracing him.  “We will do this thing together, you and I.”

Estel nodded into his father’s chest, shame and love and … disappointment still swirling through him.  He felt a touch on his shoulder, and turned to see Dorhaur.  The Man drew him gently away from Elrond’s embrace, and caught Estel’s eyes with his own.

“You are right.  Many Men are weak, and have turned to evil.  But not all.”  Dorhaur squeezed Estel’s shoulders tightly.  “Not all, and you must strive to be the best of us.  You have a heart for good, young Estel, and when you enter the battle against the Enemy, as I know you will, it will be as a Man.  Be a Man that others would be proud to follow.  Be a Man who can draw forth the valor and the love which lies hidden in other Men.”  He grinned, a crooked, encouraging smile.  “Think you that perhaps you could be content as such a Man?”

Confusion remained, yet the challenge stirred Estel’s blood.  He nodded slowly and returned Dorhaur’s gaze, hesitant but hopeful.  “I … I think so.”

Dorhaur nodded.  “Good.”

Impulsively, Estel stepped forward and embraced his friend.  “I am sorry,” he whispered, and the Ranger held him close.

“I know.”

“Will you forgive me?” he mumbled, and Dorhaur laughed, ruffling his hair.

“Gladly, though it is hardly necessary.”

Estel grinned up at his friend, stepping away.  Elrond pressed his shoulder again.  “Estel, I would speak with privately with Dorhaur.  Will you leave us for a time?”

Estel looked toward the Man, who seemed genuinely surprised by the request, then nodded.  “I might start back down, if it’s all right.”

“Thank you, my son.”

Estel left his father and the Ranger in the ruined watchtower and started back down the tight, narrow path.  His mind was in a muddle and he felt drained, all that he had seen and heard in the past hour swirling around and through him.  As he rounded one of the switchbacks he saw that the others had returned to the camp and were in the process of building up the fire.  A sudden desire for privacy halted him in his tracks—he was not ready to join into the conversations below, not when he had so much to work through from his conversations above.  Seeing a flat area off the path some feet to his right, he left the narrow track and picked his way carefully over the slanted, rocky ground.  His temporary refuge reached, he settled in happily, drawing his knees to his chest and noting that dark was finally beginning to dull the afternoon light.

How long he sat Estel couldn’t say, but the light was fast failing when he saw Baradhald make his way to the path and start up it.  For several minutes Estel remained still, hoping that the Man would not notice him and simply pass him by.  However, the Ranger captain glanced several times in Estel’s direction as he climbed, and Estel realized with annoyance that Baradhald had already seen him.  Possibly, it was the whole reason he was coming up.

Estel wasn’t in the mood.  He surveyed his options.  He couldn’t go back to the path, obviously—he’d not be able to pretend he hadn’t seen the other Man from there.  The hill down had several steep places that didn’t seem safe to attempt, especially in the growing darkness, but the hill back to the peak …  Yes, that should be no trouble at all.  Grinning, Estel ducked around a nearby rock and began to scramble silently up the slope, using rocky handholds and the small, twisted trees that grew from the side of the hill for leverage.  Only a few of them began to pull out as they felt his weight, and none of those in places that would be any real danger if he did lose his balance.  Below him, he saw Baradhald picking his way toward Estel’s previous spot, glancing around and below as he realized that the boy was no longer there.  By the time the Man thought to look up, Estel was pulling himself over the crumbling wall base and back onto the great, flat stones which still paved the summit of Weathertop.

* Amon Sûl is Sindarin for ‘Hill of Wind’

A/N:  Chances are very slim that I’ll get a chapter out on Christmas weekend… :-P  That being the case, I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas!

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