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He hadn’t really thought about what would happen when he reached the top.
Estel lay on his back, and stared up at Elrond and Dorhaur, and wondered how best to answer his father’s question. He had not done anything wrong—exactly—but he suspected that his father would not be entirely satisfied with that assertion. Estel had known that Elrond and Dorhaur were having a private conversation, after all, and had volunteered to go back down to camp. Climbing up the hill as he had, especially at a good distance from the path, would look very much like an attempt to eavesdrop. That hadn’t been his intent, of course, but he would need an explanation that sounded very real if he was to convince his father.
Unfortunately, the only real-sounding explanation that came immediately to mind was … the real explanation. And that didn’t seem much better. Telling Elrond now that he had climbed the side of Amon Sûl in order to avoid Baradhald would probably lead to more questions, and more explanations, and he would probably be in trouble by the end of the night anyway.
Estel sighed and rolled over to sit. Elrond cast another glance over the edge, then tugged briefly at Estel’s cloak. “Come further away from there.”
He wouldn’t fall. Still, Estel obeyed, climbing to his feet and trailing behind the others to the nearest low mound of rubble. Elrond motioned for him to take a seat, but remained standing himself.
That was never a good sign.
Estel sank down onto the tumbled wall, and played restlessly with a broken chunk of stone that he found there, and considered.
His mother had said it was better not to make things worse … but maybe telling Elrond wouldn’t actually make things worse. Could it really be so bad if his father knew that Baradhald had harassed them and had made his mother cry? The Man didn’t come to Imladris much, it was true … but maybe Elrond could fix it so that he didn’t come at all.
And anyway, it would be better to be in trouble for what he had actually done rather than for something he didn’t do.
“I am prepared to stand here all night.”
He wished that Dorhaur wasn’t here, though. It would be embarrassing to be yelled at in front of the Ranger. Estel liked him, and wanted the Man to think well of him.
Almost as if he had read Estel’s mind, Dorhaur shifted. “I suspect I am not needed here. With your leave, my Lord, I will return to the camp.”
Elrond glanced briefly toward the Ranger. “I thank you. We will speak again, I hope, before we go our separate ways.”
“I will look forward to it.” Dorhaur offered a nod toward Elrond, ruffled Estel’s hair with a crooked smile, and then disappeared silently into the darkness. Both watched him go, the silence thick between them. When he had vanished onto the path, Elrond returned his attention to Estel. Even in the dark of evening, Estel felt the weight of his father’s gaze.
“I suggest you—”
“Baradhald was coming, and I did not want to talk to him.”
Elrond was silent for the briefest of moments. Then, “Coming?”
Estel dragged a sigh from the depth of his toes, then folded his legs beneath him. He might as well be comfortable while flinging himself onto the chopping block. “I didn’t go all the way back down, I had … things … I wanted to think about.” He glanced toward his father, who only nodded in response to this deviation from the expected plan. Encouraged, Estel continued. “I found a good spot a little bit off the path and was just sitting there when I saw Baradhald coming.”
“And you assumed he wished to speak to you?” Estel shrugged, looking away. Elrond frowned. “Did it occur to you that perhaps he wished to speak to me, or to Dorhaur, or that perhaps he simply wanted to climb to the top of the hill?”
“He didn’t.” Elrond raised one eyebrow. Estel, somehow finding the orange marble in his hand, rolled it absently between his fingers. “He kept looking toward me, and when he got up to my spot he came over to it.” The little stone was polished almost as smooth as glass. One tiny crack was barely detectable beneath his nail. “I wasn’t there anymore then, but I saw him.”
Elrond’s silence was longer this time. “You were alert for this behavior.” Reluctantly, Estel again shrugged. His father’s reply took on a perceptible edge. “Has Baradhald previously sought you out for personal conversation?”
Estel blew out a long breath, then looked up and nodded.
Elrond straightened, crossing his arms tightly. His voice was clipped. “Explain.”
“He doesn’t like me living with you.” Once he had decided to speak, the words rushed out of him all at once. “At home, at Rivendell. He says it’s not right, and I should tell you I want to go and live with other Men.” Estel shook his head quickly. “But I don’t want to, I want to stay with you and Elladan and Elrohir. I don’t know why he even cares.” He balked, remembering their recent conversation. “I know I’m a Man and that I need to learn to—”
“Estel.” Elrond put up one hand, razor-sharp tone slicing through the babbling string of words. Estel blinked up at his father, tightening his grip on the marble. “When did this happen? There has been very little opportunity over the past days for—”
“Not this time.” Estel looked away again, knowing that Elrond would not like his next words. “It was … last time.”
“Both times, actually, when he visited Rivendell. I think he was following me then, because—”
“Estel.” Elrond gripped his chin, tilting Estel’s head up. Even the dim lighting could not hide the intensity in his father’s eyes, or the set of Elrond’s jaw. “Why is it that I am only now hearing of this? Why did you not speak of it at the time?”
Estel shrugged again and tried to look away, but Elrond drew his head gently back around.
“Do not. A shrug means nothing to me. In fact, I would prefer it if you never shrugged again.”
It was not the first time Estel had heard that, but now did not seem the time for the teasing response that usually followed such a statement.
“I didn’t want to make things worse.”
Said out loud, he realized immediately that it was not the right answer. It was too late, however, to take the words back.
“You know.” He almost shrugged again, but stopped himself. Elrond released him, and Estel looked away. It was easier when he didn’t have to watch his father’s face. “Everybody was grumpy almost the whole time he was there anyway, and Mother said it was better to—”
“Your mother knew about this?”
Oh no. He hadn’t meant to …
Estel shook his head. “No, I didn’t … I didn’t tell her either.”
“Because you didn’t want to make things worse.”
Somewhere, there was a trap in those words. Estel just wasn’t sure where. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“If she did not know of Baradhald’s behavior toward you, then of what was she speaking?”
“She just …”
His mother’s tears flashed in his memory, and anger finally lowered Estel’s guard. “He came to our rooms. He said he just wanted to talk, but they had a fight and she cried when he left. Baradhald said a lot of things to her, he said that Mother was irresponsible and selfish, and that she—”
“And you witnessed this?”
“I was in bed. I came out when he started yelling, I wanted to help her, but she sent me back.” Estel flung away a chunk of broken rock that lay on the wall beside him. “I said we should tell you, but Mother said that he wasn’t there very often and that that there was no reason to make things worse.”
A long silence followed his pronouncement. When Elrond finally spoke, his voice was utterly unreadable. The darkness and shadows hid his father’s expression.
“And you decided, on your own, that this decision regarding your mother’s particular situation with Baradhald applied to yours as well?”
Estel hesitated, suddenly uncertain. It had seemed the right choice at the time, although he had somehow always suspected that his father would not be pleased by it.
In that moment, Elrond sat swiftly beside him. “Estel. Listen well, my son.” He waited for Estel’s eyes to fix upon him, then continued. “While I would have preferred the opportunity to assist your mother with Captain Baradhald, she is a Woman grown and as such I respect her choices.” Elrond paused, and Estel nodded his understanding. He had noted over the years that Gilraen and Elrond often did not respond to various situations in the same manner. They had always carefully respected each other’s opinions, however, even when Estel could tell that one (or both) was decidedly frustrated with the other. “You, however, are a child, and under my protection.” Estel made a face—he was twelve years old, not Cora’s or even Sander’s age anymore—but Elrond shook his head. “You have much yet to learn, do you not?” Well … he couldn’t really argue with that, not when he compared against anyone else in Rivendell. Estel blew out a short breath, and Elrond placed a hand on his shoulder. “While I would wish to believe Imladris beyond the need to clarify such things, the past weeks have most decidedly shown me otherwise. Therefore … if you ever feel threatened, physically or otherwise, if you find yourself frightened by anyone or in harm’s way, or if you are even uncertain about whether you may be in danger, you will tell me.”
It was … surprisingly comforting, this order. Estel nodded.
“Am I in any way unclear?”
Estel shook his head, and surprised them both by curling into Elrond’s side. His father put an arm around him and pulled him close, kissing the top of his head.
“I love you, my son.”
“I love you too, Ada.”
They sat for a long moment, silent beneath the stars, and then Elrond sighed and stood. Estel made to follow him, but Elrond stilled him with a hand. “I would like for you to remain here for a time. Will this cause you any discomfort?”
His father must be planning to confront Baradhald. There was little other reason that he would not wish Estel to return to the camp with him. Estel was disappointed that he was not to witness it, but the thought of remaining alone atop Amon Sûl did not disturb him. He had spent nights alone throughout Imladris, in trees and caves and outbuildings, and the ruins of an old watchtower—even an old watchtower where so many had died—held little fear for him.
He thought about asking to come along, and decided the request would not be wise.
“No, I’ll be all right.”
“Good. I will send one of your brothers when you may return.” Elrond briefly pulled him close again, then turned toward the path and disappeared into the night.
He was not entirely surprised to encounter Baradhald halfway down the path. It would certainly be a legitimate explanation of young Estel’s reappearance on the summit—he had little doubt, given his observations of the past days, that Estel would have happily climbed a far steeper hill than Weathertop to avoid the man. In truth, Dorhaur was tempted himself. He was a bit bemused by the sight of his captain struggling through a patch of brush several yards out onto the rocky slope. Dorhaur briefly contemplated continuing as if he hadn’t seen the other man, but discarded the idea almost immediately. They were too near each other for the ploy to be anything but obvious.
Baradhald was scowling when he reached the path, inspecting a dark patch on the corner of his cloak that might have been either a stain or a tear—it was difficult to tell in the darkness, and in any event, Dorhaur didn’t particularly care. He nodded as Baradhald joined him on the path.
The other man responded with a mutter that may or may not have contained actual words. Dorhaur stepped back to offer more room on the narrow path, pondering the change in Baradhald’s temperament since they had joined with their young Chieftain and the Elves from Rivendell. It was true that he did not know the man well, but the captain had never before been overtly unpleasant. Self-important, yes. Grandiose, perhaps. Pompous, definitely. But this bitter, aggressive anger he had not seen—not even suspected—until the events of the past days.
It seemed an overreaction to an argument lost ten years ago. His captain apparently knew how to hold a grudge. Dorhaur would do well to remember it.
“What were you doing up there?”
Dorhaur blinked. “Estel wished to see the ruins of the watchtower. Lord Elrond and I accompanied him to the top.”
Even the darkness could not conceal Baradhald’s scowl. “I thought you were injured. You need rest, I’ve been assured.”
He shifted, testing the limb in question. The leg was beginning to move from uncomfortable to painful after so long upon it, but the climb to the summit had offered no real difficulty. “Lord Elrond suggested a short walk, in order to ease the muscles after so long upon horseback.”
“Lord Elrond. Of course,” Baradhald grumbled.
Dorhaur frowned, studying the other man more closely as Baradhald continued to pick burrs and thorns from his clothing. Yes, of course Lord Elrond. Rivendell’s master was acknowledged as perhaps the greatest healer in Middle Earth. Why should he not make a suggestion regarding Dorhaur’s injured leg? His captain was, it seemed, determined to find fault with whatever action their Elvish companions took regarding any topic.
It was beginning to grate upon him.
No, it had long past begun.
Truly, what was Baradhald’s difficulty here?
“You do not seem to care for our companions.”
“You do not seem to grasp the situation.”
Dorhaur blinked. What was that supposed to mean?
Baradhald glanced toward him, snorted, shook his head, and started back down the slope. After a brief moment, Dorhaur started after him.
He was beginning to get a strong sense that he indeed did not grasp the situation.
“What situation do you mean?”
Baradhald rounded on him. “What situation do I mean?”
Dorhaur settled back on his good leg and eyed his increasingly agitated captain. “Yes, captain. What situation do you mean?”
The other man grunted and began to turn again, but Dorhaur reached out to catch his arm. Baradhald pulled away, and the two stared at each other for a long moment.
He was not out of line to demand answers, even from his captain. The Ranger hierarchy applied to patrol scheduling and placement of men, battle plans, and general decision-making within the confines of the Rangers’ every day duties. This, however, did not fall in any of those categories. In this matter, Dorhaur of the Dúnedain, unknown among the greater part of his people though he may be, had every right to demand a response from the cousin of their former Chieftain. Whether Baradhald chose to respond was another matter entirely, but Dorhaur suspected that he would. That he wanted to, and that given the right encouragement would not indeed be able to stop himself.
It was up to Dorhaur, then, to find the right encouragement.
“Rivendell has ever been our staunchest ally.”
“Ally.” Baradhald sneered. “Is that what you see?”
Dorhaur frowned. “What else should I see?”
“Open your eyes, man!” Baradhald paced forward, and Dorhaur drifted back a pace, keeping their distance. Truly, that had taken even less time than he had hoped. “Ever have the Elves sought to control the Dúnedain. From the time of Valandil, Elrond Half-Elven has exerted his influence over our leaders.”
This was … mad, surely. “Lord Elrond has fostered and educated our kings and chieftains.”
“He has shaped their views and thinking! He has done so for centuries, until we know nothing but awe for Elvenkind and the path to Rivendell in case of the slightest hint of trouble!” Baradhald shook his head, snarling. “And his efforts have served him well, have they not? We have simply handed over our current Chieftain to him, leaving our people nothing but a skeleton leadership devoid of any true representative of Isildur’s line.”
“Estel is but a child. He could not—”
“Estel. He is not even allowed a Dúnedain name. He—”
It admittedly seemed a drastic step, one at which Dorhaur had wondered over the past days. However, had no background by which to judge. “Surely Lord Elrond would not take such a step without consulting at least the Lady—”
“Ah.” Baradhald spun away. “Your loyalty to our Elven allies is—”
“I am loyal to our Chieftain.” Dorhaur followed, biting off the words in his disbelief and anger. “Our Chieftain, and I find no fault without reason in those who also—”
“Our Chieftain.” The captain snorted, stopping abruptly. “That boy is more than half Elvish already. If we could affect his return even immediately, the damage might not be fully mitigated. As it is, the best for which we might hope is a strong council prepared to override him when necessary if the Half-Elven finally deigns to return him.”
It was a struggle to keep his rising fury in check. The words were dangerously close to treason, if not already past that line. Out of the churning muddle in his mind, Dorhaur grasped at one word which had caught his notice.
Baradhald snorted and moved close, lowering his voice. “Think you that I alone have seen this?”
The implications were … staggering. Dorhaur blinked at the other man, processing Baradhald’s words and meaning only with difficulty. Had the lack of a strong central figure for the past decade and a leadership council headed not from among Arathorn’s kin but Gilraen’s truly left room for the fomentation of such beliefs? He had seen for himself how the uncertainty regarding Estel’s—Aragorn’s—fate, the prevailing belief in the child’s death, had affected the sense of identity and purpose among the wider Dúnedain people. Could it be that Estel’s absence among their leadership, even a child so young as he, indeed had greater impact than anyone might have foreseen? If so, how widespread were such notions? Baradhald’s words were vague—they might refer to five others, or fifty. Dorhaur had no connection to the leading families of his people, was rarely among them, and had no way of judging the truth of such claims.
This was, however, no longer a conversation he could tuck away simply to satisfy his own curiosity.
Yet, what could he possibly do?
I am loyal to our Chieftain.
That loyalty must be his guide. He had seen Estel in the company of these Elves. He had watched their interactions, had listened only recently as the Lord Elrond poured out his struggles in the raising of a child of Men. No, he did not believe that the Elves of Rivendell meant Estel or Estel’s people harm, no matter his captain’s assertions—and as such, these might be his truest allies, with the loyalties of his own people in possible question.
The thought was barely formed, the questions regarding how to best proceed only beginning to make themselves known, when Baradhald’s eyes suddenly focused upon the path beyond him. Dorhaur looked around to find Elrond nearly on top of them, sweeping down the rocky trail in smooth, flowing steps. Even in the dark the Elf radiated a focus and fury that Dorhaur had never before seen—not from Elrond himself, nor from any other. He felt his captain back away, he felt the brush of a shoulder as the Elf lord rounded him, and then Elrond was upon Baradhald, seizing a handful of hair and bodily dragging the man along as he continued to descend.
“Son of Gerhale.” Elrond’s voice was frigid, a stark contrast to the warm, friendly tone of earlier in the evening. “We will speak.”
Whatever Estel had told Elrond must not have boded well for the Ranger captain. Baradhald yelped a protest, scrabbling for the dagger on his belt. Without breaking stride, Elrond reached around him, seized the weapon, and flung it into the darkness.
Baradhald did not try for another.
For a brief, startled moment Dorhaur stared after them, then he shook off his stupor and joined the rush down the side of Weathertop.
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