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Estel lay wrapped in his bedroll, listening as the camp stirred to life. It was morning in only the most basic sense—the sky was no longer entirely black, and he had heard maybe one bird—and he was surprised that anyone was already moving. Of course, he didn’t know their current plan. Having returned to find Baradhald secured to a convenient tree under rather surly guard, he had attempted to stay awake after he’d been sent to bed, hoping to learn what had transpired while he had been banished upon the top of Amon Sûl. That had proved entirely unsuccessful, as he had fallen asleep not more than a minute after burrowing into his blanket. He poked his head out now, straining to see if anything more was happening than the usual morning activities, but quickly pulled the material back tight around his chin. His neck was cold.
With hesitant fingers, Estel reached up to touch the short strands, so odd brushing against his face and neck. He wished now that he hadn’t done it—but then, wasn’t that why he’d seized his knife so immediately when the idea had come, there in the darkness on Weathertop? So that he wouldn’t have time to talk himself out of it? Anyway, he knew it had been the right thing to do. His brothers and Glorfindel had only offered puzzled frowns upon seeing his new—and slightly ragged—haircut, but they didn’t know yet about the things he’d said, and the conversation that followed. Elrond, though … his father had worn a pleased, rather proud expression (and for a moment he’d thought sad as well, but then it was gone and Estel knew it had only been a trick of the firelight) when he had marched across the camp, stopped before Dorhaur, and promised solemnly, “I will not forget.” That was proof enough, but Dorhaur’s faint smile and the shallow bow with which he acknowledged Estel’s gesture were as obvious as any shout of approval.
“I know you will not. I thank you.” Then, the Man’s grin had broadened, and he had flicked at one of the shortened locks. “Perhaps you will allow me to show my appreciation by straightening this up a bit.”
Estel had returned the grin, relieved. “My thanks. I was not sure how to—”
“Not with a knife next time, perhaps.”
Dorhaur had retrieved a razor and small scissors from his pack, then sat Estel near the fire and smoothed the rougher edges of his impromptu styling while the others finished preparing their evening meal. The talk over supper had been general, nothing of what Estel truly wished to hear, and he had been sent to his bedroll soon after. Now, squinting against the slow graying of the morning, Estel saw that not only Dorhaur and Baradhald were leaving, but apparently Elladan and Elrohir as well. He started to scramble up, half worried that they would depart without saying goodbye, but Glorfindel beckoned to him from near the saddled horses.
“I was just about to wake you. The twins are to ride with Dorhaur for a time—come say farewell.”
Estel wondered again what had happened, but knew from experience that plying the ancient Elf with questions was unlikely to produce answers—not for something of this magnitude. He would simply have to wait, and perhaps spring his queries upon his father unaware.
That only rarely worked either, in truth. Still, it was worth a try.
Baradhald was already mounted, and scowled briefly before turning away. He ignored the Man—now that Elrond and the others knew about the Ranger’s behavior, Estel somehow didn’t really care what Baradhald thought of him. Elrohir was fastening his packs, and Elladan approaching from a nearby bush. Both gave him tight hugs, expressed their regret, and promised to return to Imladris when they were able. He was disappointed that they were leaving, but Estel knew that his brothers loved him, and that they did important work with the Dúnedain. They would not go now without good reason. Dorhaur appeared with his own pack as they mounted, and Estel felt a sudden, keen sense of loss.
Who knew if he’d ever see Dorhaur again?
The Ranger grunted as Estel flung himself into the Man’s arms, and dropped his pack to return the fierce embrace.
“Thank you,” Estel whispered, and Dorhaur planted a rough kiss on his crown.
“It has been my honor, young Estel.”
The Man pulled back to study Estel for a long moment, then disentangled himself, mounted, and pulled his horse around. Within minutes, the little group was gone. Estel stared after them for several long minutes, feeling strangely forlorn, and then his father’s arm came around his shoulders.
“Come. Your mother has been missing you for long enough.”
The next days stretched into a blur of hard riding broken by brief rest breaks and light meals. Even the Elven horses, hardy and strong, were noticeably fatigued by evening. Much of their food store had departed along with the others, and although they certainly did not go hungry, Estel always wished for more. The road was long, and straight, and boring. His body, unused to such activity, ached. He missed Gilraen, and was ready to be home.
He did develop a certain appreciation for his new haircut as the miles stretched behind them. Though thick and shaggy, still the sweat wicked away from the short strands much more quickly than from his long hair, which had always been sweat-soaked and stuck in strings to his skin after any period of riding or exertion. The cooling breeze across his neck was more than enough to convince him that perhaps Men had discovered something with this shorter style, and he quickly lost any regret he’d had over the decision. He might change his mind again when they reached home, of course—but for now he was just as happy to have it all gone.
Mitheithel and the Last Bridge were a welcome sight, proof that they were actually getting somewhere rather than just riding forever, but the Trollshaws quickly followed. Estel was uneasy, though he didn’t care to admit it. He didn’t remember this part of the journey as he and Ferrier had traveled away from Imladris—he’d still be quite thoroughly drugged—and he was glad. If he was nervous now, riding between his father and Glorfindel, how might he have felt with only Ferrier as protection? It was ridiculous, he knew—at least, ridiculous during the day. Everyone knew that a troll caught out in the sunlight turned to stone.
But … what if that was just a story? His brothers had told him too many 'facts' about trolls for him to be quite certain what to believe.
Was a troll truly twice the height of an Elf? He might believe that, but ... not the bit about the third eye in the back of a troll's head for sighting prey that attempted to flee. He knew that wasn't true. He thought that wasn't true. He was sure that trolls did wear spiked boots, but he wasn't certain that they truly spit acid. He had always suspected Elladan had been making that up -- at least, he was sure he had seen Elrohir roll his eyes during that story. Probably it was made up. But they had both said there was more than one kind of troll, and that made sense. Maybe. What if one of those kinds didn't turn to stone in the sunlight?
Estel nudge Hethu closer to Elrond, hoping that his father would not notice.
For a while he believed himself successful, until Elrond asked, without looking at him, “Do you wish to ride with me, my son?”
“No.” He pulled his mount abruptly away, and they rode in silence for another half hour, the dark hills looming over them, before Elrond looked around and held out his arm.
This time, he did not protest. Estel nudged Hethu close, and allowed his father to pull him into the saddle of his own horse. Well-trained, Hethu kept pace with the others, and after only a few minutes Estel sagged back against Elrond and closed his eyes. The night before had been restless—he had never quite managed a true sleep, half expecting to be set upon by whole packs of trolls at any moment—and he quickly slid into a doze. As the world disappeared into darkness, he heard his father say softly, “He looks a good deal older—like a young Man, in truth—with his hair cut so.”
Glorfindel might have offered the cryptic response, “You shall have him for a while longer yet, my friend,” but Estel couldn’t be certain. The rhythmic thud of the horses’ hooves had lulled him to sleep.
The ford at the Bruinen, which Estel heard for more than an hour before they finally reached it, sent him into a fervor of excitement. It was all he could do not to kick Hethu into a gallop as they splashed out of the fast-flowing water into the outer reaches of Rivendell. Elrond laughed, but held out a hand to slow him. “Your horse has served you well, my son, and is fatigued. Do not push him beyond his endurance so near the end of your road.”
Abashed, Estel slowed his mount slightly, but his agitation must have yet been apparent, for Hethu without urging broke into a trot along the rocky path. Elrond and Glorfindel fell in behind him, but they were barely to the trees before an Elf dropped lightly into the path beside them.
“My Lord, you return!” The Elf, not one with whom Estel was familiar, turned her eyes to him. “And successful, I am relieved to see.” She smiled. “We will celebrate your return, young Estel, with song and feast and tale-telling in the Hall of Fire. All of Imladris rejoices that you are well.”
Estel blushed, looking away. Elrond asked the Elf if word had been sent ahead of their arrival.
“Nearly an hour past, my Lord. They will certainly know of your coming.”
“I thank you.”
She dipped her head, long black hair shimmering in the sunlight, and disappeared again into the branches. Within moments, no sign of her existed. Glorfindel shook Estel out of his usual wondering gaze, eyes alight with silent laughter.
“Come! The House will be preparing to welcome you—it is well to not keep them waiting.”
No. No more waiting. Estel touched his heels to Hethu’s sides, and the horse surged ahead. This time Elrond did not attempt to slow them—indeed, he would not have been successful. Hethu seemed well enough in any case, easily dodging the Elves that appeared along their path from out of branches and shadows and thick brush as horse and boy swept past. Glad cries called after him, and Estel waved a hand and shouted back greetings without slowing. There was only one person he most wished to see right now—he would speak with these other, his friends and neighbors, later. The trees and path became familiar, beloved as the House grew closer, green vibrancy tickling his nose and assaulting his ears and lending a pounding energy to his coursing blood, but Estel’s eyes were only for the way ahead. Then he topped a low rise, and she was there.
Estel hauled Hethu up short and flung himself out of the saddle.
Gilraen hitched up her skirts and ran the remainder of the hill, dark curls wild around her, tears already streaming down her face. Erestor and several others had been keeping pace, but fell back now. She met him halfway, and crushed him close, and showered his face with kisses.
“My son! My son …” She pulled back to drink him in, then drew Estel down and kissed him again. “You have grown—you are so tall.” And indeed he had. When last Estel had seen her, Gilraen had been a bare inch shorter than he, and now he topped her by at least three. It seemed he had been gone a lifetime, rather than the relatively few weeks since he had been taken from her.
Estel laughed and picked her up, twirling her around. He was not yet big enough to do it easily and they both ended in a heap on the rocky slope, sliding some feet to land abruptly against a fallen branch. His mother only joined his laughter, putting her arms around him again. She rocked them both as the Elves that had been following him and those who had been with her met in the center. Erestor grinned widely at Estel, as did the others who gathered round, but all left him to his reunion and instead approached Elrond and Glorfindel. Feather-light fingers in his hair drew Estel’s gaze around, and he found Gilraen studying the shortened locks with shining eyes.
She liked his hair.
She … it made his mother light up inside. Estel didn’t know what about a haircut could possibly make Gilraen so happy, but he vowed silently to always wear it so.
It was, surely, the least thing he could do for her.
Even as he decided it, her gaze suddenly fell. Her hand trembled, and he reached up to seize it.
“Did he hurt you? Are you—”
“No!” He ducked in to kiss her cheek. “No, Mother, I’m well.” Gilraen’s eyes rose again to his hair, and Estel squeezed her hand. “I did this to myself.” Her surprise was evident, and her anxiety not entirely relieved. Estel hugged her again, reveling in her feel and smell. He was home, and his mother was here. Life was, for the moment, right again. “I have so much to tell you.”
“Perhaps, however, we might do it more easily at the House?” Elrond’s voice broke gently into their conversation. “I know not about you, my son, but I could do with an early luncheon.”
Estel’s stomach growled loudly at the reminder, eliciting laughter from the surrounding Elves (whose stomachs did not, after all, do anything so uncouth as to rumble when empty). He blushed, and Gilraen scrambled up to face Elrond.
“Thank you, my Lord.” She offered a deep curtsey, but when Elrond touched her shoulder, Gilraen’s composure broke and she seized the lord of Imladris in a tight embrace. An amused murmur rippled through the gathered throng, but Elrond merely returned the gesture until she finally broke away. “Thank you,” she repeated, voice thick with tears, and he smiled faintly. Something passed between the Elf and the Woman then—some shared bond of responsibility or remembered promise centered upon this lanky child of Men who caught them both suddenly in a rough embrace—and Elrond placed a hand upon each dark head in silent benediction before moving away.
The throng broke apart then, and Estel scrambled for his horse, dragging Gilraen behind him. He mounted and his mother swung up easily behind him, skirts trailing down each side of Hethu’s flanks. Gilraen wrapped her arms around his chest and pulled him close again (Estel suspected he might be a bit lacking in personal space for the next several days, but he couldn’t bring himself to care), resting her chin comfortably on his shoulder. Estel nudged Hethu down the hill after the others, his mouth watering at the thought of the food that awaited them.
Trail rations, he had discovered, were truly best left for the direst of circumstances.
Glimpses of the Last Homely House could be seen now through the dappling of the trees, and Estel’s heart leapt within him so hard that it almost seemed to skip a beat. Home. He took another long breath of the vibrant forest air, and felt the warmth of his mother’s wiry arms around him. Home. He picked up their pace, and dashed down the last hill into the heart of Imladris.
A/N: Epilogue to follow!
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