"It's really quite beautiful, isn't it?" Elrohir mused, turning his face upwards and allowing a flurry of small, white flakes to dance across his face. He inhaled deeply, "Ahh, there's something so invigorating about the season's first snowfall."
Head down and cloak pulled close, Estel hadn't noticed his brother halt until he walked right into him.
Grinning, Elrohir turned to throw his arm around the human's shoulders. "Don't you agree, Estel?" he asked, giving him a playful squeeze. He could easily tell his younger brother was not in the best of moods this morning, but he was certain it wasn't anything a little teasing couldn't fix.
Estel vaguely shrugged off his brother's arm and continued trudging forward. "Looks like the same old annoying cold substance to me." He didn't feel like taking his brother's bait for light-hearted banter.
The snow had been sticking for a good quarter-hour now, forming a thin white veil across the landscape and a clinging chill upon the human.
"Oh, that's right," Elrohir went on, undeterred. "I forget humans have quite a natural aversion to cold," he smirked, knowing the easiest way to get a rise out of Estel was to mention anything about human inferiority.
Estel offered a grunt of disinterested acknowledgment.
"Oh, come on, Estel!" Elrohir exclaimed, trudging after him. "You're leaving your teen years in just a few days' time, at which point this impudent moodiness will no longer be founded." He has to go for that one, Elrohir thought smugly. The second most likely way to get a rise out of Estel was to mention his youth.
"Elrohir, stop baiting him," Elladan said from the lead, turning to address his twin. "He didn't sleep very well last night, and your incessant goading is not going to improve any sleep-deprived moods this morning."
That comment didn't help. Estel hated when his older brothers made excuses for him or showed any type of concern over his physicality.
"I slept fine," Estel lied, trying to keep the defensiveness from his voice. He had, in fact, slept very poorly. The weather had taken an unseasonably cold turn the last couple days, and it had particularly gotten to him the previous night. Toss and turn as he did, he couldn't sleep for being cold. And the stiff, frozen ground had not improved matters at all. His body was a resulting mass of aches and soreness this morning. And not to mention his head. He was coming down with a rather unpleasant headache, and he had stopped trying to prevent it from affecting his disposition this morning. He didn't care to put on a fake cheerful act at the moment. It was too early. And too cold. And it shouldn't even be snowing for another month and a half at least, Estel thought bitterly.
"You finally drifted off about two and a half hours into my watch," Elladan went on. "I don't know if that really constitutes as 'fine sleep.'" He said, trying to be kind about calling Estel out on his small lie. "Were you not warm enough? I put the extra blanket over you, but we should have perhaps packed more. I'm certain Ada was not planning on this unexpected turn the weather has taken."
"Or else he probably wouldn't have let me come, right?" Estel said, a little more harshly than he'd intended.
He felt both his brothers' eyes on him, and was immediately embarrassed by his small outburst. The brothers knew it was a touchy subject. And one that was getting touchier the older Estel got. Their father, Lord Elrond, had gone to great lengths over the course of Estel's life to keep him safe and well. There were strict regulations on Estel's doings—when and who he was allowed to leave Rivendell with, how long he was allowed to be away, how advanced his combat training was allowed to be. Dangerous acrobatic moves that his brothers were quite adept at were strongly discouraged in his case. His father didn't want him getting hurt. His father didn't want him attempting anything outside of his physical capabilities. Because he was a human. And the fact of the matter was that humans were simply not on the same spectrum of physical abilities as elves. Estel knew it, he knew his brothers knew it, and he certainly knew his father knew it. And it pained him.
He couldn't stand the thought of his family—his role models—thinking of him as weak. As incapable. Because he wasn't! He could hold his own in training. In fact, he had gotten quite good over the last couple years. He frequently noticed impressive glances from observing elves when he trained. And the approval was equally divided between both his archery and his blade skills.
And while he was very grateful to be on this hunting outing with his brothers, at the moment he just couldn't help resenting the fact that the cold was hindering him. Especially when the cold did nothing more than bring cheer and "invigoration" to his older brothers.
"Estel," Elrohir attempted somewhat cautiously, "If you're still upset about not being allowed on our last orc-hunt— "
"I'm not," Estel sighed, feeling sorry after noticing Elrohir's timid tone.
"You're turning twenty," Elladan said encouragingly, "And your weapon skills have become more than impressive over the years."
"Ada knows you're growing up," Elrohir chimed in. "It may pain him somewhat, seeing as you're his youngest, but he does see that you are becoming a man."
Estel nodded faintly. "I'm afraid that's all he'll ever see me as. Just a man—a fragile human."
There was an empty pause in the conversation as the brothers continued on, the elder ones not quite certain how to lighten the mood. Then Elrohir, noticing a large fallen log blocking the path in front of them, quickly took hold of Estel's arm.
"Quick, Elladan," he said, gesturing for his twin to take hold of Estel's other arm. "An obstacle bars our way, we must help the fragile one overcome it!"
Taking the cue, Elladan grasped his younger brother and together they effortlessly lifted him up and over the log. Upon setting him down, Elladan poked and prodded his younger brother with feigned concern. "Did he make it all in one piece?"
"I don't believe there are any broken bones. Everything seems to be aligned and functioning properly," Elrohir said, continuing the mock examination of their brother. He knew some of his pokes would elicit a ticklish response and sure enough, Estel couldn't help a laugh escaping.
"Stop it," Estel said laughing, both mad and grateful at the same time that his brothers had once again proven their uncanny ability to lighten his mood in under thirty seconds.
"Twenty years old and still ticklish," Elladan said, landing one last well-aimed poke at his side.
"Seems like just yesterday we were pinning him down and torturing him until he cried for Ada," Elrohir reminisced.
"Or wet himself."
"The good old days."
"That was never funny," Estel said indignantly, shrugging them off and starting along the path again.
"Of course…," Elladan ventured, "we are still his older brothers."
"And still very capable of pinning him," Elrohir went on, smirking.
"And he IS still ticklish…" Elladan added.
Estel turned around, eyes wide. "I won't hesitate to kill you both," he warned.
The twins laughed in unison.
"Fear permanently instilled," Elrohir said, clasping his twin's hand in triumph.
"Success," Elladan said smugly, laughing with his brother.
Estel shook his head in exasperation and turned back along the path, amazed that his brothers had once again proven their equally uncanny ability to completely infuriate him in under fifteen seconds.
The morning wore on, and the drizzling snow continued to swirl gently around them. It was not thick enough to be a complete nuisance, Estel had to admit, but he still wished it would stop. The haze of dancing flakes around him seemed to reflect his thoughts—unfocused and aimless. The dull throb in his head seemed to be worsening, and the urge to cough he'd been desperately suppressing all morning seemed to be getting deeper and more insistent.
His toe caught on a small root dusted with snow and the subsequent stumble it caused lead to a small fit of coughs escaping Estel unchecked. He regained his footing and quickly tried to cover up the incriminating coughing with a casual clearing of his throat.
He could practically feel his brothers exchanging glances behind him.
He briefly cleared his throat once more and willed the deep-set congestion to go away. He could feel a slight burning sensation deep in his lungs and he knew that was never a good sign. He couldn't be getting ill. He refused to be getting ill.
"Estel—" Elrhoir began behind him, but Estel quickly cut him off.
"Look," he said, pointing ahead. "Tracks!"
A fresh set of deer prints littered the thin snow ahead of them. "Looks like a small herd," Estel said, studying them. The prints branched off in several criss-crossing directions. "They must have been grazing through here not long ago."
He quickly went to their pack horse bringing up the rear and retrieved his bow and a quiver of arrows.
"I'm going after the stag," he announced, selecting a certain set of prints to follow.
"Would you like us to accompany you?" Elrohir asked.
"No, thanks," Estel replied, "Everyone knows you two can't keep quiet enough to catch an overweight turkey with impaired hearing."
"Is he implying we talk too much?" Elladan asked, a sarcastic eyebrow raised.
"I believe he was also implying we're slow," Elrohir said with feigned offense.
Estel snickered and headed off into the woods, grateful for a small break from his brothers. He'd been dying for a short rest all morning but he hadn't wanted his brothers to see he needed it. His aching body was begging for a brief reprieve, and his head continued to throb a little more pressing with each passing hour. He felt terrible.
He walked a good ways and when he finally felt he was a safe enough distance away from his brothers, he took a seat on a fallen tree and let loose some of the pent up coughing urges he'd been holding in all morning.
The coughs were deep and guttural and racked his already run-down body. They seemed to come in fits and he had a difficult time catching his breath. How could this have come upon him so abruptly, he wondered miserably. He hadn't been feeling too bad just the previous day.
Finally when the coughing spell seemed satisfied for the time being, he dropped his face into his hands and tried to ignore the overwhelming malaise.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the next thing he knew, he was nearly jumping out of his skin when he felt a hand softly touch his forehead. He started and sat upright so fast it made the world around him spin.
"Easy, Estel," he heard a soft voice say. It sounded like they were addressing a spooked horse.
The world stopped spinning and Elladan's face settled into view. He was peering at him very concernedly.
Estel abruptly brushed Elladan's hand away and jumped to his feet, praying he wouldn't sway.
"You're warm," Elladan stated.
"Just from resting with my head down," Estel explained.
"You're resting," Elladan pointed out—a very uncharacteristic occurrence.
"Just from the inadequate sleep I got last night," Estel quickly countered.
"Estel," Elladan said firmly, "You're ill."
No! Estel thought in despair. This was going to completely ruin their hunting trip!
"I'm fine," Estel insisted, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. "I just needed a short break."
"Estel," Elladan replied, "Please." Please stop taking me for an idiot, his voice clearly said. "Come on," he went on, "we've got to get you home."
"No," Estel pleaded, "Elladan, just let me have an honest try at the stag, please. I hadn't meant to drift off, I'm really not that tired, and it was only a few minutes," he went on rapidly, "The stag couldn't have gotten that far ahead. Just give me an hour—two at the most—to track it. We're still a day's journey away from home; we'll be spending the night out here anyway, what's the harm of a couple more hours?"
"Estel," Elladan replied, shaking his head slightly, amused at the youth's exuberance. "You need rest."
"We're still a day's journey from Rivendell!" Estel reminded him again. "And travelling home isn't resting."
"The sooner we get you home, the better."
"We're still spending the night out here no matter when we leave," Estel knew he had an undeniable point. "And besides, it's just a slight head cold. It's nothing to worry about."
"That cough sounded like more than a 'slight head cold,'" Elladan said dubiously.
Estel looked to him quickly and Elladan offered a small half-smile, "You're always underestimating our hearing capabilities. Never underestimate an elf's ears," he almost laughed but could tell Estel was currently struggling to resist being overcome with another ill-timed coughing fit.
He took a step forward as Estel heaved a little, letting out a couple strangled coughs before regaining his control. "Estel," Elladan said, reaching toward him.
Estel stepped away, making sure the fit had passed before regaining his composure. "I'm fine, Ell," he said, turning away and heading once more along the set of tracks he'd been following. "Just give me two hours," he said, waving his brother off. "I'll meet you back on the trail."
Elladan looked on uncertainly as his brother strode off into the woods once more. He shouldn't be out in this weather, he thought worriedly. He should be on his way back to Rivendell as soon as possible. But his brother was right, Elladan realized, they would be spending the night out here in the cold no matter what. Rivendell was too far away for the situation to be otherwise. Best to have as compliant a younger brother as they could hope for. And Elladan knew if he forced Estel to come with him now, he wouldn't hear the end of it the entire journey home. But still, that cough had not sounded good…
Sighing, Elladan turned to head back to the trail.
When he arrived, he was unsurprised to find his twin engaged in a kind exchange with their pack horse. He was stroking its mane as the horse whinnied in appreciation. True to his name, Elrohir seemed to have a natural way of evoking love and loyalty in any horse he seemed to encounter. Elrohir looked up as he approached.
"Refused to come back, did he?" he asked, noting his brother's lone arrival.
"Of course," Elladan replied.
"Did you tell him we could hear him coughing from a mile away?"
"Yes," Elladan said, "And I caught him napping."
"Yes. 'Resting,' he called it. But he was asleep. And he was burning up."
"He's running a fever. He's running a fever, and he's exhausted, and you heard the coughing!" Elladan went on, exasperated.
"Yes, I did, so why didn't you bring him back?" Elrohir demanded.
"Because he insisted on hunting the stag."
"And you let him? He's ill, Elladan!"
"I know, 'Ro. But you know how stubborn he can be. He just asked for a couple of hours more."
"He should be resting by a fire, not wandering about further in the cold," Elrohir accused.
"Well, why don't you go and drag him back here then?" Elladan countered. "I'd like to see how successful you are."
Elorhir sighed, knowing he would only have similar results. "Valar," he said, shaking his head in frustration, "He doesn't understand or appreciate anything about mortality! Always insisting on pushing his limits."
"He has not yet realized he has limits," Elladan agreed solemnly.
A brief silence settled upon them both as they reluctantly contemplated their younger brother's mortality. It was at times a painful thing to be reminded of. Their younger brother was going to die someday. No matter what either of them did. Estel was human, and it was just nature's way. It was a harsh reality neither of them ever wanted to have to think about, let alone face.
"He's grown so fast," Elladan mused, a hint of sadness in his voice.
"I know," Elrohir agreed. "Nearly twenty years old already. How is that possible? I swear it was just yesterday we were chasing a little toddler around Imladris."
Elladan laughed lightly. "And father thought we were troublemakers in our youth," he said, remembering the mischief of Estel's childhood. He kept the twins in stitches everyday with the schemes he would cook up.
Elrohir laughed. "Although to be fair, we might have been slightly influential of Estel's mischievous ways growing up."
"That might be a slight understatement," Elladan laughed in agreement, remembering how often they'd egged their younger brother on, or actually participated in his pranks and schemes. Estel brought life and laughter and youth to their home, and they'd loved him since the first day he was placed in their father's care.
After a quiet pause of joyful reminiscing Elrohir quietly asked, "When do you think father's going to tell him?"
"Oh, I think he's known he's adopted for a while now," Elladan said, pretending to be serious.
Elrohir snorted, not completely appreciating his brother's attempt at humor. "Seriously, Ell. He's nearly a man now. Has father mentioned anything to you?"
"He hasn't," Elladan replied, cutting the joking. He knew what his brother was referring to. "I can't imagine he'll wait much longer though."
"Nor can I. I worry so much about how Estel's going to take it."
Elladan met his brother's identical eyes. "I do as well."
"He perhaps should have told him sooner."
"I think you may be right," Elladan agreed slowly. "The longer father waits, the harder it's going to be for him to take it." He paused thoughtfully. "But then again, I wouldn't trade these carefree years we've had with him for anything."
"Nor would I," Elrohir agreed, pausing in contemplation. "Everything's going to change once he knows who he is, isn't it?"
"Yes," Elladan replied without hesitating.
Elrohir wished his brother hadn't been so blunt. He hadn't wanted his concerns confirmed so abruptly.
"I know it's hard to think about," Elladan went on, reading his twin's face. "But he is nearly a man now. And he has a difficult path laid ahead of him. Whether or not he'll choose to accept it will be entirely up to him."
"He's going to leave," Elrohir said quietly, suddenly finding himself staring at the dull ground in front of him.
Elladan studied his twin morosely, feeling the same dread he could clearly see on Elrohir's face. He didn't know what to say. He knew it was true as well, and loathe as he was to admit it, he knew it was probably necessary for Estel to leave their keeping. They couldn't keep their little brother safe and sound in Imladris forever. Not when he potentially had such an important part to play in the fate of men. Still, why did it have to be their Estel, he wondered with slight resentment. Why is it that fate had them get so attached to the one human that very possibly mattered most out of all mankind?
"Fate plays an unfair game," Elladan said quietly to himself.
"Hmm?" Elrohir asked looking up at his brother.
"Oh, nothing," Elladan replied. "I'm just still in denial that our little Estel is going to be faced with such burdens. I almost wish we could keep him in the dark forever."
Elrohir smirked. "And just leave the fate of men to its own devices?"
Elladan returned an identical grin. "Yes," he jokingly replied, "Forget men."
Elrohir let out a small laugh, "Inferior, stubborn, illness-prone race that they are," he joked. They both knew he was affectionately referring to one man in particular.
Elladan sighed. "I just hope Estel hurries. Ada's going to kill us for letting him hunt in this weather." The light flurry of snow circled around them unending.
"Especially since we discovered the symptoms he was trying to hide."
"The little sneak." The fondness was still unmistakable in their accusing voices.
Elrohir presently returned his attention to horse-grooming, while Elladan glanced back to the woods, hoping to see a familiar figure emerge within the hour.
To be continued