Estel mindlessly wound his way through the wood, tracing the wandering line of prints laid before him. The few determined snow crystals that managed to sneak through the forest canopy above created a soft, white dusting over the mossy ground—a dusting which revealed the tracks he followed were still quite fresh. He was closing in on the stag.
He tried to keep his mind and body focused on the prize ahead, but both were unrelenting in reminding him how unpleasant they found the current situation. Each reluctant step taken by his aching limbs only seemed to serve in further jostling his pounding head. His body felt like it weighed twice as much as normal and he really wanted nothing more at the moment than to curl up in a ball and let his pleading body rest.
Ugh, the malaise. Whyyy? he wondered miserably. Why now? Why did it come on so quickly and why did it seem to be steadily getting worse with each passing hour? Why couldn't his worthless body just shake it off and focus on the hunt in front of him?
His unheeded frustrations didn't help matters. They only added an unnecessary flush of anger to his already feverish condition. He rubbed his bleary, burning eyes and pressed on.
He realized it had been rather foolish of him to insist Elladan allow him to continue his hunt. What with how quickly his condition was deteriorating. He was cold and aching and in no shape for physical exertion. But this was what they were out here for. And he wasn't about to let an inconsequential and poorly-timed illness ruin their entire outing. Especially not when the stag was almost within reach.
No sooner had he thought that than he found himself in a lovely clearing beset with a glassy body of water—too large to be considered a pond, yet not quite large enough to be called a lake. And directly across the water Estel spotted the stag—graceful and regal as it grazed upon the clearing's meager greens.
Stepping lightly, Estel cautiously unshouldered his bow. He slowly approached the water's edge, his gaze fixed steadily on his target fifty yards ahead. Reaching back, he slipped an arrow from the quiver and continued inching forward onto an old decrepit log that stretched out across the water. He was just about to draw his bow taut when he felt a familiar tingle deep in his midsection. A split second later it was a full-on burning sensation desperately scrambling up his abdomen, begging for release. It clawed up his windpipe and try as he might to suppress it, the urge was too strong.
Estel reluctantly doubled over as a fit of coughs escaped him. It came in unending waves and shook his unwilling frame harshly. He couldn't breathe and had no choice but to forfeit control over his body while the hacking passed.
And as bad luck would have it (which it did more often than not in Estel's case, as he'd be the first to tell you), his uncontrollable coughing spasms jarred the log he stood on, causing it to sway unsteadily in the water. Still fighting to recover from his fit, Estel scrambled to find his footing on his suddenly unstable perch. The log continued to shift unpredictably under him, and his frantic scrambling proved unsuccessful—he lost his balance, and with an ungraceful splash, toppled into the water.
The water stung, it was so cold. It pierced his skin with an unexpected fierceness that caused Estel to gasp and sputter, frantically striving to get to his feet as fast as he could. The muddy waters were slick and it proved quite a challenge as Estel slipped and clambered towards dry ground.
Embarrassed and bewildered at his clumsiness, Estel climbed to the shore. He stood there, dumbfounded and dripping, staring out across the water. The stag, having undoubtedly heard the ruckus, had vanished. He silently cursed himself for such an unnecessary blunder. How could he be so stupid? The hunt was now certainly over, Estel realized dejectedly. He was already starting to shiver.
He bitterly wrung out what water he could from his tunic but it didn't help the situation. He was nearly completely soaked—his hair included—and he knew a change of clothing was imperative as soon as possible. The shivering was already growing in intensity.
Still mentally kicking himself, he fished his bow from the water and darkly turned to follow his tracks back through the wood.
The trudge back felt like an eternity. His fever was vehement; it burned his eyes and blurred the path in front of him. The shivering had long since advanced to his teeth, causing them to chatter loudly and uncontrollably. More than once he was overcome by yet another deep coughing fit, leading him to stumble and slip along the frosty forest floor.
He felt completely miserable and not entirely in control of his cumbersome body. And the cold, not to mention the cold! Don't think about it, he quickly admonished himself. Ignore it, don't think about how cold it is. If he didn't acknowledge it, it couldn't bother him, he reasoned irrationally. It seemed to make sense to him at the moment though. His thoughts were oddly jumbled and he couldn't seem to figure out why.
He forced himself to keep plodding onwards, reminding himself there had to be an eventual end to the cold at some point. Get back to his brothers, find dry clothes, warmth will ensue. And then the awful achiness plaguing him would be remedied too, right? Get warm, and all will be better. He ran his numb fingers across his brow. It would certainly be nice if he could stop and rest for a moment.
He was considering giving in to his weary body's request, when he suddenly noticed two figures approaching ahead. A brief flicker of alarm crossed his mind and he stiffened, wondering who on earth would be wandering these obscure parts of the woods.
And then he almost laughed at himself. Valar, he was slow today. Who else would be roaming these obscure parts of the woods?
"Estel!" A familiar voice called out. His muddled mind couldn't distinguish which twin it was waving at him.
"We didn't think you'd be on your way back already!"
"No luck with the stag?" The other indistinguishable twin asked apologetically as they approached.
"We know Elladan agreed on two hours, but the horizon began looking awfully omin—" Elrohir trailed off briefly, squinting at his younger brother.
"Estel, are you—are you wet?"
Elladan was already rushing forward, closing the gap between them in mere strides. He grasped at his younger brother's tunic, his hair, his cheek, his forehead. Estel feebly tried to brush him off, but to no avail.
"What in Valar's name, Estel?!" Elladan asked incredulously after thoroughly assessing his younger brother. He tunic and hair was indeed quite wet, and the fever had already significantly worsened. And he almost couldn't believe his brother's teeth were still intact with all the violent chattering going on.
"Elbereth, Estel," It was Elrohir who was now peering closely at him. "How long have you been walking about like this? What happened?"
Estel tried to push them away. "I d-d-don't want to t-t-talk abou—" his voice was suddenly cut off by his tunic being pulled up over his face. "W-what are you mmmph—" He struggled weakly as his arms were drawn over his head, tangled in the fabric.
"Hold still," Elladan said, struggling with the squirming youth.
The tunic was pulled free and Estel took an obstructed breath. "What are y-y-you d-d-doing—?" he began again, trying in vain to push his older brother off him once more.
Ignoring him, Elladan tossed the wet tunic aside and reached for Estel's belt buckle. Estel was not having it. What was he, completely disabled? He gathered enough strength to give his older brother a decent push. "I c-c-can d-do it m-m-myself," he said angrily.
Still ignoring him, Elladan brushed his younger brother's weak struggles aside. "I said hold still," he repeated, quickly flinging the belt free. "Elrohir, find some dry clothes," his voice was urgent. He didn't notice Elrohir already rummaging through their packs.
"Ellad-d-dan!" Estel exclaimed in frustration. He hated being ignored. He couldn't stand being coddled. And it legitimately aggrieved him when the twins resorted to using physical force over him. It reminded him how weak he was in comparison.
Elladan was not the least bit concerned about his younger brother's pride at the moment, however. His only objective was to get him out those wet clothes as quickly as possible and to get him warm.
"Here," Elrohir said, practically tossing his brother the clothing he'd retrieved.
"Blankets," Elladan requested over his shoulder, fumbling with the dry clothes. "Arms up," he said, nudging his younger brother.
Estel indignantly resisted the urge to roll his eyes, anxious as he was to get into dry clothes, and complied without griping. Elladan pulled the dry tunic over him and helped him step into fresh trousers. Elrohir presently returned with a stack of blankets which Elladan hastily draped around their younger brother, wrapping them tight and pulling him close.
He briskly began rubbing Estel's arms and back, trying to create some decent heat through friction. Estel buried his face into his brother's chest, grateful for the warmth he found there. And he discovered smothering his face helped lessen the violent teeth-chattering.
"Valar, Estel, you're warm," Elladan said worriedly, feeling the heat radiating from his brother's face through his tunic.
"No, I'm f-f-freezing," Estel replied, his words stammered from Elladan's continued jolting movements.
"Your fever," Elladan clarified.
"Oh, y-yeah...I don't f-feel too well."
"Finally admitting it, is he?" Elrohir tried to offer a small smile as he joined them. He started slightly, taken off guard as Estel abruptly withdrew from Elladan.
Estel seized up, drawing away and gripping the blankets tightly around him as an unexpected fit overcame him. The coughs came, once again, from deep within, and they were forceful and insistent and seemed to be getting more harsh.
The twins watched, startled, as Estel gasped and fought to catch his breath. The fit refused to release him as a new coughing spell took hold each time he desperately tried to inhale a suitable amount of breath.
"Estel!" Elrohir gripped his brother in alarm.
"It'll pass," Elladan said, having also instinctively gripped the distressed youth. He lightly rubbed his back, "Just let it pass, Estel. Breathe."
Still doubled over, Estel attempted to suck in gulps of air, but each one seemed to trigger a new tickle deep inside. His lungs burned. He eyes watered. He couldn't breathe.
Finally, completely spent, the coughing seemed appeased. Estel would have sank to his knees had he not been supported by a brother on each side.
Genuine concern lined the twins' faces as they watched him tentatively, hoping the coughing fit was really over. They were almost afraid to lift him to his feet, worried any slight movement might trigger another attack.
Elrohir's eyes met Elladan's and they shared a glance that very well could have said as much as a conversation. They could usually tell when the other was thinking the same thing. And right now their eyes were telling each other that they were likely dealing with an infection in the lungs. Not good.
"Hey," Elrohir said gently, gingerly rubbing Estel's back. "You already admitted your illness, and we believe you. I don't think a demonstration like that was really necessary, was it?" he joked lightly, still softly patting his back.
Estel looked up in defeat. "I'm s-sorry," he moaned. "I j-just feel awful and those c-coughing fits won't...Ugh, it f-feels like my lungs are on f-fire." he paused with bated breath, hoping he wasn't about to trigger another one.
"It's okay," Elladan interrupted, trying to keep Estel from talking too much. It seemed to only be making him more upset. "Are you warming up yet, Estel? Your teeth are certainly still chattering up a storm." He could also feel his younger brother's form still quivering.
"A l-little," Estel said, finally regaining his footing. He pulled the blankets closer.
"Elladan," Elrohir said quietly, drawing his twin a pace or two away by his sleeve. When they were somewhat out of earshot of their shivering brother he said in a low voice, "What do we do? Should we attempt as much progress as we can towards home by nightfall, or should try and get him comfortable by a fire right now?"
Elladan thought a moment. "We need to get him home. You know as well as I pneumonia isn't anything to take risks with."
"Pneumonia?!" Elrohir asked, unable to keep the fearful dread from his voice. "We don't know it's that serious. It could just be a simple cold."
"Surely you're not referring to the same episode I just witnessed," Elladan said impatiently. "That's no simple cold. He was complaining of his lungs burning, Elrohir."
"All right, I know," Elrohir said, cutting the denial. "Still, there are plenty of relatively harmless infections humans can contract, and they end up getting over them just fine in a matter of time."
"Do you want to wait and see if this one ends up being harmless?" Elladan pressed.
"Relax, Ell, stop being belittling," Elrohir said a little irked.
Elladan immediately felt a little bad. He hadn't realized he'd unintentionally been acting antagonistic towards his twin. "I'm sorry," he said, the ire gone from his voice. "I'm just stressed about the situation. And I'm not entirely certain what the best course of action is for him." Elrohir knew his brother hated uncertainty.
They both glanced in the direction of their younger brother. He was standing huddled in the blankets, still shivering and seemingly unaware or completely uncaring that they were holding a conversation without him. A fact that made Elladan a little wary. Estel would normally be up in arms anytime he and Elladan were whispering about him.
"If we're going to try and make progress, we'd best get going now," Elrohir said. "You saw how dark the horizon appeared from the path. That storm can't be too far off." He looked up, hoping to catch a glimpse through the trees, but the wood was too thick.
"We need to find adequate shelter for Estel tonight."
"What about that cave Estel loved to play in when he was younger?"
"You know," Elrohir insisted, hoping to jog his twin's memory. "That small cave he used to love building forts in when we'd take him out exploring. It shouldn't be too far from here. A few hours, perhaps."
"The forts with the pine bough 'curtains?'" Elladan asked, suddenly remembering. He smiled faintly.
"Yes," Elrohir said, his face breaking into an identical smile as he, too, thought back on the memories. "He thought draping those pine branches at the entrance was the most clever thing ever."
Elladan laughed, "And didn't you have to offer a secret password upon entering?"
"Of course. Estel wouldn't have it any other way," Elrohir laughed. "And if you didn't get it correct," he continued, "you'd get pelted with pine cones."
Elladan laughed softly, reminiscing.
They glanced over at Estel's huddled form still visibly shivering. He seemed to be off in his own miserable world, blankly staring at the ground as he was.
"Let's get going," Elladan said, watching Estel apprehensively as they rejoined him.
"One of us will need to ride with him," Elrohir said, approaching their horse to adjust the packs. "Help keep him warm."
"I'm fine walking," Elladan said.
Estel turned to them, bleary-eyed. They were talking about him like he wasn't there. If his scattered mind hadn't been questioning if he actually really was there, he would have been upset. But he felt strangely detached. His brothers seemed oddly urgent as they made ready to go. What was the hurry?
"Come on, Estel," Elrohir said, beckoning him over to the horse.
Estel regarded him sullenly. The thought of riding was both welcomed and off-putting. Welcomed because he was dying for some rest. And off-putting because he wasn't certain if he should be offended at the suggestion. He could walk just as far as the twins and then some. Were they suggesting he was too weak? Or was it because he had a bit of a fever? Maybe it was the coughing that led them to think he was inept? He wished his head wasn't so foggy at the moment. He couldn't seem to make sense of anything.
"Estel," Elrohir repeated, walking the horse over to him.
Estel just continued to stare blankly for a moment. Then he replied, "I'm fine to walk, too."
Elladan snorted. Tired of fooling around, he scooped his brother up in one swift motion and set him on the horse. Estel eyed him angrily, but was too exhausted to fight. Elrohir climbed up behind him and after adjusting the blankets for proper coverage, wrapped his arms tightly around him.
"We'll get you home soon, Estel," Elrohir said, holding him close as he nudged the horse forward . "Just try to warm up in the meantime, please."
To be continued.
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