Afternoon sunlight shone warmly down in sheets, bathing the land in a most unseasonal warmth, and the sounds of fair voices raised in laughter or song traveled far. Imladris was enjoying the last days of an extended summer, which had come early that year and seemed likely to end a good bit later than was usual in that mountainous region. "This way, brother!" Estel's voice drifted above the far-away sounds of music, his barely suppressed eagerness evident to the Elf who trailed after him. Elrohir smiled slightly as he watched the twelve year-old scramble up onto an outcropping of rock that ran above the path and then pause there, waiting for him. "Hurry!" With a shake of his dark head, Elrohir obligingly took four swift strides and then vaulted off of the trail to land squarely beside the boy.
"Whither now?" he asked, holding out his hand. Estel grasped it and began towing him along in his wake, irrepressible as ever.
"Up this slope, then we turn due west for some half a mile," he replied, and the Elf smiled again.
"It would be easier to remain on the path for the next two miles than to leave it now," he remarked. That earned him a somewhat scornful look, though the twinkle in the lad's grey eyes belied his seeming contempt.
"Are you an Elf or a Dwarf, to fear a detour into the woods?" Estel asked skeptically.
"Mercy, I pray you! I merely meant to suggest that you take ever the hardest path," Elrohir responded.
"What point is there in exploring a path already known?" the boy demanded, moving now more swiftly, though the land became more difficult to negotiate, and the Elf smothered a grin. Showing off, is he? Elrohir thought, amused. Well, at least he has the skill to justify his pride! the elven prince decided, watching as Estel slithered easily through a gap in the brush without disturbing so much as a single leaf. And in truth, Estel's pride was no less than Elrohir's, for Elrohir and Elladan had spent years teaching the boy his forest craft. As of yet, Estel had no inkling of how very vital such knowledge would prove to be for him, and Elrohir had no intention of telling him. But he was pleased with his pupil's progress, and he at least rested easier knowing that Estel would be well-prepared for the trials that lay in the future.
Estel turned suddenly, heading for a long inclination covered in slick grass and studded here and there with rock. Such a slope might have given another pause, for the grass grew downhill and would provide little purchase, while the rocks were spaced just far enough to make them dubious supports at best. An Elf might not find it the most challenging of terrains, but a human, and one not fully grown at that…. "Why do you wait? Come!" Estel asked, turning to see his adoptive brother standing at the base of the slope. Then, without awaiting an answer, he began to climb blithely on up, sure as a mountain goat, and Elrohir simply shook his head and began to follow. Keeping one eye on his own footing and another on Estel's progress, the Elf considered what this display of virtuosity might mean. For though he was a child like any other, and needed a certain amount of attention, Estel was not given to boasting overmuch. But all this day, he had carried an air of… bravura, almost, of challenge. Of course, it has been a year since Elladan and I were last in Imladris; a long time, by mortal reckoning. Yet I think there is more in this than a need to show what he has learned in our absence, Elrohir mused, wishing that his brother were with him to help unravel the mystery. But earlier that morning, Elrond had asked Elladan to ride on an errand into the Angle, and though Elrohir would have gone with him, Estel had claimed him first, having extracted from him the night before a promise to go up onto the heights.
A pleasant enough request, and he would have been glad to grant it in any case, but beneath the boy's eager demand, lurked some deeper–and more serious–matter. So Elrohir had thought at the time, feeling a certain foreboding. For Estel had not asked Elladan along, which was unusual. Or perhaps I only think it is unusual, Elrohir thought, and not without a sense of guilt. However alike the twins appeared, Estel had from his earliest days seemed able to tell them apart, and he had for years turned unerringly to Elrohir rather than to Elladan. Not that he disliked Elladan, but for whatever reason, he had fixed on Elrohir first and seemed reluctant to give up that original association. As Estel had grown older, and become more sensitive to the twins' bond with each other, he had taken to addressing them jointly, and it had been some three or four years since he had last asked a favor of Elrohir alone. And in truth, Elrohir was glad of that, for such was his bond with his twin that it was difficult for him to fathom any such preference. For his part, he loved Elladan above all others and found it hard to be esteemed above him, no matter by whom. It was not a reasonable feeling, he knew, but it was nevertheless as much a part of him as was the heart that beat within his breast. But fortunately, Elladan felt no jealousy. "After all, I miss nothing, brother. He knows well that whatever he says to you, it is as if he has spoken to me as well, for we keep nothing from each other," Elladan declared whenever the subject arose. And then he would smile, and turn sun-bright eyes upon his twin so that Elrohir felt himself drowning in them, and say softly, " Wherefore should I be jealous, when his love and mine coincide, brother?"
That Elladan did not feel shut out helped, but thought of his twin only made Estel's behavior this morning more outstanding in Elrohir's mind. What could possibly trouble him so that he would want to come so far? And if I am not mistaken, he has come here often in our absence, for he knows the route well enough. Ah, I wish indeed that I had Elladan here to rely upon for help in this matter! The Elf frowned as they at last crested the rise and then began to move once more through a thicket of pine trees. Estel could not tread as lightly as an Elf, but he compensated by very adroitly finding stones half submerged in pine needles or roots to walk upon so as not to disturb overmuch the thick strewn carpet of leaves. There is a trick I never taught him! Nor Elladan either, unless I am mistaken, Elrohir noted. Being elvish, it had never occurred to him for he needed no such help to hide his tracks, and he wondered suddenly whether he ought to have paid more attention to the manner in which the Rangers moved in the wilderness, the better to instruct Estel. Certainly, I have not lacked the opportunity. Fourteen generations have I seen pass from infancy to grave, and yet I never heeded overmuch their own methods. I wonder why?
But just at that moment, the two of them broke through the line of trees and came suddenly out onto a grassy promontory that, like a peninsula in the sky, was bordered by pines on three sides and opened onto the air on the fourth. Estel, without any hesitation, went and plopped down at the very edge of the sheer cliff face, gazing first down and then out to the west. Elrohir approached more slowly, not out of a fear of heights but because he sensed in the boy's sudden absorption with that horizon something dreadful. Perhaps it was the future that brooded over them in that instant, a foreboding of the darkness in which Estel was destined to walk and Elrohir shuddered at the thought. But Estel only stared outward and waited until Elrohir had come to stand beside him ere he spoke, "Look! You can see the Bruinen there!" He pointed to the white-silver glare of the river. "And beyond that the Last Bridge, and thence to the wide lands outside."
"Aye, there lies Eriador," Elrohir confirmed, and felt his spirits sink even lower at the reminder. How many valiant Men lie there, unmourned by those for whom they gave their lives? How many Rangers? How many Elves? He glanced down at the boy, and for a fleeting instant, he saw not Aragorn, but Arathorn. But then Estel glanced up, breaking the illusion, and he proffered a smile that was at once puzzled and sad beyond the measure of his years or experience. And as Elrohir folded gracefully down beside him, he swung his legs round and lay down on his stomach, propping himself on his elbows as he plucked absently at the grass before him.
"It is a lovely view, is it not?" Estel asked, but Elrohir did not answer, sensing that the question was intended but to lead to something else. Sure enough, after a moment, he continued. "But it hurts somehow, and I would know why."
"'Tis in your blood, Estel, and when you are away from that which is rooted in you, then do you feel pain. For beyond this valley live many peoples, and Men have long made their homes in Eriador. Your mother's people reside in those lands."
"Yes. One day I shall go and visit them," Estel replied. "I think mother would not be displeased to return to her home again, either. " A pause, and then the boy cocked his head up at him and asked in a tone whose deliberate nonchalance only underscored the sharp edge, "What day is it?"
Elrohir gazed down for some seconds, ere he answered, "The nineteenth of September, as you well know."
"Aye, it is, and I do," said the boy quietly. "But you know that that is not what I mean. Why is it that every year, on this very day, my mother weeps and her mood is so black I can scarce bear to remain near her?"
"Is that why you wished to come here today?" Elrohir asked, trying to turn the conversation to a safer topic.
"Last year, I left ere the sun rose and came to this place. All day I remained here, and did not tire of gazing on Eriador. But," Estel grimaced, "as I told no one of my plans, when I returned late that evening I got such a scolding that I could not sit for three days!"
Elrohir gave a bark of sympathetic laughter. "I see! Well, I shall witness for you and perhaps that will spare you your mother's wrath."
"But that is the heart of it!" Estel insisted, "Mother never worries that any harm shall befall me when I go out onto the heights. No evil comes into this valley, and she knows I know my way about. Why should she take on so that day?"
"Well," Elrohir replied thoughtfully, evading once again the question, "I should not say that she never worries. She does, and I have listened to her fears for you. But she is a brave lady, and she knows well that she may not restrain your wanderings if you are to improve your skill."
"I did not know that," Estel replied, sounding rather chagrined as his brow knit. "That she worried, I mean. She seems always so confident." He sighed. "But then, there are many things that I do not know, because no one tells me. For long, I knew not that my father died today."
Elrohir had been sitting quite still, and to all outward appearances, he seemed unaffected by that comment. But in truth, he was thunderstruck by that careless revelation. Or rather, seeming-careless! The rascal has been aiming for this conversation since last night at least! For his part, Estel gazed up at him now, watching his brother with the discerning eye of one raised among Elves, brought up to elvish customs and elvish mannerisms though he was not one of them himself. And he read in Elrohir's silence and stillness not simply knowledge, but guilt. "Why did you say nothing, brother?"
"I see that your earlier question was but a goad," the elven prince muttered.
"And why will you not answer? Was there… is it that," Estel paused and drew a deep breath, seeming to gird himself. "Was there in my father's death something shameful? Something that would be best left silent?"
Elrohir shot an amazed look at the other, but Estel's eyes were downcast, and the longish strands of his hair concealed his face. But the Elf could see how taut were the boy's shoulders, how rigidly he lay, and he laid a gentle hand upon his back. "Ignorance does breed fears, and I am sorry that you have suffered them in silence! But you may lay this one to rest, at least, for your father was a good man, and when you return to your people, you will find no one who does not honor his memory." A pause, then Elrohir continued softly, "You have grown, Estel, to be able to ask such a question, and for that I am glad. I forget how quickly time works its changes in a child."
"Especially in a human child?" Estel demanded, raising his eyes once again, and noting Elrohir's subtle discomfiture, added, "You can say that, you know. I know I am not an Elf." He sighed heavily. "I know that I am not Elrond's son by birth, and that I am not very much a Man yet, for I know little of my people other than what I see in my mother or read in books. I know of many things that I am not, but very little of what I am, truly!" The plaintive note in his voice caused the Elf to wince slightly.
"Listen to me, Estel! Your father–your mother's husband–is dead, may he rest in peace. And though to know him through the memories of others will certainly give you insight into your own heritage, in the end, he is but the beginning. Already, you have lived ten years without him, and I would not see you denigrate what you are now."
"And what am I now?"
"You are Estel, the hope of your mother who bore you; you are Elrond's son by choice, and he holds you in deep affection. And you are my brother, as much as Elladan is, whatever the blood that runs in our veins," Elrohir replied. And then he gave a slight smile, adding, "And you are confused, but that is to be expected. Very few Men have been raised by Elves, and even fewer have been raised as an Elf."
"I still do not understand why I was brought up thus. If it is so very rare, there must be a reason behind it!" Estel muttered.
"That will be revealed in time, and you must trust Elrond's wisdom in this matter. I can well understand that you have many questions, and wish for answers, but ask yourself: is it so terrible to dwell here with us? Do you resent us that much?"
"Nooo," Estel replied, drawing out the word. "Imladris is my home, and I have here brothers and a mother whom I love." He smiled slightly and murmured, "But I have two fathers, and though I have in some way known that for many years, and been untroubled by it, I find that the more I grow to love Elrond, the more I regret that I know naught of my second father, who was in fact my first. I do not even know his name!"
Elrohir was silent for a long moment, and the two of them, Elf and boy, stared out at Eriador. And Estel thought of the long, dreaming years he had spent in this valley, content to let the days bring what they would. Short years, he supposed them to be, at least as Elves reckoned time, and yet they were long as well. A long time to wander asleep! But the dream has ended, or is ending, I do not know which. There was a time when I called Elrond 'father' and meant it very sincerely, without ever thinking that it might not be literally true. My mother's husband was a ghost in my mind, present but without presence, as is the way of dreams. But now I feel his absence, and I would hear his voice, or learn a little of his life among Men. But Elrohir's comforting hand on his back was very warm, and the sun was bright; time seemed to stand still, and despite desperate curiosity, Estel felt his eyes closing of their own accord. Surrendering to the impulse, he laid his head upon crossed forearms, inhaling the scent of the grass and wondering if it smelled the same outside of Rivendell. Yes… one day I shall leave this valley and discover how the land feels to me outside of Rivendell. One day soon, as we count the days here… !
Elrohir smiled, watching the boy's eyelids droop, and he shook his head. Like as not, he did not sleep all last night, anticipating this day! I would I could tell him the half of it, and so set his heart somewhat at ease. But he could not, and he sighed, realizing that after this afternoon, he would have to earn Estel's trust rather than assume that he had it in hand. Well, I did not truly expect that this day would never come, did I? And surprisingly, he found he could not answer that question. If he had ever thought about it, reason would have informed him of this inevitability, but he never had, and his heart had assumed that the boy would never question their relationship. He truly is as a brother to me, for only of Elladan have I felt such certainty. And of Arwen, of course, but there is another matter that I may not speak of, on father's orders. Of all Elrond's precautions, that was the most mysterious, for neither Elladan nor Elrohir could think of any reason to hide their sister's existence from Estel. But one does not disobey such a ban, and I, like Estel, must trust that one day the reason shall be revealed!
For some time, Elrohir sat watching Estel sleep, and perhaps he dozed himself. Memory and dream are not so very different from each other to the elvish mind, and his thoughts wandered far afield, recalling names long lost to the rest of the world, seeing in his mind's eye the faces of those who bore the name of Isildur–each one a different man, but it seemed to Elrohir that the face mattered not, for there lived in each heart the same spirit. Sometimes that spirit burned brightly, and the form that it dwelt in could not contain it and ended early; other times it was more muted. And now it is Estel's turn to bear it, if he can! Once again, his mind seized upon Arathorn's image, recalling the bloody ruin of grey eyes after that last battle, and Elrohir jerked out of his daydream quite suddenly, roused by the memory of that terrible day as much as by Estel's stirring. The boy rolled onto his side, yawned, and then rubbed at his eyes. "What time is it?"
Elrohir glanced at the sky himself ere he replied, "It grows late. We should return to the valley floor, if you are ready."
"I am!" Estel bounded to his feet, and the Elf rose with smooth grace. But ere the boy had take four steps, Elrohir reached out and caught his arm, halting him. Estel glanced up, puzzled. "What is wrong?"
"Naught." Elrohir hesitated, considering briefly a decision reached unconsciously. Elrond would not approve, that was certain. But my father was not there that day, either, and bears no stigma of guilt… ! "Your father's name was Arathorn."
Estel blinked, and then swallowed hard as he repeated softly, "Arathorn."
"Yes. We, Elladan and I," Elrohir continued somberly, "were with him when he died. And you may not repeat that to anyone."
"I do not understand," Estel replied sadly, but then squared his shoulders and said firmly, "But I shall not say a word, nevertheless!"
"Good then," Elrohir replied, feeling his conscience rest a bit more easily. "Now, can you find a better way down from here than by that slope? Or will you be lost if you stay not with the tried path?"
"Will I–?" Estel snorted. "Lost indeed! This way, Elrohir, and mind your step!" he replied, and there was a gleam of mischief in his eyes that the Elf knew well. Raising his eyes briefly heavenward, as if in supplication, Elrohir then dashed after his brother who, laughing, led the way home.