"Are you sure he's old enough to have his own dagger?" Gilraen asked, with some concern.
Elrond offered her a small glass of sweet wine. "He will be eleven. Had you remained in your own village he would have already been carrying one, for two or three years."
Gilraen's gaze swept the large and airy room, which was elegantly dressed with carved furniture, thick, jewel toned carpets and fine tapestries. Small tables, their legs so slender that it seemed a strong breeze would snap them in two, supported fine porcelain ornaments, and delicate cut crystal vases held arrangements of hothouse grown flowers. Unlike the Angle, this house had never known war, and weapons were worn only by those travelling to and from the valley borders. She sighed. "He will be twelve and I know. I suppose I'm like most mothers in this. I don't wish to think of my son in any situation where he would need to defend himself."
"We have had this conversation before." Settling in a chair opposite her, Elrond smiled a little ruefully. "Neither is it a thought restricted to mothers. And yet, particularly in Estel's case, learning to wield weapons is a necessary skill. At the least, he will be expected to defend his people, and he may even be the one destined to reclaim the throne of Gondor." His face darkened. "Should that come to pass, he may have to fight opponents both outside and within the kingdom. Such enemies do not always strike in the open and a dagger is often a choice of the betrayer."
"Within the kingdom?" Gilraen frowned.
Elrond set down his barely touched glass. "The House of Hurin has ruled the southern kingdom for many generations. They may not sit upon the throne, but the Stewards have grown used to exercising its power. Few now believe that a king will ever again rule, and power once wielded, is difficult to relinquish. I suspect there are some, in these later generations, who would resist the claim of some 'Ragged ranger from the north'."
Gilraen bristled. "Should that day come, Ecthelion will discover that rulers are born of more than fine clothes!"
Elrond took up his glass once more. "And so we return to my earlier point. Estel has had sufficient training in arms to know that a dagger is not a toy. Glorfindel can teach him how to wield it in defence at the least. Like you, when he is of such a tender age, I do not wish to contemplate his need of it to harm another, but if his learning begins now he will be proficient by the time that need does arise."
Another sigh and Gilraen capitulated. "I wish sometimes that you were not always right."
"Oh, I assure you that I have made my share of mistakes," the elf lord replied in a dark tone.
Estel was already bathed, dressed and pulling on his boots, by the time his Mama came to rouse him for the day. "Well, well," Gilraen commented with a grin. "Perhaps you should have a birthday every day, if it produces such behaviour." She straightened a braid over one ear and fastened the last tie on his jerkin.
"Would I get presents every day as well?" her son asked with a mischievous grin.
Gilraen playfully tapped his nose. "Everyone is here so let's not keep them waiting." She led her son into their shared sitting room, where a larger than usual breakfast table had been set up. They were met with a chorus of "Happy Birthday, Estel!"
Estel's grin lit the room. "Thank you."
Elrond, Elrohir and Elladan stepped aside, to reveal a small pile of gaily wrapped parcels, and Estel's eyes widened. "Are these all for me?"
Erestor frowned. "Who else would they be for?" He winced as Faerwen dug a well aimed elbow in his ribs. That lady smiled. "Of course they are."
"Can I open them now?" Estel's mother pushed him forward. "Of course you can."
The youth needed no further prompting, falling to his knees before the heap, eyes and hands roving, as he considered which to open first. He finally decided to open the largest, tugging on the carefully tied bow to allow the pretty fabric to fall open. He reached out in awe, to stroke the finely tooled leather of a new saddle and tack.
"That one is from me," his mother offered. "Elrohir arranged for its making."
Estel leapt to his feet and ran to throw arms about his mother's waist. "Mama, it's beautiful. I have never had a brand new saddle before. Thank you!"
Gilraen bent to kiss him. "You are very welcome. Happy Birthday."
When Estel turned back to the rest of his presents Elrohir stepped forward. "I could not wrap my gift but if you open the doors to the terrace you will discover it."
For the first time since entering the room Estel turned to the long windows, which were still shut against the cool March weather. A little gasp, and Estel was running to fling them open as he spied what was beyond. Fortunately, he had learned enough from his foster brother to approach the fine boned palamino pony, quietly.
Hazel eyes glanced aside a little warily at this newcomer. Elrohir slipped a small carrot into Estel's hand and the youth slowly offered it on his palm. "What is your name?" he murmured as a golden head, with its white blaze, leaned down to lip up the offered titbit.
"Her name is Mallenchwest," Elrohir supplied softly. "You are grown too tall for Luin and he is growing a little old and bad tempered. He has earned his rest."
From the casement, Elladan emitted a soft snort. "Luin's temper has very little to do with old age and a great deal to do with the fact that he is Luin."
Estel was smitten, reaching out to gently brush aside a blond forelock. "You are beautiful," he murmured, proudly, before turning back to hug his foster brother. "Thank you, Roh. She is the best birthday present I have ever received." Seeing the love in the youngsters eyes, no-one could be offended at such favouritism.
Elrohir hugged him back. "She is still young so you will have to continue her training. But it will be good for you to learn with her."
Estel leaned into his foster brother's side as he turned back to watch Mallenchwest, who was now nibbling on a ball of sweet hay. "I promise that I will be a very good student."
"I know you will. But, come. You have other presents to unwrap and our breakfast is growing cold." Elrohir shepherded him back inside, where the others waited patiently.
"I think you should open Elladan's gift next," Elrond instructed as he indicated a long, narrow, blue parcel.
All waited expectantly, as Estel unwrapped several layers of cloth to reveal a slender, jewel hilted dagger. The boy lifted it carefully, holding it up to watch light play along the swirling patterns of the steel blade, and glow in the amber cabochon set in the pommel. He made an experimental upward thrust and Elladan shook his head. "Glorfindel has agreed to show you it's proper use." Setting it carefully back among its wrappings Estel ran to hug his brother, even as he glanced aside to gauge his mother's reaction to the gift.
Gilraen kept her features neutral, still unsure of her opinions on the matter. Now Elrond held out another long, slender package. Estel opened it slowly. After so many beautiful gifts he could not imagine anything to match them. Then he saw it. A beautifully tooled leather scabbard, obviously made specifically to house his new dagger, also embellished with a smaller amber cabochon. He slid dagger into sheath with a satisfying snick. "Thank you, Adar. It's beautiful."
"And you'd best have this to hang it from," Erestor advised as he and Faerwen held out a smaller package. Opened, it revealed itself to be a soft belt, with a strong but delicately engraved silver buckle, the colour of the leather matching dagger sheath perfectly. Faerwen knelt to fasten the belt about Estel's waist, as Erestor hung dagger and sheath from two small loops, in token of the knighting Estel's people would once have performed.
The young boy leaned in to hug each in turn. Faerwen returned his embrace enthusiastically, whilst the more reserved Erestor seemed embarrassed but pleased. The youth grinned up at both. "Thank you. Now I feel like a proper warrior."
Elrond's brow lifted. "There is more to being a warrior than carrying a shiny dagger. But that is a lesson for another day. Now we really should eat this splendid birthday breakfast, or the cooks will be very disappointed. They have been preparing it since before dawn."
Glorfindel hefted the dagger in his hand. "It has a good balance, but I would expect nothing less from Hathol's forge." He offered it, hilt first. "Show me how you hold it."
Estel took it in the grip he had mastered so carefully for his sword, and demonstrated with a somewhat exaggerated thrust.
"Hmmm." Glorfindel used his foot to correct Estel's stance. "But there are two ways to hold a dagger. The method you have employed is good for a stealthy upward thrust or for slashing a throat. When fighting face to face, it can also give you an extra few inches of distance, at least until you execute your thrust."
Drawing down a wooden practice blade he demonstrated on the pell, slipping up from behind to slit it's throat, in a move that was so swift that Estel was certain a real victim would be dead before they even realised they had been attacked. Even now, the young boy felt uncomfortable about learning such things. If Glorfindel noticed any discomfort, however, he did not acknowledge it. The elven warrior seemed quite pragmatic about killing, and Estel often wondered what had made him so.
"This is the way most commonly used, however." Glorfindel spun the weapon around to that the blade lay along his forearm, holding out his hand to show Estel the grip.
Frowning, Estel copied. "Why is this better?"
"There are several reasons. The first is that it uses different muscles to thrust. The over-arm thrust engages the strongest set of muscles in your arm, and uses the rotating joint of your shoulder to best advantage." He demonstrated by delivering a downward blow, to the area of the pell which represented the rib cage. Whilst stopping a hairs-breadth from the wood of the pell, Estel was left in no doubt that, had it not, the momentum of a real blade would have easily taken it completely through. "It can also be used as defence. Come at me."
Estel cast about for another blunted wooden practice dagger.
"Why do you delay?"
Estel held up the wicked blade in his hand. "I was looking for another wooden one."
Glorfindel rolled his eyes. "Trust me when I say that, at this stage of your training, that blade is not going to come within an inch my person. Come at me!"
Wincing, Estel made a half-hearted attempt to stab at his teacher.
Glorfindel lifted his forearm, the wooden blade easily blocking his student's blow. He sighed. "Very well. Put away your blade and take one from the wall. It is clear that you do not trust that I am capable of defending myself, against your vast strength and violent intent."
With an annoyed frown, Estel slid his dagger back into its sheath. Snatching down a wooden blade he spun about and slashed out, exclaiming in pain as his wooden dagger made loud contact with Glorfindel's. He lowered it, shaking out his hand and arm, even as his teacher calmly hooked the boy's feet out from under him.
Estel landed with a loud, "Ooof!", which knocked all the anger out of him and replaced it with chagrin.
Glorfindel was silent as he watched his pupil gather his wits. Estel accepted his hand up and Glorfindel took the boy's arm in his hands, to massage away the pins and needles. "That was a better attempt, although you have forgotten one of your earliest lessons. Never attack in anger. Anger leads to mistakes. And do not drop your guard until it is clearly safe to do so."
"No matter. It is a lesson learned. Use that force, but next time keep your emotions under control. Come at me again."
This time, Glorfindel used his blade to hook Estel's harmlessly away. "Defence is as important as offence. Now grapple with me, using the underhand grip this time."
The taller elf hooked a stool closer so that Estel could step up. Changing his grip, Estel grasped Glorfindel's hands and the two swayed to and fro for a few moments. Blades, of necessity, pointing toward the ceiling, neither managed to score a hit upon the other.
"Enough. Now switch your grip and we will grapple again." This time Glorfindel managed to bring his wooden blade down several times, to touch Estel's neck, shoulder, and face.
When they parted Estel was breathing heavily but Glorfindel looked as though he were newly stepped from his bath. He threw a small towel to his pupil. "Daggers are generally used when all other weapons and means of defence have been exhausted. Unless thrown, they are used close to. That can be a disadvantage for those of a squeamish nature, for there is no distance between you and the injuries that you inflict. But it can also be an advantage, for you are usually face to face with your opponent and many, less skilful fighters, signal their intention if you watch carefully." He toed away the stool Estel had been standing upon. "That is one of the reasons you should not give in to anger. It switches your focus from your enemy to yourself."
As soon as he could see that Estel had control of his breathing he took up a fighting stance once more. "Even in this grip it is possible to slash. Come at me again but this time, slash."
It felt strange at first, as though he were making all his moves in reverse. But after half a dozen attempts, it began to feel more normal. Glorfindel, of course, deflected all his moves, whilst simultaneously calling out corrections to balance and form. By the time he called a halt the youngster was growing tired, but he swallowed a groan when his weapons master pulled forward a wooden practice target.
"Now we shall try throwing the blade."
Estel was helping to sweep out the stable area when a carrier dove arrived. Elrohir lifted it gently from the perch, to open and read the contents of a tiny cartridge, fixed to the bird's leg.
"What is it?" the youngster asked.
Elrohir grinned. "If you must know, follow me."
Estel dropped his broom and trailed after Elrohir, as he delivered the tiny missive to Glorfindel. Coincidentally, the weapons master and overseer of Rivendell's defence, was taking tea with Elrond and Gilraen, as he reported upon Estel's progress. All looked up as the two arrived but it was Elrond who spoke. "Is something amiss, Elrohir?"
"Nothing too urgent, Adar. But I thought you and Glorfindel should be appraised." Elrohir bowed. "I apologise for disturbing your tea, Lady Gilraen. I shall not take up too much of your time."
Gilraen smiled. "It is no matter, Elrohir."
Taking this as permission the warrior addressed Glorfindel. "There has been an attack, by wild wargs, at the Fords of Bruinnen. They were defeated but the patrol requests a fresh supply of arrows."
Glorfindel frowned. "Are any of our people injured?"
Now Elrohir grinned. "It is Curudin's troup. He assures us all are well."
"Then, by all means, take their supplies. Report back to me when you return. It is many years since orcs attacked in such an exposed place and I would know their reason."
That was when Estel made his presence known. "Can I go with him?"
Gilraen was the first to object and she did so swiftly. "The border is a dangerous place, Estel. That is why it needs defending."
Estel stood at the centre of this group of adults, feeling small but defiant. "But the attack is over. I won't get hurt and it will be a good outing for my new pony."
All four adults were silent for a few moments, each considering his words. Finally, Elrond spoke, but his comment was addressed to Gilraen, rather than her son. "He is twelve years old and has been training with weapons for some time, now. If he remains upon this side of the river he will not even been seen by any on the far bank."
Gilraen frowned. "There's a huge gap between using a sword in the practice hall and using it on a living creature."
"I do not dispute that, although it is a bridge he must cross eventually. The question may not even arise upon this occasion if, as Curudin states, all the wargs are dead. The worst scene he should encounter is the burning of their corpses," Elrond pointed out.
Glorfindel added, "Our border patrols are experienced warriors and Estel will be travelling with both Elladan and Elrohir. He will be well protected, if any wargs return to harry them."
Estel held his breath, as the elves worked steadily to demolish his mother's objections.
If he was surprised at Glorfindel's comment, Elrohir had sense enough not to show it. The delivery of fresh arrows would usually have been a job for one person. "And Estel has never seen a warg. Better that his first encounter be with a dead one," was his contribution.
Gilraen threw up her hands. "Very well." Her eyes narrowed as she jabbed a finger at Glorfindel, and the mighty warrior actually flinched at the fire in her eyes. "But if he is hurt in any way I shall hold you personally responsible."
Glorfindel inclined his head, bringing hand to heart in salute. "Then, I had better join this party."
So it was, that three hours later, a party of four approached the Fords of Bruinnen. They were hailed by a green clad archer. "Mae le 'ovannen, hir Glorfindel! Are we expecting more trouble that I should know about?" he called with a broad smile.
Glorfindel rode forward, springing lightly from the saddle. "No. But we thought this would be a good opportunity for Estel to see a warg." He sniffed the air delicately and grimaced. "You have not burned all the corpses yet, Curudin?"
"Almost. We have one or two more to drag to the pyre. Have you come to help?" His grin widened as he nodded toward Glorfindel's immaculate attire. "It is dirty work."
Estel jumped down, holding firmly to his pony's reins as the wind shifted direction, blowing a rancid smell toward them. Mallenchwest danced in place, stilling when Elrohir laid a comforting hand upon her flank. Estel wrinkled his nose. "They don't smell very nice."
Elrohir began to unstrap the bundles of arrows tied to Chur's saddle, but he could not resist a grin. "I'd like to be able to say that they smell worse than they look, but Adar taught me not to lie."
His twin chuckled as he led Estel to the river bank. "I can't see any from here. Why did you even bother killing them? They were no threat to any on this side of the Bruinnen."
"They could have been a danger to any travelling the King's Road to the South." Curudin winked down at Estel. "And we can always use the practice."
Glorfindel frowned at the patrol leader. "If you feel the lack of practice I can always provide you with additional training. I would even consider tutoring your patrol myself."
Curudin laughed. "I think we have just proved, even to your satisfaction, Hir Glorfindel, that we need no further instruction."
"Are they all at the other side of the river, then?" Estel enquired with some disappointment. "Only, I don't think I'm allowed to cross."
Elladan squeezed his shoulder, bending to whisper conspiratorially, "Actually, although Adar said you would be safe upon this side, he did not specifically forbid you to cross."
Estel glanced about the group, noting that both Glorfindel and Elrohir were watching, and aware that Elladan's whisper would be quite clearly heard by them. Then he noted the twinkle of amusement in their eyes and he broke into a wide grin. "You lied to my Mama. You knew the wargs would be on the other side."
Glorfindel touched hand to heart. "I would never lie to your dear Mama. However, my warriors would be lacking indeed, if they allowed wargs to cross the Bruinnen. Your Mama did not forbid and I did not enlighten."
Elladan leapt down the bank, reaching up to catch Estel as the lad jumped down after him. "Would you like me to carry you across? The water is cold at this time of year."
Estel shook his head. "I can manage." The water was not too deep but he was grateful for Elladan's steadying hand upon his shoulder when the flow grew swift at the centre of the fords. By then, he was already regretting his decision, for at this time of year the Bruinnen was filled with melt water from the mountain snows. His boots were well oiled against dew and even rain, but against the river they were no match and his feet were soon very wet and very cold. He said nothing, however, for he was determined to be considered a warrior. Soon enough they were on the other side, where a gentle beach sloped gently upward, to disappear into sparse woodland.
Glorfindel and Curudin accompanied them but Elrohir remained upon the other side, with the horses. Estel turned to look back, surprised when he could see no sign of his foster brother, although he knew that he had left him within sight. Noting his confusion, Glorfindel nodded. "Elrond is descended from Melian, who long ago protected the kingdom of Doriath behind a veil of illusion."
Estel's eyes widened. Adar had always been, just Ada. Now the realisation dawned that there was much more to the wise and gentle Lord of Imladris, than he had always assumed. With one more thoughtful glance he followed Elladan into the trees.
The stench was thicker here and Estel's stomach began to feel a little queasy. Finding the scene of the battle would not have been difficult, even had he been blindfolded. Some races of elves ate only vegetables but the Noldorim were not averse to eating the roasted flesh of animals, so Estel was not unused to the smell. But there was nothing appetising about the smell of roasting warg. The acrid odour of smouldering hair caught in his throat, forcing him to place a hand over his nose in an attempt to filter it. Elladan took pity, handing him a lemon scented handkerchief, which did a better job of filtering the smell but could not stop it completely.
When they arrived at the bonfire Estel halted in surprise. He had always assumed that wargs were simply a larger form of wolf, and wolves could be rather elegant creatures, with their sleek bodies and sharp faces. Now he discovered that wargs were another creature completely. Almost as big as a horse, their wide jawed faces were blunt, their broad chests making them look more like some overgrown fighting dog than any wolf. Not that elves kept any fighting dogs but he had once seen a picture, in a book about the fall of Numenor. Estel developed an admiration for anyone willing to come against such a creature, even from a distance, with bow and arrow.
"They are quite ugly, are they not?" Glorfindel commented, as he watched Curudin's patrol throw more wood upon the pyre.
"Very," Estel replied quietly.
"There are one or two we haven't burned yet, if you want a closer look," Curudin offered, pointing away to their left.
Estel took his foster brother's hand, suddenly feeling the need of that comfort, as Elladan led him off into the trees in the direction indicated. Glorfindel followed, upon silent feet. The first warg they came to lay upon it's side, it's hairy hide pierced by at least half a dozen arrows. Estel almost gagged at the stench. Even the smell of roasting flesh and smouldering hair was preferable to this sour, rank odour. Elladan gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze. "They do smell awful. It is their habit to roll in the urine and faeces of the pack leader, to declare their allegiance to him. Thus, any warg meeting another, will know at once whether they are friend or foe. They are as evil tempered as the orcs who sometimes ride them, and packs will fight each other to the death, to claim just a few yards of territory."
Estel could only admire the strength of Glorfindel's stomach as the elf lord stepped closer, frowning as he bent to examine the creature's hide. "Elladan, come here and tell me what you see."
Dropping Estel's hand, Elladan joined Glorfindel. The two exchanged a glance that said much. "Those bald patches in the hide are placed exactly where a saddl would rub," Elladan murmured.
Glorfindel stood, scouring the surrounding undergrowth with keen eyes. "These are not wild wargs."
Even as he uttered the words the area errupted with orcs. Estel was presented with a kaleidoscope of images that flashed across his eyes too fast to link together … yellow eyes glowing with malice, grey skin, matted hair, clawed hands waving a wild assortment of weapons. For a moment all other senses were overwhelmed, then he was assaulted with foul smells, foetid breath, warg. His ears rang with coarse cries and grunts. The combination was so powerful that his mind and body shut down and, were it not for Elladan's quick thinking, he would have been easy prey.
"Climb!" Elladan boosted Estel into the low branches of a nearby tree. There was no time to check whether the boy had followed instructions before a larger than average orc launched itself at the elf. Elladan drew his sword and spun in one fluid movement that opened a wide slash across the orc's stomach, spilling black and bloody entrails upon the green forest floor. There was no time to admire his handiwork as another orc leapt upon his back. Elladan threw himself against a tree bole, crushing his attacker.
All around, elves were engaging with what seemed, to the shocked Estel, to be an entire army of vile creatures. Any description he had read did not begin to express their harsh voices or the overwhelming smell. No picture could do justice to the gross features or misshapen forms. In his studies Estel had learned much of the great battles of elves, men and dwarves, but nowhere had he read of the feeling of sheer terror experienced by someone caught up in them.
His eye was drawn by movement opposite and he watched as Curudin leapt into a tree and drew his bow. Arrows began to fly in quick succession but most only served to slow the orcs, who seemed headless of any pain. Many of the elven defenders had resorted to hacking off limbs, for orcs could not wield a sword if they had no hands. Even then, limbless orcs would throw themselves upon their opponents to bite until, finally, an elven blade severed ugly head from equally ugly body.
"Estel! Watch out!" It was Glorfindel's voice and at first Estel could not understand what he was warning of, then he looked down. Iron shod feet could make little purchase for climbing but one orc had thought to remove it's boots. The clawed feet, with their hooked nails, were much more suited to climbing, however, and it was making slow but sure progress toward its prey. Estel whimpered, but pushed down his terror as he began to climb, memory of his Adar's calm instruction helping him to find safe footholds. If he could climb high enough, the thinner branches would support his slight form, but not that of the heavier orc.
There was a foul scream and Estel chanced a glance downward, to see one of Curudin's arrows protruding from his pursuer's arm. When it noted Estel's frightened face it grinned, exposing two rows of black teeth, filed to wicked points. Bashing its arm against a branch the orc broke off the arrow shaft, totally disregarding the point still buried deep in its flesh. Estel groped upward but the tree had been damaged in a storm at some point and there were no more branches within his short reach. The orc came on, hardly flinching when another dart pierced its neck.
Curudin's aim was true. It was clear that his arrow had scored a perfect hit upon a major vessel for black blood pulsed from around the shaft, but the orc climbed higher and Estel resorted to curling into as small a ball as he could, to avoid the grasping hands. That was when his elbow brushed against the pommel of his new dagger. He grasped the handle desperately, sweaty palm almost dropping it in his eagerness to draw blade from the sheath. Grasping it in a reverse grip, as Glorfindel had taught him, Estel swallowed down bile and waited, hoping against hope that blood loss would overcome his foe before he would be forced to strike a blow.
The orc screamed again, back bowing as one of Glorfindel's bejewelled daggers suddenly sprouted from between its shoulder blades. For a moment Estel thought it would fall but yellow eyes narrowed and still it came on. The orc's voice now held a disturbing gurgle but the words were clear enough. "Grabna will have it. Oh, yes. Soft meat for a last feast." Claws pierced the leather of Estel's boot.
Suddenly Estel heard his teacher's voice. Whether in his memory or ear he would never later be able to say. "Go for the throat. They have no armour there." As though in a dream, the boy lashed out. At first he thought that he may have missed. He blinked in confusion as Grabna's eyes widened, and the orc gave a strange gurgling sound as a large slit gaped slowly wider in its neck, like some hideous second mouth. The hand about Estel's ankle loosened and he watched in shock as Grabna leaned back and back, and then began to fall. It seemed to the boy that his tormentor took an age to land, but land he did, with a loud thud. There he lay, motionless, flat yellow eyes staring up accusingly.
Estel stared in horror at the dagger in his hand, black from pommel to blade tip. Around him, on the forest floor below, elves were finishing off the last of their foes. Elladan dropped to one knee to check that Estel's opponent was truly dead, before beginning to scale the tree. He approached the boy slowly, for Estel did not seem to be aware of the world about him. Too abrupt a move and Elladan could be mistaken for another orc, in Estel's present state.
When he was within arms reach he spoke softly. "Estel? Would you like to give me the dagger now? It must be heavy and you no longer need it. Let me hold it for you while we climb down together."
Slowly, Estel's gaze lost it's wide stare and began to focus, first upon Elladan and then upon the blood slicked dagger, clenched tightly within his fingers. He held it out but seemed unable to let go, and Elladan had to pry the boys gory fingers from the hilt.
"That's it, Estel. It is all over now. Put your arms about my neck and I will carry you down."
Estel complied, as biddable as a puppet, as he tucked his head beneath Elladan's chin and wrapped skinny legs about his foster brother's waist. Elladan stuck the gory dagger through his belt before holding his little brother close in one arm and descending, quickly and surely, to the ground. As soon as he was set upon his feet, Estel gagged and then began to vomit violently. Elladan waited patiently for him to finish, then used a hanky to wipe his young brother's mouth.
Glorfindel met them at the base of the tree. "Take him away from here, over the river. I will remain to assist Curudin and his patrol in clearing-up."
Elrohir must have been watching for their return, for he waded in before they were half way across the river, to wrap a blanket about Estel's trembling form. "I heard the commotion but dare not leave, in case it was only a diversion. What happened."
"The wargs were the diversion. They were not wild. Orcs had set them free and they set upon us while we were clearing away the corpses." Elladan sat down by a fire, recently lit by his brother, and settled Estel in his lap. "One of them went after Estel and he had to kill it."
Elrohir's eyes filled with tears. "Ai! His first kill, and so young. But is he injured?"
Elladan shook his head. "Not in body, at least. Have you warm water and cloths to wash his hand?"
Estel had not spoken since descending from the tree, choosing instead to bury his face in his foster brother's chest. As the sticky orc blood was gently wiped away he finally began to look about him. Elladan held out a warm drink. The youth's voice was barely more than a whisper as he asked, "Are they all gone?"
"The orcs?" Elladan asked, softly.
Estel nodded before taking a sip of honey-laced chamomile tea.
"They are. Glorfindel and the others are cleaning up and will join us later." Elladan had to clear a suddenly thick throat. "You did well, Little Brother. We are all very proud of you."
"I tried to remember everything you taught me but . . ." he suddenly burst into tears, burying his face in his brother's shirt once more as he sobbed, "I was so scared!"
Elladan handed off the cup to his brother before enfolding Estel in his arms and rocking gently. "Of course you were. I was, in my first fight. All warriors are," he assured him softly.
By the time Glorfindel returned, with Curudin's patrol, Estel was drowsing in his older brother's arms. The group cleaned weapons and donned fresh clothing, before handing out food. Glorfindel passed Elladan a cup of fragrant meat broth. "How is he?"
Elladan accepted the cup, taking a good swallow before replying. "He is physically unharmed."
"You were older when you encountered your first fight, but you reacted in much the same way." Glorfindel laid a gentle hand upon Estel's dark hair. "You are strong, Estel. You will recover." He added dryly, "I am not so certain that I will do so, when your mother has finished with me."
Despite the situation, Estel had to smile.
Elrond slipped quietly into Estel's room. The youngster slept, while his mother watched. Silent tears slid down Gilraen's face and Elrond waited patiently for her to acknowledge him. When she did, it was to shoot a hot glance his way, before turning back to her son.
Elrond sighed, then drew up a chair and settled at her side. With elven patience he out-waited her ire and Gilraen finally turned to face him, demanding bitterly, "Have you come to survey your handiwork?"
The ancient lord resisted the urge to raise a brow. "Do you truly believe that I would have supported Estel's request, had I thought he would be in any danger?"
Gilraen pursed her lips, turning back to lay a soft hand upon her son's shoulder. "No. But elves are supposed to be wise."
A small note of anger crept into Elrond's voice. "Wise . . . perhaps. All-knowing . . . no. In all my years I have never encountered that particular tactic from orcs. Wargs are difficult to train, so sacrificing them that way was quite unexpected. It is not a trick we shall fall for twice, I assure you."
"Assure away," Gilraen shot back a little venomously.
Elrond waited once more and Gilraen's pregnant silence did not last for long. "You said he would not be crossing the river."
"Were I to be pedantic I would point out that I only said that he would remain safe if he stayed upon this side. But there I must apologise, for I suspected that he would not be able to resist crossing." When Gilraen made to interject he held up a staying hand. "If I had saught your permission for him to cross the river, would you have granted it?"
"Of course not," Gilraen snapped.
"I thought not. Yet, at some point Estel must cross that river. Had I believed there was any danger from crossing on this occasion I would have made a point of forbidding him. I wanted him to see what wargs looked like. It seemed to me to be safer that he do so when they were already dead and he was in the company of a group of experienced elven warriors."
"He is only a child."
"He is a young boy of eleven years. In . . ."
Gilraen interrupted. "Twelve years."
Elrond inclined his head. "A young boy of twelve years. In some societies he would be considered an adult at the age of fourteen. It is likely that, had he remained with his kin, he would have encountered wargs and orcs long before now."
Gilraen let go of her anger with a sigh. "And I agreed to stay here because you said you could protect us from such events."
"I did. And Estel was well protected. He incurred no physical injury at least."
A tear slid down her cheek once more and Gilraen swiped it away. "And what of his spirit?" She turned to him again, grey eyes now filled with pleading. "Can you soften the memory for him?"
Elrond considered for a moment. "I am not certain that would be wise. It is an experience that will soften of itself, over time, and it is a milestone he must pass one day."
"I have seen you working with the sick. You do it sometimes, I know you do."
"Only as a last resort, when it becomes clear that they will not be able to move past the experience without aid." Elrond fidgeted with the simple gold wedding band upon his finger. "We learn from our life experiences, both good and bad."
"And what would you have Estel learn from this experience? That he is destined to be a target for evil for all of his life?"
Elrond's lips thinned before he replied. "Sadly, all upon the side of good in this age, must learn that particular lesson at some point. I hope he has also learned that he is strong, for he defended himself, and he did it bravely, despite his fear."
Gilraen breathed away more of her anger but was not quite prepared to release all, just yet. "I shall still be having words with Glorfindel. I made him a promise, that I would hold him responsible if my son was hurt."
Elrond smiled as he arose. "Glorfindel is already anticipating your censure. I believe you will find him suitably contrite. Shall I send him to you now?"
"Tomorrow, I think. Were I to see him today, I think I would be too tempted to try blacking his eye."
Elrond suspected that Glorfindel may have permitted the lady to do just that.