Author's note: This story takes place in Imladris (Rivendell): conversation is in Elvish unless otherwise noted.
The black sky turned for an instant to icy blue, then to an inky black again. Wrapped tightly in his downy blanket, Estel did not even have time to count to himself "one mile gone" before he heard the great bang of thunder that made his bed quiver with the noise.
Estel also trembled with the noise, although he tried to pretend he did not.
"Seven years old is most certainly too old to be afraid of storms," he told himself firmly.
Yet this storm was by far the most forceful that the spring had brought to Imladris, and the heart of it was coming closer. Papa Elrond had taught Estel how to begin counting when he saw the lightning flash: "One mile gone, two miles gone, three miles gone." Then when Estel heard the thunder that went with the flash, he would know how far away the lightning was. The valley had so few thunderstorms that Estel could almost always count to "four miles gone" - in which case he could say to himself, "Four miles gone! That is probably not even in Imladris! I'm not afraid of a storm four whole miles away!"
It was very reassuring, as long as the lightning stayed far away.
Rain pounded hard at the window and through it Estel saw the sky turn to a white nearly as bright as day. Before he could even open his mouth to count the miles, he heard a tremendous roar of thunder so loud and long that the entire house seemed to quake on its foundation, and this time the noise did not seem to come from overhead, but very near. There was a mighty "CRACK" of something splitting.
Estel dove under his blankets. From the darkness there he heard shouting, doors opening and shutting, and feet scurrying outside his room in the long hallway. Then, a few moments later, there was a soft knock at Estel's door and the creaking of hinges.
Estel hurriedly struggled out from under his small shelter and insisted loudly, "I was not scared!" before he even looked to see who it was.
Elrond smiled at his foster son. He did not say, "Of course you were not," because his Elvish heritage would not easily let him lie, but he did not argue with the small boy un-hiding himself from under the bedclothes.
Instead Elrond said, "Whether or not, it must be very hard to sleep. Elladan and Elrohir and some others have gone to make certain that a tree that was struck will not catch fire. Will you come and have something warm to drink with me while we wait for them to come back?"
Estel nodded, pushing his feet into slippers and padding across the floor to where Elrond, the great Lord of Imladris, bent down on one knee to wipe a stray tear from the little boy's face.
Estel was embarrassed; he hadn't realized he'd been crying. But the look on Elrond's face was so loving that Estel could not keep from thinking that perhaps it didn't matter if Elrond knew he'd been frightened, anyway.
Taking Estel's hand in his own, Elrond rose and led the child down the long hallway. They passed Estel's mother's doorway. No one could sleep through such a storm, but Elrond had for a long time despaired of Gilraen comforting her child during thunderstorms or at any other time: she seemed to love her child well enough, but she was locked within her private grief as one might be locked in a dungeon cell where no light goes. As far as Elrond could tell Gilraen thought of Estel only rarely, and then always with great surprise, as if she did not realize a small someone might need her was dwelling in the same house. Had Elrond gone to Gilraen and told her to seek out Estel, no doubt she would have done so, but in truth the Lord of Imladris greatly enjoyed Estel and did not in the least mind caring for him.
The two walked down the stairs to the Hall of Fire, which Elrond knew was the most comfortable room in the house by Estel's standards, and which had the additional advantage of not having windows to see the lightning through.
Estel plunked down on a large cushion on the floor, and Elrond brought out a kettle to make some tea over the fire that was always kept burning.
"Where was the tree that was struck?" Estel asked suddenly.
"To the west a little way," answered Elrond, "somewhere near the caves. Though I did not clearly see the tree before it was hit, it must have been one of the tallest ones. It is felled now in two pieces."
"I hope it was not my climbing tree," said Estel seriously. "I was just beginning to be brave on it."
Elrond stifled a laugh. For a child of Men, no doubt Estel was a very good tree-climber, but by Elfling standards what Estel had been doing could hardly be counted as "climbing" at all.
"I think someone had been camping near my tree," Estel went on. "I hope they moved before the lightning got there. But I guess they would have gone into the cave anyway, to get out of the rain."
Elrond turned around to look at Estel in surprise and concern. "Someone camping? Near the caves? Who? When was this?"
"I do not know. Yesterday, and some days ago, I guess." He puffed out his chest a little. "They tried to make it secret, but I saw part of a footprint, and a two broken twigs. Elladan will be proud of me when I tell him how I sighted the track, I bet."
Elrond pressed his lips together. "Estel, you must tell me when you notice such things. I need to know if there are strangers in the valley - and you must be careful. Not all from without the valley are kind. This person might be dangerous."
"But, Papa, it was an Elf, I am sure of it. Men have big stomp-y footprints." Estel stretched his feet out before him and clomped on the floor a bit to demonstrate. "This was not like that at all. This was a hoppy footprint that almost didn't touch the grass."
Elrond wondered how it was that Estel had picked up the prejudice that it was Men who were dangerous and Elves who were safe. "I want to know about anyone who comes in the valley, Estel, whether Elf or Man."
"Yes, Papa," Estel said meekly. Elrond had no doubt Estel would obey - he was quite well behaved, for a child of Men.
Elrond had just served Estel some honeyed tea and had begun a long story meant to distract Estel from the thunder, when Elrond's seneschal, Erestor, fairly flew into the room.
"My Lord," Erestor said, stained with rain and mud and clearly out of breath, "you must come at once to the halls of healing. An Elf has been injured in the storm. Who it is, we do not know, but he is badly hurt and unconscious."
Elrond and Erestor left swiftly for the Hall of Healing. Estel followed behind them, storm forgotten, leaping into each of Erestor's muddy footprints as they went. Privately, Estel pretended he was following tracks in the wilds. Erestor's prints were far too easy to see, but that was fine - Estel simply pretended they were half-covered by tall green grass and fallen leaves, as well.
When they reached the carved archway that led to the room where Elrond healed the ill and injured, Estel stayed back while the two Elves entered. Unless he had permission Estel was not allowed to enter the Hall of Healing while a patient was there, so he waited in the doorway to see if he would be invited to come in and help. Papa Elrond's friend, Glorfindel, and some other elves were gathered around a still figure on the bed, but Elladan and Elrohir, Elrond's sons and Estel's foster brothers, were nowhere to be seen. Estel guessed they were still braving the storm to make sure the fires were out near the caves.
Elrond went to the still figure on the bed and studied him with some concern. The fair-haired Elf was shivering through his drenched, ragged green-gray clothes and his ankle was swelling badly, but there was no obvious reason why he should be unconscious.
"Ai, this is not good," Elrond said gravely, placing one hand on the clammy skin of the Elf's forehead. "We must get him warm and dry, firstly, and then I can examine him further to see why he does not wake. Erestor, fetch me more blankets, please. Oh, and Glorfindel, would you be so kind as to take young Estel back to his room and perhaps sit with him awhile, or fetch his mother to do so?"
Estel was disappointed that he was not going to be allowed to help this time. He liked making people better and learning about herbs and the art of healing. He already knew two plants to use: athelas and willow bark.
Glorfindel, who was just as wet and muddy as Erestor and most of the other people in the room, gave a short nod to Elrond and went to Estel.
Estel liked Glorfindel, and if he had to go back to his room he didn't mind the great Elf escorting him. Silently Glorfindel held out his hand and Estel took it, the small hand swallowed up in the much larger one.
Estel usually had to run or leap to keep up with grown Elves in a hurry, since Elves were taller than Men, and much taller than little boys, but Glorfindel always walked slowly when Estel was with him and did not forget Estel's shorter legs.
"It is late for you to be awake, Little One," Glorfindel remarked, walking with his usual slow pace.
Estel craned his neck to look up at Glorfindel's face. "The storm woke me," he answered with a scowl, as if the storm had done so purposefully.
Glorfindel nodded. "Aye, it was loud, was it not? But I think the worst is over now. The clouds will soon stop their temper tantrum and we shall have a nice, steady rain to water your garden."
Estel laughed, thinking of cloud children throwing themselves down on the starry floor of the night sky and kicking their fluffy legs in anger.
"Perhaps the sun told them to go to bed, and they were angry because they wanted to stay awake later," Estel mused.
Glorfindel smiled at the Estel's whimsy; he could well understand how Estel might have thought of such a set of circumstances. "If that is so, then they certainly received what they wished for tonight," Glorfindel replied.
"The sun should not give in to them so, else they will only do it again." Estel furrowed his brow. "How would the sun punish a cloud if it was naughty, do you think? And truly, what makes the thunder sound, Glorfindel?"
"Both excellent questions; no doubt when you ask the Lord Elrond tomorrow, he will know the answers," Glorfindel smoothly answered, giving the answer he stored away for just such emergencies. "And here we are back at your room. Hop to bed, now."
Meanwhile in the Hall of Healing, Elrond was perplexedly searching for the cause of injury in the unknown Elf. In dry clothes, and somewhat the warmer, the stranger had stopped shivering and was breathing easier. Since the Elf had been found in a cave with no branches anywhere near, Elrond knew that the tree had not struck the Elf when it fell.
From the lack of burns he could guess that the Elf had been struck neither by the lightning itself nor the ground charge. Perhaps somehow the Elf had been thrown backward and hit his head? Yes, there was the telltale bump near the base of the skull. Well, that was straightforward enough.
Elrond turned to one of his assistants. "Warm some water if you would please, Ilothuir. I will need it soon." He turned to the other Elves. "The rest of you can go, and I thank you for all your help tonight."
Once the other Elves were gone from the room, Elrond was better able to reach into his healing gift and begin to repair the damage done. It was difficult, draining work, but finally Elrond knew the stranger was no longer trapped in unconsciousness but sleeping in a healthy sleep.
Elrond rubbed his nose in puzzlement. He had no idea who would be wandering the valley without announcing themselves. Why had the strange Elf hidden in a cave, rather than coming to the House of Elrond? It was common knowledge that all who sought sanctuary in Imladris found it.
And the stranger reminded Elrond of someone. Who? Elrond's instincts told him that this Elf was young, so perhaps too young for Elrond to have met during the days when he traveled often. By his dress, Elrond conjectured that he was not from Lothlórien. A wood Elf from Mirkwood, then? Elrond studied the pale features and fair hair. Most Elves from Mirkwood had dark hair, he knew. In fact, the only Elf from Mirkwood whom Elrond knew who had fair hair was-
Elrond blinked. Of course! The sleeping young Elf reminded Elrond of Thranduil.
"Oh - thank you, Ilothuir," Elrond said as he took the bowl of warm water and cloths from one of his assistants and absently prepared herbs to help with the swelling of the ankle.
The question was, why would kin of Thranduil have come to Imladris, and why would he hide himself away in a cave?