Chapter 10, Resolution
When Estel blinked his eyes open, it was midmorning the next day. He took a moment to stretch to help wake up properly—the previous night's events had left him tense and restless, not allowing him to get a good night's sleep.
His movement alerted Legolas that he was awake, and the blond elf walked lightly over to Estel.
"Good morning. Did you sleep at all?" he asked, noting the dark circles under the boy's eyes.
Estel stretched again and pushed aside his blankets. He was still weary, but felt bad mentioning that to the elf who hadn't slept at all.
"I'm rested enough, thank you," he responded politely, sitting up and looking over to where the twins slept. "My brothers? Are they still sleeping?"
"Aye. Neither have moved all night. Why don't you eat first, then you can take a closer look at them. I'll have some breakfast for you in a moment."
Estel smiled his thanks and with a deep yawn, stretched one last time before shuffling off into the woods to take care of a morning call of nature.
When he returned, he was presented with a hot cup of a sort of porridge. It smelled wonderful to the growing youth and he wolfed it down quickly so he could focus on his brothers.
Once fed, he joined the twins, noting without surprise both had their eyes closed. It was a sure sign they were far from recovering from their ordeals and he stood over the pair for a moment, studying each without touching.
Elrohir's face was still too pale and he looked…somehow fragile…far from well, but at least he didn't seem to be in pain at the moment. Also reassuring was the lack of fresh blood on the bandage covering his shoulder. Only a small spot had seeped through during the night, so for now it appeared to be no worse off.
Estel sighed as he saw how tightly they'd bound Elrohir's right arm. It was pinned firmly to his chest, his right hand, still bandaged from the rat bite, curling near his left shoulder. This was done to ensure the shoulder bone could heal properly without being jarred, but Estel knew it would make things awkward for the elf for many days. Being limited thus would undoubtedly be annoying, but Estel finally shrugged aside his concerns…anything was better than seeing that jagged bone poking through the skin.
Turning his attention to his other brother, he noted Elladan's condition was better as well. His left wrist was still bound tightly to support the sprain and another white bandage peeked out from the edge of Elladan's tunic, showing the binding on his cracked ribs. The cut on his right arm was already beginning to close, though, and the tense lines that had marred Elladan's forehead ever since his rescue from the cave were missing.
Satisfied his brothers needed nothing for the time being, Estel tiptoed back to the other side of camp and sat next to Legolas, the two talking quietly while patiently waiting for the twins to awaken in their own time.
The first to wake, just after noon, was Elladan, who groaned as he tried to move his stiff limbs. He started to rise, but Estel was by his side in a flash, happy to see one of his brothers finally up.
"How do you feel? Here, let me help you sit up. I am so glad to see you looking better. Are you hungry? Does anything hurt? Can I get you anything?"
Elladan blinked at the barrage of questions. Estel was bouncing like an over eager puppy, already using his youthful energy to pull Elladan up. It made the elf smile. He could have used a few moments of quiet to collect himself, but that desire paled beside the simple joy he took in Estel's solicitous attention.
"I am well, Estel," he said, pleased to find that was almost true. The long rest had done wonders for him and he reveled in the lack of pain in his head and the lessening of it everywhere else. The stiffness was already easing and he knew his injuries would be a distant memory soon enough. An empty feeling in his stomach, however, reminded him that the fish from the night before had not been nearly enough to make up for a lack of food for several days.
"If there is anything available for breakfast, however, I would be most grateful." Elladan looked at the sky and amended, "Or rather, anything available for lunch? It appears I've slept through the morning."
Estel patted his hand. "You needed it. You and Ro have had a bad few days."
At the mention of his twin, Elladan twisted to see where Elrohir lay motionless, looking pale and ill even after hours of healing sleep. His deep worry from the night before had faded after his lengthy rest, but upon seeing his brother, it once again blossomed into an almost physical pain. It would be awhile before he could forget the hint he'd felt of his brother's agony.
"How is he? Did you have further trouble with his injury last night?"
"He will be well in time," answered Legolas from over Elladan's shoulder. He'd joined the brothers and brought over a dish of stew he'd been cooking most of the morning. An unlucky rabbit had ventured too close to their camp and made for a welcome addition to their midday meal. Elladan was momentarily distracted when the scent caused his stomach to rumble, reminding him how hungry he was.
"That smells wonderful Legolas, thank you," Elladan said, taking the dish offered to him. He started in on it immediately, but after just a couple of bites his attention drifted to his twin.
"Are you certain he is well? He looks so pale. Were there complications?" he asked, remembering the sickening sight of the bone sticking out of his brother's shoulder.
"Nay. Nothing unexpected at least. It was an ugly wound, but rest assured it was properly tended." Legolas put a hand on Estel's shoulder and continued, "You'd be proud of your brother, Elladan. Estel is very knowledgeable in the healing arts and was of great assistance last night. Elrohir's recovery will be in no small part due to his skill."
Elladan's eyes lit up hearing the praise for his younger brother. In elven years, the time he'd spent with Estel had been but the blink of an eye, but even so he found it hard to imagine life without his foster brother. The boy brought a light and joy to the family that had been greatly diminished ever since the death of their beloved Celebrian. He hoped Estel knew just how much he meant to them all.
"Then I greatly thank both of you, for clearly I would have been hard pressed to help him myself. Ada will be as proud of you as I am. You've done well."
Estel smiled at his brother, appreciating his words more than he could say. But in his heart he couldn't accept them. He hadn't been planning to have this conversation so soon after Elladan woke up, but nor could he sit there and hear praise when his heart was full of remorse.
"Thank you Elladan. I treasure your words, for your regard is dear to me, but in light of my earlier behavior, I can't accept your praise. What I said….I…" Estel drew in a deep breath. "What I said to Elrohir is indefensible, and I know I hurt him, something for which I cannot forgive myself. Moreover I was wrong. So wrong. He is not what I said."
His face crumpled as he thought of the hateful barbs he'd flung at his brother. Words that, once spoken, could never be recalled—would Elrohir ever be able to forgive him?
Looking as always to his big brothers for help, he pleaded, "Elladan, please…how do I make it right?"
At that point, Legolas, feeling this was a conversation best left between the siblings, excused himself with a comment on desiring to hunt something for their supper, leaving Elladan to answer Estel.
Elladan felt a great weight lift as he listened to Estel's plea. He wasn't sure what had made the difference, but he was so relieved that the boy finally understood. Seeing the genuine regret, he was sure Estel would make things right with Elrohir.
"Come," said the elf, opening his arms invitingly.
Estel sank into his brother's arms, careful not to squeeze too hard and damage the tender ribs, but grateful for the physical as well as implied support. Somehow, Elladan would find a way to help him fix things.
His head tucked into Elladan's shoulder, Estel murmured, "He has every right to despise entering rat-filled caves—how he must hate me for mocking him."
Pushing his brother away so he could look him in the eyes, Elladan protested, "Elrohir could never hate you, little one. He would sooner cut off his own arm and eat it for breakfast than even consider it."
He shook his head, becoming serious when he added, "And your words cannot come close to the things he has said about himself a thousand times. He cannot abide how the vermin affect him, how they make him feel, how they force a reaction out of him he cannot control." Changing tones he continued, "But that does not excuse your behavior. I am merely saying he would never think ill of you. Instead, your words only make him feel worse of himself."
"Was that supposed to make me feel better?" grumbled Estel. "Didn't work."
Elladan huffed in amusement. "Nay. Although my intent is not to add to your burden, you do need to understand the consequences of your words and deeds. In this case, you have hurt our brother and need to make amends."
"But how?" asked Estel, a definite whine in his voice. "Do I simply apologize? 'I'm sorry I was an ignorant brat, Elrohir—too stupid to understand true bravery when it stared me in the face.'" He grimaced. "While I would gladly admit what a childish fool I'd been, what if it's not sufficient? Deeds speak louder than words and I can't think of any that would atone for my offensive, thoughtless words."
He thought hard for a moment then lit up. "Perhaps it would help if I went with him into caves—seeking those with many rats. You've always told me I must face my fears to overcome them. If I stood by him until he felt safe…do you think that would show I accept his fears and do not judge them?" he added hopefully.
But Elladan was already shaking his head. "Do you not think he'd already done that? This is Elrohir we're speaking of."
He smiled sadly and added, "Nay, he tried that many years ago. Right after Brightfalls, in fact. Unlike his first reaction when he was a small child, Elrohir did not retreat into himself. Instead he was angry. Angry at the men. Angry at the rats. Angry at himself. He was determined to overcome what he saw as an unacceptable weakness and devised a solution just as you described—face his demons head on. For years…," Elladan sniffed, "nay, for centuries, he dragged me into every hole in the ground we stumbled across. And when we were old enough to venture out on our own, he even specifically sought out those caves filled with vermin. It became like a game to him after awhile. He was convinced in time, if he faced enough of them, he could conquer his fears."
When Elladan trailed off and didn't continue, Estel prompted, "And? Did he tire of it? Did Ada stop him? What happened?"
The look Elladan gave his little brother reminded the young man just how old the twins really were. The grey eyes were filled with an ancient sadness that made Estel regret asking the question.
"Nay, no one stopped him. In fact, amongst our people we became renowned for our experience in caves." He shook his head at the irony. "Despite how Elrohir feels about them, even now our advice is still sought on matters related to the nether world."
He turned his head away from Estel before continuing in low, soft voice.
"I believe he would have succeeded in time. Indeed, by the time we stopped, I could no longer tell if they bothered him or not. But it all changed in one day." His voice cracked as he added, "The day we found our mother."
Elladan's throat closed. Even now, after all this time, he found it nearly impossible to revisit those memories.
He took a moment to compose himself and continued hoarsely, "You know the story of how she was taken by the orc—how we searched for her. When at last we found her, Elrohir got to her first. She'd been kept in a back chamber in a deep, winding cave and we had to fight past many orc to reach her. I was not long behind him, but it was too far—I wish with all my heart I could have reached her first, to somehow spare him. For it was he who found our mother, broken, chained, and on her leg was a rat gnawing…" Elladan choked and closed his eyes, unable to continue.
Estel was filled with horrified shock. He knew with complete certainty what Elladan couldn't say. After fighting though countless orcs, doubtless exhausted and ill with worry, Elrohir had found his mother beaten and chained, being chewed on by a rat. It would have been a nightmare scene for anyone, but for one who'd known the same terror himself, it was unthinkable. And he'd mocked his brother for his reactions. Valar!
Estel abruptly stood and ran to the trees, stumbling to the ground before losing the contents of his stomach. He was sick. Sick at imagining the events of all those years ago, but even more for what he'd put Elrohir through in recent days. Knowing everything that Elrohir must have been reminded of when the rats had attacked him down in the cave, and the extraordinary courage it took to turn right around and face them again, it made his taunts even more unworthy, foul, and cruel. The shame of it reduced him to tears.
On his hands and knees, he sobbed as his stomach continued to heave, long after there was nothing left to expel. When at last it stopped, a damp cloth appeared in front of his face.
"Here, this should help," said Legolas kindly.
Turning his blotchy face up, Estel looked at the elven prince, not sure why he was surprised to see him there, but then remembering that Legolas had said he was going to hunt. It should have bothered him to have the elf find him in such a state, weeping and ill, but he didn't really care. It didn't matter why Legolas had returned or even that the elf had seen him. Pride was the farthest thing from his thoughts.
He gave Legolas a wan smile and took the cloth with a small nod. He was grateful to find its cool wetness did make him feel somewhat human again.
Then Estel turned to see Elladan, still sitting on his bedding, looking at him with dismay. It drove Estel to his feet. This was his fault and his fault only. Elladan was not to feel guilty for forcing an ugly truth on him—a truth he wouldn't have needed to hear if he'd used the same kindness and consideration his brothers had always shown him.
He walked back to his brothers, holding his hand up and shaking his head when Elladan started to apologize.
"Don't," he said keeping his voice low, intensely aware of Elrohir still sleeping. "I deserved to hear that." He shook his head in disgust. "More than I thought possible, I have wronged him."
Elladan nodded and after a moment said gravely. "Aye."
"I only hope he will forgive me."
Elladan glanced at his sleeping twin and then his lips curved in fond smile.
"I have no doubts on that. Our brother has a very generous heart. One that forgives easily." He turned back to Estel, the smile fading, "It makes it easier to hurt him, though. I would hope you never forget again."
The tears that Estel had brushed aside once again caught on his lashes.
"No," he said softly. "This is not a lesson that needs repeating."
He might have said more, but it was at that moment that Elrohir began to stir. He moaned softly, his forehead wrinkling in pain as he started to become more aware.
Elladan was at his twin's side before the others even thought to move.
Elrohir blinked in confusion, he didn't know where he was and why he hurt so badly.
"Shhh…there now…easy…be still."
Elrohir licked dry lips. Be still? Why? What? Fuzzy images crowded his thoughts. Searching caves for Elladan. His twin injured. Something about ropes and…a cliff? Maybe. And he carried Elladan somewhere. A long way. Relief. Yes. Elladan was safe. But…but… why was he lying on the ground and his brother up and about? He tried to shake his head and clear his thoughts, but didn't have the energy. What? What was wrong with him?
Before he could become alarmed, Legolas was beside him with a cup and Estel was helping him raise his head to drink. It was blessedly cool and when he'd drank his full, he closed his eyes again with a sigh. What was he trying to remember again? Thoughts slipped from his grasp before he could form them. Then it didn't matter. With another soft sigh, he stilled and within moments once again sank into a deep sleep.
Legolas helped Estel gently lay his friend back down and then the small group regarded the sleeping elf silently until Elladan spoke.
"What did you give him?"
Legolas turned to Elladan. The elder twin was staring at his brother, assessing.
"The same as last night. Sergal leaves to ease the pain, mugau leaves to force sleep," answered Legolas quietly.
Then with a start, Legolas suddenly realized what he'd done. Shaking his head at his own hasty actions, he continued with chagrin, "Elladan, I apologize. I didn't believe he was healed enough to be awake, but I didn't think—of course I should have consulted with you first."
Elladan forced his gaze away from his twin and looked at Legolas.
"What?" he asked, confusion obvious. Then he processed what Legolas was saying and snorted.
"Nay, I wasn't questioning your actions, Legolas. You know I trust you to care for him, always. I only wished to know if he'd succumbed to sleep so quickly due to injuries or something he'd been given. I'm greatly relieved it was the latter."
Legolas relaxed and gave an almost shy smile, appreciating the great compliment. He knew the twins considered him a dear friend, but it nonetheless delighted him to hear of the unequivocal trust Elladan had in him—the twins guarded each other with a fierce devotion and it warmed his heart to hear Elladan so easily leave Elrohir's care in his hands.
The rest of the afternoon passed quietly, everyone enjoying the opportunity to relax and rest after the stress of the previous days. After all three partook of the stew Legolas had prepared, Elladan took a nap while Legolas and Estel used the down time to clean and repair their equipment. By early evening when Elladan awoke, the three were greatly refreshed.
"Just how much did you give him?" Elladan asked Legolas, who was kneeling beside the still sleeping Elrohir, conducting one of his periodic checks of his patient.
"Not an overly strong dose. I expect by now it is his own body keeping him asleep. Even without his injury and blood loss, he was exhausted."
Elladan grimaced. "I know. I'm sorry I put him…nay, all of you…through everything. If only I hadn't been careless those men would not have taken me."
Estel, hearing the elves speaking, came over and joined them.
"I don't believe that, Elladan," he said, dropping down beside the elves. "You couldn't have known what those idiots would do. It was just unfortunate you were caught up in their ill-conceived scheme."
Elladan glanced at Estel and, after reflecting a moment, shrugged. "Perhaps. I still wish you hadn't needed to journey through the caves to find me, but…" he sighed and looked at Elrohir, "…but I promise I won't dwell on it. The only thing that will accomplish is remind our sleeping beauty here of things he'd rather not think about."
He suddenly grinned at both of his companions, changing the mood.
"You know he is going to be an absolute beast when he awakens, don't you?"
Estel frowned. "Why? I have seen him injured before and he bears up well enough. And he will have had a great deal of rest thanks to Legolas' tea."
Legolas laughed and answered for Elladan, "Aye, but therein lies the problem. The tea was essential to allow him a healing rest, but that little concoction has always left him in a remarkably foul humor. It doesn't affect Elladan the same way…no one has never been able to determine why. I wish it hadn't been necessary, but it is most effective for healing. You will see its unfortunate side effects soon enough, though."
Estel shrugged philosophically. Dealing with a bad temper couldn't compare with seeing his brother's suffering the night before. Besides, he certainly owed Elrohir unlimited patience and consideration. If it helped the injured elf to vent his anger, he'd be a willing target.
"If he's quarrelsome with me I won't mind. I owe him that much and more. Although, it's hard to imagine him angry," he admitted. "It doesn't suit his nature."
Elladan rolled his eyes. He had a feeling Estel would have a hard time seeing their brother as anything but perfect for awhile to make up for his earlier negative thoughts. Ah well, he'd see soon enough that Elrohir could be as nasty as the next person when the occasion merited it.
He remarked, "Estel, while I would be the first to agree our brother is a kind and good natured soul, he can have a biting temper when provoked. And the particular combination of herbs he took causes everything to provoke him. Trust me—you wouldn't believe the stories we could tell you."
He turned to Legolas. "Do you remember the time he broke his leg during the battle with the trolls?"
Elladan looked at Estel and continued with a snicker. "We had to dose him in order to treat it, and when he woke, he was cursing everyone around him, refusing our aid...do you remember he threw Belder's cup across the camp, startling the horses, when our unfortunate friend simply tried to give him a drink? I learned a number of creative curses that day, from both Elrohir and Belder."
"Aye. And don't forget the warg bite," added Legolas, his eyes lit with merriment. "I was on the receiving end of several particularly nasty barbs myself after you treated him. If I hadn't known the effects of the medicinal draught on him, I expect we would have had quite a serious row." He laughed and added, "I confess now I found it amusing to see him so surly and cantankerous."
Elladan smirked as he, too, remembered the scene. "Aye, that was memorable. As I recall some of your warriors were set to challenge him for his offenses until you stepped in. Of course, he's had moments when his temper wasn't brought on by reaction to anything but his own bad humor. I recall a time we were swimming and Ro slipped on the rocks and fell quite hard on his backside, scraping it." He shook his head and grinned widely. "He certainly didn't need anything to make his temper boil that day. Or when he took a misstep and spilled his wine on the head of a dwarven ambassador at a formal reception. He was mortified—and furious to be so—and impossible to be around for days. And then there was the time we were chasing a thief and he took a wrong turn and ended up falling headfirst into a pile of dung. It took him forever to shake off the foul mood…and the stench…after that. Of course…"
Elladan and Legolas turned in surprise to Estel, whose tone was anything but amused.
"Stop it!" he shouted angrily. "Stop mocking him. It isn't right to poke fun when he isn't able to defend himself."
The furious tone caught Elladan off guard. He was just having a bit of fun…what was Estel getting worked up about? Once again the youngster was trying to defend Elrohir against him. It was absurd. He was about to tell his little brother to grow a sense of humor and mind his own affairs, when from the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of where Elrohir slept, oblivious to everything around him. It gave him pause and forced him to look fully at his twin, seeing the shoulder swathed in bandages, the pale face marred by lines of pain, the dark circles under the eyes. It sobered Elladan instantly. His relief at being rescued, feeling more himself, and knowing that his twin would soon enough be well had caused him to behave thoughtlessly and let his tongue run away from him. Estel was right. It was unkind of him to belittle his twin behind his back.
The boy didn't let him finish.
"He's lying there, hurt…hurt saving you, you know…and all you can do is talk of him as if he were a bumbling fool. How would you react if he was telling tales of events that caused you to lose your temper…when you weren't able to comment on those events yourself? You can't…"
Elladan held up his hand and interrupted, "Peace, Estel. I was just going to say you are right. You are right and I apologize."
He dropped down beside their sleeping brother, looked up at Estel with an apologetic smile, and then turned back and gave Elrohir a light kiss on the forehead.
"I am sorry, brother. I do you a disservice. I do not mean to ridicule you."
He tucked the blankets higher over the bare shoulders and then stood back up, chastened, and once more faced Estel.
"I apologize again. I meant only to forewarn you of the effects the brew will have on Elrohir. I know you are aware he will be uncomfortable due to his wounds, but I wanted you to understand he will also be edgy, short-tempered. Please don't allow his mood to hurt you. He can be uncommonly harsh while his thoughts are ruled by the herbs."
Mollified by Elladan's genuine contrition, Estel's expression slowly eased and finally he nodded. "I do appreciate the warning and won't take anything he says to heart." He gave his brother a lopsided smile. "I'm sorry, too, that I shouted. I…I just feel so bad for what he's been through and for what I put him through. I still don't know how to make it up to him."
Elladan patted Estel on the shoulder.
"You'll find a way, I have no doubt. When the right time comes, so will the words."
Several hours later when night fell and Elrohir still hadn't stirred, his companions started to become concerned.
"Is it normal for Ro to still be sleeping?" asked Estel.
"I suppose it isn't cause for great alarm," responded Elladan slowly, frowning in thought. "But I did expect him up before now."
He intently studied his sleeping twin and finally shrugged.
"I shouldn't be concerned as he doesn't look to be in any distress. He'll be even worse than usual when he awakens, though," he sighed.
"Aye. We've found the herbs' effects on his disposition are lessened if he drinks a great deal of water, but the time for that has long passed. Although he will be desperately thirsty when he awakens, water will do no more than quench his thirst. You will see him at his annoying best, I fear." He shrugged. "Ah well, it cannot be helped. Clearly he needs the rest."
Estel smiled. "In truth," he said, "I find it amusing to think of Elrohir acting disagreeably. He's usually so even-tempered that I'm looking forward to seeing this side of him."
'Then you're a fool,' thought Elladan, but out loud said, "Personally I'm grateful Elrohir rarely shows his temper. He can be quite unpleasant when he's angry. You should have seen him after Brightfalls. As I'd mentioned earlier, he was bitterly upset and allowed those feelings to seep into his dealings with everyone. It's fortunate he's usually so pleasant, for otherwise our companions would not have tolerated his behavior, nor shown us such friendship and loyalty."
"You mean the other novices? What did they do? Please tell me what happened," Estel asked, as eager for a bedtime story involving his brothers as he'd been as a child.
"Yes, do tell," said Legolas as joined the brothers, looking forward to a story himself. He was learning much new information about his long-time friends and was interested by the new insights into their characters.
Elladan smiled warmly, remembering their fellow novices who'd shown such generosity at even a young age. Some of them had fallen over the years, cut down by the dark enemy they all fought, but he and Elrohir could never forget any of their young companions.
"You realize we did not pass our final test," Elladan explained. "Although there were mitigating circumstances, in the end we did not deliver the boar to the villagers. Thus, we failed and should have been forced to join the next year's group."
"Surely not!" exclaimed Legolas. "You could hardly be held responsible for the actions of that offensive boy and his dog."
"Ah," said Elladan mildly, "our training requirements are clear. Junior novices must fully complete all their trials in order to advance to the next ranks. Elrohir and I did not. Therefore, we should have been held back."
When Legolas made as if to protest again, Elladan held up his hand.
"Did you not hear I said 'should have been?' By implication you may correctly infer we were not. And it was due to our companions. The training masters were clearly troubled by the need to hold us back and, quite honestly, I expect they were not looking forward to explaining the situation to our father. We heard several of them arguing amongst themselves and with Glorfindel, trying to find a way to prevent failing us. You see, in every failure there is always something a novice can learn, and indeed there were ways we could have still completed our task had we been more experienced. Our failure was mostly out of our hands, but it would not have been unjust to hold us back. Had we not been fighting, perhaps we could have come up with a better solution that would have allowed us to bring the boar to the village, or maybe once we'd arrived at Brightfalls, he and I would have worked together and offered to bring in another boar. At the very least, I should never have left Elrohir behind. At any rate, in the end the final decision was for our group to return home—and Elrohir and I would be forced to repeat the training."
"And what happened?" interrupted Estel.
"Patience…I'm getting to that," said Elladan with a grin. "The day we were to leave for our journey home, the other novices refused to go. They had talked amongst themselves, unbeknownst to us, and insisted on staying in the forest to allow us to retake the test. I still remember how shocked Elrohir and I were when they explained their refusal. We had been away from our homes for many months and had spoken often of reuniting with our families, eating home-cooked meals, sleeping in comfortable beds—and yet they were willing to put off those comforts for our sakes. Our companions did not begrudge the time it would take Elrohir to heal and for us to accomplish the task. They said they would rather wait for us, or if that were not possible they wished to also repeat the year. Such loyalty is unforgettable. I cannot understand why they would do such a thing. Elrohir and I had done nothing special to earn it."
Legolas shook his head, amused at Elladan's blindness when it came to others' deep regard for the twins. Even as a child Legolas had seen the love and affection the elves of Imladris had for their young lords and was surprised the twins didn't truly understand how deeply their people felt for them. Not only did their bright spirits draw others to them, but their undying sense of duty and honor—traits they held even as children—ensured even their young companions' devotion to them. It was no wonder they were willing to make whatever sacrifice was required to help out their young lords.
"So the training masters allowed you to retake the test?" asked Estel, breaking in on Legolas' thoughts.
"Aye," acknowledged Elladan. "Not only was holding back an entire class unprecedented, but the masters were touched by the offered sacrifice of our companions. In honor of their loyalty and generosity of spirit, their request was granted and we were allowed to retake the test. We had to wait another week for Elrohir to heal, but in the end it was almost disappointingly easy—we went out and found another boar immediately, took it down like we'd been doing it for centuries, and were able to deliver it without trouble. In fact, we delayed our group's return home by less than three weeks."
"Did you deliver the boar to Brightfalls?" asked Estel. "I can't imagine you wished to return there."
"Certainly not," agreed Elladan. "I expect we would have failed a second time if we'd returned. If you recall one of the objectives of the test was diplomacy and as I've mentioned, Elrohir was still quite angry at that point. He was so ill-tempered even I had trouble bearing his company. Nay, we went in another direction and fortunately found a small settlement with exceptionally nice and appreciative villagers. Even Elrohir, despite his mood, was gracious with them. I can picture the disaster if we'd returned to Brightfalls. I did not have kind thoughts of those people and was grateful not to see them again so soon."
"And did you later?" asked Legolas. "See the men again, I mean?"
Elladan nodded. "Several months later we did see Headman Tober. He came to visit us, or rather, our parents. He was no doubt aware that living with the enmity of the elves was not in the best interests of his community. Also, I believe he was genuinely distressed over the events that occurred under his watch. I feel he was a good man, in his own way. He came to apologize in person, which cannot have been easy."
"Was Ada very angry?" asked Estel.
Elladan looked at him, amusement brightening his features. "Not Ada. Not so you could tell, anyway. He was indeed unhappy with the men of Brightfalls, but I think he understood even good leaders can sometimes be undermined by others, so he did not blame Master Tober any more than his due. Nay, it was our mother who was out for blood. When we returned and she saw our cheery Elrohir so changed, so angry, she was furious. The look she gave Master Tober was one that would freeze a balrog…I will never forget it. Actually, I think it helped Elrohir to temper his own anger, for it shocked him to see our mother so upset. He started acting more like himself in order to make her happy, and after awhile he no longer had to pretend. He did not lose his anger at himself, I fear, but in time he was able to manage it with his game of 'drag poor Elladan into every cave you can find.'"
Legolas grinned, knowing his friend would have cheerfully followed Elrohir into the very depths of Mordor if it helped him overcome his fears. The two could squabble endlessly at times, but in truth there was nothing they wouldn't do for each other.
"I have never heard of Brightfalls, so I assume it has long since disappeared. Is that what happened to it, then?" he teased. "The Lady Celebrian crafted their downfall?"
Snorting at his friend's jest, Elladan said, "Nay, in the end Master Tober was forgiven, especially since he'd already punished that vile man Pedar. He told us for every day Elrohir had been held, Pedar had been forced to spend a week under the same conditions—chained and trapped in the dark. And when he was released, he was dismissed from his position. He no longer had control over the storage caverns…no longer had control over any other living being. He remained in the village, as I understand, but was never again given power to abuse another."
He continued, "Benny, the deceitful child, was also punished, although his punishment was not so effective. As we learned much later, his mother went behind Master Tober's back and pampered the boy, negating the lessons he should have learned. And that is what directly impacted the fate of Brightfalls."
"Benny grew up selfish and arrogant despite his father's attempts to mold him into an honorable man. They grew farther apart as the boy turned into a man, with Benny blaming elves for his father's disapproval rather than acknowledging his own faults. I don't know why the people of Brightfalls were so shortsighted, but he was accepted as their leader after his father passed. It was that poor decision that eventually caused their downfall. When Benny was still a young man, a series of unlucky events—a poor summer crop, a harsh winter, and then flooding spring rains—severely depleted the villages' food supplies. Our patrols offered help, but Benny hated elves and spurned our aid. He and his men attacked those who went to offer it, going so far as to threaten our people if ever we returned. Our warriors did not fear them, naturally, but Ada had no desire for further contact and sent no one else. By the next year, Brightfalls was gone. Our patrols later learned a good many of the villagers, weakened by lack of adequate food, had succumbed to illness. Then a band of marauders took advantage of the weakened people and stole everything left of value. After that, the remaining villagers left and Brightfalls fell into ruin. Such a waste."
"Did Benny survive?" asked Estel.
"I don't know. Probably. He's the kind of parasite that always finds a way to survive, regardless of the expense to others. Either way, we never heard from him again."
Estel mused, "Ah well, he's long gone by now at any rate. Some day you'll have to show me where the village was." He looked over at their still-sleeping brother and added, "Well, that is if Elrohir wouldn't be bothered by it."
"Nay. We've been through the area many times in the years since and it does not cause him any trouble. Of course, we don't venture into the caves, but the rest of the area is quite lovely. You'd like it." Elladan smiled and added, "Now, any other questions? Any other stories you wish to hear?"
Legolas stood and returned his smile. "I think my curiosity is satisfied for now," he said. "And since it is getting quite late, I believe we should get some sleep. We don't know what time Elrohir will finally awaken, but when he does, if he is as unhappy as I expect, we'll all wish to be well-rested."
The others, yawning at the reminder at how late it had become, readily agreed to his sensible suggestion and soon Elladan and Legolas were bedded down while Estel took the first watch.
It was on Elladan's watch in the early dawn Elrohir finally woke. A light rustling drew Elladan to his brother's side in an instant and he was there when Elrohir was really aware for the first time in over a day. As predicted, he was thirsty, in pain, and unbearably bad-tempered.
Elrohir blinked the sleep from his eyes and then glared at the figure hovering over him.
"I might have expected to find you lurking about," he said testily. "Do you think you can back off?"
Although he'd known to expect it, Elladan sighed inwardly at the proof his brother would be in one of those tiresome moods. Knowing the cause made them easier to bear, but they were still tedious.
"I thought you might like something to drink," he said quietly, hoping not to awaken the rest of the camp just yet.
Elrohir used his good arm to stiffly push himself to a sitting position, shouldering Elladan aside when his brother reached forward to help him.
"I said back off," he snarled.
When Elladan drew back, Elrohir added, "Well, are you going to give me something to drink or not?"
Without response, Elladan picked up the waterskin he'd set beside his brother and patiently handed it over. He fought the impulse to steady Elrohir when his twin had to use his unbound hand to take it, leaving him shaky with the effort of sitting up after lying on his back for so long. Elladan finally did put one supportive hand on his shoulder, however, when Elrohir started to sway dizzily as he drained the waterskin and tipped his head up to get the last drops in the bottom.
Elrohir dropped the waterskin and quickly put his hand back down to steady himself. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment, waiting for the dizziness to pass. When he opened his eyes back up, Elladan saw the pain and frustration that would only add to Elrohir's bad mood.
"You can let go," Elrohir snapped peevishly, although he didn't jerk his arm away, not confident of his own ability to keep himself upright.
Elladan held on to him until he was satisfied Elrohir wouldn't tip over, and then released him with a small pat on the arm.
"Can I get you anything else?" he asked mildly, then noted from his peripheral vision that their other companions were now awake and coming over. Ah well, so much for letting them sleep.
"Elrohir, you're awake," said Legolas, smiling as he dropped down beside the twins. "How are you feeling?"
"That's a stupid question." Elrohir snapped with a glare. "I was considering joining a hobbit jig followed by a warg hunt…how do you think I'm feeling?"
Legolas knew not to take offense. Instead he studied his friend with a critical eye and answered calmly, "Since you ask, if you were any paler we'd lose you in a snow bank, if the lines on your forehead are any indication, you are experiencing a fair amount of pain but are feeling a touch nauseous and are afraid any more herbs will upset your stomach, the morning air is chilly on your bare skin but you aren't able to put the blanket over yourself and aren't willing to ask for help, and…and I'm guessing you're wanting nothing more than to lie back down but another pressing need is keeping you from doing so and you're not sure how to take care of it."
Elladan hastily bit his lower lip, desperately not trying to snicker at Elrohir's offended expression. Obviously Legolas' unexpected, matter-of-fact recitation hit the nail on the head and his twin was unable to come up with a suitable response. The younger twin opened his mouth a couple of times without saying anything and then finally snapped it shut, settling on directing an evil glare at Legolas.
Estel, who was watching everything with wordless fascination, brought over his own blanket and carefully draped it over Elrohir's shoulders then stepped back. He tensed, waiting for his brother to snap at him, but Elrohir simply shot him a glance and then turned back to the other elves.
"Fine," he admitted with a hiss. "I need to attend to some personal business. But I don't need you holding my hand…or anything else…so leave me be."
He clumsily got onto his knees and then shakily started to rise. "Get back!" he snarled when both elves started forward to help him. "Either I go in the bushes or take care of business right here. I assume you'd prefer the bushes."
"Elrohir, let us help you," Elladan said patiently, taking a hold of his brother's arm to steady him as he fully stood. "If you fall again you could do serious damage to your shoulder."
"Really?" said Elrohir sarcastically. "And I was thinking another tumble would be amusing."
When Elladan didn't respond, but also didn't remove his hand, Elrohir jerked away angrily, keeping his footing by some miracle.
"I do not need you flapping about like some hen guarding her chicks," he hissed furiously, his tone clearly indicating how dangerously close he was to exploding.
Elladan, knowing he would only make things worse by insisting on helping when his brother was like this, backed off with his hands raised in surrender.
"All right. Very well. You go do what you need to alone. Just…" he stopped abruptly. Telling Elrohir to be careful would only set him off.
When Elrohir stalked unsteadily away into the nearby brush, his three companions watched him go, ready to rush forward to help if needed, but holding back for now.
"Just how will he manage with one hand bound?" asked Estel tentatively, speaking for the first time since his brother awoke.
Elladan, still staring at the spot where his twin had disappeared into the woods, answered, "He'll manage…or he won't. If you want to go check on him, be my guest."
Estel shook his head rapidly and said emphatically, "Are you serious? No thank you. He's…very different like this."
Elladan then turned around.
"We did warn you, you know," he said with a faint smile for his little brother. "And so far he hasn't been nearly as offensive as I expected."
Estel grimaced and looked to where his brother had disappeared into the trees. He'd been wrong. It wasn't funny seeing Elrohir angry. It wasn't funny at all.
Elrohir took so long that the others were considering going after him when he finally returned. Obviously, things had not gone well. The ties holding up his trousers were now tangled in an unrecognizable, jumbled knot, Estel's blanket was missing, and a new set of scratches decorated his face and left forearm. If the expression on his face was any indication, he was beyond frustrated and had clearly reached the end of his endurance.
He fell, more than sat back on his bedding, unable to prevent a gasp when the jarring thump caused his shoulder to explode in pain
Elladan, seemingly magically at his side, once more caught him before he could fall.
Avoiding any kind of 'I told you so,' the elder twin gently steadied his brother.
"What happened to the blanket?" he asked, trying to distract Elrohir from his shoulder.
It appeared to work, for Elrohir straightened his hunched shoulders and after taking a deep breath, gestured with his head and snarled, "Back there. Caught on some thorns. I don't know what witless fool decided to make camp in a thicket of brambles."
Foregoing the opportunity to point out that Elrohir had been the one to stop at this site—not to mention that the woods surrounding them were relatively free from undergrowth—Elladan responded as if they were talking calmly about pleasantries, "I see. I'll fetch it in a moment. Would you like anything else in the meantime?"
"No," growled Elrohir.
"Some more to drink or something to eat, perhaps?"
"In that case I…"
"Will you let go so I can lie down?"
Elladan felt a pang of sympathy. Elrohir had snarled the words, but Elladan heard the real need in his twin's voice and could feel the muscles trembling as Elrohir kept himself upright. He knew his brother was aching to lie back, but he couldn't allow that just yet.
"Let…go…of…me," ground out Elrohir.
"Elrohir," said Elladan, still keeping his tone even and calm, "I'm afraid you'll have to bear up just a bit longer. We've held off changing your bandage while you were sleeping, but it really must be done now before you can rest."
Elrohir glowered and slapped Elladan's hand away when he reached for the end of the bandage.
"Leave it be. And stop hovering. I don't need an overbearing oaf fussing over me. Especially when it's your fault this happened in the first place."
Elladan didn't even blink at his brother's provocation. Instead, he said mildly, "Be that as it may, your bandage needs changing. So sit still and I'll be as quick as I can."
Elrohir clenched his teeth together. A small part of him knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted to keep arguing.
"Aren't you supposed to be resting?" he pushed. "What? No one else is good enough to take care of things while you're around?"
Calmly unwrapping the bandage binding Elrohir's shoulder, Elladan said, "On the contrary, I know Legolas and Estel would do a fine job, but I want take care of you. You are very dear to me, you know, and all I wish to do is help you feel better."
That caused the cranky elf to pause. Despite his foul mood, Elrohir couldn't bring himself to respond nastily to the genuine caring in his twin's voice. He knew he was being boorish and for a moment, he was ashamed.
It was enough. Elladan saw in a quick glance a hint of remorse in Elrohir's eyes before the younger twin once again scowled and lapsed into silence.
Elladan smiled softly and allowed himself to run a light hand over his twin's head. Any greater sign of affection would be angrily rebuffed, but he wanted to somehow recognize that he saw a glimpse of his kind brother behind the mask. Besides, he did want to be the one taking care of this growling creature who vaguely resembled his brother. Not only did he truly want to ease his suffering, but he also preferred being the target of Elrohir's anger, shielding others from it. Through past experience he knew once Elrohir regained control, he would be thoroughly embarrassed by his behavior. In these situations, protecting others from his brother's tongue would also protect Elrohir from himself.
Elrohir managed to keep his temper under control until the last layer of bandages needed to come off. The blood had dried, binding cloth to skin, so when Elladan began to gently ease it off, it tugged on the wound.
"Do you have to be so rough?" Elrohir spat, the words exploding out of him. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Ro, don't be foolish," murmured Elladan evenly. "Of course not."
"Foolish? Me? You know I'd be fine if it wasn't for you—this is all your fault, after all. First because I had to follow you into that stupid cave and then here in camp. Maybe you didn't like being the weak one once we found you. Is that it? You needed someone else to be worse off so you could be the strong one? So you drove me away!"
Elladan paused—that jab struck a little close. He knew he'd been bad tempered the first time he'd tried to tend to Elrohir's shoulder and it was true—he hadn't been gentle. And it was also true Elrohir fell while trying to get away from his own verbal barbs.
With genuine regret, he said, "Elrohir, I am sorry…very sorry I was too rough earlier. And sorry I said some harsh things. But I am trying to be careful now. So please bear with me."
Elrohir barely even heard his brother's apology.
"Careful?" he snarled. "I've felt more gentle hands on an orc."
"Elladan, would you like me to finish?" said Legolas, who along with Estel had joined Elladan on the ground. After listening to the conversation long enough, he decided to finally break in, unwilling to sit by while Elrohir badgered his brother further.
"Oh, of course, now it's Legolas the peacemaker," said Elrohir nastily, "sticking his nose where it isn't wanted as usual. Don't you ever tire of interfering in other people's affairs? I don't need your help."
"Ro, that's enough," admonished Elladan mildly, once more trying to carefully finish pulling off the rest of the bandage.
"Stop telling me what to do! Leave off!" shouted Elrohir. Unfortunately, at the same time he jerked back, ripping off the rest of the bandage that Elladan held in his hand and violently jarring his broken shoulder. He cried out at the unexpected pain and nearly fell, saved only by Legolas' strong grip catching him before he could do more damage.
"It's all right, Elrohir. I have you. Just lean on me while Elladan finishes," said Legolas sympathetically, holding Elrohir steady and wishing he could do more to calm his upset and hurting friend, but knowing nothing would settle him until the drugs were out of his system.
Elrohir made a halfhearted protest by turning his head away from the others, but then surprisingly did as he was bid without arguing. Legolas realized why he was being so compliant when Elrohir sank heavily into his supporting arms—the dark haired elf was shaking with fatigue and pain and plainly needed help just to stay upright.
Worried eyes sought Elladan's, but the elder twin wasn't paying attention to his friend. Instead, he was gently examining the wound on his brother's shoulder. It was healing as well as could be expected, but still looked raw and painful.
He patted his brother's arm. "Just a bit longer and we'll have you fixed right up."
"Do not patronize me. I am not a child," said Elrohir choked, still looking away from the others. They could hear in his shaky response that he had reached the absolute end of his strength, a hint of angry and frustrated tears roughing his voice.
Elladan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again and continued his ministrations. He'd much rather deal with a furious and angry Elrohir than when his brother became emotionally overwrought—afterwards when he was himself again, invariably it would only add to his mortification. Elladan couldn't wait until this whole stupid mess was behind them.
Fortunately, Elrohir's latest upset appeared to sap the rest of his strength, so Elladan was able to quickly finish cleaning and redressing the wound without further interruptions. He then gestured to Legolas and between the two of them, they eased the injured elf down.
While they were finishing, Estel took a few moments to retrieve his blanket from the woods, so when Elrohir was settled, he shook it out and laid it over him. He paused a moment afterwards, wanting to say something to his brother—he'd been a silent observer the whole time Elrohir had been awake and he felt he needed to somehow express his own concern. The others had helped tend to him, but all he'd done was bring a blanket. He knelt by Elrohir's side, but then stopped himself before he spoke. One look at the grey, exhausted face and he kept silent. Now wasn't the time. He tugged the blanket straight instead and then sat back to keep watch over his brother as the elf quietly fell back asleep.
Several hours later, just after midday, a soft sound heralded Elrohir's return to the land of the living.
Estel, the only one currently in the camp, came over and knelt beside his brother at the first movement. He held his breath as he saw Elrohir's eyes open and slowly look around, finally landing on him. He was glad to see his brother conscious, but was nervous about being the target of his sharp tongue.
Bracing himself mentally for an attack, Estel regarded his brother warily, but when Elrohir closed his eyes and moaned Elladan's name in obvious pain, he quickly forgot any concerns for himself.
"Elladan is not here right now," he said, gently touching his uninjured shoulder. "He and Legolas are hunting, but I'm here. Be still for just a moment and I'll get you something for your shoulder.
For a moment, Estel wasn't sure his brother had heard him, but then Elrohir said tightly, "No. Head."
Estel grimaced. Elladan had mentioned that on rare occasions the drugs had an additional unpleasant side effect and Elrohir awoke with a mind-shattering headache. He'd hoped they'd avoid it this time, but luck really hadn't been on their side recently. Still, Estel was glad he'd been warned so at least it was something he was ready to address.
With a feather-light touch to his brother's cheek, Estel said very quietly, "I have something to help with that as well. Just hold on…I won't be but a moment."
He rushed over to the fire where he had some hot water simmering, just waiting for Elrohir to waken. He quickly selected the ingredients Elladan had set aside and, true to his word, it was only a matter of moments before he was back by his brother's side, the fresh scent of steaming herbs wafting from the cup he carried.
"Here now, let me help you," he murmured, setting the cup aside while he carefully raised his brother's head and put some folded blankets under it. He was alarmed when just that movement elicited a small whimper of pain—he'd seen Elrohir stoically bear up under all kinds of injuries, so he could only imagine the pain he was experiencing to compel him to give it voice.
"Shhh…" he soothed. "It will be better soon. We'll start with a sip here. That's right. Now a bit more."
He slowly coaxed his brother to drink the entire cup, then set it down and gently wiped a couple of drips off his cheek. The healer in Estel was satisfied that the drugs would work soon enough, but the brother in him couldn't resist reaching out and lightly took the hand trapped by the bindings of his injured right shoulder. For an indeterminate amount of time, he sat there, stroking Elrohir's palm with his thumb and murmuring soft reassurances until he saw the tension in Elrohir's body start to loosen.
More long minutes passed before Elrohir let out a long sigh, rubbed his free hand over tired eyes, and then squinted up at his human brother.
Estel looked at him and smiled, happy to see the deep lines of pain softened, but when Elrohir didn't say anything, the young man became fidgety and finally asked, "What?"
Elrohir paused, but after a moment said, "You don't seem angry with me."
Estel blinked. With everything that had been happening, he hadn't thought of what he would say to Elrohir and for a moment he panicked—fixing things with his brother was too important for hasty, unplanned words.
Before he could find anything more articulate, though, Elrohir spoke again.
In a voice striped of strength, the elf elaborated, "When I wake feeling like there are several dozen axes being driven into my head—and to my recollection I faced no axe-wielding foes—it means I was given a dose of sergal and murgau, and I know the consequences. Without fail I've always seriously offended someone while under its influence. Sometimes I don't even recall what I've said. You don't seem angry with me, but if I did behave badly, please know how sorry I am."
Estel drew in a deep breath as he rearranged his thoughts. Lightheaded with relief that he didn't have to address his own behavior just yet, Estel smiled at his kindhearted brother. Yes, this was the Elrohir he knew…the one whose first thoughts after being injured and drugged senseless were to make amends for any offenses he might have given.
"Nay, you weren't awake long and didn't address me at all. You have nothing to apologize to me for," he reassured.
Elrohir looked as worn as an old dish rag, but the relief in his eyes still shone through.
"At least that's something, but I do need to apologize to the others, I imagine?"
Seeing reluctant confirmation in Estel's face, Elrohir sighed in tired resignation, "Damn these herbs. I am so shamefully weak-willed when it comes to them—I cannot bear it. If I am capable of coherent thought next time, I will refuse them."
He closed his eyes wearily and added, "Was I completely offensive? Just tell me. What did I say? Was it unforgiveable?" With his eyes still closed, he laughed without humor and asked, "Is that why they're not here? They had enough and left camp to get away from my mouth?"
Estel was a little surprised that Elrohir sounded genuinely concerned and it made him realize just how worn out physically and mentally his brother must be to consider such a ridiculous idea. He couldn't imagine anything that would drive Elladan away from his injured twin—certainly not a few snarky comments.
He laughed and said, "Don't be foolish. You didn't chase anyone away. They merely went to find some food. I mentioned that when you first awoke, you know. Nay, they took all you said with good enough humor—and Elladan even said you were better than he'd expected."
Elrohir twisted his mouth wryly. "Small consolation when I have to count on the goodness in others' hearts to forgive my odious behavior. How I despise not being in control."
His eyes darted to Estel. He didn't mean to give boy such an obvious opening to comment on his loss of control in the caves. He knew it would eventually have to be addressed, but for now he simply had no reserves and wasn't up to dealing with any of it.
But either Estel didn't pick up on the slip or chose to be discreet, for thankfully he changed the subject.
"Would you like something to eat?" he asked. "I've been saving some berries for you."
Elrohir's face lightened in gratitude, for both the change of subject and the thought of eating. He was anxious to feel normal again and a meal would certainly give him more energy.
"The berries sound wonderful," he said, then added truthfully, "but my stomach is feeling somewhat unsettled. Do we have anything milder?"
With a slight frown Estel considered quickly. "Well, I confess there isn't much other than the berries. That's why the others went to forage. I suppose we may have a few crumbs of lembas left, although I'm afraid it may be 'crumbs' quite literally."
"That would be fine. Just a little something is all I need," said Elrohir, fighting to keep his eyes from sliding shut as exhaustion once again washed over him.
Estel hurried over to their packs and pulled out the last of the lembas. It was almost gone, but he was pleased to see there were a couple bite-size pieces left. Handing them to Elrohir, he also brought a skin of water and sat quietly while his brother finished his light snack.
"That was perfect," said Elrohir as he put down the water skin. "I do feel better having something inside me—it's quite settled my stomach and, while I don't feel up to a race through the woods just yet, I think I can manage to stay awake until the others return. Now we'll just wait to see what Elladan and Legolas bring back and I can have a second meal for dessert." He laughed, "Goodness…I sound just like a hobbit. Next thing you know I'll start growing large, hairy feet."
Estel grinned at his brother, greatly pleased to hear his lighthearted jest. It was a sure sign that Elrohir was starting to heal, along with the healthier glow that was returning to his face. Estel's grin faded a bit when he realized what that meant. Sooner, rather than later, he'd have to talk about his reaction to the events in the cave.
Trying not to ruin the mood with his own dark thoughts, he said with a smile, "Do you think you're strong enough to get up? If you're feeling up to it, we can sit you over by the fire. It would be a nice surprise for the others when they get back. I daresay they won't be expecting to see you looking so chipper."
In truth, he was feeling more like a newborn kitten than an elven warrior, but Elrohir didn't want to disappoint Estel, who was looking at him hopefully. Masking his fatigue as much as possible, he lifted his arm in response. "Haul away, young one."
He'd almost added a warning for Estel to be gentle, but Elrohir needn't have worried. The teenager had hardly forgotten his brother's injuries nor his strong reaction to the drugs. He was enough of a healer to know Elrohir was still far from well, but he also knew getting off one's back was an important step in the healing process. While it would have been too soon for a human, Estel determined that with an elf's healing ability, it shouldn't do Elrohir any harm as long as all he did was sit by the fire.
His strong arms were steady as he helped Elrohir the short distance to the fire. Still, the elf was starting to waver before they got there and was more than grateful to be eased down onto the ground. Estel tucked a folded blanket between a log he'd pulled over and Elrohir's back, and with little fuss, soon the elf was settled near the warm blaze.
"Are you alright? Was that too much? Are you in pain? Can I get you something? Elrohir?"
Elrohir had closed his eyes and was breathing deeply, trying to ride out the spasms of pain that snaked along his arm and shoulder and caused renewed throbbing in his head. He thought briefly that moving hadn't been such a bright idea after all, but then after only a few moments the biting ache started to fade and he relaxed in relief.
"It's alright. I'm fine," he reassured his brother when he was confident he could speak without his voice wavering. "It was just a momentary twinge."
Estel frowned, not liking to see how the color had once again drained from his brother's face. He was about to berate himself for moving Elrohir too early, but then his brother smiled. "Estel, really. You need to lose that worried look before it freezes on your face. I'm fine."
Still concerned, Estel asked seriously, "Are you sure? You'd tell me if you were hurting? If you need to lie down?"
Amused at just how much Estel sounded like their father at that moment, Elrohir assured him, "Yes. I promise. I'm fine. And if I need anything at all, you'll be the first to know. Please, relax and join me."
Estel studied his brother for any signs that he was hiding anything until he was finally satisfied and plopped down on the ground. Allowing that Elrohir really was alright he said, "Very well. It is nice to see you up, you know."
"And it's good to be up. One does get a better view of the world from up here," Elrohir agreed.
He looked around at the camp and their surroundings, noting the time of day.
"How long have the others been gone? Do you expect them back soon?" he asked.
"Oh, they only left a short while ago, but I don't think they'll be long. Elladan wanted to be here when you awoke. He'll be sorry to have missed it, but I think Legolas wanted to get his mind on other things…he was starting to fret about you sleeping too long."
"Always a worrier," said Elrohir fondly. He'd never tell Estel, but he was missing his twin as well. The boy had done a first-rate job in helping him and he was quite proud of him, but whenever he was injured, Elrohir couldn't help but long for the soothing presence of his twin. Some people couldn't understand their close bond, but he didn't care. It simply was the way they were, and he would be forever thankful for the fate that made him a twin.
Longing for his twin, though, didn't make Elrohir any less appreciative to be in the presence of his younger brother. Now that the boy was in training, the opportunities for one-on-one time were few and far between. Thus, Elrohir put his mind to enjoying his little brother's presence in the here and now.
"Well, what shall we do while we're waiting, hmmm?" he asked.
When Estel didn't answer right away, he proposed, "Since I'm not up to sparring just yet, if you'd like I can tell you some stories from my long-ago novice training. Although I know the training masters will tell you enough to prepare you, I can give you some ideas of the things they don't tell you about...some things to watch out for, some things to focus on."
"Well, Elladan already told me about the end of your training." Estel admitted with a wince. He was sure that wasn't something Elrohir felt like reminiscing about.
"Yes, I heard," said Elrohir lightly. "He does get chatty at times, doesn't he? Well, no matter. I meant to tell you something more interesting than that tiresome old tale. How about how we fared during our first lesson? As you've heard, in it they blindfold the trainees and take them to a far off clearing, then leave them to find the way back to camp. Now that led to some interesting tales in our year since it started pouring just after we were left and washed away all traces of the trail."
"No, that's alright."
"You've heard it before? Did Elladan tell you?"
Estel shook his head-he hadn't heard the story before, but he really didn't want to hear it now. With the others gone, Estel had decided now was the time to talk about the cave incident, assuming he could gather up enough courage.
Courage. Yes, that was what this was all about. It was the lesson his brother had taught him, albeit in a form neither had expected. He'd always thought of fear and courage as polar opposites, but now he understood the vital link between the two. The truly courageous weren't free from fear—they did what they must in spite of it. It was what Elladan had tried to tell him and was a revelation he would carry with him always. And now it was time for him to show some courage—it was time to face his brother.
"Nay, I haven't heard it before, but...but Elrohir, before the others come back, I need to say something. It's about…it's about what happened in the caves."
Elrohir felt a pang shoot through him and involuntarily shook his head. Not yet.
"Estel," he began, "perhaps there'll be a better time when…"
"Ro, please, hear me out. This must be said. And I want to do it with just the two of us. This is important."
Hearing the conviction in his brother's voice, Elrohir looked down with an inward sigh. There was no delaying this. Very well, if it must be done, it may as well be done now. He raised his eyes, ready to face the consequences of his actions.
"Alright," he said.
Estel swallowed. He still hadn't structured his thoughts. But from out of nowhere, the words started to flow.
"When I…when I saw you in the cave after you'd seen the rats, you were scared. And I can't tell you how much that shocked me, because I've never thought of you being scared of anything."
"No…please…let me finish. I'd like to think I've grown up some in the last few days, because I realize what an utter fool I was. Of course you're scared sometimes. As is Elladan, and Legolas, Ada, Glorfindel…everyone. Somehow…I always felt when I was grown I'd no longer be afraid of anything, but realize how utterly naïve that was. We'd be fools not to be afraid of some of the things in this world. But I saw you all, so daring and strong, and I couldn't wait for the day when I would be just like you. I guess…I guess I always saw you as my big brave brother, fearless, ready to face the greatest of dangers without blinking. It took Elladan awhile to knock some sense into me…figuratively, of course…but now I see that even the bravest of souls feels fear, and that courage isn't a lack of it, but…well…what you do in the face of it. Elrohir, I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when I heard the full story of why you react as you do—what you've faced. The fact that you were able to even enter the caves in the first place amazes me, let alone lead the search for Elladan. And after you were spooked…you didn't turn back, even then. You wouldn't even let Legolas lead the way. In spite of everything, in spite of knowing what awaited you, you still went back into the tunnel. Despite the terror that awaited you, you pushed forward and would not give way to your fears. I was just too foolish to see the strength that took. I…I am humbled by your example, so very ashamed of my reaction, and so proud to be your brother. Elrohir, this I swear to you, for the rest of my life…whenever I'm afraid…it will be the image of you in that cave, determined to persevere in spite of what you faced, that gives me strength. For you have opened my eyes—you have shown me the true face of courage."
Estel finished his impassioned speech and drew in a deep breath. Elladan had been right. The words had come when he needed them, but now he waited for Elrohir's reaction. He needed to know if they'd been enough.
For his part, Elrohir sat without speaking, stunned. His eyes were wide open in shock as he stared at Estel, not really believing what he'd heard. He'd been braced to hear of his brother's disappointment, to hear how Estel loved him, but could no longer see him in the same light. Never had he expected Estel to express understanding, acceptance…and even pride in him. It was just…it was just more than his muddled mind could process.
When no further words came, he licked his lips and tried again. "I…"
Needing more than just words to express himself, Estel knelt beside his speechless brother and leaned forward, gently pulling him into a hug.
"Ro, you don't have to say anything," he whispered, then pulled back, sliding a hand down Elrohir's uninjured arm to rest on his wrist, unwilling to lose the physical contact. Eyes full of remorse and love, he realized he'd forgotten the most critical thing.
Squeezing Elrohir's wrist lightly to bring his brother's eyes back up to him, Estel said, "Oh Elrohir, I am so sorry. I'm sorry I didn't understand and I'm sorry I made things so much harder for you. I have no excuse, not even my youth. You didn't deserve my unkind words—not only was I callous, but I was so terribly wrong. I couldn't have been more wrong. You embody the very essence of bravery and I'm just…I'm just so sorry. Will you forgive me?"
The words washing over him like a balm of warmth, in amazement Elrohir accepted that this was real and suddenly he felt truly at peace for the first time since Elladan disappeared. He tugged his hand out of Estel's grasp and used it to pull his brother forward into another hug.
Finding his voice, he responded, "If forgiveness is what you desire, of course you have it. I too am sorry. Sorry I fell short of your expectations. I cherish your regard and could not bear to lose it." He gave a short laugh and added, "But be careful with going too far in the other direction, little brother, I'm far from perfect and will find plenty of other ways to disappoint you, I expect…..Not as much as Elladan perhaps, but…
Estel pulled back and laughed, welcoming the break in the seriousness of the discussion.
"He is rather a pest, isn't he? And he hasn't even brought back anything to eat yet. I think he's flitting around, admiring the pretty leaves instead of finding us food."
"Flitting about? Admiring leaves?" a new voice interjected. "Show a little respect, young pup!"
The two looked up, so engrossed in their conversation that they hadn't heard the return of their companions. Elladan stood over them, grinning, with Legolas just a couple of feet behind, also smiling in pleasure.
"You…how long have you been here?" stuttered Estel. While he didn't mind the others knowing how he felt, this discussion with Elrohir was special and something he'd rather keep between the two of them.
For a moment Elladan was tempted to bait the lad and say they'd been listening for a good while, but something in the boy's expression made him relent and instead answer truthfully, "Just long enough to hear you dismiss my prowess at hunting as leaf-gazing. You should have waited to see what we brought back before you disparaged our skills, though. We'll be eating like kings soon enough."
Dropping the bag filled with provisions he and Legolas had gathered, Elladan squatted down next to his brothers, still grinning but taking a moment to seriously assess the condition of his twin. Noting the remnants by the fire of the tea Estel had prepared, he realized that Elrohir's awakening had been one of the more difficult ones, and his smile began to fade.
Elrohir was determined to keep the mood light, however, and swatted Elladan's arm with the back of his hand.
"Now didn't I say I disliked hovering?" he teased. "Come, you said we'd eat like kings, but so far all I've heard are empty words. Bragging doesn't fill hungry bellies—so get on with it, you loafer. Fix me my dinner!"
Elladan snorted. So that's how Elrohir wanted to play it. Very well. It took no more than a flick of his gaze to catch the lingering signs of the trauma Elrohir had experienced, but as they were a mere shadow of agony he'd been in earlier, he wouldn't push his aching desire to fuss over his twin. And moreover, he was also sure, from the clear light of peace he saw in Elrohir's eyes, that he and Estel had worked things out—apparently the boy had found the right words after all.
Unable to resist some show of his relief at seeing Elrohir so much improved, he reached out and squeezed Elrohir's forearm, the look in his eyes saying more than mere words could ever express. But then he abruptly changed the mood by letting go and flicking the side of Elrohir's head.
"And he called me a pest," Elladan muttered as he stood, although he couldn't prevent a grin.
Turning to the others, Elladan said, "Estel, his majesty here demanded dinner, so while he sits on his backside and watches us work, could you please put some more water on to boil? And Legolas, if you'll start cutting up the vegetables, I'll get to work on the fish. If I can wheedle the recipe out of our lazy companion, we'll be in for a real treat."
The three jumped into action, smiles decorating all their faces. After the stress of recent events, it was such a relief to do something as normal as joking around and preparing dinner. No companions to rescue, no crises to solve, no injuries to treat—life was good.
The small group continued their preparations, the silly mood lingering with ridiculous banter flying between them until the meal was almost ready. It was then that Elladan noticed his twin's contributions had been growing fewer and fewer, until they had stopped altogether.
Signaling the others with a wordless gesture, Elladan left the final meal preparations to them while he joined Elrohir by the fire. A closer look told him that Elrohir was perhaps not as well as he'd led the others to believe.
"You alright?" he asked softly.
Knowing he shouldn't even try to fool his twin, Elrohir tipped his head forward and closed his eyes for a moment, "Tired. Shoulder's aching a bit, too," he admitted. He then raised his head, his expression filling with remorse, "and I've yet to apologize for my latest display of bad temper. It's weighing heavily on me."
He spoke louder, drawing Legolas into the conversation, "Once again I owe the two of you an apology for impossible behavior. It's been kind of you to not bring it up, but I'm sorry you had to endure it. I don't know how you put up with me."
Legolas knelt on the ground next to the twins and said kindly, "Elrohir, you know we don't hold you responsible for your actions after you've taken that draught. We expect it and understand it's the herbs speaking…not you." He patted his friend's knee. "To free you from pain I'd suffer it a thousand times over. Think no more of it."
"But it is still me saying these things. I don't know where they come from. I assure you I don't mean them."
"Elrohir, you don't…"
Elladan interrupted Legolas, wanting to cut off a predictable discussion in which Legolas tried to convince Elrohir he wasn't to blame while Elrohir insisted on apologizing for everything he said or might have thought of saying.
In a lightly scolding tone, Elladan said, "Ro, you do this every time, you know, act as if you had full control over your words and…moreover…that we can't take them. Do you think us so shallow that we can't understand the circumstances? Or thin-skinned that we can't take a few testy barbs? Give us more credit, brother."
Elrohir dropped his eyes in embarrassment. He was clearly making things worse with his fumbling apologies. "I do give you credit, but that doesn't mean I can accept my behavior. Please, allow me to at least apologize."
Elladan was exasperated that this happened every time. He'd hoped Elrohir's earlier merriment meant that for once they wouldn't have to go through this. He was about to continue scolding his brother regarding his misguided sense of guilt, but then observed Elrohir's drawn look and stopped himself short. No. Now wasn't the time. Elrohir would continue to try to apologize no matter what they said, so it was up to him to close the issue.
Suddenly feeling a sense of amused affection for his stubborn, but well-meaning brother, he said, "Very well. I will say one more time that none of us blame you, but I speak for all when I say we accept your apology and are happy to put these events behind us, alright?'
Elrohir was surprised, but very relieved, at the quick acceptance of his apology. For being so in tune with him, sometimes Elladan didn't understand how important it was to him to atone for his misdeeds and wouldn't allow him to apologize, insisting there was no need.
Smiling in gratitude, he said, "Thank you." But the smile faded abruptly when an unexpected sharp pain shot through his shoulder.
Elladan saw the wince he tried to hide and scowled. "We should have made you lie down while you waited," he said. "I don't think you're as recovered as you're pretending."
Shrugging the non-throbbing shoulder, Elrohir shook his head, "Nay, I'm tired of being on my back. It's nothing. I'll be alright once I eat."
"That's my cue to help Estel finish dinner," Legolas said, getting up. "Elladan, how about you stay here while we finish. We're almost done and you need some rest as well."
Elrohir snapped his head in his brother's direction. "Have you been overdoing it? What's wrong?"
Elladan settled down, scooting over until he was right next to his twin, his right side lightly brushing against Elrohir's left. "I'm fine. Better than you, at any rate. Legolas is just being over solicitous."
"I'm serious. I may be a bit tired, but am healing well. I had no troubles at all hunting. Don't worry yourself over me."
Elrohir wasn't about to let his own troubles make him forget that it was Elladan who'd been captured and injured initially. But he heard the truth ring in Elladan's voice and relented, deciding to change the subject.
He wiggled the fingers of his right hand, trapped and unusable. "You're going to have to help with the fish when it's done, you realize? Trying to pull out the bone with just one hand would make quite a mess."
Elladan, also happy to speak of different things, grinned and said, "If your recipe holds true, you may not need assistance…it will fall off the bones."
Elrohir, fully relaxed now due to his cleared conscience, couldn't resist the closeness of his twin and leaned onto him, letting his head fall neatly onto Elladan's shoulder, "mmm," he agreed, his eyes slipping shut involuntarily.
Elladan grinned again. He'd known Elrohir's strength was fading and was glad to be able to offer a strong shoulder to lean on.
"Are you really up for eating?" he asked quietly, not wanting to wake Elrohir if he was falling asleep.
Elrohir didn't open his eyes, but he smirked and said, "Of course. Nothing would keep me from 'a meal fit for kings.'"
Elladan shook his head and rolled his eyes. Stubborn troll…Elrohir clearly should rest. He couldn't deny, however, that he was glad his brother was awake, even if just barely, and answered, "Well then open your eyes and sit up, for I believe it's coming."
Squinting open one eye and then the other, Elrohir looked up to see Legolas and Estel heading their way, laden with dinner.
Elrohir groaned before forcing himself to sit up.
Catching the concerned look Elladan shot at him, he said with exasperation, "Oh stop that. Really, I'm fine."
Skeptical, but once again forgoing the opportunity to fuss, Elladan turned away and took the plate Legolas was handing him. The steaming food made his mouth water.
"Thank you, my friend…this looks wonderful."
At the same time, Estel was trying to find the best way to situate Elrohir's plate. He was afraid if he just put it in Elrohir's lap, it might tip if the elf moved, but before he could decide what to do, Elrohir solved his dilemma by taking the plate himself and placing it on the ground beside him.
Elrohir was amused to see Estel had already anticipated his needs and had cut up the vegetables into small pieces as well as deboning the fish. With a smile and a wink, he thanked his little brother and began eating with renewed vigor.
The meal was all the companions could have desired, delicious and filling, with pleasant conversation while they ate. They lingered over it in the calm of the early afternoon, savoring the chance to unwind from the last few days and spend some peaceful time with one another. When at last their plates were empty, they all felt a sense of fulfillment and happiness underlying a certain lethargy—no one felt like being the first to move. It was only when Elrohir started once more sliding onto his brother's shoulder that Legolas decided one of them had to budge.
"Estel," he said quietly, not wanting to startle Elrohir, who was slowly losing the battle to stay awake. Once he had Estel's attention, the blond elf tilted his head towards the twins, grinning when he saw Elladan's head tipping over onto Elrohir's as his eyes also drifted shut. Apparently there were two dark-haired elves who were running out of energy.
Estel shook his head. His brothers. He was afraid they would object to being sent to bed like cranky younglings requiring a midday nap, but with their healing injuries that's what they both needed.
Wordlessly, he and Legolas arose without disturbing the dozing pair and quickly and efficiently laid out two bed rolls near the fire. Then, again working in wordless harmony, he went over to wake Elladan, leaving the stronger Legolas to attend to the more injured twin.
"Elladan, come…you are still not recovered from your injuries and I believe some rest will do you well."
Elladan jerked, startled awake, but quickly realized what was happening. Contrary to Estel's prediction that he'd object, instead the elder twin glanced over at Elrohir before nodding sleepily. "That's an excellent idea, Estel. You'll see to it that Ro also gets settled?"
Estel patted his brother's shoulder and said, "Don't worry, Legolas is seeing to him. Come...I'll help you over."
"Leave off, I'm not an invalid," said Elladan mildly when Estel reached down to help him up.
He didn't, however, push away the offered hand and allowed his brother to gently pull him up. It was just a matter of moments before he was comfortably situated in his bed, where he laid back and watched the others help Elrohir over.
The younger twin's journey was a lot slower, with both Legolas and Estel helping him carefully walk the short distance and then cautiously easing him down. In due time, though, he was also settled and his eyes fluttered closed as soon as he sank into the blankets.
Seeing Elrohir comfortable and content, it was only a matter of minutes before Elladan, too, was asleep and the twins were left alone to rest.
Legolas and Estel quietly cleaned up after their meal, scrubbing the plates clean and tossing the waste. In short order the camp was tidy and the pair were left with some quiet free time. Legolas used it to make some new arrows, while Estel took out a small whistle he'd begun carving and set to work on it.
The two worked in companionable silence as the afternoon passed, each content to quietly contemplate their own thoughts.
Legolas thought of how these last few days could have ended, with the loss of either one or both of the twins. He'd lost many a close comrade over the years, but the thought of losing either of these two, who were as close to him as brothers, was sobering. It made him all the more grateful how things had turned out. He'd battled enough injustice in his life and had seen how the fickle hand of fate could strike randomly and cruelly, so it was with a sense of peace and pleasure that he accepted the outcome of these days' events.
Estel's thoughts ran along a similar line, mostly filled with immense gratitude for the well-being of his brothers. The twins each had injuries that would take awhile to heal, but they were safe and they would heal. Having first-hand knowledge of loss from an early age, Estel couldn't help but be aware of the joy that filled him at that thought. The other issue that occupied his mind was, of course, his newfound understanding of the essence of courage and the events that taught him that lesson. He still felt remorse for the hurt he'd caused Elrohir, but his brother's full acceptance of his apology had lessened the guilt, and he felt in a strange way it had brought them closer.
Estel put down the whistle and looked at his sleeping brothers. The quiet of the camp reminded him of the evening when he had sat with Legolas and tried to gain his support against the twins. Legolas had shut him up quickly and decisively…Estel smiled softly as he remembered his angry response to the prince's words. Words which he now understood and accepted. How much had changed in such a short time. How much he had changed.
He shared a look of friendship with Legolas, which the prince returned when he caught Estel looking at him, then walked over to the twins and sat down a few feet from them. Estel enjoyed the opportunity to just be still, content to watch his brothers as they slept. They had need of healing rest and he was sure they'd sleep through to the following morning.
After awhile, Elladan murmured something, apparently caught by a dream. He shifted restlessly and once again said something too soft for Estel to understand. He didn't need to hear the words, though, to realize what Elladan's subconscious was focusing on when the elder twin turned on his side and reached out for Elrohir. Estel smiled when his brother found Elrohir's arm and lightly touched it. In an instant, the lines on Elladan's forehead smoothed and the elf settled once again in sleep, reassured that his twin was safe.
Estel sighed deeply with his own sense of satisfaction. He'd made a new friend in Legolas. He'd learned an important life lesson. And those he loved were safe. The future was uncertain and likely to be filled with new burdens and heartaches, but for now...for now all was right in the world.
A/N: Well, I can hardly believe it. It's done. I'm rather embarrassed to see how long it took, but pleased that, yes, I really did manage to finish the darn thing like I've always promised I would. Life's taken some unexpected and sad turns, chasing away my muse for eons at a time and seriously limiting a desire to write. I hope I resolved any open issues and finished it up to everyone's satisfaction, though. I send my sincere thanks to all who've had the endless patience to follow my little story, especially those of you kind enough to review. I've appreciated you all! Signing off…Firstmate