Title: Choosing

Author: Pentangle

Summary: A young Aragorn wins and loses, loses and wins.

Characters: Aragorn, Legolas, Elrond, Elrohir, Elladan

Rating: K+

A/N Aragorn has been raised with Elrond as his father and the twins as his brothers. He has known Legolas since he was small.

Thank you to my beta Celebwen

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Chapter 1

Elrond, Lord of Imladris, stood in the doorway of the dining hall. "Where is Estel? He cannot have eaten breakfast and left already. Not today." The other members of his family looked up and shook their heads or shrugged.

"Your pardon, Adar," said a quiet voice behind him. Elrond turned about and lifted the famous eyebrow. His youngest entered the hall and Elrond's was not the only eyebrow to rise. Estel walked quietly (for him), his movements smooth and controlled (for him), and bowed slightly to those present.

"Good morning my brothers, and Lords Glorfindel and Erestor; I am sorry if I am late."

Glorfindel looked him up and down. The lanky body—which had just shot up another two inches, seemingly overnight—was clothed in its normal outdoor wear of tunic, leggings and boots. This morning something was different, however. He mused quietly to Erestor, "Is there anything quite so terrifying as a young limb of Sauron, neat, pressed, and polite?"

Erestor murmured back, "My blood is frozen in my veins."

Elrond came up behind Estel and laid a firm hand on his shoulder and declaimed dramatically, "Where is my son and what have you done with him? He is dear to me and if any harm…"

The dignity slipped a little. "Oh, Ada! You always say that anytime I – "

" – am not actually bleeding or covered in pond slime?" broke in Elladan. Elrohir frowned at him.

"Peace, brother, can you not see? This is the new, older Estel. The mature one who is now 13 and no doubt shaved this morning. The one that we had some sort of appointment with…we were going somewhere…I can not seem to recall…was it today?"

Estel seemed to quiver all over and then his control broke. He began to dance and spin about the room, arms outstretched, caroling, "Yes! Yes! Yes! It is today, today! TODAY!"

Glorfindel pulled out the chair next to him and the boy collapsed into it laughing and dizzy.

The Eldar pulled him into a brief hug. "Many happy returns of the day, youngling." The others chorused the same.

"When will you go?" questioned Elrond.

Elladan swallowed half a muffin and replied. "I was thinking after arms practice. Oh! Except you asked me to get more of the blue clay today; that will take three or four hours. And then I have to go check the wheat for rust and –"

"If you are quite finished teasing me…" sniffed Estel.

"Very well! We leave as soon as Elrohir and I finish breakfast."

" Which we cannot (choke) do (cough) with your arms so tight (gasp) around our necks!" Estel stood between the twins, hugging both with joy.

"You are the best of brothers! Now, let's GO!" Plates abandoned, the three left the hall together with Estel dancing backwards, urging his brothers to greater haste.

Glorfindel smiled at the departing brothers. "It is a very important day in the life of any warrior."

Erestor looked at Elrond. "Do you think it will go well?"

"Why should it not?"

"Elrond – he is human; it may not go as he has heard from his friends and brothers. In fact, I doubt it can. I have spoken of my concerns before – but you have not heeded me."

"Elrohir has a plan to make it work."

"That somehow leaves me uncomforted."

Elrond sighed. "Now that the day has come, I, too, have concerns. But Elrohir's plan may work, enough to give an illusion. Perhaps I have made a mistake, but I was simply unable to face explaining it to him in the ardor of his anticipation. And if worse comes to worst-"

"And it will!"

"- then we will just select one for him."

"It will not be the same and no one will know it more than he."

Glorfindel interrupted quietly, "We will hope for the best and prepare for the worst. By sundown we will know which we are dealing with."

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Three brothers made their way up the cliff path to the plateau above Imladris. Two rode and one walked along at the stirrup of the leader. "Why must I walk? Take me up behind you!"

"It is only because of our great kindness that we let you hold on to my stirrup leather. It is always thus on this day – you must walk until you are Chosen – you may not ride."

From behind them, Elrohir laughed, "I like this arrangement, Elladan. There are entire minutes when he is too out of breath to speak!"

Estel glowered and trudged on, using the stirrup to help pull him along. However, he could not remain angry (or silent) for long on this day, and his questions began anew.

"How long will it take for you and Elrohir to - "

"There is no way to know for certain; an hour, perhaps three; it depends how far they have gone since the dawn."

"Male or female?"

"Do I know? You will have to accept what comes, even as all have before you." Elladan cast a quick, worried glance at Elrohir behind him. His brother smiled back, but when he looked at Estel his lips tightened with resolve. They would make it work. They must make it happen for him. Perhaps not as it had for them, but well enough. Snatches of memory assailed him and he felt again his little brother's pain. Why can I not climb as well as you? Why do I get sick? Why can I not talk to the trees? Why must I die?

It was a constant refrain, sung in either anguish or anger, with every year bringing new verses. And perhaps, in spite of their love, their plans, their best efforts, the sorrowful lay would be longer this night than it had been this morning.

Estel's impatient voice broke into his worried thoughts. "I said, what color is best?"

"Are you that selective? I did not know you would refuse a color you do not favor!"

"That is not what I meant!"

Elladan laughed and reached down to severely ruffle his little brother's hair. "Look there, Estel."

Estel lifted his eyes from the dust his feet were kicking up to see that they were almost at the top of the cliff. Soon! Very soon!

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Estel stood on the top of a small rise on the plain that ran to the edge of the valley cliffs. He listened with painful intensity to his brother's instructions.

"You will stay here until we return or until you feel there is danger, of any sort, understand? If you do feel there might be any kind of danger, you will run like a hare to the cliff path – it is just behind you a short distance. Then home."

"I understand. If danger, run to the cliff path. Otherwise, wait."

His earnestness made Elladan's lips twitch ever so slightly. "When we come up with the Unchosen, you will crouch down and call them. You can sing or speak, it matters not. When the one that is for you steps toward you, wait until he comes and touches you, then you may slowly rise. Do you have the cake? Good. Keep it in your shirt until they are very near. When you stand, you will go through the choosing ritual. Do not make any sudden moves and speak softly. Feed it the cake. Elrohir and I will be with you and guide you through the next steps."

"I will do just as you say. Oh, Elladan, I can not bear it! I am so excited. I am afraid my heart's beating will frighten them it is so loud!"

Elrohir stepped close, leading his horse. He fingers drew a quick caress from Estel's brow to cheek. "Gently, gently! Your wait is almost over." He hesitated and looked away into the distance. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again.

"Is something wrong, Elrohir?"

Elrohir smiled warmly, but with a little trouble in his eyes. "It is nothing…just…." He took the chin below him firmly in hand and looked into the sparkling eyes. "We love you. We would do anything to ensure your happiness. Do you know this?"

"Yes, I do know it, Elrohir. And I love you both with all that I am. But why do you speak so to me now? As if something bad were about to happen…."

Elladan cut in as he remounted his horse, "Nothing bad will happen. We merely want you to know how happy we are to be here with you. To share this day with you." And then added to himself, "to protect you if we can."

Elrohir and Elladan loped away across the plain and Estel sat down cross-legged to wait for their return. His trembling fingers felt for the hundredth time to see if the cake he had made three days ago was safe. He worked his fingers beneath his tunic and then his shirt to feel its rough texture. Made from oats and honey, a very little flour, some anise and Glorfindel's 'secret ingredient,' he had worn it against his skin that it might partake of his scent. He would present it to the one who would shortly choose him, as a seal to a newly-made bond. He thought back to the day Legolas (how he wished he could be here today!) had told him how he was first Chosen by Goldolphin. Estel had waited his whole life for this day. He could hardly believe that it was truly here.

Estel broke from his reverie and tensed. Was it – he held his breath and listened, taut as a bow-string. There! He didn't hear it; he felt it! A slight, ever so slight trembling in the ground. They were coming!

And now he could hear them, as well. The drumming grew louder until he finally saw them in the distance. They rapidly grew in his vision until they slowed and halted, about a hundred feet away. There were at least twenty-five, all young. There were many colors, although mostly dapples and roans since the elves valued them for their ability to blend into the forest. Elladan and Elrohir rode around the edges of the group, keeping them together, and close to Estel. Suddenly one broke free and ran toward the trees that clothed the edge of the cleft guarding Imladris. He was black and smaller and slighter than the rest. Elrohir cantered to head him back to the group, but Elladan called him off.

"Never mind that one. He should have been culled long ago – he will not do for a warrior."

Elrohir turned his attention back to the serious business at hand. "Go ahead, Estel."

The man-child slowly rose to his haunches and held out one hand, cupped and open. He began to speak softly. "Come, my beauty. Come, my own. Come, and I will love you. Come, and we will fly together. Ah, how my heart has longed for you. My ponies are outgrown, and they do not choose as your kind do. Choose me, and I will care for you all your days. We will have great adventures, you and I. Ah, please come to me, wind and smoke, fire and pride. Please…." His voice continued, with all the passion one young and often lonely boy's heart could feel. His speaking changed to a lovely song, marred only here and there by a youth's breaking voice.

Some of those hearing raised their heads, but none came out toward him. Elladan and Elrohir moved closer in their circle, pressing a little, hoping that the jostling would cause one or two to step in Estel's direction – even if they were not 'called'. For this was their fear. That only elves could call the horses that were bred for generations to work and live with the Firstborn. They doubted he could be truly Chosen and so they had practiced for a week at subtly working the herd so that one would 'happen' to move forward from the rest.

"Come. Please heed me. Come, one to match my spirit. Be mine, I beg." Now on a soft sob, "I beg you. I beg. The outstretched hand shook from strain and finally sank to the ground. For the first time, Estel looked to his brothers. He whispered, "What am I doing wrong – help me."

Elladan muttered savagely, riding among the herd, "Stupid beasts! You do not know what love you deny, what heart you are breaking! Move UP there, and go to him!" But the horses only milled about, becoming restless now, and trying to return to the plain.

Finally, the twins could hold them no longer and they broke away in twos and threes, until they were all gone.

Estel stood and watched as they disappeared. It is hardly possible to imagine a more forlorn figure. Elrohir and Elladan dismounted, giving their steeds jaundiced looks. They were none to happy with horses in general at the moment. Elladan walked to Estel and tentatively touched his shoulder. "Estel?"

Eyes with all the pain only youth can feel turned to his elder brother. His voice barely made it past the tightness in chest and throat. The desolation in it tore at Elladan's heart. "Why? Why would none come to me? Why was I not Chosen? I called with all my heart…"

"Estel, I am so sorry. We hoped so very much this would not happen."

"Then you thought it might…You know why I was not Chosen." An ugly suspicion, hardly a new one in this young man's life, pulled the band around his heart tighter.

"It appears—and no, we were not sure at all, we have never heard of a human going before the Unchosen before—that only elves – "

"Of course! Only elves! Always and ever: only elves! And I am not an elf! How many times must I have my nose rubbed in the fact that I am not an elf?" He started walking angrily away, dashing shameful tears from his face.

"Estel…wait! We will choose one for you—the very best one of all."

"It will not be the same! It will be no different than my ponies! He will not match my spirit, nor I his!"

The twins ran after their brother, coming to a halt before him. "Estel, we must go home. I know you are grieved…but Ada and the others will be worried if we don't return before nightfall."

Estel's steely voice replied, "Yes. Ada, and Glorfindel, and..and everybody, are all waiting for me to come riding into the courtyard on my first real horse; my Chosen. Once again I will disappoint them. But that will not be a great surprise; they have become accustomed to my inability to do ANYTHING the right way."

Elladan then proceeded to stab himself with his own sword. "Estel, I know this is very difficult for you, but you are at an age when men tend to over dramatize -"

The boy turned outraged eyes upon him. He then spun around and bolted for the trees on the cliff edge. Elrohir looked disgustedly at Elladan. "I do believe that if you thought with both hands for a fortnight, you could not have come up with a more inflammatory thing to say."

"Ai! I am seven kinds of fool. I was just so sure we could get one of those spawns of Mordor to take one, just ONE, step towards him! It worked over and over when we practiced!" He turned a strained face to his brother and whispered, "My poor Estel. Did you see his eyes when the last one ran back to the plain? Although, I am surprised he can still feel anything as keenly as he does. He has had so many hurts piled one atop another….most men or elves would have hardened their hearts against further pain long ago, with only cold ashes where once love burned within."

"Estel will not take that path. He is warmth itself. It makes him vulnerable as we well know." Elrohir sighed deeply. "Now, we had better decide what to do with him tonight."

"Leave him be. That copse is barely five acres in size. Let him cry his grief out in solitude. He will be safe enough there. One of us will stay and see that no harm comes to him and the other can let those at home know what has happened."

Elrohir nodded, "I think that is best. I will go home and explain what has occurred; it was my idea that we should try to counterfeit a gift of the Valar, after all."

As his twin disappeared down the cliff trail, Elladan walked out further into the plain where he could get a good view of the approaches to the wood. He then sighed and settled into a sentry go to wait out the night.