It was almost amusing the way six elves ran into each other trying to get to the rider. Glorfindel, of course, was closest, but he was rudely shoved aside by the Lord of Imladris, who was nearly shoved aside by a Silvan elf who caught himself just in time to prevent a war between Mirkwood and Rivendell. Elrond ascertained that Estel was not seriously injured, then turned to quickly give orders for the festival to continue in his absence.
Legolas kneeled next to his young friend. "Estel…" He brushed back the boy's hair with a shaking hand.
"I am…well." Estel's voice was thick; his tongue had begun to swell and blood covered his lips and chin.
"Are you indeed? Let us take inventory: ripped tunic and leggings, wound on your back, torn thigh, possibly shattered knee, bloody hands, cut tongue. Is that all?"
"I think so. Legolas?"
"Are you angry with me?"
"You lied to me. You broke your word."
A faint whisper: "I know."
"We will not speak of it now. Elrond wants to take you to the house." As he spoke, the elf lord lifted his son. Estel called out weakly to Legolas, "Take care of – "
"Yes, yes, I know! Take care of that dratted horse!"
For Estel, the next few days passed in a haze of pain. It was not so much the cracked knee (set), the gash in his back (17 stitches), or his badly swollen tongue. It was his muscles. They stung and throbbed; every single one in his entire body. The slightest movement set them cramping. His father and other healers massaged him several times a day, and that hurt even worse. Fortunately he was kept drugged much of the time. No one seemed angry and everyone visited him, although they kept their remarks to, "Rest now," and "Your horse is fine, do not worry," and "Drink this and you will feel better."
Everyone visited that is—except Legolas. Although, one night, as Estel shifted in constant pain and drug induced dreams, he thought he felt his friend's hand on his brow, and heard his voice, murmuring soothingly. But when he dragged his eyes open, he was alone. It was not the pain of his body that caused his pillow to be soaked in the morning.
After two days Estel could no longer stand not knowing where Legolas was and asked Elrohir about him. His brother hesitated and then replied, "He is still here. He is at the training yard with Glorfindel now, I believe."
"He has not been to see me."
"I know. Listen, Estel, he does ask after you every day, first thing every morning. He has been very worried about you. But if we ask him why he has not been to see you, he will not answer. He says only that you know why. Do you? I cannot imagine what you could have done that would make Legolas act this way."
Estel said sadly, "I do know why, but at the same time, I do not."
When Estel was able to speak without flinching, and sit up and move about comfortably in bed, Elrond called a "family meeting." Technically, this could be about any issue that anyone wanted to discuss, but in actual fact it usually involved more of a court-like atmosphere. Estel was very familiar with its procedures. He waited anxiously in his room, dressed and sitting on the bed. He would get a clue about his future from whoever was sent to fetch him. If it was one of the twins, things would not go too badly. If Glorfindel—well, he would just hope it was not Glorfindel.
The door opened. Oh no! It was Erestor. He was doomed.
The counselor scooped him up in his arms and said, "Do not totally despair. I am sent to bring you because I, too, am one of the accused this morning."
"You? How? Why?"
"You will soon see. Now quit squirming! I do not want to drop you."
Erestor carried Estel into the dining hall. It had been cleared of everyone except the twins, Glorfindel, and Lord Elrond. A semi-circle of chairs, six of them, faced one lone chair where Estel was placed. Erestor gave him a bracing pat on the back and then took his own place in the circle. One chair was empty. Although Legolas was not a family member, whenever he was in Imladris he was usually a participant if Estel was the focus of the 'meeting.' He usually served as a friend of the accused, speaking in the boy's defense. Estel glanced at the empty chair and then did not look in that direction again.
Elrond stood and opened the proceedings. "Before we discuss the events of four days ago, I want you to listen to me carefully, Estel. You may keep your horse. No one here will try to separate you. Regardless of your punishments, you will at least be able to visit him a brief time each day to ascertain that he is well. Currently, Elrohir is looking after him, and assures me that he has taken no harm from the race. Have you heard and understood me?"
Estel nodded vigorously, "Thank you, Ada! And you, Elrohir! Thank you!"
"That is well. Now, hopefully, you will be able to concentrate on what we have to say to you. Let us begin. Erestor, I think you have somewhat to say at this point."
"Yes, Lord Elrond." Erestor stood with a piece of parchment in hand. "Estel, I have been derelict in my duties and you have born the consequences. I offer my heartfelt apologies for that. I care for you a great deal; I would not have you harmed for anything under Arnor. It appears I accidentally misplaced a parchment sent to me by our head Horsekeeper. I will read certain segments that you will be interested in and that have a bearing on the events of the festival. Let's see….(ahem)….to inform you, etc., etc.……another hay field sown, etc., etc.,…..Ah! Here it is! (Glorfindel, you may be interested in this bit) 'I have been concerned for some time with the tendency of our warriors to select large horses. They are difficult to feed on long patrols and not agile enough in close battle formations. We also do not have sufficient outcrosses in our bloodlines for continued vigor and health. Therefore I have obtained 3 stallions from outside the valley, most recently a black stallion from Harad. I am aware that his color will not meet with approval, but it is rare to find any such in a location reasonably accessible to us. They are known for speed, endurance, and thriftiness on long campaigns. I await the council's approval to begin a new breeding plan to address our deficiencies. He will be run with the young stock on the plateau in the meantime'…" Erestor stopped and waited for the inevitable storm.
After the tumult had died down, he added, "Since Elrond never saw this, the council never voted on it, and your horse was left on the plateau. He should not have been among the Unchosen, but what is done is done." Erestor sat down again as Elrond stood.
"Thank you, Erestor. That certainly clears up much that has been in contention. Estel, I have spoken with Erestor about this, and I apologize to you, publicly, that irregularities in my household (Erestor flinched) have caused you so much grief."
"Thank you, Ada, and you, too, Erestor. I am glad, truly, that you misplaced the letter, otherwise I would not have been Chosen at all."
Erestor smiled. "Thank you for your forgiveness, Estel. You have a generous heart."
Elrond cleared his throat. "We now come to the events of festival day. I will begin by saying that I never want to live through such a terrifying half-hour again. Your brothers, Erestor, Legolas, and I, feared for your very life—you can have no conception, at your age, what we went through. Furthermore, unlike many of your dangerous activities, this one was not accidental, but deliberate. You planned to do this in cold blood and you lied, to me by omission, to Legolas by commission. Each of us will speak to you now, concerning our feelings about your incredible foolishness and how it affected us."
The next hour was extremely unpleasant for Estel. Glorfindel and Elladan shouted, Elrohir broke down, and Elrond was as stern as Estel had ever seen him. Each let him know the depth of their fear and anger. Later, he would realize this indicated the depth of their love, but at the time, Estel wished he were in an Orc cave with a sprig of parsley behind his ear and an apple in his mouth. It would have been far more pleasant.
Finally, Elrond said, "Enough. He knows our thoughts. Estel, what have you to say in your defense to mitigate your punishments?"
Estel looked directly at the empty chair for the first time as he spoke quietly. "You may punish me as you see fit. I will not object. I own my fault. But your punishment can be as nothing compared to what I have done to myself. I have thrown away something that none of you could have taken from me. Not by force, nor guile, nor persuasion. I love my horse and I would probably have run away if you had tried to take him from me, but I love Legolas more. I am young, but old enough to know this much: I will have many horses in my life, but few true friends. And never another like Legolas." He looked down at the clenched hands in his lap. "That is all I have to say."
Elrond sighed deeply. "I believe you are right. There is no punishment that we could devise that would cause you more regret than you feel now. I have spoken with Legolas and I cannot say that forgiveness is assured, or even possible. Would you like to speak with him?"
"He will not see me."
"I believe he will if I ask him. Is this your wish?"
"I do not know what to say to him. And I do not think I can bear to hear him say that he…that he…" Estel broke into sobs and everyone except Elrond quietly left.
The elf lord knelt next to his son and embraced him while he cried out his heartache. "My poor Estel. Growing up does not seem so enticing at the moment, does it? I will speak with him and see if he will meet with you. You two must talk to each other, whatever may happen."
The next day Estel sat on his bed, swinging his uninjured leg against the bedpost, waiting for Legolas to come to his room. He had been doing a great deal of hard thinking. At first, he had tried to blame Legolas, at least a little. After all, it was not like he had never lied before! Ada said I could, really! …Elladan likes it like that…I promise I will go straight home. A long litany of half-truths and full lies ran through his mind. But he realized that things were different now. It was not just that he was older, although he had been told over and over that he would have to behave more responsibly now. Something had happened between him and Legolas while on their camping trip. They had gone from a relationship that was a combination of uncle/nephew and mentor/pupil, to the beginnings of real friendship. Since the time he had asked Legolas to be his friend, years ago, Legolas had been waiting for Estel to mature enough to be a friend. Patiently waiting, believing that the promise of the man within the child would be worth waiting for. While out in the wild together, working with the Black and talking long into the night, Legolas had seen the first glimpses of that man. And that man had looked him squarely in the eyes and lied to him. Estel began to understand what he had done.
The door opened and Legolas stepped into the room. He stayed close to the door and crossed his arms. "Lord Elrond asked that I come and speak with you. As you see, I am here."
"Will you come and sit on the bed next to me?"
"Very well." He crossed the room and sat on the bed, but made no move to further their conversation. Estel sighed. This was not going to be easy.
"I am sorry I lied to you."
"Yes. I have never been more miserable. I can not bear it if you will not continue to be my friend. I know I did something important. I do not yet understand all of it, but I know that I hurt something that was special between us."
"Why did you lie to me?"
"Because I knew you would never let me race the Black. And I thought it was the only way to keep him."
"And that was most important to you."
"Yes. At the time it was. I was not thinking clearly. I did not realize what it would do to us. I did not even know that something could happen – I thought being friends just was, that it was easy."
He turned sideways and looked at the elf's face, though Legolas stared straight ahead. "I have thought and thought about what to tell you. All I can think of is 'I am sorry,' and I know those are just words and it will take years for you to trust me again, if you ever do, and I will be miserable all the time. So I have thought of one thing that might make you understand that I am truly sorry."
"What might that be?"
"I have sent a message to the head Horsekeeper. He does not want me to have the Black. He says such an important horse should not belong to a human child. So he will be happy if I give the Black to him. Tomorrow I will do it; he will come for him after lunch."
Legolas turned and looked into the overflowing eyes. "You will give up your horse?"
"You think that will make all things right between us?"
"No. I know that it will not. But I can think of nothing else. No other way to show that I value your friendship, your love, more than anything."
"Estel…" and at last the voice thawed a little, at last some warmth glowed again in the blue eyes. "You…hurt me. More, you frightened me. It seems strange to me to say so; an elf prince, hundreds of years older than you, hurt and frightened by a 13 year-old mortal. But when I said I would be your friend those years ago, I cast caution and wisdom to the wind. I will pay a high price if I am your friend. I will live thousands of years after you are gone. My heart will bear a wound that no one, not Lord Elrond, not the Valar, will be able to heal. It will bleed for Ages. All Valinor will not hold enough beauty to soothe it completely. This is my future if I am your friend. It frightens me."
He shrugged and gestured helplessly, "I should not be speaking of this with you. Your Ada will be angry that I am laying this burden upon you, young as you are. But if you do not know this, you cannot understand that I must believe you will be worth it. I must believe that our friendship will be worth the long nights in the Undying Lands, when I stand on the shore, look to the East, and remember. And grieve."
Estel jumped off the bed and hopped to stand before his friend. He took the hands—that had soothed him as a child and helped him shoot his first arrows—into his own. He bent his head and kissed them tenderly, and then looked deeply into the eyes before him. "I cannot say—how can I say? that I will be worth such a price in the end. But if you let me begin again, I will try, with every part of me: heart and mind, body and spirit, to be the friend you need me to be. To be the match for the friend you will be to me."
Legolas smiled as he drew Estel into a rib-cracking hug. "Then begin, young one!" They both laughed and cried a little, then Estel stepped back.
"Will you stand with me when they come for the Black? I…I cannot let them take him without saying good-bye, and it will be hard for me…"
"Foolish one! You will not give up your horse. I will go with you and tell the Horsekeeper that you have changed your mind."
Estel said seriously, "I meant what I said."
"I see that is true, and that is sufficient for me. It is enough that you are willing; there is no need to complete the sacrifice."
"The Horsekeeper will not like it and he sounds even crabbier than Erestor!"
"A daunting prospect! You will have to protect me, mellon nin."
Estel smiled brilliantly. It was the first time Legolas had called him the grown-up word for friend.
The next day, Estel and Legolas watched a fuming horsekeeper storm away from the stable.
"Whew! I am glad that is over! What did he mean when he said that the Prince of Mirkwood is a-" Legolas clapped his hand over Estel's mouth.
"If your Adar hears you say that we will both be scrubbing the kitchen floors for a month!"
"Oh! Well, I will try not to say it then, although I think it would be funny if I said it to Elladan!"
"No! It would not be funny at all! Now, shall we go see your horse, or are you getting tired? Crutches take a while to get used to."
They went to see the horse, naturally.
Estel stroked the glossy neck and murmured into the pricked ears. Then he turned again to Legolas. "I have found a name for him."
"Have you? I thought he would just be 'the black' forever and ever."
"His name is Sadoreth—for he is faithful. But his name will also remind me of what I must become."
Legolas put his hand on Estel's shoulder. "You are well begun. Now then, I have taken the day away from my duties with Glorfindel; what would you like to do since you cannot yet ride?"
Estel grinned. "It has occurred to me that Elladan and Elrohir have been totally unmolested while all these ructions have been going on. They sleep peacefully. Too peacefully…"
Legolas was much struck by this. "That is true! What did you have in mind?"
"Well, first of all, we need rope, a table, a pair of shoes, and a duck."