Disclaimer: Any recognizable characters and places are not mine. The original characters are mine, however, and the Valour Contest is my creation, don't try to find it in the books :-)
Summary: King Elessar tells his son a little Estel story. Estel enters a skills competition for elven children, faces contempt and disdain, and fights to prove his worth. At the end Eldarion learns a valuable lesson.
A/N 1: I have assumed that at the time when Estel is eight (i.e. about eight decades before the end of the Third Age), there have been elven children in Rivendell, Mirkwood, and Lothlórien. They are not mentioned anywhere, but I don't think there is a strong proof that there weren't any. If you disagree, you are free to consider this an AU element.
A/N 2: Two of my original characters might appear too 'mean' for elves. Please keep in mind that these are children, and they don't always realize the full extent of what they are doing. Well, I'm afraid you are going to hate those two by the end of the story :)
A/N 3: This story is a standalone, but if you wish you can think of it as a prequel to "Friendship is a Family Trait". I know that you want a sequel, not a prequel, but you'll have to wait a bit more for that. It will be coming eventually.
adar – father
ada – form of adar; daddy
meleth nîn – my love
mellon nîn – my friend
ion nîn – my son
peredhil – half-elven
Not One of Us
Aragorn looked curiously at his eight-year-old son across the table. The boy seemed to be in a hurry to finish his soup, and he wondered what the reason might be. A quick glance at his wife told him that she had noticed it too.
"Eldarion, what are you planning to do this afternoon?" Arwen asked, looking carefully at her child. He was so intent on finishing his meal as soon as humanly possible that his shoulder length dark locks were almost dipped into the soup, and his lively gray eyes glimmered with joy and excitement.
"I'm going swimming with Lador and Vorion," Eldarion replied proudly. A few weeks ago the three children had discovered a glade not far away from the city, where the river was perfect for swimming. Since then they all loved to go there, of course, closely watched by the Prince's loyal escort.
Aragorn's gaze darkened for a moment. "Ion nîn, I wish to talk to you about that. I saw Berehil yesterday and the child seemed upset." He noticed his son shift uncomfortably and look down guiltily, and continued. "You two used to be inseparable, and now you play only with Lador and Vorion. You never take him with you to the glade."
"But, ada, he cannot swim! He is not one of us! We cannot take him with us!"
Aragorn sighed and locked eyes with his son. "He cannot swim, but he has other skills. He is a better rider than you."
"He is not!" Eldarion protested immediately.
"This is not the point," Arwen suddenly said with a gentle smile. "What your adar is trying to tell you is that he is your friend and you cannot dismiss him only because he is not exactly like you. Our strength is in difference, Eldarion, and you shouldn't seek friends who are exactly like you. You have strengths, ion nîn, but you also have weaknesses, and those weaknesses will be your friends' strengths. And only if you stand together will you reach far ahead. But your father should tell you about this; he knows this better than anyone," she added, and winked mischievously at her husband.
"Do I?" Aragorn asked sincerely perplexed.
"Of course you do," the Queen replied. "You have been in the same situation as Berehil before."
"Really, ada?" Eldarion's eyes widened. "You couldn't swim?"
"He could," Arwen said, "but not as well as the elven children." Noting Aragorn's confused expression, she quickly added, "Estel, why don't you tell Eldarion about the Valour Contest?"
The King suddenly paled. "You know about that?"
"Of course I do. Ada told me. But you look ashamed, meleth nîn, and I can see no reason. You should be proud of what you did."
Eldarion's attention was by now completely won, and so great was his curiosity that he was even willing to miss the swimming in order to hear the tale. "Ada, what is the Valour Contest?" He asked.
Aragorn sighed in defeat as two sets of gray eyes watched him expectantly. "It was an event that used to take place every ten years. It was a competition among the elven children. They faced different challenges that ranged from running, swimming, and climbing trees and rocks, to tracking, hiding, and hitting targets with stones. It was designed to determine which children had a potential to become great warriors, and the winners were honored. When I was your age, Eldarion, my mother persuaded Lord Elrond to let me participate."
"You competed with elven children?" Eldarion's eyes widened even further, and his voice was filled with pride with his father. "And you won?"
"Well, not exactly," Aragorn decided that there was no point in telling Eldarion that he had, naturally, done worst of all. "But it was not an ordinary competition that year and a lot of things happened."
"I still think this is a bad idea," Elrond said. "You know that Estel won't be able to do many things the others will do easily. And I do not know how well he will be met – children can be very cruel sometimes, even elven children."
"He really wants it," Gilraen protested and her gray eyes shone with silent determination. "His friends will be going and he will grieve if he is left behind."
"And yet my heart is against letting him go," the Elf Lord said softly. "There are many children who do not know Estel, and I am not sure how they are going to accept him."
The woman suddenly smiled brightly and gazed through the window where two elven children, Sadron and Meldiron, her son's closest friends, were playing merrily. They were going to participate in the Valour Contest and Estel hoped to join them. "And my heart tells me that he must go. Trust me, my Lord, I know that something good will come of this."
Elrond looked at her with great interest. "How do you do this, my Lady? I am the one who is expected to know the future, and yet you tell me what is going to happen. And, Valar help me, I trust you completely!"
Gilraen looked at him kindly. "A mother's heart can know things that even the wisest cannot foresee." Elrond nodded in agreement and she smiled triumphantly. She had won.
Estel was going to the Valour Contest.
After they left the room and the door closed, one of the large wooden chests opened and a small form crawled out. The child brushed some strands of unruly dark hair from his fair face, and grinned victoriously. Then he rushed to the window and waved at the children playing outside.
"Estel!" Meldiron shouted happily. "What happened?"
"I am coming!" The boy shouted back. Then he rushed down the stairs laughing. When he reached his friends, he threw his arms around them. "I am coming."
Estel looked at the crowd in wonder. The forest glade where they had all gathered was filled with Elves from the Three Realms – Imladris, Eryn Lasgalen, and Lothlórien. The boy had never seen so many strangers in the same place before, and he looked closely at each one of them – some dark, some golden, some tall, and some shorter, but all of them fair, slender, and proud.
Soft whispers of hushed conversations were heard through the glade as old friends met and new acquaintances were made. But suddenly all whispers ceased and all eyes were fixed on the tall figure that slowly walked to the middle of the crowd. His hair shone like a river of molten gold and his face was fair and noble.
King Thranduil of Mirkwood was given the honor to open the event. His eyes traveled through the crowd, silencing the last whispers.
"Welcome to the Valour Contest!" He began. "We are all here today to honor the future warriors and defenders of the Three Elven Realms. The youngest of us will compete against each other and test their skills. Let the lithest in body, the keenest in mind, and the noblest at heart win! May the Challenge begin!"
Other speakers followed and the rules were explained. Through the first stage the participants were to be divided in groups of three and sent to various tasks. Each group would have a grown elf for a leader, who would appoint the tasks and record the scores.
"Are you ready, Estel?" Elladan asked and grinned at his little foster brother.
"I can't wait to start," the boy answered. And indeed he looked confident and calm.
This was not the case, however, with the twins and Elrond. The three peredhil exchanged nervous glances. Soon the little boy would be taken away from them and forced to face challenges side by side with elven children, something they knew that Estel wasn't physically prepared for. He was certainly stronger and more agile than any human boy at his age, but next to the elves he would surely appear clumsy. That scared them and they didn't know how the boy would take it.
Estel appeared calm, but actually he was also starting to worry. He hoped that he would be placed in a group with Sadron and Meldiron, but instead he was assigned to go with two elven children from Mirkwood, Locien and Alagos, who he had never seen before.
Veryan, the elf assigned to record their scores, led them further into the forest. "This challenge consists of several parts," he explained. "The first will be a simple race. You have to run to a tree and climb it. On top of the tree you will find a bag of round stones you will need later in the challenge. You need to take the bag and climb down. Then you will run until you a reach a fence, where you will see ten wooden rings hanging on it. You need to throw the stones through the rings. I will give you points depending on how fast you are and how true your aim is."
Veryan walked forward and Locien and Alagos chuckled. "Did you see his ears?" Locien asked giggling. "They are the ugliest thing ever!"
Estel heard him and had no doubt whose ears they were talking about. He blushed in shame and anger, but didn't speak.
"I bet he cannot even run!" Alagos said. "His legs are so fat! And he surely cannot climb trees!"
"And did you see his hair?! It is so filthy! And has he ever seen a comb in his life?"
This was too much. Estel knew that his legs weren't slender like elven limbs, but they were certainly not fat! Besides, he had washed and combed his hair this morning. Yes, it wasn't straight like elven hair, but it was wavy, not tousled.
"I can run!" He suddenly shouted. "And I can climb trees! Maybe even better than you!"
The two elven children stared at him silently for a second, and then burst into laughter.
Estel could feel his heart beat wildly in his chest and tears of helpless rage stung his eyes. How could they? What had he done to them? They didn't even know him!
Little fists clenched in determination. They would see. Oh, yes, they would see soon enough what he was capable of!
Finally, they reached the end of a long field. "This is where the race starts," Veryan explained. "You run to the tree over there, climb it, take a bag of stones, climb down, run to the fence, and throw the stones through the rings. I will run to the fence and wait you there. Any questions?" The three boys shook their heads. "Good. Are you ready then? Go!"
Estel, Locien, and Alagos ran towards the first tree. They saw Veryan run past them and disappear in the distance.
Estel quickly estimated the distance to the tree and chose a pace that would allow him to run at a steady speed. Locien and Alagos, however, ran past him and chuckled, discussing his running. Estel blushed in shame. Of course he could run as fast as them… but not the entire distance. Could they really keep that pace until the end? Well, if they could, he could as well! Estel ran faster and quickly caught up with them.
After they had run for ten minutes at the maximum of Estel's abilities, he started to tire and his steps wavered. His heart was pounding wildly, and his breathing was unnaturally fast. He stopped to catch his breath and felt a sharp pain in his stomach. Locien and Alagos continued. Estel ran after them, but couldn't catch up again. Suddenly he stumbled on a stone and fell down, burying his face in the grass. He rose and sighed in frustration. He had overexerted himself. Estel continued running slowly, breathing heavily with his mouth open, and sometimes he even had to walk.
He could clearly see first Alagos and then Locien reach the tree, climb it lightly, and come down each with a bag of stones. Then they continued running towards the fence, never slowing down.
Estel felt tears of shame sting his eyes. How could he ever face them again?
Finally he reached the tree. He leaned on it and paused to catch his breath once again. Then he looked up and grabbed a lower branch in silent determination. He could do this!
It had looked so easy when Locien and Alagos had done it! But now Estel saw that the branches weren't so close to each other as it had first seemed. He had to jump to grab the next branch and too often the branches seemed too far away for the little boy to reach. A little squirrel hopped next to him at climbed the tree, and he glowered with envy at the nimble animal.
Apprehension suddenly gripped his heart. He couldn't do this. But then he imagined Locien's and Alagos' smug faces and he pushed away the thoughts of despair. He had to do it.
Finally he reached the top and grabbed the bag of stones. He looked forward and saw that Locien and Alagos had already reached the fence, and Locien was throwing his stones. Estel gazed at his bag in dismay and realized that he wouldn't be able to climb down while holding it. So he just dropped it to the ground, and the stones scattered around. It would take time to collect them again, but at least his descend would be easier.
Estel stepped on a branch below and decided to look down. What he saw made his eyes widen in horror. The ground was so far away! His right foot tried to find another branch, but slipped, and Estel lost his grip.
The boy hardly had time to close his eyes and scream before he crashed to the ground. And then darkness took him.
"Locien and Alagos believed I wasn't one of them because I couldn't run that fast and couldn't climb trees," Aragorn explained. "Just like you and your friends think that Berehil is not one of you because he cannot swim."
He pushed all emotion away from his voice. He never told his son about his inner turmoil, he never told him about his pain. No, Eldarion didn't need to know that.
But Arwen sensed it all. Her hand found his under the table and squeezed it gently as if to give comfort. Their gazes met and his eyes silently thanked her.
When he opened his eyes and lifted his head, he saw that Locien and Alagos were grinning at him in the distance. Veryan was writing down some results and hadn't noticed his misfortune. "Come on, Estel, let us finish this!" He called and Estel felt shame once again. They were all waiting for him.
As his senses fully returned, he was assaulted by great pain in his right hand. He brought it in front of his face almost afraid to look.
Estel gasped. His index finger was bent at a very odd angle. It was broken.
The pain was so strong that he felt sick. But there was no time to deal with the pain, or to ask for help. He was still competing!
Estel quickly started collecting the stones that had fallen out of the bag. It took some time since he could use only his left hand, but was finally ready and ran towards the fence.
The elves there waited for him. "I knew he couldn't climb trees," Locien said chuckling. "He fell down like a ripe apple!"
Estel reached them and looked down. He didn't want them to see the pain in his eyes. He took out one of the stones and threw it. It passed exactly below one of the rings.
The boy stared in horror. The rings were too high up! They were easy to reach by stones thrown by elven children, but they were too high for him, especially when he could use only his left hand, and when he was tired and hurting.
Estel threw another stone and another, but he couldn't throw them as high as the rings. It wasn't a matter of true aim now, it was a matter of strength. He threw the forth stone, but this throw was even weaker than before. He stopped. There was no point in throwing the rest and further humiliating himself.
"Go on, Estel," Veryan urged him. "Six more stones. You still have a chance."
Estel closed his eyes in pain. Veryan didn't understand. He thought he was helping him, but he was only prolonging his agony. Right now Estel wanted nothing more than to hide somewhere, to sink into the ground, to disappear and never return. He closed his eyes and opened them tentatively, hoping to find himself at some other place, some other time. Hoping that Locien and Alagos, and the fence, and the stones, and the pain would be gone. But the time and place were the same and everything was still there.
Estel swallowed hard and held the fifth stone with his left hand and threw it. It passed below the rings. Then the sixth. And the seventh. Locien and Alagos burst into laughter. The eighth. "Higher, Estel, higher!" The ninth. His face was burning with shame and the pain in his broken finger was increasing with every breath he took. The tenth. Tears rolled down the smooth cheeks.
"But, Estel, your stones didn't go through a single ring!" Alagos laughed. "Why did you participate at all?"
"You family must be greatly ashamed of you!" Locien added. "I don't know why they decided to bring you here!"
"I knew that someone with such ugly ears couldn't do anything," Alagos whispered to Locien. "And his hair now looks worse than it did in the morning. I never thought it would be possible."
Estel couldn't find the strength to respond. His hand was hurting so much that his mind was unclear. He was feeling nauseous and wanted to sit down and rest. But there was something else that hurt much more than his finger.
You family must be greatly ashamed of you!
He had brought shame upon Lord Elrond, upon the twins and his mother. They had always cared for him, loved his as a son and a brother. And how did he repay this kindness? By bringing shame to his entire family! The peredhil most probably would regret taking him in their home, they would probably chase him away! Tears flowed freely down his cheeks and he was unable to stop them.
Soon they returned to the clearing, where the rest of the elves had already gathered, vigorously discussing the results so far.
"You are coming last," Thranduil said. "What happened?"
Estel closed his eyes and desperately tried to command his ears not to hear what Veryan was going to say. But he heard it clearly.
"Estel had some difficulties."
"I see," Thranduil replied and the words cut through the boy's heart like a knife.
"Estel?" Elladan approached his little brother. "You look pale. What happened?" The boy looked away. The older twin was confused by the child's behavior and was about to say something else, but then Thranduil interrupted him.
"We need to start the next challenge. Follow me." He led them to a river that ran through a valley. A rope was tied across the river and the rest of the elven children were waiting at the other side. "You came last," the King of Mirkwood continued. "All other participants have already crossed the river. You need to cross it, holding to that rope. The faster you go, the more points you gain."
Locien, Alagos, and Estel stepped forward, but Elrond suddenly spoke, "Estel, you cannot do this, it is too dangerous. Do not worry about this, it s alright to have no points for this challenge."
Does he know that I have no points for the previous challenge as well? The boy wondered bitterly. No! I will not put him to shame again!
"I will go."
"Ada, please, I have to go!" Estel's eyes turned to Elrond's, and the Elf Lord was surprised at the tears and pain he saw in them. "I have to."
He nodded reluctantly. "Alright. Go, but please be careful. And if you see that you cannot do it, don't be afraid to come back."
Locien was to go first. He held the rope and hung down. Then swiftly putting one hand in front of the other, he moved along the rope. Alagos followed, and was faster and was awarded more points.
Lovely. Now I have to do this with a broken finger. He knew that he could barely use his right hand. Estel tried to hold without using his index finger and moved along the rope. He had barely started when he realized that he couldn't do it. No. It was impossible.
He briefly looked back and saw Elrond's concerned face. Then he looked at the other shore and saw Alagos' smug grin. For my family. I will not put them to shame again. I will do it.
Right hand moved in front of the left. Then the left moved, and then suddenly his right index finger brushed against the rope and the broken bone was dislocated. The child screamed in pain and let go.
"Estel!" The three peredhil watched helplessly their son and brother fall into the abyss. "Estel, no!" They rushed along the river, hoping that the shore would become lower and they would be able to enter the water and search for the fallen child. The other elves ran after them, ready to help.
Thranduil stopped for a moment and fixed his gaze on the children gathered on the opposite shore. "Wait for us here. Do not move until we return," he warned them and ran after the others.
Sadron and Meldiron looked after the retreating forms, their hearts filled with fear for their friend.
The elves never noticed the dark figures watching them silently. Under normal circumstances they would have easily spotted the bandits, but they were all too absorbed in the celebration to notice their surroundings.
"This is so good that I can barely believe it is true," one of the men whispered. "The children are left all alone, and now nothing can stop us from taking them."
"Are you sure it is worth the risk?" Another man asked hesitantly.
"Of course. Those elves have gold and jewels you cannot even imagine. They will give everything willingly to have their children back."
At a signal from their leader, they attacked. The children gathered in a circle and stared frightened at the men. They had no weapons, nothing to defend themselves.
The bandits grabbed them, and each one of them tried to kick and even bite, but it was in vain. Soon all of them were bound and gagged.
As the attack began, Locien jumped into a bush and hid there. He watched in helpless horror how the children were defeated. Then each of the men grabbed one or two of the elves and walked along a forest path. Locien followed them silently.
Suddenly the man reached a cave and entered. Locien stopped in front of the opening and stared in terror. He was afraid of caves. They were so dark and narrow. He didn't wish to imagine his friends being held in such a place.
Soon the men came out of the cave, but the children weren't with them. "Now we can go and look for the elves and ask for ransom," a man said. "They can stay here; they are bound and cannot go away." The others nodded and everyone disappeared into the forest.
Locien walked to the entrance, but stopped terrified. He couldn't go in. It seemed so easy to save his friends, he only needed to go in and untie their bonds, but he would have preferred any other challenge to this. Yes, Locien could run faster than most elves at his age, he could climb a tall tree with ease and grace, but he couldn't enter a cave.
He couldn't even shout for help since the men would hear him and come back. He could only stand in front of the cave and let his tears fall.
When Estel opened his eyes, he was shivering from cold and pain. He was lying on the river shore, his clothes completely soaked. His finger had dislocated even more while he had been toyed by the river, and the pain was unbearable.
I failed them. I brought shame to them once again.
He stood up and walked into the forest, not sure where he was going. Certainly he couldn't go back. He could never again look at his family after the disgrace he had brought upon them.
He walked aimlessly, often stumbling from exhaustion, when the soft sound of someone weeping reached his ears. He lifted his head in curiosity and walked towards the sound.
The sight surprised him. Locien was sitting in front of the entrance of a cave, his face buried in his hands.
"Estel!" He suddenly recognized him. "I have never been happier to see you!"
"Have you ever been happy to see me?" The boy asked bitterly. "Do not worry, I will burden you with my presence no more." He turned to walk away, but Locien grabbed his hand to stop him. Estel suppressed a wince as the other child unintentionally pressed his broken finger.
"Estel, I need your help! The others need your help! The other children are bound in the cave. You must help them! Please, Estel, do not walk away!"
"The others are in the cave?" Estel was surprised. "Than why don't you help them?"
It was Locien's turn to blush in shame. "I… I cannot. I am afraid." He looked down, afraid to look the human in the eyes.
"I see. Don't worry. Of course I will help them," Estel promised and tried to force a smile.
Locien's face brightened, and Estel walked into the cave. Once he left the entrance behind, he couldn't see anything anymore. His human eyes, although keen, could not penetrate the darkness.
Suddenly he heard suppressed sounds, as if someone was trying to attract his attention. He realized that the elven children could see him in the darkness even though he couldn't see them and walked towards the sounds.
His hands quickly found many forms lying on the ground. He had no blade to cut the bonds, so he started untying them as quickly as he could without doing much further damage to his broken finger. Soon he had freed the first elf, who shouted in relief and immediately ran outside.
Estel worked hard and freed many other children, and some thanked him before leaving, but some immediately ran outside. He could understand that. It was a torture for an elf to be held in the dark, far away from the birds and trees that they loved.
He freed another elf and a hand grabbed his shoulder. "Estel! You scared me!" The boy recognized Sadron's voice. "I thought you were dead! Let me help you."
"No, mellon nîn, you have been in the dark long enough," Estel said and shook his head, knowing that his friend would be able to see him. "Go!"
Sadron hesitated for a moment, but then his desire to be outside won and after giving his friend a final hug, he ran towards the entrance.
The boy continued his work. "Estel," another child suddenly said, and he knew him to be Alagos. "I… I… I thank you."
The boy sighed. He could see Alagos was too proud to apologize. "There is no need to thank me. This is nothing you wouldn't have done for me," he said, knowing fully well that the elf would never have done this for him. He could feel Alagos tense and knew that he had to be feeling guilty at his words. Nevertheless, Alagos quickly clasped his shoulder and ran outside.
Another freed elf ran out of the cave, and Estel realized that this had been the last one. He leaned on the wall to rest. The elves were free, they could go home, but he could not. He could never return to his family again.
Estel fell to the stone floor with a sob. The others had left long ago, leaving him shivering and forgotten. He had no strength to walk out now, no strength to stand, no strength even to cry. The only thing he was strong enough to do was close his eyes and let darkness claim him once again.
Estel was suddenly awoken by a forceful kick at his ribcage. He slowly looked up and his eyes widened in fear. At the light of a torch he could see a man's face, looking down at him in malice.
"Where are the elves?!" The child didn't say anything, and he kicked him once again. "Answer me, you little stinking rat!"
Estel tried to open his mouth and speak, but the only thing that came out of it was a pained whimper.
"You won't tell me, will you?" The booted foot landed in his face, and Estel fought not to lose consciousness. "You will tell me! You will make them come back! And if you don't, I will beat you to death!"
He accidentally stepped on Estel's broken finger, and the child screamed in agony. And then suddenly the man fell down forward with a cry. The torch died when it hit the floor, but during the last few moments of light Estel could see the fair face of an Elven Lord, looking down at him with love and concern.
"Estel!" Two strong arms were wrapped around him and lifted him gently. "Oh, ion nîn, I am so sorry I didn't come earlier." Elrond carried the boy back outside and gasped in shock when he could better see the child's face in the sunlight. "Estel, you are so pale! I am sorry, little one, I am so sorry."
Before the child could answer, two relieved twins grabbed him from his foster father's arms and almost fought over who is going to carry him. "Don't you ever do that again, little brother," Elladan warned gently. He suddenly noticed the boy's broken finger, and gasped in shock and dismay. Then he handed him to Elrohir, and rushed to find healing supplies.
"Estel, I hear that you have saved all the children," Elrond said with a smile. "You are a hero now. Your mother was right, something good did come of this. But tell me, ion nîn, why didn't you turn back when you saw that you cannot cross the river?"
"I didn't want to put you to shame, ada," Estel answered softly and couldn't stop the tear that rolled down his cheek. "I wanted you to be proud of me."
Elrond gasped and took the boy from his son's arms. "Estel, how could you think you could put me to shame?! Of course I am proud of you, and I am not saying this only because you saved the children. Even if you hadn't, I would still be proud of you."
Huge gray eyes looked at him in disbelief and Elrond bent down and gently kissed the tousled hair. "It is the truth, ion nîn. And I am happy your mother made me take you here for now you learned an important lesson. You saw that our strengths are different. Elven children can climb trees, but you can venture into caves. Only when you are friends and combine your skills, will you be truly invincible. Therefore, you mustn't seek friends that are the same as you. For people are different, some are clever, some are fair, some are agile, some are fast, but all of them have qualities that deserve to be respected. You must learn to respect their differences, Estel, and find friends who are not exactly like you. Only then you will be truly strong."
"You are right, ada," Estel said weakly. Relief that his father wasn't ashamed of him was so great that it exhausted him, and he only wished to go to sleep.
"And I think you learned another important lesson, ion nîn," Elrond added. "Now you know that I will always be proud of you."
Aragorn smiled at the memories. He had learned an important lesson then, and was sure that he had now passed it to his son. Eldarion had to understand what he meant by saying that differences made them stronger. However, he decided that it would be safest to check what his son had learned.
"So, Eldarion, what is the moral of the story?" He asked.
"The moral of the story," the young prince started and grinned mischievously, "is that my father is a hero!" He laughed and ran out of the room, leaving a stunned Aragorn staring after him.
"Do not worry, Estel." A slender hand brushed through the King's dark locks. "He understands. But tell me something, meleth nîn. Why did you leave out the last part of the story?"
"It wasn't needed for the lesson," Aragorn answered. Nevertheless, his face brightened as he remembered the end of the tale.
After the bandits were captured and sent to their new residence, the dungeons of Mirkwood, the tournament continued as if nothing had happened. Of course, after a careful examination of Estel's wounds, Lord Elrond was horrified and didn't let him participate in any further events, much to the boy's displeasure. However, when it was over, Sadron and Meldiron came to their injured friend and told him everything they had done.
Everyone went silent when King Thranduil walked to the middle of the glade. "The Valour Contest this year was glorious as always," he said. "Our children showed remarkable skills and we must all be proud of them. And now I wish to honor those who placed high above the others. These are young elves whose skills deserve great respect, and who will one day grow to be brave warriors and fierce defenders of their realms."
Everyone was listening intently. They didn't know the scores yet, and hoped that children from their realm would be awarded a place.
"The first place," Thranduil said and made a deliberate pause, "is awarded to Nostalion of Lothlórien!"
Estel breathed a sigh of disappointment. He had hoped that one of his best friends, Sadron and Meldiron, would win. But still they could win a second or a third place, and he believed in them.
A golden-haired child walked to Thranduil and bowed. The King smiled benevolently at the Valour Contest winner and handed him a pillow, decorated with blue and white flowers. On it laid an intricately ornamented elven knife and everyone gasped at the beauty of it. "May you defend your realm with this, young one. Your parents will keep this knife and give it to you when you are the right age."
All elves stared at the King in expectation once again. It was time to announce the second place. "The boy with the next highest score is a brave young elf who will one day become a great warrior," Thranduil said.
Sadron, Sadron, Sadron, Estel repeated silently. His friends had told him that Sadron had done better than Meldiron, and he sincerely hoped that his friend would win the second place.
"The second place is awarded to Alagos of Lasgalen!"
Estel sighed once again. But there was also hope in his heart. Children from Lothlórien and Mirkwood had placed already; it was time for a child from Imladris. His realm had to be honored together with the rest. His family deserved this honor.
All of his hopes died, however, as King Thranduil said his next words. "The third place is awarded to the valorous Suiauthon of Lothlórien!"
The crowd cheered loudly, and the happiest cheers came from the Lothlórien elves. Two of their children had been honored and they were proud of that.
Estel bent his head and gazed at the ground sadly. Imladris was the only realm that hadn't been honored. Not only was it not honored, it was put to shame by his own lack of skills. He was so lost in his dark thoughts, that he almost missed Thranduil's next words.
"This year I decided to give a special award to someone, who showed real courage outside the challenges." All elves went silent once again at those words and froze in expectation. Estel raised his head, not sure what to think. Maybe a prize would be awarded to Imladris after all? Maybe Sadron's score had been so close to the third one that they had decided to honor him as well? But he was unprepared for what he heard.
"Estel of Imladris!" Thranduil announced and for a fleeting moment his eyes locked with the boy's. "Because sometimes we see real valor from the ones we least expect to have it."
The crowd erupted in loud cheers, but Estel didn't hear them. He only saw Elrond's face, happy and proud. And this was enough for him.
A little boy was sitting on the stairs, absently playing with a wooden toy-horse. His gaze fell on Lador and Vorion, who were preparing to go swimming, and he sighed sadly.
"Hey, Berehil!" The child turned and froze in surprise and as he saw Eldarion rushing towards him. "Do you want to go riding?" The prince asked.
The boy laughed and the two children rushed towards the stables. They were unaware of the two sets of gray eyes watching them from the window.
"I told you that he understands," Arwen said with a smile. "Your son is clever, Estel. Like his father."
"And his mother," Aragorn answered and returned the smile. "But I still don't understand. If he knew what I wanted to tell him, then why did he say it?"
"But what he said was the truth, meleth nîn," Arwen said, sounding amused. "He said that his father was a hero. And is it not so?" She grinned at her husband's perplexed and slightly shocked face. "I know what my father told you ninety years ago. And now I tell you the same." She bent forward and kissed him lovingly. "I will always be proud of you."
He returned the kiss and gazed affectionately at the two retreating children. His mother had been right.
In spite of all the pain, something good had indeed come of it.