Gilraen opened her eyes to a friendly morning sun. She was warm, dry, nestled down in a soft bed and covered with protective blankets. Around her, the room was sparsely yet comfortably furnished, and so very alien in both design and construction. Through an open window, graced on either side with wisps of thin and flowing material that could be pulled to provide privacy without stealing the light, floated ethereal melodies and even more delicate harmonies sung by voices sweeter than any she'd ever heard.
Nowhere did she see the rough, bulky utilitarianism that was the mark of well-made Dúnedain craftsmanship, no earthy, human smells that spoke of hard work and tenacity. There were no gruff voices grumbling in the distance, no sounds of wood being chopped for the hearth or iron being beaten into usable forms.
No sign remained of the storm that had broken over their heads the night before either. The sunlight through the windows was warm, and the sky visible through the leaves of the trees a brilliant blue. It seemed as if all of the ways in which her world had been overturned, disrupted, and darkened had evaporated while she slept, leaving her in an unnerving calm and quiet.
She sat up in bed and marveled at the simple yet delicate sleeping gown she wore; where had it come from and how had she come to wear it? Her long, dark braid over her right shoulder remained intriguingly intact after a night's sleep. Had she been so overwrought and beside herself when she had arrived that she could remember nothing of what had happened the night before? Could she remember nothing of who had handled her, dressed her, braided her hair, tucked her into bed? Then her eyes widened and searched the room about her desperately.
Where was Aragorn?!
A crib sat against the far wall of the room – an empty crib – with crisp, spotless and smooth covers that had seen no weight put on them.
Gilraen surged out of bed and toward the door to the chamber, desperate and almost sobbing. She'd already lost Arathorn; all she had left was Aragorn, her son, her little heart. If he had been taken too, or if this strange place had lured him away from her already…
The door to her chamber opened without her having had a chance to lay a finger on the handle. Gilraen backed away in shock, and then stepped forward to jealously claim a smiling and laughing Aragorn from the arms of one of the twin elves who had been her husband's friends and allies.
"Nana! Nana! E'dan take me see baby horsies!" the child squealed in glee, his little hands framing her face the way he did when he was excited and wanting her to know something.
"That was very nice of Elladan, wasn't it?" she replied, pasting a shaky smile on her face. To have almost lost him, after everything else that had happened… But he could never know how she feared for him; and she could not fail to provide motherly direction, even as she prayed for her heart to stop trying to smash its way through her chest. "Did you tell him thank you?"
Aragorn squirmed in her arms to face the elf behind him now, all seriousness. "T'ankoo, E'dan."
"It was my pleasure, little one." Gilraen would have gaped at the sound of laughter in the normally grim elven voice but that she had looked up into grey eyes that were dancing with a humor she'd never seen in them before, as well as a slight hint of chagrin. "You have my apologies. I did not mean to frighten you, Gilraen. We… Elrohir and I, that is… thought that you could use an uninterrupted night's sleep after everything, so we kept your son with us through the night. I thought to bring him to his crib for a short nape before you awoke."
She nodded her forgiveness, cradling her son closely as she looked into the elf's face. She was still very much in awe of the elven warriors who had been her husband's closest comrades in arms. Elladan, for all his poise, bore her gaze with apparent discomfort and shuffled his feet. "But now that you are awake, perhaps you wouldn't mind if I took charge of him again while you take your time preparing yourself for the day." He smiled down at the little boy in her arms. "I'm thinking Cook might have an extra apple or bowl of berries that could interest a growing boy."
Aragorn squealed again and turned to his mother excitedly. "Can I, Nana? P'ease?"
The grey, elven eyes gazed evenly and deeply. "He will be safe with me, Gilraen, I promise. I won't let him out of my sight."
Gilraen couldn't resist the shining look in Aragorn's eyes – a look that she'd wondered would ever return during the long, hard days of fast travel to this strange, new place. "Very well, but you must promise me to do exactly as Elladan tells you."
"I p'omise, Nana." Aragorn gave his mother a sloppy kiss. "I be good."
Gilraen tipped Aragorn back into the elf's waiting arms. "Thank you, Elladan," she murmured softly.
"It is my pleasure. Incidentally, my father has requested an opportunity to speak to you sometime today, but he wanted me to tell you that he would wish you to take the time to relax and get something to eat before then." Elladan swung Aragorn up onto a shoulder. "And when you're ready, I'll show you the way to his study."
Gilraen stifled a shiver. It was bad enough to be around these warriors, but the thought of an interview with the legendary Elrond of Rivendell gave her pause. Still, it would be by his word that she would either be given refuge in this hidden elven stronghold or returned to her people. Her eyes rested on her son. For him, she would make ready to see a figure out of a near-mythic past, to plead for sanctuary for her son, if for nothing else.
"I'll come find you when I'm ready," she told him softly. Elladan bowed, making Aragorn giggle with the movement, and then ducked through the doorway again.
Two hairpins of mithril – a betrothal gift from her father less than four years earlier – was all it took to hold the still intact braid up and into place on the back of Gilraen's head. Curled around itself and the tail end tucked safely behind the rest, the braid restrained by two pins completed Gilraen's transformation from wide-eyed and frightened young woman to a wide-eyed and wary Dúnadan matron. With a critical eye, she studied her reflection in the polished metal that hung within the small bathing chamber.
Her forehead was high, and her nose a little too narrow and upturned to allow her to be proclaimed a great beauty in the Angle. She pinched her cheeks, wanting to at least try to return a little life into a face that had grown wan and pale with grief and fear for the future in the days since Arathorn had been brought home to her wrapped in his cloak. The cool water in the shallow basin in front of her helped diminish some of the puffiness around her eyes, but the ease with which she could fall to weeping again would soon undo all of her careful preparations – she just knew it.
Still, she had to try. It wouldn't do to face the judge of her doom looking anything less than her best, such as it was. She found her best wanting now, however, especially in comparison with the delicate luxury that surrounded her; as well as her memory of how even elven armor covered in thick gouts of black orc blood still managed to look rich and refined.
She found her meager bundle of clothing carefully unpacked into a carven clothes press against the same wall as stood Aragorn's crib; and from it, she selected the nicest gown she owned: her wedding dress. Ignoring the memories of a life snuffed out far too soon that sought to overwhelm her, she struggled with the laces and finally stuck her head out the door of the suite in humiliation to beg assistance from one of the passing elf women in the hallway. What would it say about her when it became known that she couldn't even successfully dress herself? No matter; at least she was now properly garbed, washed and groomed. All that remained was for her to survive the interview to come and hopefully vouchsafe the safety of her son. What happened to her personally didn't matter in the end.
She had come to understand that message very clearly in the short hours of argument and then preparations for the flight to Imladris. Dirhael spared no diplomacy in letting his daughter know that the one that needed the protection was not her, but her little son; after all, on him hung so many hopes. It hurt to be dismissed as unimportant, but she understood the reasoning nevertheless. It was a part of what she'd accepted when she agreed to marry the heir to the Dúnadan. She played her part willingly after the wedding – carried the heir to the heir successfully and birthed him, and then brought the heir to the Dúnadan up through most of his infancy and toddler-hood – but in light of the threat from the Enemy and now the death of her husband, her efforts simply wouldn't be enough. Aragorn – heir of Isildur and Elendil, now Chieftain of the Dúnedain – needed to go to Imladris immediately, where he could be protected until better able to defend himself. Gilraen had gone along mostly as a nursemaid, a convenient but very expendable nursemaid.
Gilraen swallowed hard and set aside those harsh memories. There was no more putting off what needed to happen. She exited the bathing chamber and walked to the door of her suite. She opened the door and peered first down the corridor to the left and then to the right, wondering which way led to the Lord Elrond's study.
"Lady Gilraen. Good morning."
She turned to face one of the twins; and she assumed, seeing that Aragorn was nowhere in sight, that this must be Elrohir. As his brother had been before him, the elf was dressed in rich robes, his dark blue where the other's had been emerald green. The long and silky ebony hair that so marked the two of them as different in a humble village setting filled with tangled and curled locks the color of mud was carefully and delicately braided away from the youthful face. "Lord Elrohir?" she inquired carefully. The tall elf bowed his head gracefully to acknowledge her correct assumption. "Good morning. I understand your father wishes to see me. Could you help me please?"
"So he informed us last night," the dark-haired warrior nodded again. "But if you're just now leaving your rooms, surely you'll want to break your fast first."
Her stomach tightened. Right now the last thing she wanted to do was eat, for fear that her nervousness would translate into nausea and further humiliation. "If you don't mind, I think I'd rather see Lord Elrond." She looked back and forth again. "Which way do I need to go?"
"I'll be happy to show you," Elrohir announced solemnly, offering his arm. "Did you rest well?"
Gilraen flushed as she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Too well, I think. I don't even remember getting into bed."
"I'm not surprised. You collapsed walking through the front door," the elf told her gently. "My father made certain that you suffered from nothing more than physical and emotional exhaustion, and then two of his assistant healers readied you for your rest while you still were unconscious." A warm hand covered hers and pinned it to his arm. "I'm glad to see that you are much recovered this morning, although I'd feel much better if you'd at least break your fast with something light and nourishing before you see my Adar. After all the stress of the journey and the sadness you've endured, you could use something to sustain you."
"I'll be fine," Gilraen reassured him quickly, not wanting to argue on her first day there but not willing to concede to the solicitude offered her either, despite the fact that his thinking about her welfare brought a warmth to her heart it hadn't enjoyed since she'd become an adult and a married woman. It was odd, seeing these stately elves as something other than fierce and grim warriors. For the very first time, she began to appreciate why Arathorn felt such fondness for these two that dated back to his own tenure here in this fantastic retreat, and to regret having ever held herself back and remote from them when they came. Yes, they had ever summoned her husband off to fight the Enemy – and ultimately had called him away to a battle that had meant his death – but she knew that even the least of the Dúnedain that rode and fought with them respected them and enjoyed their company between patrols.
"Very well, as you wish.." Elrohir walked her down the stairs and then out a door and down the length of an open walkway lined with statuary along the edge of a small but elegant garden.
Her hand suddenly grabbed the arm beneath it hard and pulled the both of them to a stop. "Wait! Where's Aragorn?"
The elf next to her chuckled, drawing her eyes to his face and finding his expression one of open delight. "When last I saw them, only a short while ago, your son and my brother were in the kitchen, driving the cooks to distraction playing a game involving cherry pits and spoons as catapults."
The absurdity of the idea that a stately elven warrior would lower himself to play such a silly game with her son made Gilraen giggle, but it was a giggle that bordered on hysteria. "I'm sorry," she stammered, her free hand to her lips as if that gesture would keep the tears from overflowing. "You must think my mind unhinged."
"Nay, Lady. I have seen what grief does, and find your mind quite sound, under extraordinary circumstances." The grey eyes gazed into hers steadily and with great compassion in their depths. "Never forget that Arathorn was my friend too, and Elrohir's. We understand the difficulty you faced in coming here, to a new place so far from family and friends and kindred, and the way in which this move took place almost before you knew what was happening." Elrohir's hand on hers patted it gently. "You're a very brave woman, Gilraen; never doubt this." He gestured in the direction of the door in front of which they had halted. "This is my Adar's study."
Gilraen stared at the door dumbly for a long moment. "I'm not so brave," she shook her head slowly, swallowing hard. "I fear what lies behind that door."
"The unknown is always the source of our greatest fears," Elrohir said, patting her hand again. "However, as I know some of what awaits you, please accept my promise that it won't be half as bad as you think."
She gazed back into his grey eyes for a long moment and found encouragement and comfort freely offered, along with an unexpected echo of the grief that she kept carefully in check. "Thank you," she whispered, slowly slipping her hand from his keeping. "I shouldn't keep your father waiting any longer than necessary."
"Then I bid you a good day until I see you next." Elrohir bowed his head once again with that fluid grace that defined all his movements and then continued down the covered walkway to turn toward the back end of the house. Gilraen watched him disappear around the corner and then turned to face the door. She took a deep breath and knocked.
"Come." The voice that answered her knock was incredibly deep and full-timbred.
Quailing, Gilraen pushed the door open on silent hinges and found herself walking into a large and elegantly appointed room lined on two walls, from floor to very tall ceiling, with fully laden bookcases. A sizeable hearth – surprisingly without any sign of hooks or pots for cooking - had three comfortable-looking cushioned chairs stationed facing it. The fourth wall was open to yet another garden beyond, and in front of that vast openness sat an immense desk.
Gilraen shivered as she watched the Lord of Imladris himself rise and move from behind that desk. Tall, robed in rich brown and tan brocades, and with ebony hair that cascaded to his waist braided delicately away from his youthful face. Elrond Peredhel was easily as ageless as were his sons. "Lady Gilraen, welcome to Imladris," he intoned, a long-fingered and graceful hand reached out and captured hers in a warm grasp. "Please, come sit."
Gilraen finally dared glance up into Lord Elrond's eyes and immediately found herself lost within a grey gaze that held a full measure of the weight of immeasurable time. There could be no mistaking who this raven-haired elf garbed in such fine materials must be. And if she'd ever felt out of her league before with Elladan or Elrohir earlier, she knew she was doomed in her dealings with their father.
"Have you eaten yet today?" Elrond asked, steering her so very gently into one of those comfortable-looking chairs.
Gilraen shook her head with a small motion. "I was too nervous to eat," she admitted, wondering if being that honest would do her case any good at all.
"Allow me to remedy that, then." Elrond moved to where he could gesture through the wide window behind his desk at someone in the garden. "Please have a light repast brought to my study," he asked and then turned with a smile. "It's entirely possible that your lack of appetite beforehand contributed to your collapse last night, something I would rather not see repeated." As he returned to claim the chair next to hers, Gilraen wondered briefly if the elf walked, or glided.
Gilraen studied her hands, which she held clasped in her lap. She had to give Lord Elrond credit, he was being as gracious and kind as she had heard him to be. Still, there was business to discuss. "Lord Elrond…"
"I hope your accommodations are acceptable," he continued on as if she'd not said a word, folding his own hands in his lap to match her. "If you feel you and your son need more living space, however, you need only…"
She gaped. The tiny suite of rooms that had been allowed her was bigger than the home she'd shared with Arathorn! "Oh, no! My rooms are more than sufficient. Lord…"
"Good." Elrond beamed. "I hope you will let us know if there is anything else that you need to make your stay a comfortable one."
"Yes – about my stay…"
A knock brought the Elf Lord out of his chair again to answer the door, leaving Gilraen with mouth slightly agape. When he turned back, he carried a tray with a plate holding slices of bread, slices of cheese, a short carafe of wine and another of water, and an empty goblet. "This should help give your system something to work with." He settled the tray on a small table next to her and took a seat in the next chair. "Help yourself."
"Eat, Gilraen," Elrond told her with a gentle smile. "There is plenty of time for the discussions you and I need to have this day. But I would have them with someone fully fortified for the day by having broken their fast properly. You need not rush this."
"But I would rather face it," Gilraen blurted, then pressed her fingers against her lips in embarrassment at the thought of contradicting such a fine lord. "I'm sorry."
The elf settled back in his chair and studied her calmly and carefully for a long moment. "Perhaps, then, if your nerves won't allow you to nourish yourself yet, we should begin. I would see you break your fast sooner rather than later; but if the only way you'll agree to that is to get through some of what needs to be said between us first, then so be it."
She slowly breathed out a sigh of relief. He wasn't taking offense. "Thank you," she whispered.
"To the matter at hand, then. I have received the report from my sons about the circumstances under which it was decided that you and your son come here, and I have a letter from your father detailing the reasons such a move was necessary from the perspective of your own people." The grey eyes rested on her face without sign of emotion or any other inner working. "And I must agree with the conclusions reached. Your son is no longer safe among his own people. The Enemy is deliberately and systematically eliminating all possible heirs to the line of kings. If Aragorn is to survive, he must go into hiding."
Gilraen nodded, looking down into her lap at her folded hands. "I know," she said softly.
She looked up again into Elrond's face when his hand reached across the distance to grasp hers. "I grieve with you on the loss of your husband, my Lady. Arathorn was a good man, proud, capable, and yet kind. It was my honor to know him and help him become the leader he was during his tenure here."
The tears, never very far from the surface lately, spilled onto her cheeks without obstruction. She nodded again, dumbly.
"And I assure you, I have no intention of turning away Arathorn's heir in his hour of need. Your son is safe here, and my house will be glad to protect him until such time as it's safe for him to return to your people."
Gilraen nodded again, her tears coming a little faster. She didn't have to plead for refuge for Aragorn after all – Elrond was offering it freely! "Thank you, my Lord." The knot in her stomach eased slightly.
He patted her hand and then pulled back. "Don't thank me yet; some of the steps that must be taken to vouchsafe his safety will be difficult ones. Much will need to be sacrificed to make certain that Aragorn grows to his full maturity properly without drawing the attention of the Enemy to him."
"Sacrifice?" She stared at him, her heart plummeting. Once more she heard ringing in her mind her father's blunt assertion that it was Aragorn, not Gilraen, who deserved and needed the refuge. Her son was no longer an infant, and she no longer was necessary for his physical sustenance, merely responsible at the moment for his emotional support and security. Would Elrond require that she leave him here and return to the Angle without him?
Could she live with her heart utterly torn away?
"Yes, sacrifice. To protect him properly, he'll have to stay here, in Imladris, until he reaches his maturity. He cannot return to his people before then."
She drew in a ragged breath. "I think my father already realizes this," she said with a sigh.
"No doubt. Dirhael seems to be a canny leader in his own right." Elrond's tone was appreciative, and Gilraen soaked up every little bit of comfort from it that she could. "But part of that separation will mean a necessary break in the lines of contact between Imladris and the Dúnedain. The question of why the Dúnedain come so often to Imladris cannot be asked, and therefore more visits than have been the norm until now must be avoided at all costs, so that there are no reasons for such questions to arise."
"But…" She looked into the perfect face. "My son is the Chieftain. He needs to learn our ways, our culture, our…"
"My sons have spent many generations with your people, Gilraen. As time goes by, they'll be able to teach him much of what it means to be Dúnadan. As will you, I'm certain. When the time comes…"
"Me?" She stared. "I will be staying too, then?"
At last she'd managed to surprise an elf. Elrond's eyes widened in shock, and he rose to his feet quickly. "Certainly you don't believe me capable of separating a child barely out of swaddling from his mother, especially just after having his father torn away from his life?"
Gilraen closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady herself. "I know that it's my son's welfare that is of the most import, not my own. And if you believe it would be better that Aragorn remain here while I return to…"
"No. It's not better at all." Elrond's tone was emphatic, and he paced the floor in front of the hearth almost angrily. "Your son needs you now, to give him a sense of security when all in his world has shifted so completely. You're the closest tie to his people that he'll ever have until the day comes that he's ready to take up his place as the leader of the Dúnedain himself." He shook his head disbelieving. "I would never force a mother to leave her young child behind, or demand such a young child go through his early years without the love and support of his mother."
Another knot at the bottom of her stomach loosened. If nothing else, she would not lose her son as well as her husband. She reached out a shaking hand and took a small slice of cheese from the tray next to her and nibbled, trying hard not to keep crying. What would Lord Elrond think of a woman who did nothing but sob in his presence?
"Gilraen." Gentle fingertips touched her knee, and she looked over at an Elf Lord who had once more seated himself next to her, although only on the very edge of his chair. "I spoke of sacrifice because the same restriction on contact with your people must necessarily fall on you as well. I would that it could be otherwise, but until your son is grown, you too must vanish to the Dúnedain. Any who come to Imladris, for whatever reason, must never know that you're here lest that knowledge find those who would begin to ask the questions we dare not allow arise."
Gilraen wiped at the tear tracks on her face with the back of her hand. "That I can understand and accept. It will be hard; things here…" She looked around her, at the very nature-based designs behind every piece of construction surrounding her that screamed of the otherworldliness of the place she found herself in. "…are so very strange from everything I grew up with." She took another deep breath. "But I knew, in marrying Arathorn, that much of my life would involve doing my duty to my people. Just being allowed to stay with my son…" Again she choked and pressed her fingers to her lips to try to block the tears, and again she managed to control her emotions, but only barely. "What you ask of me is no sacrifice, my Lord. I am grateful."
Elrond twisted to pour a small amount of wine into the delicate goblet and then fill the vessel the rest of the way with water, and he handed her the drink. "No wonder you were a bundle of nerves walking into my study this day. You feared losing your son so soon after losing your husband." He shook his head at the tiny nod she gave him as she accepted the goblet and took a sip. "I'm glad, then, to have a chance to set those matters straight so quickly and easily." He smiled at her again. "I assure you, I am no monster. I would make your way here as simple and smooth as possible."
She gazed at him over the top of her goblet. "I appreciate that, Lord Elrond."
"Elrond, please. Titles have their places, but not in private, like we are now."
"Elrond," she corrected herself and sipped at her wine again.
"And as we are speaking of names and titles; that brings me to another of those sacrifices I was telling you about." He settled himself back more comfortably into his chair again and steepled his fingers before his chest as he watched her. "In order that your son disappear completely, I'm afraid we will have to disallow all mention of his true name and heritage in this house. We will allow rumors to spread that when you arrived here, both you and your son were extremely ill, and I was unable to save his life. In that way, he will die to all but a very few of your people who need to know the truth. And here in Imladris, he will become one of my household – albeit a mortal one – and answer to a new name until he is ready for the responsibilities and burden associated with his true name."
"What?" Gilraen was stunned. "He is to be raised Dúnadan amidst elves and taught of his culture, his people; but not of his heritage and name?"
Elrond put out defensive hands. "Hear me, Gilraen; I do not ask this lightly. Imladris is a waystation for many travelers of all races; and if a small mortal child should manage to slip through into places where he should not go at the wrong time, and be sought by us using a name rumored to be that of a dead child, it will undo all of the other arrangements we might make."
"But a child needs to know of his father, to know who he himself is." She glared at the elf. "You're asking me to lie to my son."
"No," Elrond replied softly, "I'm not asking you to to tell him falsehoods, just not to tell him the entirety of the truth. Your son will never doubt that he is Dúnadan, I would not steal that from either of you. But until he has the personal strength to deal with the challenges and threats that will come his way simply for being Aragorn, that name must not be spoken again once our discussions here today are concluded."
Gilraen subsided back into her chair, the goblet of watered wine forgotten in her hand. Once again, Elrond's argument was unassailable, but that didn't stop the ache. She was losing her son, only in a very subtle way that only a mother would appreciate.
Elrond, too, looked as if he shared her discontent. The ageless face was clouded with deep emotions that Gilraen couldn't begin to understand as he settled back into his own chair to ponder. He rubbed a spot between his eyebrows absently for a long time, obviously deep in thought. Finally he raised his head, a light beginning to shine in his grey eyes again. "It is a tradition among the Eldar that we sometimes give our children other names by which they are called as they grow; in this instance, I think following the tradition of the elves will be the way we can best deal with this. We will find an epessë for your son – one that we can use until the day comes for him to reclaim his name, his lineage and his destiny."
"What about knowing his father?" Gilraen demanded. "Are you telling me I cannot even speak of my husband to my son?"
The grey eyes held an ocean of compassion in their depths. "I'm sorry, Gilraen. I told you that some of the necessary sacrifices would be hard ones."
That stung. Gilraen closed her eyes and took another sip of her wine. To see Arathorn so clearly in the countenance of her son and yet not be allowed to speak of it to him was like a dagger in her mind. What made it worse, however, is that she could sense the rightness in what Elrond was asking of her. It fit with what her own father had told her, that it was her son's survival that mattered above all else. Above all else, even the need to tell her son of his father.
When she opened her eyes again, she could see Elrond watching her reactions very closely. "I will do as you ask," she submitted quietly. "Even though it is as if you ask me to cut out half of my heart, I will do as you ask."
"I would not ask it if the situation were not so grave," he told her with an obvious tone of sorrow.
No, Gilraen had to admit to herself, given what she had seen from the Lord of Imladris so far, he wouldn't. It didn't make the concession any less painful, however. She wiped again at her cheek. "Do you know what you will call my son?" she asked, returning to an only slightly safer topic.
Elrond's brows raised, and he shook his head. "I fear I have come to no decision on that as yet. The principle behind assigning an epessë is to take characteristics of the individual and craft a name around them. I will have to spend time with your son to adequately see…"
The sound of a child's laughter wafted through the openness behind the desk. Elrond's head whipped around sharply when that laughter was answered by soft and low adult-sounding chuckles. "Ai Elbereth!" he whispered to himself as he rose and strode quickly over to the window to gaze out into the garden. His reaction caught Gilraen by surprise – she had recognized the child's voice as Aragorn's and the chuckles as being similar to what she'd heard just that morning from Elladan – and she replaced the goblet on the tray and rose to join Elrond in observing what was going on outside the study that had so unsettled him.
The garden outside the study was truly beautiful, with a tumult of spring flowers in full bloom beneath ancient trees. At the far end of the garden splashed a fountain that poured over into a small pond; and in front of that pond squatted a small child between two much larger minders, one in emerald green and the other in deep blue. Elladan had his hand firmly affixed to the collar of Aragorn's shirt while Elrohir was pointing to something out in the pond that the child was stretching and reaching for. The ebony-haired elves looked at each other and exchanged gentle words and then broke into easy laughter before returning their attention to their charge.
A soft gasp met Gilraen's ear, and she turned to see tears running unimpeded down Elrond's cheek. Slowly he turned his gaze from the garden to the startled young woman at his side. "I thought I'd never…" Once more he moved abruptly, striding from her side and over to his desk to retrieve an obviously used goblet from amid the paperwork, and then over to the tray to fill that vessel with wine from the carafe.
"Lord Elrond?" Gilraen asked quietly, worried. What was wrong? Had Aragorn done something…
"Estel," he pronounced in a shaky voice after taking a very long drink from his wine. "That will be his epessë – Estel; for with him has returned hope to this house."
She blinked in surprise. "Excuse me?"
Elrond motioned for Gilraen to resume her seat, which she did after taking one final glance out the window at her little son so very well tended by the two towering elven warriors. The thought that, perhaps, at least her son could be happy here brought a small smile to her lips. She then returned to in front of the hearth and perched herself on the edge of her seat, concerned at the strange outpouring of emotion from her host that, on observation, didn't seem to be abating as yet. "Is everything all right with you, my Lord?" She didn't dare reach out to him, although she suspected he was as much in need of comfort as she ever had been since her nightmare began.
"I'm sorry," he began, shaking his head slightly. "I just hadn't expected…" Elrond visibly and with some difficulty worked to reclaim his composure, wiping away the tears with an unapologetic hand and then taking another healthy sip of the wine. "My apologies, Lady. I'm not normally so easily provoked to strong emotions this early in the day."
"What was it?" Gilraen just had to know.
"I heard my sons laughing," Elrond stated simply in a voice in which the deep emotions still stirred vigorously. Gilraen blinked, still not understanding how such a simple thing would inspire such a strong response, and he sighed deeply before continuing. "Many, many years ago, my wife…" His voice caught, and she found herself holding her breath. "My wife was captured by orcs and tortured."
Gilraen closed her eyes and felt her heart squeeze painfully. He hadn't said "killed," he'd said "captured and tortured." How much worse must that have been! At least Arathorn's death, although shocking and altogether too soon, had been swift – he hadn't suffered.
Elrond continued on, his voice bleak. "My sons found her and brought her home to me. It was a miracle she'd survived at all; but as it turned out, I could only heal her body. Her fae, her spirit, had been too badly broken by what she'd endured before she was rescued. She couldn't remain in Middle-earth, and she took ship. My sons blamed themselves – and me, I suppose – for their Naneth's injuries and need to depart; and they became very angry. For centuries now, they have exorcised their fury on the Enemy's minions, hunting them relentlessly and spending almost all their time in battle."
He gazed in the direction of the garden and the sounds of gentle conversation and yet more laughter. "I've seldom seen them in the time since then; and always, when they came home, were they somber and lifeless. Often, they were badly injured, and rarely would they share the details of what had happened to them as I repaired their bodies only to know they'd leave again as soon as they were healed enough to travel. I've often wondered, as they would ride away yet again from here to continue their personal war of revenge, if I would ever see them again on this side of the Sundering Sea. When I first saw them last night, they were cold and wet and tired and heart-sick at what had happened to their friend and comrade, and concerned when you collapsed almost the moment of their arrival. To see them today, suddenly, healthy and whole in my garden, laughing and taking pleasure in the company of a small child is as if the last five hundred years had been an evil dream." Long fingers wiped away more tears before they could fall this time. "It's like seeing the warm sun of Spring after a very long and fell winter."
Gilraen stared. He knew. He'd lost too, and lost dearly. The need to sacrifice in the name of duty was something that Elrond knew all too well. For the first time since she'd been introduced to the tall, elven warriors who had become her husband's battle advisors and comrades-in-arms, she began to appreciate what had driven them to the lengths they had taken. She'd seen several of the younger men of her village end up on a similar path over the few years she'd spent hearing of such things.
"This is why I shall call your son Estel, for he has brought the hope of healing back into my house," Elrond continued in a thoughtful tone. "He is the hope of your people too, so the name fits on a number of levels." The Elf Lord took a long and stabilizing breath before turning a rapidly calming gaze on her. "Does my choice meet with your approval?"
"Yes," she answered quietly, knowing now that the choice of epessë held meaning for the both of them. That he was asking her permission to assign that name before making it official made her feel better, as if she were having some say in what would happen after believing herself completely powerless. His rapidly clearing gaze told her he was quickly reclaiming his calm and serenity, but she gazed at him with open concern. "Will you be all right, my Lord?"
"I think, perhaps…" He rose and extended his hand to her. "…that unless there is something else you feel we need to discuss immediately, I would like to spend some time in my garden with my sons – and with your son, if you don't mind. Would you like to join me?"
"I would be honored," she answered and allowed him to pull her to her feet again and tuck her hand into the bend in his elbow.
Elrohir had been right. This interview, while difficult, hadn't been half as bad as she'd feared. Elrond himself was far less intimidating than she'd expected. She could deal with this kind-hearted soul who gracefully pulled the door to his study open and allowed her to take the lead for the moment. And Imladris, for all its other-worldly nature, was suddenly not such a bad place to be.
Perhaps she, too, could at least be happy here.
adar - (Sindarin) father
epessë - (Quenya) nickname
faer - (Sindarin) soul, spirit