Note: 'O, where are you going!' from 'The Last Homely House', The Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkien. Chapter title from 'The Houses of Healing', The Return of the King; J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter I: And Death's Shadow Grows

O, where are you going,
And what are you doing?
Your ponies need shoeing.
The River is flowing!
O! Tra-la-la-lally,
Here down in the valley!

The wood-elves were singing high up on the slopes. Their merry, lilting voices could be heard even over the roar of the Bruinen, but Elrond Peredhil, Master of Imladris was too distracted to pay any mind to their words. He wished irately that they would be silent. Did they not understand that there were other concerns at hand far greater than their need to poke fun at the approaching strangers?

He knew that guests were coming. Gandalf, and fourteen others: doubtless the madcap adventurers that the wizard had said he was assembling to attempt to retake Erebor from the dragon Smaug. He had made mention of some such plan in the works last year, in connection with the proposed actions against Dol Guldur. Elrond supposed that the Rangers and perhaps even his sons had been brining reconnaissance of the approaching party for the last week or more, but they had known better than to interrupt him with such minutiae at a time like this. The river had no such compunctions, and it had made their approach known the moment they set foot in its waters at the ford. Border scouts had arrived at the house shortly thereafter, but Elladan had kindly waylaid them, refusing entry to his father's chambers where a desperate struggle was taking place.

Elrond turned from the window, striving to block out the sounds.

O! What are you seeking,
And where are you making?
The faggots are reeking!
The bannock is baking!
O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly,
The valley is jolly,
Ha ha!

Jolly indeed, the Elf-lord thought bitterly. Nothing was further from the truth, and everyone knew it but those fools on the hillside. He had founded this place as a haven for all who sought peace, and he strove ever for tolerance and acceptance of others, but it was difficult at this moment to have any empathy for the frivolous wood-elves and their games. What cared they of the shadow hanging low over the Last Homely House? What cared they for the pain and helplessness of their avowed lord? What matter to them if a mortal woman wept in his antechamber, fruitlessly consoled by Elrohir? What matter to them that a man-child lay dying?

Elrond banished that black thought as he turned back towards his bed – a bed he had not occupied in six nights. There, beneath the dark silken canopy, tossing fretfully in a tangle of linen sheets, lay his patient. A fortnight ago he had been a hale and healthy boy: thin as a willow-whip and tall for his ten mortal years – doubly so by the standards of the Firstborn. He had been running about the house with a child's merry abandon, and chaffing against the forced inactivity of lessons, and catching frogs to slip into Erestor's clothes-press. A fortnight ago he had been the frustration of all the adults who collaborated in his care, for his nimble body and his sharp mind and his recent penchant for mischief were a formidable combination indeed.

Now, he was lying limp in a bed drenched with his own perspiration, bright fever spots on cheekbones that had degenerated from lean to emaciated in six short days. One long, lithe hand twitched feebly against a cast-off pillow, and his head, hanging loose from his sinewy neck, lolled from side to side as he fought whatever nightmares plagued his febrile mind. Brilliant carmine blemishes marked his face and his arms and his bare trunk, vanishing into the snarled cloth about his legs to re-emerge with his feet where the coverlet lay crumpled against the footboard of the bed.

At first, because of the blemishes, Elrond had taken the illness to be measles – in all likelihood carried into the valley by the trio of Rangers who had come by ten days since, bearing news from the ruins of Hollin. He had laughed at the boy, smearing lotion of hemimorphite upon his sores and reminding him teasingly that he had warned him not to trouble the guests. Estel had laughed back, declaring proudly that the tales the men had had to share were well worth a little itchiness.

The following day, when Estel had complained of a sore throat, Elrond had suspected scarlet fever. To be sure, the presentation was not typical, but the illness was common enough and it was natural for a human child to fall prey to it at one time or another. Growing up amongst the Elves, Estel had been sheltered from the great pool of mortal diseases save those to which he had been intentionally exposed lest an encounter with them at some later time prove deadly. It was inevitable that some day he would contract some unexpected sickness. Surely there was nothing to fear.

But on the third day, the fever – until then mild and manageable – had spiked to terrible heights. Estel had no longer been truly conscious, drifting in and out of awareness only to cry for his mother or for Elrond, or to beg for water.

On the fourth day, the hallucinations had begun.

O, where are you going,
With beards all a-wagging?

There was a bowl of steeped athelas by the bedside, though neither the healing herb nor all the Master's skill had served to garner any change in the child's condition. From the piteous cries of the child Elrond had gleaned enough of the content of the nightmares, or terrors, or visions to know that there was some evil at work here greater than the evil of disease. What he did not know was whether it was a concerted attack upon his young ward, or whether it was some black affliction that had long lain dormant in the mountains, descending now purely by chance and striking only the most vulnerable being in the Valley.

He dipped a rag in the basin, wringing out the excess fluid. If it was no good as an infusion of healing, at least it was still water, and he did not want to call for more. Gilraen was outside his door, and she still thought her son was suffering from scarlet fever. He had not had the heart to tell her the truth – nor, indeed, could it be rightly said that he knew the whole truth himself.

No knowing, no knowing

'Estel,' he murmured softly, bathing the boy's head with the cloth and with his other hand brushing back the damp and tangled black hair. 'Estel, come back to us. Our light, our hope, come back to us. Come back to me.'

What brings Bilbo Baggins
And Balin and Dwalin

The child whimpered softly, his cracked and bleeding lips working without effect. The errant hand jerked piteously. A tear coursed down the Elf-lord's cheek.

Down into the Valley
In June,
Ha ha!

A paroxysm shook the small body beneath his hand. The chills had returned. As swiftly as he could, Elrond struggled to untangle the sodden sheets that he might cover the child. It was useless. Estel was sobbing now, hoarsely, his feeble voice robbing his body of what little strength it still possessed. Desperate to stop the shaking, desperate to do anything, anything to ease the suffering of his son, Elrond plucked the child off of the mattress, dragging the limp bundle of bones and agony into his lap.

O! Will you be staying,
Or will you be flying?

The broad sleeves of his robe, rumpled from three days' wear and sorely in need of a good brushing, fell over the body in his arms, affording some cover to the naked boy. Elrond held him close, rocking to and fro against the bed. One hand pressed the lolling head against his breast, and he bent low over the boy, his lips brushing against the dark hair. The sobs abated.

Your ponies are straying!
The daylight is dying!

He could not die. The last Heir of Isildur, the final scion of the house of Elendil, the sole remaining descendant of Elros Tar-Minyatur, his brother's last progeny, the infant he had saved from death, the toddling babe he had hidden and sheltered and raised as his own, his fourth child, though he had no right to claim him as such... Estel could not die. Clutching the boy closer, closing his eyes and rocking, rocking, rocking... Elrond focused all of his strength, all of his will upon this. He could not die.

To fly would be folly,
To stay would be jolly!
And listen and hark
Till the end of the dark
To our tune,
Ha, ha!

The wood-elves fell silent. The song was over, or the guests had passed out of sight and out of mind. Elrond neither knew nor cared. 'Estel,' he whispered, calling out to the child. 'Estel, Estel.'

Whether the sound of his name uttered by a familiar voice soothed the boy, or the warmth of the Elf-lord's body banished the chills it was impossible to say. The quaking stopped, and Estel was still. For a moment afraid that death had come to him at last, Elrond groped frantically for the invalid's pulse. He found it, thin and thready but incontrovertible, and cold relief washed over him. Gently he lifted the boy from his lap and returned him to his place in the bed. The linens were in sore need of changing, but he could not do that unaided. He straightened the long, spindly legs, pausing to cup his hand around one bony ankle. Estel whimpered again– a thin, mewling sound that stood in a cruel contrast to his wonted laughter and shrewd, piercing questions. Elrond placed the palm of his hand on the boy's wasted cheek and watched as the contact seemed to soothe him.

It took a moment to disentangle the sheet, and when he did Elrond realized that it was too damp to be used: it would surely bring on another fit of chills. Casting it aside, he drew up the coverlet instead, tucking it around the child's body. With the angry red blotches for the most part concealed, and with them the terrible gauntness of his young body, Estel almost seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Elrond knew that such a state was a temporary one. It would not be long before the hallucinations returned to wrack him with torment. Beneath his hand he could feel the fires raging within his son, and there was nothing he could do to quench them.

Many times in these last days had he attempted his healing – what Men would call magic. He had striven to recall Estel from the darkness that was devouring him. He had reached out into that darkness, struggling to divine what black force gripped his son: a valiant white warrior venturing forth to reclaim the body and soul of the dying child. Like Fingolfin before the gates of Angband he had shouted for the Enemy to come forth, to reveal himself and to fight. Unlike Fingolfin, he had been forced to return time and again with his challenge unanswered. Either the Sauron in his distant place of hiding had nothing to do with the child's ailment, or he had hidden himself so well that he could not be detected.

There was a soft rapping at the door. Elrond withdrew his hand and raised himself from the bed, catching the lower post of the canopy for support when he stumbled. Though his mortal blood ran thin, he had an occasional need for a few hours of human sleep, and he had not indulged this weakness in many days.

Swiftly he composed himself and called out a quiet, 'Come.'

The door slid open, and his second son slipped inside. Elrohir was clad in a smock of palest blue, in stark contrast to the shades of heavy woodland green he usually wore. The garment served to make him look younger, and Elrond was put in mind of a time, so long ago, when the son before him had been as small as the son behind.

'Atarinya? Is he...'

The Elven warrior stepped further into the room, closing the door carefully behind him so that the Lady Gilraen would not hear what was said. He glanced furtively towards the little body dwarfed in the broad bed, afraid to ask the question because he dreaded the answer.

Elrond shook his head sadly. 'There is no change,' he said. 'Perhaps he will sleep for a while, but the fever still rages. I cannot... all my powers of healing, all my skill in the arts physic, and I cannot help him.' He looked down at his hands, so useless and ineffectual.

'He will recover,' Elrohir said stoutly. 'He must.'

There could be no answer to this. Elrond sighed softly and turned his face away. 'What brings you here, my son?' he asked.

'The guests are fast approaching. Gandalf and thirteen dwarves...'

Elrond shook his head. 'The river spoke to me of fifteen crossings. Do not tell me that he has coerced one of the Dúnedain to join in his fool's errand. They are few enough in number and they shall all be needed before long.' His eyes strayed towards the bed. 'We cannot afford to lose even one,' he said softly.

'No, not a Man,' Elrohir said, and from the tone of his voice it was impossible to say whether he was scandalized or amused. 'A Hobbit.'

'Not one of the Little People!' Elrond exclaimed, in his astonishment momentarily forgetting that he was in the presence of a sick and delirious child. From the bed Estel moaned, and swiftly his guardian was at his side. He waited, breathless, but no further motion came from the boy. After a moment he withdrew back towards the door. 'How does he hope to overthrow the last of the great dragons with the aid of thirteen dwarves and a pampered child of the Shire?' he demanded in a whisper.

'You will have to ask him,' said the younger Elf. 'They will be arriving within a quarter of an hour, if they are not further waylaid by our choirs in the hills.'

Elrond gestured distractedly. 'There are preparations to be made... the kitchens must be informed, and the guests will need lodgings – it is best, I think, if the dwarves are put in adjacent rooms, and well away from any of the wood-folk. Then there is the question of their ponies—'

Elrohir caught his father's hands and pressed them together, effectively arresting the mad gesticulation. 'All that has been taken care of,' he promised. 'We shall house them all in the north wing, and Erestor has ordered two chambers prepared for Gandalf's choosing: one with the rest of his party and the other where he usually stays. The folk in the stables assure me that there will be no trouble accommodating the beasts at this time of year, and the kitchens are busy preparing a feast worthy of the Last Homely House. Elladan is preparing to greet them now, and he will make your apologies.'

'My apologies...' echoed Elrond.

'Yes. We will make sure they know how much you regret your absence, but that you are occupied with affairs of great importance. Doubtless Gandalf will wish to meet with you later in the evening, but even him we can waylay for a time. I promise: no one shall disturb you.'

The temptation was terrible. He did not wish to leave the side of the dying child even for a moment, and the idea that the guests could be attended to by others had tremendous appeal. After all, would a passel of dwarves and a travelling Hobbit even care whether their host was there amid the throng to greet them? True, Gandalf would be annoyed at first, but when he learned the cause of the Elf-lord's absence he would understand. After all, he understood full well the importance of the boy's life and his particular value to his guardian. Any other father would have made the same choice...

But it was not that simple, he knew. Elrond Peredhil was not any other father. He was the lord of this valley, and though most were polite enough to forget it, the High King of the Noldor. He had a duty to his guests. The needs of his family came second to that. Had there been anything more that he could do here, the matter would have been different, but he was useless. The simple tasks of nursing could be carried out by anyone.

He moved to the clothes-press and began gathering fresh garments. Then to the jewel-box on the bureau, where he took up a silver circlet and a pair of emerald brooches. Elrohir watched in puzzlement: clean clothes were meant for comfort, but the jewels would not be needed in this room.

'Atarinya, what are you doing?'

'I need you to enlist the help of the elf-maidens in changing the bed-linens,' Elrond said quietly. 'They are growing quite foul. Bring fresh athelas and lavender to sweeten the room, and have food brought for the Lady Gilraen. She is under no obligation to attend the feast tonight, but I must.'

Elrohir's face crumpled in mingled sorrow and compassion. 'Father, no one would fault you for your absence tonight.'

'Perhaps not, but nonetheless there would be fault.' Swiftly he began to strip off his soiled garments, and Elrohir lent his deft assistance. 'I will slip away later in the evening, and I charge you to fetch me if anything should change. So long as he sleeps I have not the luxury of staying by his side. Furthermore,' he added wearily as he fastened his mantle to his shoulders with the brooches; 'his mother doubtless longs to sit by his side, and she would disdain my presence.'

'Gilraen is a good lady, Atarinya,' Elrohir said. Over the years he had managed to strike up a friendship with the widowed Chieftess; a feat that few others had accomplished.

'But a lady not over-fond of me,' Elrond told him sadly. In the early days, when the wife and son of Arathorn had first come to Rivendell as refugees before the threat of the Necromancer, he had poured his attentions into befriending the toddling child. The unintended result was that, though Estel loved him and trusted him, his mother did not. She was grateful for the protection afforded to her and to her son, but at the same time she resented her dependence and it did not please her to see the bonds of filial love between her child and this Elven stranger. Elrond's efforts in this matter had been to no avail, and often he had wished that his daughter were here. Arwen would have had insight into the heart of the Lady Gilraen that he, despite his reputed wisdom, evidently lacked. It was impossible of course: Arwen was with her mother's kindred in Lothlórien, and the threat from Mirkwood was swiftly making the mountains impassable. Neither Elrond nor his sons would suffer the lady Undomíel to risk their crossing: they remembered all too well the doom that had befallen her mother in those treacherous hills.

A swift brushing brought his hair into order, and he settled the circlet upon his brow while Elrohir gathered the cast-off clothes into two bundles: body linens for washing and outer garments to be aired and brushed. A quick glance in the looking-glass reassured Elrond that his appearance betrayed nothing of his weariness or his growing despair. Moving to the bed, he bent and brushed his lips across his ward's inflamed brow.

'I will return as soon as I may, Estel,' he promised. The unspoken supplication was clear: please, my son, do not worsen in my absence.

Then he moved to the door and opened it.

In the antechamber, the Lady Gilraen swept to her feet, rising from the couch where she had been seated. Clearly she had been expecting Elrohir, for her face, at first frantic and vulnerable with worry, hardened when she saw Elrond.

'My son...' she said as coolly as she could, though he could see her desperation and her pride were warring within her.

'He is sleeping at the moment,' Elrond told her gently. 'I think it would do him good if you would sit with him a while.'

It was plain that she had been longing for this, and yet she did not want let him see it. Elrond felt a thrill of compassion. Poor mortal child: she had been no more than a girl when she had lost her husband and her home to the machinations of Sauron. Her sole focus in life was her son, and it hurt her to share him, however much his other relationships benefitted the boy. 'I suppose it would,' she said with admirable restraint.

Elrohir came out of the sick-room, carrying the bundles of laundry. 'We two shall care for him this evening, lady,' he said gently. Opening the door that led to the corridor, he handed his burden off to the attendant who had been standing watch over his lord's apartments. Then he returned to the room and offered Gilraen his arm. She took it gratefully and allowed herself to be led into Elrond's bedchamber.

The Master of Rivendell watched them go, but the moment the door closed he was making his egress. With each step that bore him away from Estel his heart grew heavier, but he pressed on with dignity befitting his station. He had obligations that went beyond his responsibilities as a father, and this was one of them. Promising himself that he would slip away as often as he could during the evening's revelry, he quickened his pace. The guests were surely within sight of the house now, and he had to be at the threshold to greet them.

It was his duty.