Returning Hope

Chapter Eleven

The Promise

It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath. ~Aeschylus

Estel sighed dejectedly. The afternoon sun made him drowsy as he lay surrounded by the fragrances of the early season flowers and the new grass. Erestor was busy digging in the soil, or so it looked to the boy. Estel was bored, not something he was used to being surrounded by elves, but Legolas was riding, and his brothers were where they always were these Dan's room. Picking at the clover, Estel sighed again. He wished Ada would return soon. He wanted his brother not to be sad any longer. He had given his sunshine blankey to Dan, but that had not helped. He had given him his stuffed Fluffy, but that did not helped either.

Rolling over onto his back, Estel searched the sky for cloud formations for a few minutes until that lost his interest. "Restor?"

"Yes child," replied the busy seneschal, never breaking from his task.

"May I go to the stables to see the kitties and wait for Legolas to come back?" Estel asked expectantly.

Erestor sat back on his heels, stretching his back and neck, and lifting his face to the warming rays of light before answering. "Yes, but do not go any place else without asking me." After all his "adventures" with the boar, the river, Quenthar, the orcs, and the wargs, the boy was not likely to wander off, but Erestor had learned that where Estel was concerned, safe was definitely better than sorry.

"Alright, Restor," smiled Estel, jumping up and gleefully running towards the stables. He loved to spend time in the stables with Celon and Celos, and of course, any available kittens and cats. Fluffy's box still remained in Celos' stall where a whole new batch of kittens was currently being raised under the watchful eye of Elladan's stallion.

Estel stepped into the stable, blinking his eyes to adjust them to the dimness after being in the brightness of Anor outside. As soon as he could see clearly, he ran to Celos's stall. Aradol was kneeling down inside wrapping something in a cloth.

"What are you doing, Ar-dol?"

Aradol turned to greet Estel. "Hello young Estel. I am wrapping the mother cat's body. She died in her sleep."

Estel's mouth made a little "O" shape, and tears quickly filled his eyes. "But she cannot die, Ar-dol. Her kittens will be sad. Fluffy will be sad."

Aradol had hoped to remove the mother cat before Estel showed up for his daily visit, but that was not to be, so now he was facing a conversation that he felt ill equipped for. He sought to explain in a way the child would understand. "Death is the way for all mortals, Estel. It is natural."

"What is mortal?" sniffed the little boy.

This was not going as he would hope. Aradol had no idea how much or little Estel knew of life and did not feel that it was his place to be explaining things that Lord Elrond might not want the child to know yet. The fact that he was not a father did not help matters, either. Where was Prince Legolas? Well, Aradol reasoned, when all else fails, seek diversion. "Would you like to help me lay her properly to rest?"

Estel nodded. He wanted the mommy cat to rest. That sounded good.

Aradol smiled in relief. "Come with me then; I have already prepared a place."

Estel followed the stable master outside and around back of the stables. He stopped, horrified, when he caught sight of the hole that had been dug by Aradol. "Wh...what is that for?" he asked, fearing the answer.

Aradol cocked his head to one side, clearly uncomfortable. "Well, it is a grave for the mother cat's rest."

"But you cannot put her there!" he cried. Memories of being buried in a similar hole by Quenthar inundated the child, bringing back the fear and panic he'd felt...the utter loneliness of being cut off from all light.

Estel began to cry harder, his breath coming in quick gasps until the stable master was truly concerned. "Estel..."

But Estel turned and fled, unable to look at the gaping hole any longer. Tears blinded him as he ran back around the structure, causing him to fall twice. His elbow was bleeding, but he paid it no heed in his headlong flight from the hole and the grotesque memories it evoked.

Legolas was entering the clearing in front of the stable when he heard Estel's sobs. He jumped from his horse just as the boy rounded the corner. "Estel!" he cried, alarmed at the child's apparent misery.

Estel ran as hard as he could towards Legolas, leaping the last three feet to land in the safety of the prince's outstretched arms.

Fear laced Legolas's heart. "What has happened, child?"

Estel sobbed on the prince's shoulder, his chubby arms wrapped securely around Legolas's neck as though he would never let go.

Aradol had followed Estel as soon as he put down the cat, and he was greatly relieved to see Estel with Prince Legolas. However, relief turned to dread when he saw the look that Legolas was giving him. The stable master involuntarily swallowed. "The mother cat has died," he explained. "We were about to bury it."

"He was pu-putting her in the g-ground," cried Estel, looking at Aradol as though the stable master would be coming for him next.

Aradol, over his head with a crying child, looked imploringly at the prince.

"Come with me," Legolas soothed Estel as he walked towards the garden. Estel loved the garden. The prince had not gotten far when he was met by the twins and Erestor, who had heard the boy's cries and come running.

"What happened?" demanded Elladan.

"What happened?" echoed Elrohir, checking the skinned elbow.

"I do not like the sound of his breathing," observed Erestor, worry etching new lines on his fair face.

"Give him to me, Legolas," said Elladan. "I can help him breathe."

Legolas nodded and handed the boy off to his big brother's safekeeping.

"Estel," soothed Elladan, "breathe, little love." He shushed the child as he rubbed his back and kissed his hair. "That is better, little one," he praised when Estel took a deep, shuddering breath. "Can you do that again for Dan?"

Estel nodded against his brother's shoulder and took another breath. "Dan..." the child choked softly, coughing a few times. "Ar-dol is putting Fluffy's mommy in the ground." His voice trailed off into a wail.

Elladan closed his eyes, feeling the panic in his little brother and immediately understanding its cause. Any thought or mention of what Estel had been through always brought on such a reaction. "Oh Estel, I am so sorry. No one is going to put you into a hole ever again."

Elrohir dashed off to the stables to confer with the stable master. They had successfully shielded Estel from death until now, but he feared the mother cat's demise would end that. He wanted to speak directly to Aradol to find out exactly what Estel had seen.

"But the mommy..." faltered Estel, "She cannot breathe under the ground."

Dan continued his soothing strokes on Estel's back as he sought words of wisdom. "She does not breathe any longer, tithen pen. She is dead now, and we must let her go."

"But what about her kittens?" asked the tearful boy. "Who will take care of them?"

"The kittens are not fully weaned," murmured Legolas softly enough that only the immortals' ears would hear.

Erestor nodded determinedly. "Come with me Prince Legolas. We have some kitten bottles to make. I have a nice soft glove that should do the trick." He was going to do everything in his power to make sure those kittens survived and Estel was grieved no more.

Legolas smiled and, after patting Estel comfortingly on the shoulder, followed the seneschal.

"Estel, the kittens need our help," distracted Elladan. "Without their mother they will need feeding and companionship until they are older."

Estel sniffed and looked at his brother hopefully. "I could give them compan-ship. We could put their box in my room and I would be their big brother, like Fluffy."

The twin's heart melted at the hopeful look in the child's eyes. "Well," he snickered conspiratorially, "while the adar is away the kittens will play."

"Huh?" questioned the boy.

"It means, that we had better round up the kittens because I have the feeling they will be hungry soon."

Estel smiled a watery smile. Glancing over Elladan's shoulder, he spied Elrohir walking towards them with a box full of mewling kittens. "Listen," he said sadly, "they miss their mother."

"I believe they are just hungry," he soothed the twin, as Elrohir approached.

"The distress of the kittens was agitating the horses," Elrohir explained.

Estel was leaning out of Elladan's arms to pet the squirming mass of fur. He could not repress a small chuckle when a ginger colored one latched onto his finger. "He looks like Fluffy did."

"That is because Fluffy may be his father and his brother," deadpanned Elrohir for Elladan's ears only.

Elladan just rolled his eyes. "Let's get them inside and hope that Erestor and Legolas have figured out how to feed them."

Estel snatched up the littlest yellow kitten to hold against his chest as Elladan carried him, and Elrohir carried the box.

Entering the family kitchen, they saw Erestor and Legolas busy at work on the gloves. The seneschal was cutting off the fingers, while Legolas placed a tiny hole in the end with one of his daggers. Both turned when they heard two elves, one little human, and eight squirming balls of fur enter.

"Well, well," exclaimed Erestor to Legolas, extremely relieved to note that Estel was no longer wheezing, "It looks as though we are just in time."

The seneschal bit his tongue and suppressed a shudder when Elrohir sat the box down on the pristine table. The most important thing at the moment, he reminded himself, was to calm Estel and feed the kittens. He could clean the table later.

"What is this?" questioned Sariboril, entering the room with a surprised smile on her face. "Is it not bad enough that we have a one yellow assassin stalking the hallways?" The healer, like most everyone else, had run afoul of Fluffy more than once, and, of course, any time she could tease Erestor about it, she did. "I remember the good old days when no four footed beings would dare enter the Last Homely House. Now we have all manner of them, up to and including horses, arriving at all times of the day and night. Tsk. Tsk." The twinkle in her eyes could not be masked.

"Shut up and sit down," commanded Erestor, unruffled and completely used to Sariboril's teasing. The two of them loved to go after each other almost as much as he enjoyed sparring with that Glorfindel. "We need all available hands for this task."

"Oh, look at the poor darlings," cooed the healer, picking up a squirming kitten.

"Their mother died," explained Estel, his eyes tearing up at the reminder.

"We are adopting them," said Elrohir quickly, to change the subject and divert Estel's attention.

"Take a finger, esteemed healer," said Legolas as he brought a pitcher of cream to the table.

"Well, I cannot say that I have ever had that said to me before," muttered Sariboril, arching an eyebrow imperially. "At least in my hearing," she added with a chuckle.

Legolas blushed slightly at her aside, and poured some cream into each of the glove fingers being held by Elrohir, Erestor and Elladan, who was helping Estel. Then he poured one for himself and Sariboril and settled down to feed a grey kitten with white boots. It was clumsy going at first, but the kittens quickly took to the method and before too long their tiny bellies were full and they were all napping in a pile, much to the relief of the frazzled elves.

"How often do they eat?" questioned Elrohir, eying the sopping milky glove finger with disdain.

"Quite often, I would think," replied Sariboril. "They appear to be quite young. I am not sure they will sur..."

"Harrumph," interrupted Erestor, glancing pointedly at Estel.

"...render to sleep so easily," finished Sariboril, lamely. She favored Erestor with a scowl. Normally she believed in telling young ones the truth, but in Estel's case it was not her place. She glanced at the boy. He had been through so much trauma in the last year that she could understand their wanting to shield him. Sariboril frowned again. Estel's color was not what it should be. "Estel, are you feeling unwell?"

The healer's questions immediately drew the attention of all in the room.

In Elladan's lap, Estel began wheezing. "I cannot breathe!"

The boy turned frantic eyes to his big brother, who immediately grabbed him up and headed outside followed by the other elves. Elladan was wondering what could have set off this latest reaction. No mention of the grave or the death of the mother cat had been mentioned.

The twin sat down on a shaded oak bench underneath a weeping willow. Normally the gentle swaying of the tree was soothing to the elf, but now he did not even notice. His attention was fully on Estel, whose lips were becoming blue tinged.

Elrohir was kneeling beside Estel, patting the child's knee. His face was a mask of calm, but Elladan could clearly read his twin's alarm. "Feel the fresh air, Estel," he crooned.

Estel was becoming lethargic as the wheezing worsened.

"I have seen this before," gasped Sariboril. "This is no panic attack, it is an allergic reaction."

"Of course," growled Erestor. The box had been located on the floor of the stables for many months and more than one set of kittens had resided there. There was any number of things that the child could be reacting to.

Elrohir jumped up. "I will prepare a mixture of Angelica and Anise."

"Add some Caraway as well," suggested Sariboril, "in case there is a bite or sting we are unaware of."

Elrohir nodded and raced back into the house.

"Open your eyes, Estel," urged Elladan. "That is right, tithen pen. I will keep you safe, just stay with me."

"Do not leave me, Dan," begged Estel, his voice strained from the irritated airway.

"I will not leave you, Estel," Elladan responded.

"Ever?" sniffed the boy. "You promise?"

Elladan's heart lurched, but he could not disappoint Estel. "I will not ever leave you." Now all he had to do was find a way to keep his word.