"Are you ready to hunt orcs?" Elrohir asked, wondering what had happened to the boy's enthusiasm.
Estel shrugged his shoulders. "Mother says this will just be make-believe - a baby's game! - and we are not going to go anywhere but places I am already allowed to go."
Silently damning Gilraen, Elrohir put his pack on the bench, and sat down next to the boy. He stretched his legs out in front of him, sword resting easily against one thigh. "I remember those games," he said. "You killed hundreds every afternoon, and flailed your old wooden sword against every tree and post in furious combat. Do you remember when you took me hostage and forced Elladan to pay my ransom in honey cakes and strawberries?"
Estel still did not look up, but he nodded a few bobs of his head.
"We had a lot of fun together, playing orc hunts, didn't we?" The boy sighed, shrugged, and nodded again. "Estel, did I say today would be a game?"
Estel's head came up and he looked over to Elrohir. "N… no," he said a little uncertainly.
"I have spent many years under arms. The Wild is very different from Rivendell, and hunting orcs in the mountains is nothing like our old games. As much as I understand your desire to go outside the valley, I cannot take you on a real orc hunt without Father's permission. And he is not likely to give it, unless you can show him you are ready to face the Wild," Elrohir said.
Turning on the bench to face Elrohir more directly, Estel threw up his hands. "How I can I prove it, if I can't do anything?"
"I do not deny that we will have to use our imaginations for some things today, but it will be as real an experience as I can make it, as real as you wish it to be." Estel still looked unconvinced. "Listen. A short while ago, orcs attacked a Dúnedain homestead. They took everything - the pigs and chickens and horses, the plow oxen, the standing crops, the wheat stores, even the seed corn put aside for next year's planting - and hewed and despoiled the rest. No one discovered it until several days of rain had washed away much of the evidence, so we do not know how many orcs attacked, nor can we follow them directly to where they lair."
Estel had been listening intently to the story. Now his mouth curled and he flapped a hand in the direction of the mountains. "Just ask the people on the farm how many orcs there were and which way they went."
"There were no survivors," Elrohir said keeping his voice gentle. Estel's mouth formed an 'o' of astonishment as he realized this was very different from the games they used to play. Elrohir continued, gesturing to the sweep of the valley he could see from the bench. "Somewhere out there, there are orcs. We need to know how many and how they are armed, if they are digging in to stay or if this was just a passing raid. We need to find what trails they are using to send provisions back to the mountain lairs, or if they are keeping what they steal and planning to stay the winter in this area and continue to raid. They will be expecting someone to scout them out, and we are only two, so we will have to be very cautious." Estel sat up very straight and leaned towards Elrohir, lips parted and eyes wide. "They will be attacked and destroyed, but only after we bring back the information on their strength and numbers. Do you think we can do that?"
The boy sprang up from the bench, shrugging his quiver over his shoulder.
"I'm ready!" he announced. "Let's go!"
"Whoa! Wait! Not quite so fast. Show me what you have." Estel had brought what looked like a reasonable amount for him to carry, and much less than Elrohir had feared.
"I have my knife. My good bow. A full quiver of arrows." Estel patted the sheath strapped on his belt and the quiver on his shoulder. Elrohir recognized the bow as the one Elrond had given Estel on his last begetting day. Though it had a light draw suitable for a boy, the bow was not a toy. "I didn't bring much else, because of what Mother said, not even my sword," he said, "but it's only a blunt practice one. I don't think it would be good for this kind of hunt anyway."
"A very good decision. Did you bring anything else?"
"Some bread and cheese, a handful of raisins, and my water-skin. Is it enough?" He waited for Elrohir's approval.
"Yes. You chose very well, but your bow is not strung," Elrohir said.
Estel looked blankly from Elrohir to the bow. "Course it's not. I know better than to keep my bow strung. That's not good for it."
"Generally, yes. But we are not target shooting today. If you need to use it, you will need it quickly. Can you string it by yourself?"
"Wouldn't do me much good otherwise," Estel muttered under his breath. He fished a bow stringer out of a pocket on the quiver and, with only a little grunting, bent the bow enough to slip the bowstring over the grooves at the tips. He stowed the stringer and fastened the bow where he could easily reach it. "Now can we go?"
Elrohir stood still with eyebrows raised in a question.
"What?" Estel danced a little with impatience. "I'm ready."
"Do you not want to know what I brought?" Elrohir said.
"Oh, of course." A dull red flush moved up Estel's neck. "I ought to know. What did you bring?" Estel asked.
Elrohir ticked off his supplies on his fingers. "My sword and knife. A flint and striker with a bag of charcloth and tow in case we need to make a fire. A small hatchet, because I do not care to ruin my sword chopping wood. A shallow metal pan we could use to heat water in, or as a plate, or even to dig with if we needed to. Some rope, about ten ells long. And my lunch."
"Did you bring lembas?" Not waiting for an answer, Estel slid around Elrohir and started plucking at the ties on his pack where it lay on the bench. "If we're supposed to be really scouting, we ought to have lembas. I want some now."
"Estel! Stop!" Elrohir's commanding voice was sharp with irritation and the boy backed away, eyes confused.
"But scouts need lembas to keep up their strength," Estel complained. "I never get lembas."
Elrohir sat down on the bench and stood the protesting boy in front of him. He shook his head and sighed. "You are still thinking of this as a game. It is not a game; it is a test. If you think of this as a game, then you have already failed." Estel started to protest and Elrohir held up his hand for silence. "You asked to prove yourself. I am willing to grant you the chance to show me you are no longer a child and can be trusted to think clearly in situations of real danger. If you would rather stay a child and play games, one more day of truancy does not matter, and I am willing to spend all day with you."
Estel's eyes reflected his hesitation. His mouth hung slightly open, and he was silent. Elrohir continued, "If you are still a child, I expect to hear no more complaints – from anyone, including you – about your studies. If you still want a chance to prove yourself, then we can proceed. I warn you, if I see anything, any look or comment or action, that makes me think you do not take this test seriously, it will be over and I will escort you to your next lesson immediately. You can try this test, which will be harder than any of your lessons have been, or, if you prefer, we can spend today doing anything else you would like - hunt, or fish the trout streams, or play our old orc hunting games - and then starting tomorrow you will go to your lessons without complaint. If that does not please you, you can go to your lessons now. The choice is yours, Estel. What shall we do?"
Elrohir half expected Estel to quickly choose to play games all day and wheedle his way out of tomorrow's lessons later, but the boy did not blurt out an answer. Elrohir waited patiently while Estel shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and chewed his lower lip. The boy looked down for a minute fingering the hilt of his knife, looked toward the house, and then examined the woods behind Elrohir. He looked down again. At last Estel drew a deep breath, compressed his lips together and nodded.
Looking up, he straightened his shoulders and met Elrohir's eyes squarely, "I am ready. Let's begin the test."
He looked very young and vulnerable, but he stood straight and tall. Though still clearly eager to get started, he stood in a relaxed and alert pose obviously copied from watching the patrols leave. Elrohir expected the day's activities to show Estel that he was not yet ready to venture into the Wild, but the boy's willingness to undertake the test still inordinately pleased him.
"Very well." Elrohir nodded and they began walking towards the woods that blanketed the hillside. "Today, do not expect me to give orders you will have to follow. We need to work together. But because this is a test of your abilities, I may do foolish things today, and you will have to keep me out of trouble, not the other way around. If you think that I have missed seeing something important, or if you think I am about to do something unwise, I expect you to find some way to communicate that to me."
"I will try," the boy said, sounding a little uncertain. Good.
"Do more than try, our lives may depend on it," Elrohir cautioned him.
Apprehension darkened Estel's grey eyes, and he took a rather shaky breath. Pleased that Estel finally seemed to understand the seriousness of the exercise, Elrohir paused at the edge of the path. He turned to Estel and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "This will not be easy. If you want to end it, tell me at any time and it will become only a game."
Estel nodded decisively. "I understand. I will not let you down. I know I am ready."
"Real scouts go silently. Start now."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.