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Haven of Rivendell, The: 7. Initiation
Elrond sighed mightily. His sons rarely disagreed with him, so in all the long years of their lives, they had rarely defied him. Now both stood before him, arms crossed, stubbornly staring and waiting for his answer. It was not one he wanted to give.
"Father," Elladan who finally could wait no longer exclaimed, "you are overprotecting him! He is becoming bookish. For fourteen years, he has barely left the valley."
"This cannot be how one raises a king of men." Elrohir dryly commented.
Elrond raised one imperious brow at his sons, as if to ask 'you know more of this than I?' Standing before the hearth in his study, he ran his hand over his own sword, Hadhafang, mounted in brackets on the wall. Tracing the intricate runes, he was fain to admit it had seen little service for many centuries. The deaths of his friend Elendil and his king Gil-galad had ended the warrior's song in his blood. Perhaps he had forgotten what it had been like to be on the brink of adulthood, longing to prove himself in battle. He shook his head. War was never what the young thought it was. There was right and justice but also pain and grief even for the winners.
Just yesterday, Elrond had watched young Estel, stripped to the waist, sparring with Elrohir. The youth was tall, nearly so as his foster brother but still lacked the muscle and weight of a man grown. He easily avoided Elrohir, the elven blades flashing, dancing away, feinting in, jumping over Elrohir's slashing blows. Estel was talented for his age, better even than many Elves with both elvish blades and bow, Glorfindel, the sword-master, said. Elrond knew his sons were right. Estel was trained as a warrior but had never been bloodied in real combat. It was time to test this boy he raised to be a king to see if he even had stomach to be a warrior.
At that moment, the subject of their debate appeared at the entrance to Elrond's study. Hand over heart, he made a half-bow to his foster father. Elrond was taken by how much this son of men resembled his true sons. He hearkened to the fact that more than one traveler through Imladris in the past two years had mistaken Estel for Elrond's son. Tonight, Estel was dressed as a young elf-lord, embroidered wine coat belted with a moonstone. His dark hair, nearly black except when warmed by sunlight, was worn long in intricate elf-braids like his brothers. The luminous eyes were fathomless, 'like mithril' Elrond had overhead one smitten elf-maid say. A handsome youth who charmed the ladies, moved like a warrior of the Eldar, and read and spoke both Quenya and Sindarin faultlessly. He knew the lays and ballads of old and composed his own with such feeling that he already had some fame in the Hall of Fire when music was called for. He knew herbs and had an intuition about healing that surpassed the skills of many trained physicians. But, he had yet to go hunting with his brothers.
"Estel, I understand you go to hunt orc with your brothers at dawn. I'm sure the Hithaeglir and the High Pass will provide fine adventure for your first hunt." The smile that broke across Estel's face, spread to his eyes, and revealed his soul, touched Elrond's heart.
After listening to Estel's pledges to help clear the pass and giving him a few tips on preparation, Elrond shared a few of his own orc hunting stories. Estel soon departed to make ready for the next day. Elrond drained his cup, rose, and walked toward the doorway. He stopped and turned back to his sons.
"Protect him with your lives. I want no accidents. If he does not return, then you should not either," he ordered sternly.
"I think he means that," Elladan said to his bother as their father left the room.
* * * *
The black sky turned faint gray and bare outlines came visible in the murk. The hunting party departed; Elrohir, Elladan, and Estel rode with Vandalor and Tirahin, two experienced warriors who were excellent archers. Mitadil, Elrohir's servant followed leading two packhorses. He took his job seriously and whether in battle or on a hunting expedition to Mirkwood or the mountains, Mitadil was never far from his master with warm clothes and hot food.
Estel's blood was singing in his veins. Though the sunlight touched the tops of the tall pines, the mists still clung to the hillside paths, making the ride chill, but he felt it not. Finally, he was going to prove his quality. He had grown up with the hatred held by Elrond's house for the orcs, dark creatures of evilness that had long ago attacked the Lady Celebrian. Unable to bear her pain longer, she had traveled west over the sea, leaving great sadness in her husband, sons, and household. Estel wanted to kill orcs for the mythical Lady Celebrian and prove his worth to his foster-father. Elrond's approval meant more to Estel than anything and this was a way to make up for being born Edain instead of Elf-kind.
Estel chirped to Swallow, his dapple-grey stallion. Swallow flipped his ears and tossed his head. The young horse, trained by Estel, was also on his first hunt. An elf-horse descendent of the mighty Meara of the Rohirrim, Estel had named him the day he first saw him skimming over the plain. Elladan said Arwen had bred the colt's parents. The Lady Arwen, another near-mythical being, Estel mused. Estel imagined Elrond's daughter as a wise, gracious older elf-lady, much like Aunt Leonie. She was in Lothlorien with Galadriel, her brothers said, but would speak no more of their sister.
Estel mentally checked off his pack: his bow slung over his shoulder and blue fletched arrows in the quiver, his fine pair of elvish knives given to him by Elladan in his fourteenth year, and Nighthunter, an older elven sword presented to him by Elrond just this year. Estel had rewrapped the hilt to fit his grip, honed the blade to incredible sharpness, and polished it until the runes stood out like fire in the sunlight. "Protect the wielder and make his arm true" was the simple inscription, but to Estel it was a sword comparable to any carried by the kings of Gondolin.
The party cantered across the plains to the foothills. They were headed for Cirith Forn en Andrath, the High Pass. Travelers lately had seen orc-sign there and Elrohir wanted to clean out the lair before traveling became more dangerous. These orc were crafty and much too close to Rivendell. The goblins had gotten bold of late, their confidence growing with the increasing whispers of evilness in the south.
At times, Estel thought he could feel it there, beyond the mountains far south beyond Gondor, in the Land of Shadows. More than once, he had awakened from a dream of a mountain of fire and a roiling dark sky. The chill of the mists had not affected him but these thoughts brought a shiver to his bones. He pulled up the hood of his cloak and leaned forward to share the warmth of Swallow's neck.
After six hours of a steady pace, they stopped for the midday meal. Estel and Tirahin led the horses to a cold, rushing stream to drink. Estel watched a golden leaf tossed in the current. This stream fed by high snow tumbled down to the Loudwater and on to the Greyflood. His leaf could soon be swimming in the Great Sea, without control or desire to be there. Much like his life, the boy mused. Brought back by Swallow's strong nudge that almost sent him into the stream, Estel started up from his thoughts. He decided they were much too philosophical for a warrior hunting orc.
The afternoon's progress brought them to the foothills and Elrohir led them off the track and by a lesser path up into the woody slopes. As the sun was setting, they came into a grassy meadow ringed with rock face on the east and north. There Mitadil set up a tidy little camp, the horses were set to grazing, and Elrohir made his plans for tracking the orcs. At first light, they would begin the climb on foot to the rocky escarpments full of caves and, hopefully, their prey. Elrohir carefully explained how the silent raid would be conducted; Estel knew this was for his benefit: the rest were experienced at this.
The warm campfire was welcomed and Estel realized that of the party, he was the only one tired and ready to sleep. The endurance of elves was legendary and Elladan and Elrohir went sleepless for days when hunting. Estel studied the great bowl of stars above him and realized he was softly singing "The Fall of Gil-galad":
"Gil-Galad was an Elven-king,
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
The last whose realm was fair and free
Between the mountains and the sea."
The elves joined him in the last lines; he bid his companions good night, rolled into his blankets, and fell into a deep sleep.
* * * *
Estel learned many lessons on the orc hunt, one was that he hated climbing. By late afternoon the following day, his entire world had shrunk to nearly perpendicular gray shale surfaces, edges sharp as knives that would crack and give way without warning. He scrambled up over the next rocky ledge holding tight and gasping for breath. His fingers burned and bled from innumerable nicks, his hair hung in his eyes in sweaty strings, and he truly wondered why he needed the added weight of arrows, knives, and a long sword. He had been hushed repeatedly like a clueless child when he asked Elrohir whence they went, and he cursed his brother under his panting breath for climbing up the side of the mountain instead of boldly walking through the pass.
Estel looked up. Elladan was standing on the very edge of the crest looking fresh, composed, and very unlike the sweating, panting youth who was following him. He struggled the last twenty feet and finally the elf gripped his outstretched hand and hauled him effortlessly onto the ridge and to his feet.
"Come, Estel. We are getting near. Can you feel the evilness of this place?" They stood on a broad ridge, the sunlight still high on the hillsides but late afternoon was coming on and soon the valleys and gorges would be in shadow. Elrohir, Terahin, and Vandalor ranging ahead, waved them down over the side of the crest and halted so that Elladan and the trailing Estel could catch up.
"I believe their cave is in the next gorge. They may be awakened and moving," Elrohir whispered tersely. More steep-sided gray scrabble threatened to give way at each step and send Estel tumbling in a roaring cascade of rock chips. He walk-slid down to a group of large boulders and dropped behind one. After taking a few deep breaths and mopping the sweat from his eyes, Estel cautiously peered down into the gorge. Suddenly he felt better. No longer were they hunting orcs; they had found some! Ruined packs, ancient twisted bits of harness, and other refuse littered the gorge. A fire was burning with a large rick of wood stacked nearby. The orcs also had been hunting, for the haunch of some animal was roasting over the flames. Estel looked closer. The field dressed carcass lay nearby. He jerked back in horror: it was the headless body of a man, one leg missing. Estel felt his midday meal and last drink of water rise in his throat. Black spots danced before his eyes.
"Don't!" Elladan's lips were against his ear. "No noise." Several bitter swallows gained Estel some control and he willed his mind to something else other than the horrible scene below.
Three orcs emerged from a cave half way up the far bank and hopped down to the fire. He had seen sketches of orcs, but in life these seemed stunted, awkward in their gait, and much less deadly than reputed. They wore helmets, short leather vests, and carried long knives with oddly shaped hooked points. The orcs seemed unaware of any change in their territory and were not to be easily distracted from their meal. Elrohir waved all of the hunting party into a crouch and signaled Terahin and Elladan to move forward with him. The three crept from boulder to boulder until they were behind the orcs within swords' reach. A barely perceptible nod from Elrohir, three knives slashed, and three orc heads rolled to the ground. Estel watched fascinated as the three bodies toppled over, gouting black blood. Vandalor edged up to the cave; disappeared inside for a long while; and finally emerged, waving all was clear.
The elves visibly relaxed and Estel stood, disappointed he had not helped kill an orc. They left the carcasses where they had fallen but built a cairn of gray stones over the remains of the man. From the stuff strewn around the campsite, he might have been a hapless peddler who had wandered alone up the Pass and been ambushed by the three. Estel placed a last stone on the grave, and stood to say a quick pray to the Valar.
An arrow snicked by him, a burning crease opening in the side of his head. Blood ran in his eyes. He wiped it away and caught sight of the red slickness that covered the back of his hand. It was the first time he has seen that much of his own blood spilled by beings intent on killing him, and the world tilted crazily for a moment. He looked up to see at least two score orcs spilling over the crest and into the gorge.
All four elves were rapidly loosing arrows and felling orcs but more seemed to pour down the sides of the gorge. The pinging of orc arrows around Estel woke him to action. He unslung his bow and fired until every arrow was gone. Then he drew his sword and prepared to charge the nearest orcs.
The arrows had lessened the flood of orcs but there were still too many, Elladan thought. He and Elrohir were fighting back to back, swords and knives drawn, black blood dripping from both. Elladab quickly chedked his companions. Terahin and Vandalor were still firing arrows into the mob. Estel was standing near the cairn. He had dropped his bow and his sword shone in his hand. The boy seemed frozen and Elladan knew he had to fight his way to him before he was felled with one cut from an orc axe.
Estel licked his dry lips and tightened his double-handed grip on Nighthunter. He willed his body to move forward. These orcs were big---much bigger this close-- and carried wickedly sharp weapons. Their grinning mouths and yellow eyes were the stuff of nightmares. Sliding in the scrabble behind him broke his hesitation. Three orcs charged down the hillside, knives raised, screaming in the Black Tongue. He whirled, slicing one across the chest with the edge of his sword. The elven blade caught the second orc in the throat as he spun. The third was not so ready to die. He carried a long, metal-tipped pike that far outdistanced Estel's reach. Steel clanged on steel, and the heavier weight of the orc pushed him back. It came to him in clarity in this disjointed scene that he would probably die on this orc's spear. The battle became desperate.
Elladan, making little progress in his direction, looked toward Estel again and was satisfied to see he seemed to be holding his own in this orc hunt that had gone foul so quickly. Estel was battling an orc with a long pike and had edged backward so the shelf wall protected him, but he was being forced down towards the gorge's opening. Two more orcs rushed Estel, and a flying elf blade took the pike man in the throat. Elladan reached back to pull its mate from his belt and found himself occupied with a renewed rush from his opponent.
Fewer and fewer orcs remained on their feet. Elrohir cut a last attacker down as he was turning to flee. Elladan finally looked in Estel's direction again. One final, hearty orc had him back up to the ledge. Estel was fighting methodically like an experienced swordsman, parrying blows, waiting for an opening. Dodging a sweeping cut from the orc's ax, Estel spun with Nighthunter extended. The orc's head, amazed expression now permanent on its face, rolled away. As the body fell forward, Estel jumped back to miss the blood spray. He danced on the edge for a foothold, and then slowly fell backwards over the ledge.
Elladan's horror was interrupted as Elrohir flew past, shouting Estel's name. He slid to the edge, searching desperately over the embankment. Elladan grabbed his brother's arm as the rock crumbled under his feet. Both saw that twenty-five feet below on a rocky dry streambed their brother lay unmoving.
Estel's last thought as the rock crumbled under his feet had been to throw his sword far enough away not to land on it. Now, dazed, he stared up at the darkening sky and watched the first star blink on. Something was coming fast down the slope. It was probably an orc. His sword was off to his left, hilt farthest from him. It was on the wrong side; his left arm felt wrong anyway, bent towards the sword at an unnatural angle. He would never get to it in time. Maybe if he pretended he was dead, they'd go away. He certainly felt dead, but it was likely he'd probably be served up for breakfast instead. With that thought and a deep breath, he willed his body to roll left until his hand closed over the blade, and in a quick motion, rolled to his feet. The keen edge bit into his palm as he swung the hilt to his right hand and turned to face his opponent. Estel stared down the blade to the tip resting at Elrohir's throat.
"I am glad you survived, my brother," Elrohir grinned, "though, there is no need to come at me like a poisonous serpent." Estel released the breath he was holding, Nighthunter suddenly became too heavy to hold, and he sank to his knees. Elrohir caught him as he slumped to the ground. As Elrohir tended to Estel, the others quickly collected their knives and arrows from the orc carcasses and then followed Elrohir down to the creek bed.
Estel wasn't sure how they got back to camp that night. Every bone, muscle, and tendon in his body screamed. In addition to the throbbing pain in his left arm and hand, there was a deep gash in his right arm, his right side bore a slashing cut over the ribs, and the arrow wound on his head still bled. Elladan and Vandalor had faired a little better: his brother sported a rather roguish gash across his left cheek and an orc arrow had nicked Vandalor's shoulder.
Elrohir and Elladan half carried and half-dragged Estel between them as Elrohir forced all to hurry down the mountain. The four elves knew that the orc band they had faced was unusually large and they didn't know if any had slipped away. That many orcs gathering indicated that something was amiss and they needed to get away quickly, before a larger group of the evil creatures overpowered them.
Mitadil's keen senses alerted him to the danger and he had already saddled the horses when they hurried into the meadow. The other horses sniffed and shied at the filth and orc blood covering their riders. Swallow stood absolutely still, though his ears lay back and white ringed his eyes.
"Can you ride?" Elladan asked, not waiting for an answer as he tossed Estel into the saddle. The boy nodded, his head swimming. He wound his right hand into Swallow's mane, and Elrohir started them down the winding track as fast as it was safe in the moonless dark. The pain in Estel's left arm kept him conscious. He was certain his arm was broken but he couldn't tell how badly. His long leather gauntlet braced the break but he suspected that the wetness dripping from the fingertips was blood from the bone piercing the flesh. He wanted to give into the screams pressing the back of his throat at each step of the easy-gaited Swallow, but he refused to embarrass himself in front of his brothers.
Estel remembered only images from that night's ride: the full moon rising, riding low on the horizon; Elrohir, riding in the lead, his sword drawn and glittering silvery, terrible and comforting. A trio of deer bounded across their path, causing both horses and elves to shy. Estel thought to drift away into unconsciousness but Elladan was always at his side; strength seemed to flow into him from his brother. His soft words of encouragement kept the wounded youth in the saddle.
It was frosty dawn when Elrohir finally called a halt. They stopped in a grove of amber-leafed trees. Estel watched the five quickly dismount and begin setting up camp. He felt that something was queerly wrong with him and he couldn't seem to will his body to move. Terahin saw him still sitting the horse and came to Swallow's side, catching the trailing rein.
"Would you like to get down now, Estel?" he patiently asked. Estel cautiously dragged his leg over Swallow's rump. Not all of his limbs seemed to be cooperating with him. He slid slowly down the horse's side until his feet met the ground and pressed his face into Swallow's shoulder, his teeth clenched, clutching the stirrup leather tightly to keep from dropping to his knees.
"Come here!" Elrohir barked. Estel turned and conjuring up all courage he had, limped haltingly to Elrohir. Mithadil already had a pot of water heating over a small fire. His brother stared into his eyes. "You've been poisoned but not badly. The orcs coat all of their weapons with such. You will feel strangely for a bit." Then Elrohir began to work, finding hurts, pulling away fabric glued down with blood, bathing the wounds with athelas-steeped water. He dabbed from a pot of salve that brought painlessness to the cleaned wounds. "It draws out the poison." Elrohir pointed out. Estel nodded, not trusting his ability to stifle yelps of pain if he opened his mouth.
Finally, Elrohir examined his arm. He looked at it carefully, moved it slightly, heard Estel's sharp intake of breath, and felt him shudder. He simply bandaged it and tightly buckled his own ornate left vambrace over Estel's gauntlet, making a stronger support.
"That's best left for Father." Elrohir smiled. "You acquitted yourself well today, maethor edhellen." His brother's praise warmed him and his eyes grew heavy from Mithadil's drugged drink. Elrohir caught him in his arms as he slid into oblivion.
* * * * *
Glorfindel was drilling archers in the meadow next to the orchards when the hilltop guards called that the orc hunters were returning. The horses clattered into the stable yard. Glorfindel, at the sight of the splattered, filthy riders, immediately knew things had gone awry. He caught Elrohir's bridle to ask what had happened but a gesture from the elf-warrior sent him to Estel's horse. The boy sat straight in his saddle but his face was very pale and his eyes very dark, circled with purple shadows of pain. Glorfindel saw the scarf-sling that supported his left arm. Elrond, watching the arrival from his balcony, called for his medicines and instruments, and was ready for Estel by time he had been carried up the stairs in Glorfindel's strong arms.
The Lord of Rivendell assessed his hurts, quickly removed the bracings and glove, cut away Estel's shirtsleeve, and examined the ugly break. Methodically the most skilled healer in Middle Earth set the bones and cleaned the wound. Then he began stitching it closed. Although Estel had drunk a strong distillation of willow bark mixed with a sedative, he remained awake and watched, curiously detached as the sharp needle pierced his flesh with each neat stitch. Elrond wondered at the boy's grave silence and was startled when he spoke.
"They were eating a man." Elrond looked pointedly at him, one brow raised in question as if to ask whether the statement was a product of delirium. "They were eating a man," Estel repeated, a tear welled over and ran down his cheek. "What evilness is in this world, Ada?" As Estel had grown into a young man, he only used the endearment late at night when Elrond heard his cries and woke him from the horrible nightmares. "It was terrible." Estel met his foster father's eyes, and Elrond saw a new thoughtfulness in his.
"Orcs are controlled by the ultimate evil, my son. The Dark Lord can commit unspeakable acts through his minions." Elrond believed Estel was still talking about the dark appetites of the orcs.
"The fighting itself was terrible." Estel dropped his eyes from Elrond's. "I am embarrassed to admit that I had a horror of killing, even the orcs. But then I—I had to. I felt relieved I could but not happy as I thought I would feel killing your enemies. 'A warrior should revel in the death of his enemies'." Estel quoted from his lessons on warfare.
"Yes, that is so. A great warrior can kill without remorse on command." So it was with Isildur, Elrond silently added. Estel looked crestfallen. "But, great leaders weigh each death in their hearts, even deaths of their enemies. You handled yourself well in this fight. Your brothers sing your praises. You make me proud, my son." At once Elrond saw, though faint, Estel's smile from the soul that warmed his heart.
Elrond finished wrapping the boy's arm. The bandage and brace were neat and tight, and his skill made the break nearly painless. The elf-lord made ready to leave and picked up Elrohir's vambrace. He looked down at his son's arm, lying bandaged on the blanket, then bent and buckled the vambrace over the bandage. "You will need this in the future. We shall get you the other from your brother." Estel, though finally drowsy from the drugs, nearly burst with happiness at his father's gift. Elrond bent and kissed the boy's forehead. "Glad I am you returned alive, my son," he whispered to Estel.
'The Heir of Elendil shows his worth,' Elrond mused as he left the young man to sleep. 'I must forget that I think him one of my sons, shelter him less, and begin to treat him as the chieftain of men he will become. But it is difficult.'
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