6. The Matter of a Hole
"You have been repeatedly warned to tell someone when you go off by yourself!" Elrond admonished the mud-daubed youngster. The boy stood digging his toe into the dirt, unhappy that he so displeased his foster-father. It was the third time in just a fortnight that the household had emptied to search the hills for a truant Estel, and Elrond, concerned and angry, brooked no excuse. "You may not leave the house."
"Yes, Ada." the boy said respectfully. He accepted the punishment without argument for he could tell by the vertical crease in his father's forehead, there was no room for negotiation. He was twelve and silently he knew he was capable with his bow and was learning swordsmanship and he could take care of himself! Until this restriction, Estel had roamed the valley freely in daylight, but lately he had developed an uncanny ability to slip away and cover his trail in such a way that it took the sharp eyes of Elladan to track him. It had actually become a game to Estel: he hoped that one day he would be good enough to elude his keen-eyed brother. But now that was ended. How could he train to be a great warrior if he was restricted to the house!
* * * * * * *
Estel's word was usually a promise kept, and for a week, he had chafed in the house, doing his lessons, helping his Aunt Leone with her herbs, and reading in the deep shade of the study balcony. But, on this day, an orcish spirit seemed to control him. Everyone was gone or busy, and he had even been shooed from Elrond's study went he went to see if Ada wanted to resume his lessons on medicinal herbs. The elf-lord was in deep conversation with one of those dark, fey rangers, one of the Dúnedain. The man leaped to his feet as Estel entered, as if the boy thought, he was about to be attacked. Elrond, obviously angered at his intrusion, had sent Estel off immediately with a dismissive wave.
Estel decided he would only go into the garden to write and sketch. Technically the garden was part of the house. He took his bag with his pens and journal, and purloined two rolls and cheese from the kitchens. Bird song and warm summer breeze filled the garden and he settled down in the lush grass to sketch the fountains, but then Estel spied a tree heavily laden with ripe peaches at the orchard's edge. The alluring smell enticed him and he wandered over, just to pick a few of the sticky-sweet golden fruits, just to the first row of trees. Then, an orange and black butterfly caught his attention; he believed it might belong to a species he had not catalogued before, so he followed it on to the second row of trees. Soon, he found himself at the edge of the woods, walking up the trail, and before long, he was crossing the stream on the flat rocks above the first falls, thinking to explore the rock face of the cliffs in hopes of finding a troll cave and perhaps a hoard of gems and gold.
The warm summer sun beat down on him as he climbed an almost-path, dragging himself up by grappling saplings and tree roots, toes digging into the soft mud of the slope. Soon, Estel stood on the western lip of the valley, surveying the land to the east. He sat for a bit, ate his fruit and rolls, and took in the view, intent on starting back before he was missed. The grayness of the mountains shimmered in the distance and far below he could just make out the red tiles of the guest pavilion roof. He had never been this way before, there were woods behind him, and he started just a ways through the tangled brambles and the hearty hardwoods, only to see what might lie there. Suddenly he caught a red flash of a fox, and, thinking it might have kits near by, the boy followed the vulpine tracks uphill until the woods thinned and he came out upon a wide path.
Perhaps it was an old road made by the last king of Arnor for his soldiers, thought Estel. Perhaps, it led all the way to the evil fortress of the Witch king! Brave Estel was about to set out on a quest to discover just where the road led when he heard the thrum of hoof beats. Bold as he was, he knew better than to be seen; he could be kidnapped or killed or sold to pirates! For once, the boy's imagination served him well and he recognized he could be in true danger. He slid back into the woods and hid behind a wide oak trunk.
A troop of dark cloaked riders approached. Estel could see the riders were Edain and bore no badge or banner. They could be a band of thieves or a group of those secretive Rangers. He leaned around his hiding place to watch them pass. Suddenly one at the rear of the group reined in and stared hard back towards his tree. His sharp eyes had caught movement and Estel knew to run. He tore through the brambles of the wood, leaving clothing and skin behind, and began the slide down the hillside, knowing no horse could follow him there.
The slope of the hillside and his own impetus sent him half-running, half-tumbling, sliding through last year's brown leaves, grabbing at saplings to control his flight. Suddenly, as if it were a living maw intent on consuming him, a hole, half-covered with leaves and branches, opened before him in the forest floor. He could not stop his momentum, and he toppled into the gaping opening.
Estel landed heavily in the muck at the bottom and lay quietly, allowing his heart to stop hammering and listening for the crunch or crackle of pursuit. The woods above him remained silent until the birdsong returned. He finally sat up unhurt and looked around him. He had fallen into the root hole of a very large wind-fallen oak. The old tree, perhaps struck by lightning, had slowly died, loosening its hold on the earth over years, and the wind finally pushed it over, creating a deep cavity nearly three times his height. Estel leapt up the side, grabbing a handful of scraggly roots and clawing in the mud. He dug in his toes and succeeded in pulling himself up two feet…four feet…two yards, and losing his grip on the slippery sides, slid back to the bottom. He repeatedly tried to climb the sides of the hole, at first very methodically searching each time for spots with better hand holds, but eventually panicking, scrabbling wildly like a caught animal. His strength spent, he slid down for the last time, sat on the muddy floor, wrapped his arms around his knees, and gave in to his fears.
A while later, Estel realized he was cold. He wiped the tear tracks from his face and ate the last of the bread and cheese he had in his bag and drank from his water flask as the sky above darkened. Surely they were searching for him by now, but above the sky blackened until he could see nothing around him, and no one came. Stars appeared in the sky above him. The wind blew, muttering through the wood. Owls hooted and flapped, hunting. Estel heard small animals rustling by above him on their nightly journeys. He was very afraid and steeled himself. He wished he had thought to bring his dagger but he hadn't intended on leaving the garden. Estel sucked in a steadying breath. There was nothing up there! Orcs wouldn't come so close to the lightness of the valley. The weather was too warm for wolves. There really were so few other fell creatures that still existed in the world, he told himself. Exhausted, Estel finally fell deeply asleep.
It was full daylight when a noise startled him awake. Estel opened his eyes and realized he was staring at a tall boot before his face. It was one of a pair belonging to a man who, from Estel's view, seemed nearly as tall as the lip of the hole. The man was dressed as a hunter, but he wore a grey cloak pinned with a dragon brooch and had a sword belted at his waist. His face, framed with dark hair, looked stern but his grey eyes seemed merry.
"My lord, are you well?" The man's voice revealed he was much younger than Estel first thought. The boy scrambled to his feet, standing almost defensively in his hole. This man before him was one of the mysterious Rangers. In his mind, the boy counted them as dangerous and uncivilized. There was no telling what this one would do to a lost boy. Estel held his breath, waiting. Miraculously, the man bowed to him.
"I am Estel," the boy announced, startled at the deference and thinking introducing himself would be the polite thing to do.
"And I am Camalac." The Ranger smiled. "If you are ready, we may depart." He nodded to the rope trailing down the muddy side of his cage. "Can you climb?" It took Estel only a moment to scramble up out of the hole after an initial boost by Camalac. In the warmth of the woods with the sunshine on his face, he decided it was very, very good to be out of that wet cold place.
"Le hannon," the boy said, as Camalac swung up the rope after him. "The hole got in my way as I was running from some kidnappers."
"Buion na 'ell." Camalac opened his pack he had left at the lip of the pit and offered Estel food and water. Estel ate, imagining Camalac would make a fine, knightly companion. Perhaps they could find adventure together. The boy devoured the crusty roll the Ranger gave him and knew it had come recently from Rivendell. The roll was a reminder of reality: he had been gone all night. In Rivendell, they would be worried and he knew he was in terrible trouble.
"I should go home now," Estel said to Camalac. "I should not have left the gardens and I would not have been missed if not for this hole!"
"Aye, a terrible blight on the land, it is. Truly the work of some evil wizard!" Camalac suggested, with mock seriousness, causing Estel to giggle. "Let's be away, my lord, before the owner of this hole comes by to find what it has trapped." He shouldered his pack, coiled the rope, and the pair began walking through the woods, toward the western cliffs and home.
"You cover your trail well, my lord," Camalac observed. "It was difficult to track you. You will make a fine Ranger." Estel thought that suddenly high praise…a Ranger? He had never considered being a Ranger. Rangers were fey and frightening, but also were held to be excellent trackers and warriors. Elrohir and Elladan sometimes disappeared for weeks to hunt orc with Rangers. And nary a month went by without the arrival of a Ranger messenger seeking Elrond, or a group of them sheltering for a bit in Imaldris from their patrol riding of the Great Road.
"I cannot be a Ranger," the boy sighed. "One must be Dúnedain; I am not," he said with certainty. Camalac smiled enigmatically.
"As you say, my lord." Estel wanted to tell him that he should not call him by that title; he was no lord, not really even one of Elrond's household, and Elrond would be displeased, but the boy liked the title and liked this Ranger, and wanted to pretend just a little longer.
They walked on, talking about tracking and the habits of animals. Camalac knew hidden trails down the cliffs and they leaped down from rock to rock, the Ranger unobtrusively shielding Estel from the steep drops. They crossed above the falls, stepping from stone to stone, Estel warning Camalac of the loose one that would dump him into the cold water. Too soon for Estel, the pair struck the woodland trail and came out on the edge of the gardens. He regretted their adventure was over so soon.
"Thank you, sir, for your help." Estel bowed politely, "I am in terrible trouble now and must face my father." He saw Elrond waiting on the terrace and knew the Lord of Imladris had already caught sight of him. Elrond waited as they came up the path, after sending a servant to alert the heralds. The sound of horns wavered on the warm air over the valley, announcing to the searchers that the wayward boy had been found. The elf-lord sized up the situation, turned a cold eye on Estel so the boy would not seen his great relief, and pointed silently toward the bathhouse. Their conversation wouldn't take place until the coating of mud was removed from every inch of skin and every hair on his son's head.
Chagrined, Estel trudged off, but before the trees hid the pair, he looked back. Lord Elrond had his hand on the Ranger's shoulder, speaking earnestly to him, and the young man's head was nodding. Camalac looked up, saw Estel watching, and smiled at the boy. Then the Ranger did something so alien, so improper, that it stopped Estel's breath: he bowed deeply to him as he would to a high lord. Estel fled before Ada could turn and chastise him.
As Estel scurried away up the path, Camalac boldly turned back to the Perendhel, and looked Elrond in the eye, as if a daring reprimand for his obesiance to his young chieftain. But, the elf-lord was smiling. Camalac inclined his head to Elrond.
"The boy was not trying to be disobedient, my lord. It was only the matter of a hole…" he began.
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.