Lighting Fires: 5. Explorations

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5. Explorations

Estel nodded, but there was still no hope in his eyes and he made no move to rise. Elrohir put his hand under Estel's arm and gently tugged the boy to his feet, leading him over to the bank where the rope lay abandoned. Estel stood listlessly. The tears had left cleaner tracks on Estel's face and his eyes looked red and puffy. Pulling out a handkerchief, Elrohir knelt down and dipped it into the stream. Elrohir wiped the tear-streaked dirt from Estel's face. Re-wetting the cloth, he handed it to the boy.

"Hold this over your eyes for a minute while I retrieve my rope," Elrohir told him.

Shucking his pack onto the ground, Elrohir picked up the arrow that Estel had discarded on the bank. As he undid the half hitches that bound the rope to the shaft, Elrohir saw the point was a slim, smooth broadhead, suitable for hunting small game. Even if there had been a tree on the opposite bank, and it had been driven in solidly, which was doubtful considering the drag of the rope and the light draw of the bow, it would never have held Estel's weight.

Elrohir gave a wry grin. It was far more likely the rope would have slid over the fletching or broken the arrow, dumping the boy unceremoniously into the stream at the first step. He glanced at Estel, still standing slumped-shouldered, the handkerchief dangling from his slack hand, and gave a moment of thanks that he did not have to deal with an exhausted and despondent boy who was also soaking wet and shaken from an unexpected fall.

Elrohir followed the rope under the buckthorn bush. Dropping to his stomach and pushing his way under, he felt the stiff woody tips of the branches poking into his back. Ahead, he saw the knot, the free end of the mooring hitch beckoning him. He could just reach it. With a sharp jerk, the knot came sweetly untied. Some things Estel did very well.

Backing out, he recoiled the rope and stowed it in his pack. He picked up the arrow and slid it into Estel's quiver. Shrugging his pack back onto his shoulders, Elrohir plucked the still damp cloth from Estel's hand and tucked it under his belt. He led the boy upstream to the center of the cut where the banks were steepest.

"Is this the narrowest spot?" he asked.

Estel looked up and down the stream and shrugged.

Taking the boy's silence for consent, Elrohir said, "Before we do anything else, we need to know how wide it is here. Whatever we put across, we will need to allow for some overlap on each side. Do you see the clump of black briony berries growing on the other bank?" Elrohir pointed to the nearest splash of red across the stream.

Estel nodded.

"Now stand up very straight and do this," Elrohir said, holding out his hand, palm flat and parallel to the ground. He raised it to his forehead and tilted his hand down until it shaded part of his eyes.

Estel copied the gesture, a very slight spark of interest showing in his face.

"Move your hand a little up or down until you can see right up to the berries, but not past them," Elrohir continued. "Yes? Hold very still and make sure."

Estel nodded again, then bit his lip in chagrin at his mistake. He stood straighter and held his hand stiffly against his forehead. "I see it."

"Good. Now, being very careful not to move your hand or change your posture, turn to look upstream. You may have to do it more than once, because this takes a little practice."

Taking a deep breath and holding it, Estel carefully twisted his body until he was facing upstream.

"What can you see?" Elrohir asked.

"Just the ground. What am I supposed to see?" Estel still sounded subdued.

"Something to focus on, like the briony on the other side," Elrohir told him.

"Oh. Yes. I can see a ripped burdock leaf, lying next to a clump of grass."

"Here?" Elrohir put his toe against the leaf he thought Estel described.

"Yes. That one."

"Drop your hand and pace off to the place where my foot is."

Estel counted carefully. "… thirteen, fourteen… about fifteen feet?"

"Close enough. Is there something around about fifteen feet long that we could use as a bridge?" Elrohir asked.

Estel made a cursory survey of the area, shook his head, and mumbled, "I'm not stupid. The branches over there are too short."

"You didn't know exactly how long your bridge needed to be," Elrohir reminded him.

Estel sent Elrohir a resentful glance and slouched over to the longest branch that lay on the ground beyond the stump. He paced along it, counting desultorily, "... two, three, four…" As he neared the end it became clear the branch was long enough. "… sixteen, seventeen, eighteen… and a few inches."

Elrohir was relieved. He had expected to have to notch and lash at least two of the branches together. This would be much easier. Elrohir reached down one-handed and picked up the thickest end of the slim branch. He started to drag it towards the narrowest part of the stream. Estel stood staring down at his feet, unmoving.

"I am still wounded, Estel. Will you not help me?"

Estel backhanded a fresh flow of tears off his eyes and nodded. He ran to Elrohir and grasped the branch behind Elrohir's hand. Together, they wrestled the branch to the bank and stood it upright where the stream was narrowest. Elrohir had planned to rig a harness for the branch to keep it from bouncing into the stream when it fell across, but looking at Estel's pale face, he decided to risk letting it drop unaided, hoping the soft banks would absorb much of the impact. With Estel's assistance, he lowered the branch as gently as he could until it dropped the rest of the way and fell onto the further bank.

It bounced once, but held. Elrohir jumped on the end to wedge it more firmly into the soft dirt. Estel's face looked blank, his thoughts turned inward, his hands dangling and listless.

"Who crosses first?" Elrohir asked.

Estel's chin came up and a puzzled look twisted his brows. He thought about it for a second. "You do. You are wounded."

Elrohir sighed and shook his head. "We are scouting, and have learned important information about the location of an orc den. While I do not intend to throw away my life lightly, it is more important that the message gets back. This branch is not very thick, and may not be strong enough. If I cross first and it breaks, I will be dead and you will be trapped on this side with no chance to escape another way. You are lighter. There is a better chance the information will be saved if you cross first."

Estel dropped his head again, gnawed his lower lip, and sniffed. He would not meet Elrohir's eyes.

Elrohir placed a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder, but he restrained himself from offering further comfort. Though he felt Estel's distress and wanted to sweep him up, carry him across and assure him that he would never really have to make these kinds of choices, such coddling would do him no service for the future.

"However, I think it will hold. It is far more likely that we will both get across safely. Go," Elrohir encouraged him.

Estel stepped onto the narrow branch and began shuffling his way across. Halfway along the branch had a lumpy kink. As he reached it, Estel wobbled and windmilled for a second, while Elrohir held his breath, but the boy managed to regain his balance and continued to shuffle his way along the uneven, swaying surface. When the boy reached the far bank, Elrohir stepped onto the branch and was across in a few quick steps. By the time Estel turned to see if Elrohir was following, he was already next to the boy.

"There! Now we kick our bridge into the river." Elrohir suited his actions to the words. The branch made a satisfying splash as it hit the water. "And we are safe."

Elrohir put his arm around the boy and shepherded him away from the stream towards a grove of apple trees higher up the slope. Estel stumbled more than once on the gentle incline.

By the time they reached the trees, Estel's tears had dried, but his face looked pinched and grey. The boy did not resist as Elrohir pushed him into a sitting position under one of the apple trees. He simply sat with his hands gripping his upraised knees, worried eyes staring into the grass.

Elrohir slipped his pack off his shoulders and sat down next to Estel. He untied the straps and pulled a bundle wrapped in a cloth out of its depths. Laying the bundle on the grass, he pulled the knotted corners of the cloth apart and spread it open. Inside there were several separately wrapped lumps. Elrohir uncovered half a roasted chicken, and a small loaf of dark and crusty bread that had been split and spread with butter. Reaching into the wallet on Estel's belt, he pulled out the boy's lunch of bread and cheese and a twist with raisins and laid it on the cloth. Estel did not react, except to wrinkle his face into a more puzzled expression.

Elrohir ripped the leg and thigh off the chicken, and handed it to Estel. The boy accepted it, but held it loosely and looked at it as if he did not know what to do with it.

"Eat," Elrohir said.

Estel stared at his hands for another few seconds. He seemed to reach a decision. His head reared up and he met Elrohir's eyes with a fierce intensity.

"Tell me everything I did wrong," Estel demanded.

"After lunch. Things will not look so bad when you are not hungry." Elrohir gestured to the chicken leg.

Estel shook his head, pressing his lips together into a determined line. "No. I know I made mistakes. I've thought and thought, and I still don't know what they were or what I should have done differently. Father says I need to learn from the mistakes I make. Tell me! I do not want to make them ever again."

There was the blood of Númenor, defeated but not bowed. Back straight, chin raised, imperious eyes determined to face a future of the same hard choices without flinching.

"You were not alone today, and we had different weapons. Think on that while you eat and then tell me what mistakes you made." Elrohir waited until Estel bit off a mouthful of chicken and began to chew before he started his own lunch.

Estel ate desultorily for a few bites, picking bits of meat off the bone with his, rather grubby, fingers and chewing slowly. Soon, he was biting off large pieces and sucking at the ends of the bones. Noting that a slight tinge of color was coming back into Estel's face as he gnawed the last of the meat off the chicken bones, Elrohir pulled out his belt knife and cut off a thick slice of the chicken breast. Laying it onto the bread and cheese from Estel's wallet, he handed it to the boy.

After taking a few bites, Estel looked over to Elrohir, brows crinkled with the effort of thought and mouth twisted. "I think," he said slowly, "that, maybe, it should have been you who went down to spy on the orcs and I ought to have stayed higher up the slope."

Elrohir swallowed a bite of bread. "Why?"

"Well, uh… You're better at it than I am." Estel made the statement into a faint question, and crammed a bite of bread into his mouth.

"I do have more years of practice in sneaking up on orc dens. And…?" He left the question dangle, but gave what he hoped looked like an encouraging smile.

"I, uh, you, um…" Estel looked around wildly and bit off more bread, chewing audibly.

"Think! If I were careless, or the sentries very alert, and I was seen, what could you do upslope that I could not?" Elrohir encouraged him.

Estel's eyes were darting around the grove, until they alighted on Elrohir's sword. "Oh." He sounded relieved. "You only had a sword. I had a bow. I could have shot them, or, or, even sent down a fire arrow and set the building on fire."

"Yes, if you'd had fire arrows in your quiver and a source of flame." Elrohir suppressed a smile at the stricken look on Estel's face. "From a vantage point uphill, you could have seen if they became suspicious and shot something away to the side as a distraction. You could certainly have provided covering shots for my escape. Shooting down, you had a much greater range than they did shooting up, even with a light bow."

"Yes. I could have done that, I suppose." A guilty look spread over his features. "Maybe you wouldn't have been wounded then?"

"Perhaps not."

Estel sighed and took another bite of his bread.

Elrohir nudged him. "And…? What else should you have done differently?"

Estel toyed with his last bite of bread, turning it over in his fingers and shredding off crumbs. "Um, maybe I, maybe… oh, I know. I should have seen that there was nothing to shoot an arrow into on the other side of the stream. I wasted a lot of time there."

"I do not understand how you could have failed to see that there was nothing to hold an arrow shot across. Even if you had brought a grapnel…" Elrohir broke off. "It was unfortunate that the terrain did not cooperate, but that was not the first mistake you made there. Can you think what that was?"

Estel's head moved once in negation. He hunched his shoulders in and stared at the ground.

Elrohir let him contemplate. Color had definitely crept back into Estel's face, but he still looked distressed.

Standing up, Elrohir examined the apples on the tree. Though it was early for harvest, a few shone red, ripe enough to eat. Bracing a foot on the trunk, Elrohir grabbed a hold and levered himself up into the branches. He twisted off a ripe fruit and, giving a piercing whistle to get Estel's attention, he tossed several down. The boy fielded them one-handed, still firmly holding the last of the bread, and placed them on the cloth. Elrohir dropped back onto the ground and settled himself against the tree trunk. He broke off a chunk from his loaf of bread, stripped the last of the chicken breast from the bone, folded them together and took a large bite. By the time he finished, Estel still had not offered any further explanations.

Elrohir picked up an apple, polished it on his sleeve and tossed it across into Estel's lap. "We were supposed to work together, to be a team. You tried to do it alone. If you had asked me if I knew a way to bridge the stream, I would have told you, and saved much time. That is not all. What other mistakes did you make?"

Estel swallowed, seemed to shrink even more into himself and shrugged his shoulders.

Elrohir wished he could stop, but knew that Estel needed to hear all the errors he had made at once. "You made the same mistake as before," Elrohir continued, ignoring the hurt flicker as Estel's glance met his eyes and quickly looked away. "It should not have been I, with a sword, left with no cover in the middle of a field to hold off the orcs. Wounded as I was, I could not have pulled a bow, but working together we could have constructed the bridge quickly enough that the orcs would not have arrived before it was finished, or your bow could have stopped or deterred them at a distance, giving me the time to finish the bridge. There is still another thing. What else could you have done otherwise?"

Estel looked up with moist eyes that had not yet spilled over. "More?" he cried out. "I don't know."

Elrohir shook his head slowly. "There will be times in the Wild when you must strain past all the limits you thought restrained you, when you must push yourself to fight longer, run farther, or carry more than you thought possible. But you are young still and have not the stamina to hunt for many hours on end. This morning when you slipped, through tiredness, and twice made enough noise to give us away, that was not a time to test your limits. We were not pursued nor were we keeping a deadline. Nothing would have been lost if we had taken a break and you had eaten your raisins to keep up your strength." He gentled his voice and laid a comforting hand on the boy's arm. "Even the greatest of heroes have weaknesses. It is as important to know and accept your limitations, as it is to know your strengths. It is part of working together, to know what you can contribute and also to know what is better done by others."

The boy flinched away from his hand and mumbled, "Did I do anything right?"

"Many things." Elrohir breathed out a snort of relief. "You are good at hunting and tracking. I am sure the rabbits fear you, and that you are very successful at stalking small game. You knew immediately what to do for a wound, so I see you have been paying attention to father's lectures. It is a good idea to carry some remedies in your pack, but I had none either. Even I can make mistakes, Estel." He caught Estel's eye and gave him a conspiratorial wink. "I think we must have foolishly cached them with the rest of our supplies. I have no doubt I would have survived your ministrations, had they been truly needed."

Estel shot him a grateful look and took a drink from his flask. Elrohir crunched into an apple and pointed with it for emphasis, saying "But the trail we left… the orcs would have known where we were and which way we were headed. I know it could not be helped. When I took the arrow, Elladan carried me to safety, but you will need to grow for a while before you attempt that. You helped me to the best of your abilities, and bore my weight much farther than I thought you could. And at the stream, I was impressed with your determination. Though you were thwarted time and again, still you never gave up, and were ready to fight to the last. It is enough."

The boy tilted his head and heaved a breath. "But not enough to let me come with you and Elladan?"

Elrohir saw the distress in Estel's face and hurried to reassure him. "I believe you will be formidable when you are grown."


"I would not mislead you in this. I see a potential, Estel, though you still have much to learn. "

"I know." He hung his head, but raised it again almost immediately. "But you think I will be good enough someday?"

"Yes. If you train to build up your strength and learn everything you can."

Estel sat straighter, eagerness back in his face. "I will practice with my bow and sword every day. And I will never forget what you told me. I swear it."

They crunched apples for a few minutes. Elrohir licked the juice off his fingers and asked, "What was the most interesting thing you learned today?"

"Knowing how to measure," Estel waggled a hand up and down over his eyes. "That is a wonderful trick. It's not magic is it? It will work every time? Even for me?"

Pitching his apple core to a waiting squirrel, Elrohir smoothed a patch of dirt at his side and picked up a stick. Using the point, he drew two joined right triangles and carefully labeled the sides and angles. Estel watched him with a puzzled expression, then stood up and leaned over, peering at the figures in the dirt. Elrohir wrote out the equation that solved the problem of the length of the bridge.

"You can also calculate how long this side is. " He pointed to the hypotenuse and quickly scratched a different equation in the dirt. "You can use that to…" He became aware that Estel had moved away. He looked for him and saw the boy halfway up the tree. "Estel? Don't you want to know this?"

Estel snagged an apple, jumped down and turned a puzzled expression towards Elrohir. "Why? It's just the same sort of chicken scratches Erestor wants to show me. It's not useful to know that. I can remember how to measure using my hand and pacing it off a lot easier than I can understand that." He shoved his chin in a scornful thrust towards the equations. He twitched a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, and gave a sunny grin. "I'll know it later, when I'm grown, or you'll show me when I need it, won't you?"

Frustration welled up in Elrohir. This was not the conclusion he had expected Estel to come to. He strode to the clearing in the center of the trees and stood, arms akimbo.

"Come here," he ordered Estel.

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.

Story Information

Author: Gwynnyd

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Action

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/14/10

Original Post: 09/07/06

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