8. First Blood
In The House of Elrond VIII - First Blood
It wasn't often that Gilraen paced.
Worry was something that had rarely visited her days in Imladris to date, something that she suspected Master Elrond very deliberately protected her against under normal circumstances. When Estel had been younger, it had been quite easy, between the two of them, to handle all the small stresses and awkwardness involved in parenting a very intelligent, curious and headstrong young boy. Some of that youthful energy had later been channeled into weapons practice, and Glorfindel had then taken part in keeping her from worrying with his reports on Estel's progress.
But six months earlier, it had been decided that seventeen year old Estel was at last old enough and trained sufficiently to take regular duty rotations on the inner fences, and Gilraen had felt her worry levels slowly begin to rise. She knew the Elves looked upon her concerns with some indulgence, remembering how much she had objected to the mere mention of martial activity at first. She had forced herself to relax as Estel's abilities grew; he was, after all, going to have to be able to hold his own when he was grown. And in the eyes of Glorfindel and Elrond, she could see the pride in her son's accomplishments that she knew would have been equaled by the pride in Arathorn's eyes, had he lived.
But tonight, she paced in her rooms: Estel was a whole day late in returning from his regular week's rotation. She had seen, during the entertainment in the Hall of Fire, that even Elrond had been less than relaxed as well. When his fingers began following the lines of embroidery on his robe at his knees and thighs, she'd suspected the Master of the House to be anxious; and when he refused to meet her gaze for the entire evening, she was certain of it.
If there was one thing that comforted, in view of the lateness of Estel's return, however, it was that he had been accompanied by Glorfindel on this tour; and if anyone could keep her son safe from any harm, it was he. It had taken a confrontation between Glorfindel and Erestor, into which she had foolishly inserted herself, to demonstrate to her that the Elves really DID know how to use those weapons in a threatening and lethal way and still do no harm.
Once she had accepted that, and accepted that Estel's training - from the very first - would be second to none as the result of his never learning from another less skillful than a seasoned master, she convinced Elrohir to stand next to her as his brother and Glorfindel had sparred so he could tell her about what they were doing. It had, in the end, drawn her closer to Estel as well, for at long last she understood the language of swordplay and could begin to accept that part of his life.
But this day, even Elrohir's quiet "Lady, I am certain that nothing is amiss," during a lull in the music that evening had not helped as much as had been intended. She had nodded to him noncommittally and pricked her finger yet again in her distraction. That was the moment she had folded up her sewing for the evening and, with an awkward excuse to Elrond for her abruptness, retreated to her rooms.
To pace and worry in peace.
But she knew better than to expect the Elves to allow her to stew in peace when it was obvious to everyone that was exactly what she was going to be doing, and was halfway expecting the gentle tap on the closed doors when it came. She opened the door and stepped aside to allow the Master of the House entry.
"You know that this is probably…" he got out before she interrupted him.
"You are just as anxious as I am," she stated, softly enough that it wasn't so much an accusation as it was a simple declaration of fact.
His grey eyes held her gaze for a long and silent moment before he turned away and knelt to pull the protective screen from the hearth and added another small log to the fire. "Yes, I am," he admitted calmly after replacing the screen, brushing his hands together and rising. "But I do not let my anxiety control me."
"As I do?" Her eyebrows arched in challenge. Elrond cocked his head at her, something he usually did when faced with a question of that sort, and let his silence be his answer. Gilraen backed down almost immediately and moved toward one of the comfortable chairs, waving him into the other. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me. You wouldn't be here otherwise."
"You have no need to apologize. The truth is that I have had many centuries to learn the art of hiding my concerns from most people," he answered kindly as he took the seat she'd offered, "whereas you are just learning the need."
"But I should remember," she chided herself under her breath. "This is no more or less than what I felt when Arath…" Her eyes glanced up guiltily at her near-mistake. "…when others I loved weren't home on time."
He ignored her verbal stumble. "No doubt you chafed sorely even then."
Slowly she nodded. "I used to watch my mother and wonder how she did it. She would kiss my father farewell and then go about her days as if nothing were wrong, no matter how late he was in coming back. I'd ask, but she'd just look at me and tell me, 'Worry won't make the supper, or wash the clothes.' That didn't make any sense to me at the time."
Elrond relaxed back into the cushions of the chair. "But later…" he prompted.
"Once I had Estel, I could lose myself in the day to day tasks that wouldn't disappear just because my husband had. It would be nighttime, and I would be getting ready for bed, before I'd remember and start to worry." Guiltily, Gilraen glanced over at the small table where she had tossed her sewing for the evening. "I had forgotten that," she said with a sniff.
"I shall endeavor, then, to find you more tasks upon which to bend your mind and your attention; for you know as well as I do that you will be going through this again." Elrond pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly. "And, as you discovered long ago, keeping busy is one of the few truly dependable methods of moving through the worry. It is a method that I have employed for a very long time, and quite successfully too."
"It doesn't ever get better, does it." Her tone of voice asked for reassurance, but she knew better than to expect any this time.
Elrond's grey eyes gazed at her steadily. "Estel was only sent to the inner fences, not off to the wilds to hunt down and fight yrch wherever and whenever they find them."
"Which only makes it worse! He should have been safe staying within the inner fences, shouldn't he?" This time, she was demanding comfort.
"I have detected no threats to Imladris," he replied, his gaze clearly aimed inward for a brief moment. "Which means that whatever the delay is, it is not great enough to threaten the rest of us."
"It isn't the rest of us I'm worried about. I'm safe here, in a house filled with Elven warriors with thousands of years of experience between them. Estel is out… there…" She gestured at her window. "…and we have no way of knowing what is keeping him. Did his horse throw him? Did he…"
"Gilraen." The way Elrond pronounced her voice silenced her and quelled the spiraling panic that had taken her. He leaned forward and grasped both her hands in one of his as they rested on the edge of her lap. "You cannot do this to yourself, for such thoughts over time become corrosive to the faer. This is the moment in which you must begin to trust in the training Glorfindel has been giving Estel for over half of his lifetime, and in Glorfindel's watch on him; but most importantly, you must begin to trust in Estel himself and in his abilities."
Her eyes filled. "But he's only seventeen…"
"And well within the protection of my warriors, and watched over by the most accomplished and skilled warrior I could possibly find," he interrupted her this time. "My dear, it is a sad fact that the moment our children begin to walk, we begin having to allow them to fall down from time to time. The older they get, the more dangerous the path they walk and the more potentially harmful their stumbles, especially when they are intending to be warriors." His face sobered, alarmingly so, and then he turned a stricken look on her that thoroughly surprised her. "Do you honestly think I have not already been through this myself, many times - or that I have forgotten what it is to not hear from my sons for days… weeks… years?" His brows folded and he turned away from her at last. "Decades?" he whispered.
That caught at Gilraen's attention. "Decades?" Instinctively, she turned her hands so that she was holding his large one between her two before he could retreat entirely. "They would stay away that long?"
Elrond seemed startled to realize that she now was holding his hand, and it took a few moments for him to regain his equilibrium. "They would only return when one or the other - or both - of them were too badly injured to trust to Mortal healers. When they arrived, the one injured would be unconscious - often only a few steps shy of death - and the healthy one, if one was healthy, was uncommunicative. And as soon as I could affect healing, to the point that they could travel together once more with anything approaching ease, they would disappear again and leave me to wait, and wonder. And worry."
For all she was worried, she couldn't imagine Estel becoming that distant, that disconnected, that uncaring of how his actions affected others. She studied the large hand that had, strangely enough, remained within her keeping. Elrond's fingers were long, but the nails were much shorter and less fair than even her own, and the trim job they had last seen was obviously not a good one. "I can't imagine Estel doing something like that," she admitted finally.
"The drive for revenge can make some do things they would never have considered before," he replied softly. "Certainly my wife and I raised our sons to do better than that. But they were the ones to go out to search for her when she was taken; and finding her… like that…" His voice broke, bringing up her gaze, and she cringed at the grief she found there. "They believed what happened to her was their responsibility, no matter what I told them at the time or afterwards. Even Arwe…" He stopped, biting the word off before it was finished in much the same way she had done when mentioning her husband – and almost looked as guilty as she had felt.
"Arwen?" she supplied gently. She nodded as his eyes widened in surprise. "I know you have - or had - a daughter too."
He closed his eyes and breathed out a long breath, but Gilraen couldn't tell if Elrond was upset, disappointed or relieved that she knew. "She lives with her grandparents in Lothlórien now; she could not bear Imladris without her mother." He opened his eyes again and the visible pain in them betrayed him. "She has been there for centuries."
Gilraen tightened her hold on his hand sympathetically. Yes, she could see that happening, and see how the virtual abandonment of his children had opened a hole in his heart that Estel had only barely begun to heal. No wonder he's as worried as I am! "I didn't mean to pry - or learn things that I wasn't sup…"
"No." The hand turned in her grasp and now held hers again. "I am grateful that you know, so that I might mention her from time to time to you without…" He hesitated, again gathering his calm about him in much the same way he would gather his robes. "Even Arwen could not convince them that they had done all they could. Once Celebrían was gone to the Havens, all they could think of was returning hundred-fold what had been done to them… to her…"
She took herself and her emotions in hand, forcing herself to remember the topic at hand: that Estel's absence wasn't deliberate, and that Glorfindel was out there with him. Elrond, who seemed to always be very well informed about everything that touched the welfare of his realm or his people, had not sensed any danger. And their discussion had strayed into normally forbidden topics that had unexpectedly exposed his vulnerability: the tragedy of what had happened to his family so long ago.
It was easy to see that this tragedy continued to do him injury, even just in mentioning it, and she felt driven to protect this kind soul who had done so much to protect her. She needed to steer the discussion back on track - now! "And all of this because you came to keep me from worrying too much, and I asked too many questions," she offered with a sad smile. "I appreciate your candor - and that you would trust me with precious knowledge - don't get me wrong; but…"
Elrond's gentle smile warmed her despite its chagrin and open gratitude for the excuse to back away from painful topics. "But," he picked up her thought, "we were having this discussion in order to calm your fears, not add to them from my own. My apologies."
Gilraen found herself smiling back. She had quietly grown very fond of the gentle, personable Master of the House over the years she had spent in Imladris. "I think, Elrond, that this talk was more to share the fear evenly between us, as we have shared so much else regarding Estel, and in the process find comfort and support in each other. I know I wasn't the only one feeling the anxiety, so why should I be the only one to receive comfort or support?"
She'd surprised him, she could tell. His expressive eyes widened and then the corners crinkled ever so slightly as his smile grew. "So quickly you gain wisdom! I forget that you are no longer the frightened, lost waif barely old enough to be a mother who collapsed just inside my front door the moment she arrived here."
"Oh, I can still be quite lost," she chuckled, knowing just how often these ancient beings left her wondering just what was going on. "But I've learned that I don't have to be frightened by what I don't know, or remain completely helpless." She let her voice sober. "Estel isn't the only one who's been raised by the Elves these past years."
Again Elrond's smile grew, and he had just opened his mouth to answer her comment when a loud knock on her door made them both jump. "My Lady! Master Elrond! They are returned - Estel and Lord Glorfindel!"
The flare of excitement in the depths of his grey eyes easily matched the thrill and relief she felt race through her. Gilraen felt him adjust his hold on a single hand, taking it more firmly in his. "Shall we greet them properly, and discern why they found it necessary to delay their arrival?"
"Absolutely! You can interrogate Glorfindel, and Estel is mine," she answered with a firm nod as they mutually pulled each other to their feet. "Divide and subdue."
"A most excellent battle plan." She could hear the amusement in his voice. "Come then." And he led the way to the door and then down the hall, his long legs carrying him along at a pace that made Gilraen trot next to him. Down the stairs they went, hand in hand, and then across the foyer and out the front door.
The two of them had time, while waiting for the two horses to make it through the gate and across the courtyard, to gather their wits and share one more mutually supportive look between them. Then the swell of song that was in Glorfindel's rich bass, with Estel's quieter tenor descant, ceased as the riders passed through the gate and into the pool of light from flaming torches carried by servants. Gilraen studied the both of them closely and found them both fit, without a single sign of whatever had kept them.
"You are late," were Elrond's first words, "and several here were concerned." Then he smiled. "Welcome home!"
Glorfindel's face folded into resignation and chagrin, but Estel glowed. "We saw Mortals, Ada, and we helped them!" He slid from his mount and dashed the last few paces to embrace his mother and then accept a hug from his foster father.
Elrond's eyebrows rose, and he aimed a question at his Battle Master. "Mortals? Inside the outer fences? I had sensed nothing of this…"
"But not on the proper path to the valley, and quite out of commission by the time we found them," Glorfindel reported with an understanding nod. "A merchant and his daughter were traveling the Old Road toward the High Pass and took a wrong turn, and then their cart lost a wheel in the process of turning about again. The girl was thrown from the cart and injured in the incident. Estel and I assisted in getting them back on their way."
"Injured?" The worried father and demanding ruler suddenly became the compassionate Master of the Last Homely House. "Do we expect visitors soon, then?"
"It was a simple broken leg, Ada," Estel broke into Glorfindel's report. "While Glorfindel helped repair the cart, I splinted the leg and showed the girl how to make her own willow-bark tea for the pain."
"They were quite determined to continue on their way without detouring here, and I will be speaking to those on duty at the outer fences for not steering them around," Glorfindel stated in a terse grumble meant mostly for Elrond. "It does not bode well that these two were able to penetrate as far as they did without already being challenged. We were lucky that this lapse happened when those who entered were of benign intent."
Gilraen noted Elrond's somber nod and felt the hairs at the back of her neck rise. Mortals - and not even Dúnedain - inside the outer fences without challenge! "And what did you think of your first contact with Mortals, my son?" Elrond was asking now, and she brought her attention back to what was happening before her.
"Quiet and shy folk," was the assessment. "The girl was pretty too!"
"Estel was quite taken with her," Glorfindel commented dryly. "Her father, on the other hand, was less than pleased that an Elf was getting along so well with his one and only."
"Her name was Linn," Estel beamed, unaffected by his guardian's mood. "And she liked it when I sang to her to help with the pain."
Gilraen and Elrond exchanged another look. "Estel was seen as an Elf?" she asked, her eyes wide.
"Indeed." Glorfindel's nod was quite satisfied. "When wearing the leathers of Imladris, his face clean-shaven, his hair in our style and length, and without wearing the warrior braids of an archer to expose his ears, Estel could easily be taken as one of us, although his youth is unmistakable. This is as was intended, was it not?"
"There is no need for strangers to know that a Mortal has a place among the Imladhrim," Elrond replied firmly. "Not yet, anyway."
Gilraen gazed up at her son with new eyes. Yes, if one didn't know exactly what to look for - like the darkening of face and chin with whiskers needing a shave again that came upon him only later in an evening - Estel could be easily mistaken for a very young Elf warrior-in-training. Indeed, with her eyes freshly reminded to see as an uninitiated Mortal would, she was suddenly overcome with the close resemblance he bore to his foster father. Moreover, already he had nearly gained Arathorn's height, with nothing to show that he would stop there. Estel might never be as tall as his Elven foster family, but he would be nearly so when he'd gained his full growth.
"Come, Estel; we have yet to give our four-legged friends their freedom after carrying us for such a long way," Glorfindel grumbled good-naturedly. "And then, perhaps," the rich voice descended into solicitous whining, "the cooks could be convinced to unlock the larder for the two of us, who decided to travel on the little way further in the dark on empty stomachs rather than make anxious parents wait until daybreak for our arrival?"
Gilraen snorted at his attempt to act pitiful. "I am certain something can be arranged," she answered quickly and aimed a directing nod and frown at one of the kitchen helpers who had come out to witness the arrival. "It will be waiting for you when you come back to the house." She returned her gaze at her son. "And then I will hear everything about these Mortals - and of your time on the fences."
"Yes, Nana. C'mon, Glorfindel! I'm hungry!" Estel had his hand on the neck of his gelding, leading it off in the direction of the stables.
"All is well otherwise?" Elrond asked quickly and very quietly, so that Estel did not catch it. But Gilraen heard, and she hesitated to hear the answer.
Gilraen's disquiet eased as the golden Elf nodded, as did Elrond's, she noticed. "All is quiet, Elrond. This was but a lucky mishap for the Mortals, and an excellent first experience of Men for Estel. But I will give you my full report in the morning."
Gilraen closed the door to one guest room and smoothed her hand down her skirt as she walked toward the next. Elrond had been serious about giving her more tasks to keep her mind occupied. On top of responsibilities for maintaining the household inventories and servant schedules, he now wanted her to keep weekly track of the state of the linen supplies in the guest quarters, kitchens and the Healing Rooms, as well as work with the cook on a regular basis to plan out menus that kept the tastes and preferences of residents and guests alike - both expected and otherwise - in mind.
The new weekly tour of each stash of linens throughout the entire house was more physical activity than she had undertaken in all her time there; and as time went by, she had come to enjoy the hike from room to room, opening drawers and linen presses. The walking tour gave her a much fuller appreciation for the size and layout of the Last Homely House itself, a chance to pause and study the many pieces of artwork that so liberally decorated its corridors and rooms, and familiarity with many of the out-buildings considered as parts of the main dwelling. It rarely failed that by the time two such tours had been completed, she would have enough of a list of things that were needed to be replaced or repaired that she would have good reason to walk to the weaver's facility in another of the other out-buildings.
All in all, she had something to keep her busy and occupied for the better part of each day now in a manner that made her feel much more useful and contributing to the welfare of the community. And, as Elrond had hoped and she had anticipated, the press of things that needed doing chased most of her worries about Estel's gradually increasing duties to the welfare of Imladris to the late night hours, when she was alone and on the verge of sleep.
Another fact that aided in lending some measure of peace of mind was that Estel never went on his duty rotations without at least one person Elrond, and by extension, Gilraen, trusted implicitly with the young man's safety. At times it was Glorfindel himself, who quietly informed her that his attention to these inner defenses had strengthened them in ways they had not seen in decades. At other times, one or the other twin would be Estel's guardian and mentor. At such times, whichever one was going out with him would come to her rooms the night before to swear to her that he would return safely.
And so nearly a year had gone by, and now Imladris lay beneath a light dusting of snow. Winter was one time of year that Gilraen had never appreciated before moving to the Elven realm, but Imladris always seemed immune to the soul-numbing blizzard winds that would howl down the mountain valleys and ravines. The cold was never quite so sharp, the winds remained gentle, and the snows always light. The Elves would even haul water from the house out to spread over a portion of the inner courtyard over several nights until a smooth layer of ice lay where grass normally grew, and then they would don special boots equipped with a single metal blade that would allow them to slide effortlessly over the ice.
Elrond himself had ordered a set of such boots made for her several years earlier, and then spent many a laughter-filled afternoon with her clinging to his arm to keep from falling. In time, she had learned the trick to this "skating", and come to enjoy bundling up into warm clothing and spending a quiet, relaxing time with her son and his Elven mentors as they skated in a lazy circle around the ice. It never failed that someone would begin a song extolling the crystal clear skies and the warmth of the sun, and soon all floating over the ice sheet would be singing in full harmonies and with delicate descants.
As she walked back to her rooms, Gilraen took stock of the position of the sun in the clear sky outside the slightly fogged windows. It was well that her tour of the House was finished, for in the slower tempo that was winter life in Imladris, the afternoon was the time preferred for skating. Finishing the regular reports had kept her from joining in for the last two days, and she'd heard much complaining about her absence from Glorfindel the past two evenings. Today, she'd decided, she wouldn't miss, and he would have no reason to complain again.
She would miss Estel, though. Once more, he was off with Elrohir on his regular duty rotation and halfway through his week on the inner fences. She didn't begrudge his absence, however; she could see in the shine of his eyes when he would return that he was both glad and excited to finally be playing even this small part in keeping Imladris safe.
She slipped on the thick, woolen stockings that she had made for herself, and then stepped into the down-filled quilted linen pantaloons that would keep her warm and yet be hidden beneath her skirt. One of her warm, knit sweaters would be pulled over the top of the long-sleeved blouse, and her Elven cloak - a gift from Elrond which, he claimed, came from far-away Lothlórien - would top her ensemble. Skating in the crisp chill was one time when her differences with Elf-kind were most apparent, for they never seemed to need to bundle up quite so much.
With her bladed boots hanging by tied laces over her shoulders, she walked out the inner doorway to discover, much to her surprise, the ice empty of skaters. She could hear, however, commotion that involved the sound of horses. She turned on her heel and ran back into the house and then out the front door, only to practically collide with a cloaked Elrond. "What is it?" she asked in curiosity, but when the Master of the House didn't respond immediately, she turned to gaze at him. The stony, intense look on his face was like a spear of ice into her heart. "Elrond? What is it?"
A clattering of hooves on the frozen courtyard brought her gaze up into Glorfindel's. He was geared for going out to battle in cold weather, and despite the glint of his armor beneath his cloak, he looked as serious and stern as she'd ever seen. More hooves clapped, more horses with well-armed and geared riders prepared to leave the shelter of the settlement with him, riders that included a very worried-looking Elladan. "I will send word the moment I know anything," Glorfindel said softly to the immobile Elrond on the porch, "I swear it."
"Be careful." Elrond's voice was more brittle than Gilraen had ever heard it. "May the Belain speed your way."
Glorfindel nodded, and then shot a glance at Gilraen as he reined in his prancing stallion that both warmed her heart and chilled her spirit. It was a look very much like the one Arathorn had given her as he prepared to ride out with Elladan and Elrohir that last time upon receiving a report of a large company of orcs pressing close to their northern defenses. Glorfindel didn't speak a word, but wheeled his mount and led the way through the gates at a full canter.
"Come." A large hand surrounded her elbow and brought her attention back to her immediate surroundings. "Waiting in the cold will not get them there any faster, and you do not need to take a chill."
"What's going on," she asked in a more demanding tone this time. "Please…"
"We know nothing definitively as yet, but I…" He took a breath and gestured. "This would be better discussed in my office with the door shut."
Gilraen knew she'd get nothing out of him standing in the middle of the corridor, so she nodded and led the way down to his office and stepped inside. She turned at the sound of the door closing. "Now…"
"Sit down," Elrond interrupted her, gesturing at the chairs placed a comfortable distance from the small fire on the hearth. "Let me get you some wine. This is going to take a while, and the wait is going to be a long one."
"Wine will not make the news better," she said softly as she watched him pour out two generous goblets.
"That may well be," he replied with a disturbing calm, "but I fear we both will have need of the bracing spirit by the end of things."
She reached up and took the goblet from his hand and watched him seat himself in the other chair. "You're beginning to frighten me."
"I fear that is something I cannot prevent this time," Elrond sighed and settled back into the comfortable cushions, although Gilraen could sense a tenseness that was belied by his sprawl. "Earlier this afternoon, I sensed that all was not well on our eastern fences. This feeling has not diminished, but grown stronger over the course of the day."
"The… eastern… fences?" she repeated very slowly, her eyes growing huge. "Are you sure?"
He gazed at her evenly. "As certain as I can be, when such things come to me. It is why I have sent off Glorfindel, Elladan and a company of my best warriors; I will not allow the menace, if that is what it be, to draw any closer to Imladris itself. And I would provide support for those already in harm's way." He held her gaze with a flood of compassion. "Including Estel."
"Estel's posting is in the eastern quarter this time around." Gilraen knew, as surely as she knew her own name, that fully half of Elrond's disquiet was because he "sensed" that something was wrong with or near her - their - son.
"Yes." Elrond took a sip of his wine. "And Glorfindel will not arrive at his posting on the inner fence until nearly dark."
"Even at a canter?"
The dark head shook. "He cannot maintain that pace for the entire journey, for he must leave the beaten path and strike out across country. The ground is uneven, and it would be dangerous for both horse and rider."
Gilraen followed his lead and sipped at her wine, but her anxiety didn't allow her to remain quiescent. She rose to her feet and, cradling the goblet, she began to pace. She came to an abrupt stop in front of Elrond's chair. "Is he hurt?"
He looked up at her, his expression unreadable. "I cannot be certain. Elrohir is very upset; this is what communicates itself most clearly to me. Elladan sounded the alarm at almost the same time I… sensed…"
He gazed at her for a while and then looked away. "Darkness. The Enemy."
"Here?" The very thought froze her in place. "He's found Estel…"
"We do not know that," Elrond snapped, although his voice held little sharpness. "It is entirely possible that these orcs finding a hole in our outer defenses near where Estel was posted happened entirely by accident."
"Orcs." Gilraen repeated the word numbly. Orcs had killed Arathorn, had killed far too many of her kin and comrades over the few years she'd lived at home. And now, they were threatening Estel. She slid weakly back into her chair, her eyes glued to his face. "There are orcs… on the inner fences?"
Again Elrond shifted his gaze. "That is the gist of what I was given. Most of the time, it is generally…" He sighed. "…correct, to one degree or another."
She covered her mouth with a hand as the utter horror of her young, innocent, unprepared son having to face… Her mind reeled, not wanting to imagine what these horrific-sounding beasts actually looked like. She'd heard descriptions, though, and they made her sick to her stomach.
She didn't hear him. Her mind had found the road back to those dark hours when the body of her husband, still warm, still bleeding into the cloak that covered his face, had lain on her table. Only now, her imagination was making the shape beneath the heavy cloth shorter, frailer…
"Gilraen!" His grip on her hand was tight enough now to hurt, and the pain drew her out of her horrified reverie where his voice alone had not. There was a glow in his grey eyes that quickly died back to an expression of deep concern. "You must believe me, I know that Estel lives. I cannot explain it, but…" He loosened his grip and rose from where he had knelt next to her. "If Estel were dead, Elrohir would be more than merely upset; he would be beside himself with grief and anger. Trust me, I have felt those emotions from him before. He is merely upset, which means that things did not go the way he wanted them to, or perhaps Estel suffered some damage. But he is alive. I swear it."
She reached out to him, snagging his fingers and holding on as if to a lifeline before he could move any further away. "You're certain?"
He nodded slowly. "I would know if Estel passed beyond the circles of the world. All of those in whom I have had a closer hand in training, over the centuries, I have felt… step beyond. It is a gift… and a curse… of sharing the same blood. I would know, and," he sighed heavily. "I would tell you. Dishonesty would be unthinkable."
It wasn't a complete relief – that would only come when she could put her arms around her living, breathing son again – but the knowledge that he would know if Estel were killed set aside the very worst of her fears. Gazing up at him, Gilraen finally felt the first of an entire storm of tears begin down her cheeks. Knowing him as she did now, and if he really could feel it if Estel were no more, she knew that he would be no less devastated by the loss than she would be.
Elrond's gaze softened. He bent to retrieve the forgotten and almost spilling goblet of wine from her senseless fingers and placed it next to his on a small table, then pulled on her hand to draw her to her feet again. Without a word, he pulled her to him and held her close. Gilraen leaned into his strength heavily and, at long last, spilled her sobs onto his shoulder.
"They should be here by now!" Gilraen exclaimed in frustration and impatience, striding to the door of Elrond's office for yet another time.
"They will be here when they can," he soothed with gentle patience for the next in a similar number of iterations. "It is only barely mid-day…"
"They would have left at dawn, wouldn't they?"
"Gilraen." Once more, the tone of his voice anchored her emotions so that they didn't spiral out of control. "You are exhausted. Can you not sit back down and try to…"
"I can't sleep! Every time I close my eyes, I see A…" Her eyes again flicked to his at her mistake.
Elrond sighed, put down the document he was reading, and faced her directly. "Estel is alive. He will ride into Imladris, not be borne here as was Arathorn to your village. You will not be burying your son, I swear this to you." Gilraen's eyebrows shot straight up as the Master of Imladris himself broke the rule he had set. "We will say his name this once, because we both know it has been foremost in your mind next to your son's."
"Trust me when I say that I know exactly how difficult this is."
"I know." And she did. All through the night, she had alternately railed at him, worried at him, or leaned into his arms and sobbed her heart out. Several times, she had been certain she had heard his breath catch as he held her. More than once, he'd shared how waiting while knowing one or both of his sons to be seriously injured had torn at him. Somehow, she had crossed a threshold of trust and confidence with him. Still, the expression in his eyes and the tone of his voice now bespoke the patience he was once more exercising at her expense. "You should tell me to sit down and be quiet so you can at least do your work," she added finally with a rueful tone. "Sometimes you are more patient with me than I deserve."
The dark eyebrows of the Master of the house rose in surprise, and then he smiled at her. "Perhaps, when you are a little less… anxious, I shall remember and take your advice – mostly likely very much to your dismay."
Gilraen returned the smile, and then returned to her pacing. There was no way that she was going to be able to stay put in the chair before his desk, not even with that warm blanket he'd unearthed from somewhere tucked in securely around her again. She had rested beneath that blanket during the very late hours of the night, but she had not slept; and she knew just as surely that Elrond hadn't either. The hearth fire was built up so that the farthest window away from them both could be left open, in hopes that the sound of horses would carry to them long before a servant came to find them.
But it was the stir of voices near sunset, and the sound of running feet outside the office that finally brought the two of them out to demand an explanation, and finally to pick up skirts and robes and run as fast as they could to the front of the house. They had no more than emerged through the front door when the clatter of hooves of horses at a canter sounded just outside the gate. First through was Elrohir, his long hair flying behind him and his face grim. Next was Arthor, blood on his torn trousers that showed bandaging clearly, looking ready to fall from his mount.
Third and last through the gate was Estel. As Elrond had promised, he was very much alive, but his head sported blood-soaked bandaging, and one arm was caught up in a makeshift sling.
"Estel!" Gilraen shouted, but restrained herself at a pointed look from Elrond from dashing out into the courtyard.
"What happened? Tell me all!" the lord of the house demanded of his son as Elrohir slipped to the ground.
"A full patrol of yrch evidently slipped through the outer fences while the captains were informing the men of the increased activity." Elrohir scowled. "Glorfindel has remained behind to 'instruct' the men on the proper way to hold troop meetings while at duty stations, and Elladan takes our place on the inner fences until the next duty rotation arrives."
"I should hope so!" Elrond's answering scowl bespoke of several warriors who would be receiving the sharp end of their lord's tongue when they rotated back to Imladris. "But…"
"But the training that those who man the inner fences have been getting paid off. Half of the patrol was down before they knew what hit them. The rest were dealt with in short order, with only minor injuries."
Gilraen watched with surging worry as Estel threw his leg over his mount and then slipped to the ground, knees nearly buckling.
"And you, my son. How badly…" Elrond began, trying not to seem to rush to the young man's side.
"Estel acquitted himself well, Father," Elrohir announced with a touch of pride. "Arthor had the bad luck to challenge the patrol leader, and had slipped. Estel tackled the orc after him and saved his friend's life."
"And paid for the honor of the kill, I see," Elrond commented dryly, lifting the bandage at Estel's forehead and then motioning for his assistants. "Take him to the Healing Rooms to await me."
Gilraen finally moved to take advantage of the opportunity to hurry to her son's unwounded side. "How badly are you hurt?" she asked him softly.
Estel shook his head very carefully. "Father will be worried about my head, no doubt, and it bled at lot. And I think my arm is broken." His voice was tight. "But I am well enough. I just never imagined…" He leaned on his mother and swallowed hard. "I never knew that blood could smell so… horrible… or what it felt like when my sword went into that orc's guts…"
Gilraen slowed and took a good look into Estel's face. His eyes were haunted. "Estel…"
"I got sick, Nana," he admitted and ducked his head as if wishing not to meet her gaze any longer. "When it was all over… all over Elrohir's shoes…"
"Each and every one of us who has ever killed yrch has done much the same," Elrohir stated in a tired and impatient voice from behind them. "It is a great responsibility that you take on when you become a warrior, Estel, for taking life is never an easy business."
Gilraen could feel the slight shudder Estel gave at the impersonal, almost calloused tone. "Come on, then," she urged him. "Your father wants you in the Healing Rooms, and I will not gainsay him in the least. You need your head looked to." She shot a glare at Elrohir for his unexpected lack of compassion and then busied herself with helping her son walk up the front steps.
This role she knew well. She'd nursed Arathorn - as well as Elladan and Elrohir once or twice - through injuries that had only kept them down for a little while.
"I am proud of you, Estel," she whispered gently, "so very proud of you."
Estel shuddered again and merely leaned on her a little more.
"Are you certain you should…" Gilraen looked from Estel to Glorfindel. "He's just barely healed…"
"He is on his feet, and he has earned this right," Glorfindel said kindly. "He is no longer a boy, practicing with a sword. He is a warrior full." He shifted his gaze from Estel's face to hers. "I have been honored to do this for many generations of Dúnedain. I am honored to be present this time as well."
"Did you do it for my father?" Estel asked brightly. Gilraen groaned to herself. Since his enforced respite began, Estel had been badgering anyone who would stand still long enough about details of his father's life. Elrond had been hastily consulted, and decided that some modest details about Arathorn could be imparted at last – although not his name nor his position among his people. Certainly his other sons could speak to his life as a warrior without mention of names.
"I did indeed," Glorfindel replied immediately. "And I dare say that he would have been very proud to see me giving you this same honor."
Estel grinned in satisfaction, while Gilraen felt her stomach twist just a little.
"Go on then; Elladan and Elrohir are waiting for you out behind the stables. Your father and I will be with you presently." Glorfindel waited until the young man had given his bow and left the room before speaking to her directly. "I know you wish to be there, but…"
"But I am not a warrior. I understand." Gilraen smiled sadly at him. "Many years ago, when first you took him to the training grounds, I knew this day would come."
"He has earned these braids, Míreth, and his bravery at the inner fences that day has not gone unnoticed among the other warriors here. The one who will do the actual braiding will be Arthor, who received his braids at the same time as Valendil did." Glorfindel put out a hand and cupped her cheek. "He will not be harmed in this ritual, I swear it. Do you honestly think that Elrond would first heal his foster son only to turn around and do him a new mischief?"
No, he wouldn't. Elrond's worry and care for Estel had communicated itself very clearly over those first few days. Gilraen had been given a very clear view of just how much the Master of Imladris loved his foster son, as well as how seriously his foster brothers took their roles in his new life as an up and coming Imladhrim warrior. Elrohir in particular had been abject in offering his apologies for not having protected Estel better, once the uproar had died down, Estel had been stitched up, bandaged and then dosed into slumber.
Gilraen sighed and nodded. This is just another step he takes away from me and toward his destiny. I cannot stop this, anymore than I can ask the sun to stop rising in the east.
Elrond stepped gracefully around her and paused. "You will wait here for our return, for there is a part of the ritual that requires your presence. After."
"As you wish, Master Elrond." She bowed her obedience and folded her hands at her waist.
Sharp grey eyes bored into her own, as if measuring what could be discerned there, and then the dark head nodded. "It is a hard lesson," he commented quietly. "And you will be the better for learning it sooner than later."
"I know." She straightened and faced him directly, her spirit calm. The Elves meant her son no harm, and Estel had proven that he could take care of himself in difficult situations. He was more ready for his destiny than she was. "Thank you," she said in a soft, yet firm voice.
Again she felt herself examined and found up to whatever had been sought, and Elrond turned away and joined Glorfindel in a brisk walk in the direction of the stables - and the woods beyond.
Gilraen let her eyes wander about the view that the front portico of the Last Homely House provided of the settlement grounds and the lands outside the protective walls. He is almost grown, and I must prepare to let him go. It had happened all too quickly, for had he not been a little boy of four, suspended between the tall forms of his foster brothers coming home from a fishing trip only a few days before?
It seemed impossible, but she had lived nearly half of her life in this beautiful and alien place. And as much as she had felt out of place and confused on that first day, she felt she belonged now. She had friends here now – and not just the master of the House and his sons, or Elrond's Battle Master or Chief Counselor. Maeniel had become more than just someone who handed her sewing projects, and she even had become friends with Aurin in the kitchen. She knew the names of all who served within the House, and the names of many of their family members.
This was her home now. Wasn't it?
For the very first time, she let herself wonder about what would be her future when Elrond finally turned Estel over to the Dúnedain Rangers to finish training in their ways. Would she stay here? No doubt Elrond wouldn't mind, nor would Glorfindel. And by staying here, she could resist the temptation to be an overbearing mother still trying to protect her son from the dangers of being a Ranger in training. Or would she go back to her people, to her village – return to a place where she wasn't confounded by complexity every time she turned around?
There was movement from the back corner of the stables, and soon Elrond came into view, his arm looped around Estel's shoulders, with Glorfindel, Arthor, Elladan and Elrohir following behind. Was that a new sword that hung at his side? And how handsome her son looked with those braids tipped with golden beads – so like his foster-brothers' braids that he'd played with endlessly as a small child! Estel's face shone with pride and accomplishment, although she didn't want to think about what those marks on the backs of his hands were, where there had been no injury before. Was that blood?
She swallowed the tears that suddenly threatened at the sight of a young man who, except for height and bulk, reminded her all too much of another man, lost to her long ago.
"Behold, Lady. I give you your son, who is become a blooded and true warrior," Elrond intoned solemnly as the party came to a halt in front of her.
Yes, that was blood on the backs of his hands. What had Elrohir said, just a few short weeks ago? That taking life was a responsibility? She found herself wondering if part of the ritual he had just undergone was to etch that lesson firmly in his mind.
"I am proud of him," Gilraen returned around the lump in her throat. "So very proud."
And, despite everything, she was.
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.