The traditional mid-spring festivities in the Hall of Fire were exuberant, courtesy of a unexpected visiting party from Lothlórien, as well as the many warriors who had returned from their regular rotations on the outer fences without a single injury to report. Elves of all descriptions filled the hall: some danced to the catchy tune that Lindir and his fellow musicians were playing over in the corner; Glorfindel had been collared by others – including a number from the Lothlórien contingent – and was now very animatedly telling a story that had his listeners chortling. Still others hovered near a sideboard that was filled with dainties and juices and wine.
Elrohir and Elladan both had taken Gilraen aside before supper and sung her son's praises to her: he was very responsible, had performed admirably at watch, and distinguished himself nicely in a small skirmish with a small company of orcs that had made the fatal mistake of passing too close to the outpost. Gilraen smiled, happy as usual to know that Estel had returned once more safe and sound from the more dangerous posting on the outer fences that he now called his own among the Imladhrim, and cast her eyes about the large room for her son. But nowhere amongst all the celebrants did she see Estel.
With his usual, placid expression that was given lie to by the way his eyes danced in amusement, Erestor brought Gilraen a goblet of wine. "You are not dancing?" he asked quietly. "Is something amiss – or is it merely that Glorfindel is occupied for a change?"
She chose to ignore the subtle dig; her relationship with Glorfindel was a quiet point of disagreement between her and Erestor, as the Chief Counselor was constantly warning her against relying too much on the golden warrior's company. "I don't see Estel," she replied, craning her neck as if that would help her see through the twisting, whirling, swaying Elves that managed somehow to make the Hall of Fire seem almost crowded.
"He is with Master Elrond," Erestor said with a shrug, allowing his gaze to wander over the crowd finally. "I saw Elrond leading Estel back in the direction of his office some time ago."
"Oh." She allowed her voice to sound merely disappointed, but Gilraen felt a shot of alarm. It wasn't normal for Elrond to take anyone back into his office – especially during a festival – unless that person had done something very wrong or extraordinarily right. And while the twins had been lavish with their praise of Estel's actions on the fences, she hadn't thought it deserving of either reproof or extra honor.
A hand landed very gently on her shoulder, and she blinked to see that it was a concerned Erestor, who very rarely ever touched her for any reason. "I would not worry," he soothed. "Elrond looked very pleased as he was walking with Estel, so I am certain that there is little to be concerned about. In fact…" He reclaimed the goblet he had handed her before she had had a chance to do more than sip at it, and placed it on the nearby sideboard. "I do not believe I have had the honor of dancing with you of late. Will you join me, and allow the music to wash away your cares for a little while?"
Again, she had to blink. Erestor was not known for participating in the dancing very often, as he tended to prefer to listen to the music in a corner with his eyes closed and a toe waving in time to the rhythm. But Erestor this night seemed much lighter of heart than normal. "You seem different," Gilraen commented as she placed her hand in his, her agreement implicit.
"It is the festival, as well as the return of loved ones from distant places," he answered enigmatically as he pulled her into the circle of dancing couples. Then, with his hands at her waist, he lifted her from her feet with effortless ease and swung her into the music.
She waited until he had her feet back on the floor. "Anyone I should know about?" she managed before the up-swell of music had her in the air again.
"Perhaps," Erestor replied, not even breathing hard from the exertion of lifting her bodily into the air over his head over and over again, "but it is not my place to be making introductions." He deposited her back on her feet as lightly as if she had been a feather. "I am certain Master Elrond will take care of the formalities in all due time." He bent to her, the movement part of the dance, but making it possible to speak very privately. "It is mid-spring, Gilraen. The woods are green, the fields are growing apace, the fawns and lambs graze at their mother's sides. Relax and enjoy the festival, or I shall have to retire to my usual corner and pout."
Were it not for the mischievous twinkle in his ancient, grey eyes, Gilraen might have mistaken his whisper for seriousness; but instead she found herself chuckling in spite of everything. This side of Elrond's Counselor was indeed a rare sight to see. "I concede," she said, putting her hands up to his shoulders in preparation for being swung up high into the air again, "if only because seeing you lose the smile and the light on your face would be a shame."
"It is satisfying to know that at least one person around here appreciates it when I make an effort," he grumbled even as he grinned back at her. "Now, do me a favor and laugh for me while we are on this side of the Hall, so that Glorfindel hears and wonders what it is we speak of to have you so merry. I get so few chances to tweak that man's tail, I must take advantage of ever opportunity." And then she was hoisted into the air again.
The thought that Erestor might actually be trying to make Glorfindel jealous struck her as hilarious, and she threw her head back and laughed loud and long, regardless of the reason he'd wanted her to. "You are an imp tonight!" she declared as she descended again.
"Why, thank you, my lady." Erestor twirled her just in time to see that Glorfindel's eyes were now fixed on the two of them over the top of the heads of those who had gathered around him, and that there was a quiet light in their depths.
"It worked," she told him as he lifted her yet again. "You – or, I should say, we – have his complete attention."
For the first time since she had met him, Erestor let a bubble of completely carefree laughter escape him, filling her ears with merriment. "So I saw. I do thank you, little one, for your cooperation. From the looks of his hangers-on, the telling of his tales has lagged somewhat."
She blinked. "Little one?" That was something she had heard all too often in reference to Estel, not her.
"Humor an old Elf, will you?"
Oh, when Erestor smiled like that, Gilraen found it hard to deny him! Where had this good-natured, fun-loving Elf been hiding all this time? "Very well, for tonight only, then, and only because you are just a little bit older than I am."
For her troubles, she was given another round of carefree, uplifting laughter from her dance partner even as he lifted her into the air again to fly with the music.
She had barely put a small bunch of nuts and a wedge of cheese on her plate when her elbow was very capably commandeered by a huge hand. "And what were you and Erestor talking about that had you laughing so hard?"
"Do you want some of the nut bread as well?" she asked Glorfindel as if he had been at her side all along.
"He said that he had so very few opportunities to – how was it he put it? – 'tweak that man's tail' that he didn't want to miss an opportunity." She grinned up into a face that was surprisingly missing any of the jealousy that Erestor had sought to put there. "His playing a trick on you was such a funny idea that I couldn't help myself. Imagine: Erestor, a troublemaker!"
"It is as I thought, then. Good!" Glorfindel added two slices of the nut bread to the plate and then captured two goblets of wine for them. He gestured toward the open door, and the garden beyond. "I noticed that he was in a better mood than usual, and I suspected that he had invited your collaboration in some form of mischief. "
"You knew!" The idea was shocking. "And you played along?"
"Well," he hedged, leading them further into the garden, toward a favorite alcove that they habitually frequented when the weather was cooperative, "seeing Erestor allowing himself to genuinely have a good time does not happen often enough. I suspected he was toying with me, and so I gave him what he wanted – I hope."
"Oh, he was positively bubbling," Gilraen assured him and then took her customary seat at his side. "It was such a change from his normal behavior." She put the plate on the seat between them and took the goblet he offered her. "He said that his mood was the result of the festival, and of loved ones returned."
Glorfindel smiled softly. "Yes, that would have something to do with it."
"He wouldn't tell me who had returned, though."
"I am not surprised. The introductions are, after all, Elrond's to make."
"That's exactly what Erestor said!"
"It is the truth."
Gilraen glowered at him half-heartedly. "I should know better than to ask questions of Elves, because I never get a straight answer."
"Most of the answer you seek will be only a short while coming," Glorfindel chuckled softly, "and from the person it should come from as well. Elves need not give straight answers when such answers are forthcoming anyway." He shrugged at her glare. "It is our way."
His chuckle grew into soft laughter. "Only for those who are impatient." His hand touched her hair. "Peace, Míreth. Let us enjoy the evening, and the delicious repast we brought with us, and the stars." He turned his face up. "Eärendil shines most brightly tonight. The breezes are mild…"
The pounding of footsteps, a sound not often heard in the gardens of Imladris, made both of them look around just in time to see a slender figure dart into the trees at the very edge of the garden. "Who was that?" Gilraen asked, knowing her companion would have been able to see through the half-gloom so much better than she can.
"Estel." Glorfindel sounded thoughtful. "He did not look at all happy."
"Perhaps I should…" Gilraen began to rise.
Glorfindel's hand on her shoulder kept her from completing the move. "Leave him be. Whatever it is, he needs to learn to handle things for himself. Once he is returned to your people, he will not be able to expect your gentle cushioning of all his blows, you know."
Gilraen glanced up at him sharply. "'Once he is returned…' What are you saying?"
The ancient grey eyes gazed at her calmly. "Only that the time is rapidly approaching that Estel will want to reclaim his place among the Dúnedain. You already know this, Míreth…"
"But not yet…" she began.
"Your son has already reached his majority of twenty years, according to Dúnedain tradition, has he not?" Glorfindel asked implacably.
"Then you should realize that the day he returns to them is near at hand, should you not?"
Gilraen subsided some, clenching her hands in her lap nervously. "I suppose." She looked up at him again. "But he would tell me… Elrond… he would warn me before he said anything… Wouldn't he?" She shook her head. "Of course he would. He'd know that I'd want to be ready to handle any questions Estel will have…"
Glorfindel's arm wrapped around Gilraen's shoulder and pulled her close to lean into him without saying a word. She leaned hard into his shoulder, suddenly no longer certain what the immediate future would hold for her or her son.
Hopefully Elrond would put in an appearance soon enough to ask about their son's upset.
Her hair was down, she was in her sleeping gown, and sitting on the very edge of her bed arranging the blankets just the way she liked them when the knock came on her door. Frowning, as she knew that most of the residents of the House tonight were tired from their lengthy celebrations, she pulled up the top blanket to wrap around herself before walking through to answer the door.
"Elrond!" She gazed at the Master of the House in consternation. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes, and no," he replied with a wry expression, then gestured. "Might I come in for a moment."
"Of course." She stood aside while he brushed past her, heading immediately for one of the chairs before her well-banked hearth. She moved to the fire, claiming a slip of bark to carry the flame to some of the candles about the room before blowing out her light and settling into the other chair. As an afterthought, she wrapped the blanket about her tightly against the creeping chill, wishing she'd thought to throw another log on.
"Did I awaken you? I apologize…" Elrond began, almost rising.
"No, I was but getting ready to retire." She folded her hands in her lap. Perhaps Glorfindel and Erestor were right: Elrond would tell her all she needed to know in the near future. "What can I do for you?"
"You can forgive me."
Gilraen stared as Elrond melted back into the comfortable cushions with a distressed look on his face. "What on earth for?" she asked softly, suddenly not eager at all to hear what he had to say for fear it was what she dreaded.
"You know I spoke to Estel this evening?"
"I had planned to speak to you beforehand, to let you know of my intentions in time for you to… prepare for what might come…" He sighed. "And then the party from Lothlórien arrived, and I lost track…"
"Elrond, what is it?" Her heart was in her throat, pounding hard. "What has happened?"
"When Elladan and Elrohir reported on Estel's bravery and deeds on the fences this rotation, I knew that the time had come for him to be made aware…"
"Elbereth!" Gilraen breathed. It was as she had feared. "You told him?" She closed her eyes as he nodded slowly. "All of it?"
"Most of it; some will naturally have to come from you, as you knew his father long after Arathorn had left my tutelage." He rested his head tiredly on a hand propped on the arm of the chair. "Unfortunately, the interview did not go as well as I had hoped."
Her eyes popped open. "No?"
"No. Instead of being pleased that he was finally being told everything about the father that he has pestered everyone here endlessly about, he behaved as if I had betrayed him deeply by keeping this from him." Elrond pinched the top of his nose, a gesture that Gilraen knew was his way of showing fatigue or frustration. "I have no idea where he went when he left me…"
"Glorfindel and I saw him head off into the brush beyond the gardens," Gilraen supplied automatically. "I think Glorfindel knew what was happening."
"He did," Elrond admitted. "I discussed my intentions with him earlier this morning, before the party from Lothlórien arrived. It was Glorfindel's recommendation that I not keep Estel in the dark about his heritage any longer than necessary anymore." He gazed at Gilraen. "He has reached his majority, has learned all of the lessons that I and my people have to teach him, and the time approaches for him to return to his people to meet them, learn their ways before the press of duty and the endless struggle becomes burdensome."
"You should have warned me," Gilraen said flatly. "At least then I could have gone after him…"
Elrond shook his head. "I doubt he would have heard anything you had to say, for he as much as accused you of conspiring with me and with all the others to keep this information from him. He was most bitter with all of us before we parted ways."
"Are you really that surprised?" Gilraen was astonished at him. "He has spoken of nothing else to me of late but his pride in finally being accepted as one of the Imladhrim, of taking his place on the line that keeps the defenses of this place strong. You just stole his most precious dream from him."
"He had not spoken to me of this," he blinked, nonplussed. "Had I known…"
"Would it have changed your decision?" she asked bluntly.
"No." Not surprisingly, he returned bluntness for bluntness. "However, I might have gone about my explanation in a different manner had I known."
Gilraen took a deep sigh and rested her chin in the palm of her hand as she stared into the tiny fringe of flame that still licked at the last log on the grate. "I suppose I should thank you for at least telling me now, before Estel barges in on me in the morning with a thousand questions and his accusations of complicity."
"I should have told you long before this, I know, and for that I am most deeply sorry." If he had only been more accepting of his own failing, more at ease with his actions, she could have maintained a fair head of anger at him, and perhaps even gotten away with scolding him for once. The idea that he would take such a huge step in Estel's life without consulting her was infuriating on the surface. But he looked so forlorn about both his lapse and the discussion with Estel, so ill at ease with matters as they sat, she knew her castigation could be no worse than what he'd already done to himself.
"So tell me," she said after a long moment of silence where both of them gathered their wits, "what was it about the party from Lothlórien that so disrupted your plans that you forgot entirely to talk to me before turning Estel's world upside-down?"
At last she had a reaction from him other than morose guilt! "I will have to introduce you in the morning," he said, a hint of a soft smile unlike any she'd seen before hovering over his lips. "My daughter has returned home."
"Arwen? Here?" Gilraen gaped, and immediately forgave Elrond his lapse. He had suffered from his daughter's absence greatly; to think that such a huge piece of his heart had walked through his front door unexpectedly certainly explained how and why his intentions had gone astray. "I'm glad for you," she offered finally, quite sincere. "She is home to stay?"
"I know not as yet. We have not spoken of this. By the time I finished speaking with Estel, Erestor said that she had gone for a walk beyond the gardens. I shall look in on her before retiring, I suppose…"
"I will begin to gather all the household accounts and ledgers, so that if she is staying…"
"No." Elrond shook his head firmly. "I will not displace you merely because Arwen has returned. You have made the responsibilities of lady of the House your own, and such disregard would not be fair to you. Let us wait until we know more of her intent before…" He sagged in the chair, his brief happiness fading like a dying ember on a bare stone flag.
The grey eyes that gazed into hers were filled with pain. "I may have regained my daughter for a time, Gilraen, but I fear I have lost my youngest son. He would not even call me 'Adar' when he begged permission to leave me; he called me 'Master Elrond', as if he were not a part of the family any longer."
In a way, Gilraen could understand Estel's rejection of his foster-father, and yet she could also see how it only served to wound an already wounded soul. "He will come around. You know Estel: his anger burns hot for a few hours, and then he mopes and pouts and stays to himself for a longer while, and then finally he comes back to see if the world has truly been turned on its ear."
Slowly he nodded. "That has been the way of things before now," he admitted.
"And it will be the way of things again. Come now," she rose and stretched out a hand to him. "You have a daughter to check up on, and you should do so with something other than regret and despair in your eyes. We will deal with Estel in the morning, you and I."
He put his hand in hers and allowed her to pull him to his feet. "I expected you to be much less understanding," he said softly. "I seem to be misjudging everyone this day."
"I am angry that you didn't warn me," Gilraen assured him. "By taking this step without discussing it with me first, you broke the rules by which we agreed to raise Estel together with a unified front." She felt a small thrill of satisfaction at seeing those ancient grey eyes grow large and round. "But I know that making you feel worse about it than you already do will accomplish nothing. Estel will still be in his ill humor, and the news about his heritage will still be open knowledge. He will no doubt come at me with his questions and his temper tomorrow, whether I make you feel worse or no."
She gazed at him levelly. "I may be selfish when it comes to my son, but I am not cruel. For all the kindness and protection that you have provided for me and Estel for lo these many years, you are allowed to be mistaken at least once." She straightened. "It will not happen again, I take it."
"I deserved that." It seemed he couldn't help the smile that was now peeking through the dismay. "And no, it will not happen again. You have my word."
"Then I will bid you a good night, and wish you well of your reunion with Arwen."
Elrond reached out to her and gathered her close for a brief moment. "Thank you," he whispered into her ear and kissed her cheek before releasing her and leaving her staring at the closed door.
One by one Gilraen extinguished the candles she had lit, her heart sinking with each one. Yes, she would deal with Estel in the morning, but she didn't look forward to it in the least.
As it was, Gilraen had barely arisen and made her morning ablutions when a sharp knock rattled the door in its frame, and then Estel burst into her suite. She quickly drew on her under-blouse and under-skirt and met him in the doorway to her bedchamber. "Good morning, Estel," she said carefully.
"That's not my name, and you know it," he grumbled and flounced into the room to park himself against the wall near the window.
"It's the name that Elrond and I agreed to call you when we first came here," she replied, deliberately not allowing her tone to be anything but calm and even. "Elrond feared your discovery more than anything else."
"That's what he told me too," Estel said archly and then glared at her. "He also said that I was the one who started calling him my Adar – that he had no part in that."
"That is true as well." How well Gilraen remembered the day when her little son had turned from her to his new role model and given away the name that belonged to someone else. It was a heartache that she'd learned to live with, despite herself. "I had to decide, in that moment, if I was going to let you grow up having a father, or force you into a foster relationship when you were too young to understand the difference."
"Do you love him?"
Gilraen blinked. Did he just ask her what she thought he…
"Elrond, I mean," Estel added, evidently reading her confusion. "Is that why you never said anything? My father was dead, and Elrond wasn't, so…"
"My first and only real true love is now and always has been your father, Arathorn, and my relationship with your Adar is not the issue, is it?" she again forced herself to an even tone. "Just so you know, however, I am fond of him, yes, because of everything that he's done for the two of us over the years, and because he loves you dearly."
"But He's. Not. My. Father!" Estel ground out, almost as if the words were painful.
"You've always known that…" she began.
He waved a hand as if dismissing what she said. "And all my life here has been a lie. I'm not just the son of some nameless but brave Dúnedain Ranger who was brought here and raised by the lord of the House out of the goodness of his heart. No! I'm the next Chieftain of the Dúnedain – he gave me this ring in token of my position," he thrust out his right hand, on which the ring of Barahir gleamed as if newly-made, "and I've never even met a single one of these people I'm supposed to lead…"
"It was necessary," Gilraen said again. "The Enemy was closing in on us, on our village and our people. In order that the Enemy have no idea where you were or if you still lived, you had to appear to have vanished. All but a very few…"
"Were told that I died of sickness, I know. He told me." Estel threw himself away from the window and began pacing. "Ad… Master Elrond tells me that soon I will have to leave here and go live with the Dúnedain to learn their ways." He stopped looked at her with eyes that burned with both betrayal and anger. "All I ever wanted – and you knew this – was to be the best Imladhrim on the fences as I could be, so I could serve…" Tears that were definitely not welcome swam. "I was just finally starting to feel as if I belonged…"
Gilraen closed the distance and put a hand up to his cheek. When did he get so tall? "Our people have been patiently waiting for you to learn all that you could here, with the Elves. Even Elrond says that there is little more for you to learn here."
He hunched slightly and pressed against her palm. "Maybe not to learn, but my life is here. This is my home! I don't want to leave."
He jerked away from her. "That's. Not. My. Name!"
"Aragorn..." she amended, hoping to reach behind his emotions and touch his reason, "nothing has changed all that much. You are still my son, and you still will ride out with the rest of the Imladhrim when your duty rotation comes up until your adar says otherwise. All that has changed is that you finally have all the pieces of the story of how you came to be here." She patted the cheek gently. "You should be pleased; this is what you have been bothering everyone here about for the better part of a year and a half to tell you."
"I don't know what to believe anymore."
"Believe this, then, if you can believe nothing else." She closed the distance between them again and grasped one of his hands in hers. "You are well-loved, and you were well-loved by the man who sired you. Your safety was important enough to your grandfather, and the other leaders of the Dúnedain in our village, that you were sent here to grow up strong and free, and to learn all that the Elves had to teach you. Your name here was no accident, for you have been and are the estel – the hope – of many, including Elrond himself. Your fate may not be to remain here, in Imladris, but it will always be your home."
"Elrond will always be an adar to you, because he has been your adar in all the ways that matter save one, and he told you of your true heritage because he realized that you had done all that he had ever hoped for you to achieve while living as his son. He loves you, Estel, very much; I know this with the same certainty that I know my own name."
The tears that had been swimming had dropped to pale cheeks, but Estel moved away too fast for Gilraen to be able to wipe them away for him. With the same kind of rushing gait that she had seen often from the Elves, and even Arathorn long ago, he headed straight for her door and vanished without another word.
Gilraen stared at the closed door for a long moment before heading back toward her bed chamber and the rest of the day's garb, which included a warmer shawl to go over the under-blouse and bodice. Today was her day to consult with Aurin on the menu for the next few days' meals, which inevitably meant a trek into the underground pantry where supplies were kept at a cool temperature.
And sometime today, if Elrond kept his word, she would be meeting the real Lady of Imladris. This was not a day to encounter unprepared.
But her hands still shook.
Arwen was as lovely and charming as Gilraen could have expected from a child of Elrond. Gilraen was certain that Arwen had gone out of her way to be gracious and kind, but had nonetheless felt relieved to hear that Arwen had no intention of taking over her duties to the household. It seemed that Arwen had taken on that role for her grandparents, and was thoroughly enjoying a true respite from the responsibilities. Over lunch, and with her father and brothers listening on, she related several details about the way her mother had managed things long ago. The suggestions were so imminently practical that Gilraen was determined to put them into practice herself.
Evenings in the Hall of Fire became adventures in entertainment, for no one could predict exactly the direction things would take on any specific day. Elladan and Elrohir were in high spirits with their sister returned to them, and Gilraen had to chuckle at the number of times that Elrond rolled his eyes in good-natured indulgence of their antics. The twins took every opportunity to tease their sister, who was just as willing to turn the tables on them and sit back to laugh at them.
Stories were a pleasant mixture of new and old, for the storyteller was as likely to be one of the Lothlórien party – or Arwen herself – telling stories from that far-away land as it was to be Erestor or Elrond. The music was still sublime, but definitely more suited to dancing than simply sitting and listening. Gilraen was startled by but quickly grew used to Glorfindel parking himself at her side as she would attend to her mending and the narrative of the evening's storyteller.
On the fourth evening, after having been only barely social enough to dart into the dining hall for meals and sullen attendance at what few lessons Erestor or Glorfindel could contrive, Estel made an appearance in the Hall of Fire. He nodded seriously to Gilraen the moment he saw that she'd noticed him, took up a goblet of wine, and then sought out a quiet and semi-hidden alcove to haunt. Gilraen caught Elrond's eye and led his gaze to the draperies and the lanky legs that were all that could be seen of their son, then saw Elrond's smile grow soft and his eyes glow his gratitude. It was as she had predicted: Estel was slowly coming back to see if his world, while skewed, was still otherwise intact.
When Glorfindel seated himself next to her, she quietly told him what had happened, and then leaned gratefully into the shoulder of the arm that wrapped itself about her shoulder. Gilraen saw Arwen's eyebrows soar at the sight, but then her father leaned over and spoke softly to her for a few moments; when next she looked back across the room, she had a soft smile on her face.
Still, she was not surprised when there was a soft knock on her door not long after she had retired for the evening. "Estel," she said carefully and stood back to let him enter.
"I came to apologize," he said, not quite scuffing his toe against the rug in front of the hearth the way he had done as a small boy caught out in a mischief. "I said some things that were…"
"You were upset," Gilraen closed the door and gestured for him to sit down. "When Elrond told me that he had spoken to you, I knew to expect something like that." She sat down across from him. "I'm glad we're speaking normally again."
"Do you… Do you think Adar is angry at me?"
She smiled softly. "No, I'm fairly certain he's not upset with you. He knows your ways of handling upsets as well as I do. And he saw you at the Hall of Fire tonight, so he knows that you are well on your way to recovering." She gazed at him evenly, growing concerned when he didn't lift his head to meet her eyes. "Estel? Is anything wrong – other than what we discussed earlier, that is?"
"No," he said a bit too quickly, leaning forward to put his elbows on his thighs and hang his clasped hands between his knees. He glanced up at her guiltily and then looked down again. "Well…"
"Well…" he repeated, his cheeks actually turning pink, "it isn't so much wrong as…"
"Estel!" She knew very well when he was hedging.
He hung his head. "You aren't going to like it."
"I'll decide what I like or don't like. What is going on?"
He tipped his head up, and his eyes were wide. "I think I'm in love."
Gilraen blinked. "In love? With whom?" She wracked her brain, trying to think of all the females that Estel had the opportunity to come in contact with. So many of them had been friends of his – adult friends – his entire life…
"She's only been here a little while, and… and she's so beautiful…" His face had gained a glow that made her stop and think. His father had had a similar glow when they were courting; so she would need to take this confession quite seriously.
"Who is she, Estel?" Had there been women in the party from Lothlórien other than Arwen, because certainly he wasn't thinking of…
"Arwen Undómiel," he answered and then hung his head as he saw Gilraen's face fill with horror.
"You have decided to fall in love with Master Elrond's daughter?" Her mouth gaped as he nodded his head slowly, and it took a long moment for her to recover her wits. "My son, your aim is high, even for the descendant of many kings. For this lady is the noblest and fairest that now walks the earth. And it is not fit that mortal should wed with the Elf-kin."
"Yet we have some part in that kinship, if the tale of my forefathers is true that I have learned," Estel countered. "Ad… Master Elrond himself tells of how we are blood kin, separated by many generations surely, but still noble and…"
Gilraen sighed. "It is true, but that was long ago and in another age of this world, before our race was diminished. Therefore I am afraid; for without the good will of Master Elrond the Heirs of Isildur will soon come to an end. But I do not think that you will have the good will of Elrond in this matter." In fact, she was fairly certain that Elrond would take a very dim view of a mortal man wooing his immortal daughter. Estel had seen his foster-father's temper displayed only a very few times; and she really didn't look forward to consoling him after sparking the explosion she suspected would erupt at this announcement. Better he be discouraged quickly, before that happened!
"Then bitter will my days be, and I will walk in the wild alone," Estel sighed, his voice making the statement high drama, as he often did when presented with something he didn't want or appreciate knowing.
Gilraen's mind filled suddenly with a chilling vision of a man, tramping through deep woods alone, his garb tattered and torn, his hair wild and long – and greying. It had been long since she'd had any visions like this one, like the one that had chilled her heart and nearly overwhelmed her the afternoon before the sons of Elrond had brought her husband back to her, dead. And just as certainly as she'd known that something had happened to Arathorn, she knew this grim and lonely wanderer would be her son.
"Nana?" Estel asked, his face showing his concern at her lack of response.
She had to tell him; she had no choice. "That will indeed be your fate." She blinked as the vision faded, leaving her drained and reeling. "But let us wait and see. This could be but a passing fancy – Arwen is one of the first women you have seen that you didn't know as a small child. Perhaps it is just the novelty of a new face."
Gilraen put up a hand when he would have protested. "No, Estel. We will speak of this no more for now. You will speak no more of this, not to me, not to Glorfindel, not to Arwen, and most definitely not to Elrond. Do you understand?"
She could tell he wasn't happy, but the nod she got told her that he would obey her. She had a funny feeling it would be the last time she could order him about so and get away with it, and knew that the one who kissed her gently on the cheek before taking his leave was no longer a child.
"You asked to see me?" Gilraen said as she folded her hands to stand before Elrond's encumbered desk, which was gently illuminated by the late summer sun.
The Master of the House rose and with a gesture led her to the chair that she normally claimed as hers whenever she was summoned to this office for something other than official household matters. "I did." He paused next to the sideboard. "Would you care for some wine?"
At a loss as to why she'd been summoned now, she nodded. "I will need it, I suppose?"
The raise of his shoulder in response while he remained turned pouring two goblets was of little comfort or use. "That depends entirely on you," he replied eventually, handing her down her goblet before seating himself in the other chair. "I have news for you that you should hear from me ere anything is said to our son."
"News?" Gilraen sipped at her watered wine to hide her shaking.
Elrond nodded solemnly. "The time has come for Estel to be returned to the Dúnedain. I have spoken with my sons, and after he returns from his latest duty rotation on the fences and has time to rest, they will accompany him to your village, where I have already sent word to your father to expect him."
Gilraen nodded, her mind going numb. "So soon…" she mused.
"I told you before that we have little more for him to learn here. It is now the task of the Rangers of the North to make him one of them, to teach him what it means to be The Dúnadan, so that he can gradually begin shouldering the responsibilities of his position."
She had been expecting this for weeks now, ever since he had taken Estel aside to tell him of his true heritage. Still, now that the moment had arrived, she was unable to wrap her mind around the fact that everything she had been charged with doing when ripped from her village and transplanted into this hidden and protected realm was now finished.
Slowly she realized that Elrond was quietly waiting for her to react to his announcement. She looked up and found his gaze resting gently on her. "And you haven't told Estel yet?"
He shook his head. "No. I wished to tell you first, so as not to make the same error I made the last time I had something of weight to tell him."
"Thank you." She gave him a small smile, one that faltered in the light of his intense gaze. "Is there more?"
"Yes." He took a sip of his wine and then set the goblet aside. "As this sees the end of our joint venture in child-rearing, it means that the time has also come for you to make a decision."
"Me?" she squeaked.
"Indeed. When Estel returns to your people, if you wish, you may return with him."
Gilraen stared at him, dumbfounded. "Go home?"
"If you wish," he nodded. "I leave the choice to you. You may also remain here, if you wish. I would like to think that your time here has allowed you to come to view Imladris as your home as well." He leaned forward. "Although, if you will permit, I would like to offer a few reasons why you might wish to postpone any move, at least temporarily."
Postpone? Elrond was wanting to offer reasons for her to stay in Imladris? Unable to make her mouth do more than gape, she nodded
He sat back, obviously satisfied with at least the opportunity to speak his mind. "In the first place, Estel – Aragorn now – will not be remaining in the village for long. The training camp for the Dúnedain Rangers, I understand, is some distance away. If you were to return, you would still be separated from him, if not immediately, very soon thereafter."
She blinked. Glorfindel had told her something about not being able to be the cushion against Estel's blows any longer once he went to the Dúnedain. This was merely a restatement of it, including the reasons. If she went home, she went home alone. She nodded, accepting it.
"Secondly, I have already watched you weather a drastic change to your surroundings and circumstances, so I am confident of your ability to once more adapt. However, at the same time, I am certain that much has changed in your village since you left. I hesitate to send you off to a place where you would possibly feel estranged and apart. I would instead offer to now allow communications and visits between Imladris and your family and friends again, giving you a chance to hear the news and at least mentally prepare yourself for relocation. When Rangers come here, you should take advantage of their company to renew old friendships and exchange messages."
The offer to allow her to speak to those she might know or who might know of those she cared for – to write a letter to her mother – was almost overwhelming. After so many years, to hear the sound of Dúnedain voices again!
"And finally, a selfish reason on my part, if you will…"
With wide eyes and an overflowing heart, she nodded to encourage him again.
"Arwen will not be staying here; she returns to Lothlórien not long after Estel leaves for the wild. It is also likely that Elladan and Elrohir will avail themselves of the opportunity to return to their orc-hunting, although hopefully they will be less single-minded about it and return home more often. In light of this, I admit I would like to keep near me at least one I…" He hesitated and sipped at his wine as if to give himself a moment to gather his thoughts. When he lifted his head again to look at her, she could see he had steeled himself in some ways, and yet… "I have grown very fond of your company, lady, and would delay your departure if I could. I am certain Glorfindel would feel the same, were he here. As a matter of fact, I fully expect him to voice much the same opinion, once he is given the chance."
For only the second time in the years she had resided in his home, Gilraen knew she was being shown a more full demonstration of the fondness Elrond evidently held for her, a fondness that she returned in full. And she understood him so well; all of his children – including Estel – were leaving him in a very short time. He was clinging to what little he could, lest he lose her as well.
"How much time do I have to make my choice?" she asked a little unsteadily.
"At the very least, until the day after I make this known to Estel," he replied. "There is no need to make an immediate decision. Please, take your time and consider your options carefully. This time, at least, no one will be obliging your actions either way."
"Thank you for that," Gilraen said, her relief almost painful. How different they were: Elrond and her father. Her father had given her no choice, and sent her here feeling as if she were more servant than parent; Elrond was giving her the choice, and letting her know of her value to him long before she chose.
That would be part of what she would have to consider as she thought through her choice. She had prospered under the gentle respect with which the Elves treated all, from the lowliest laundry maid to the Lady Arwen herself. The Dúnedain had very different ideas about the proper place and treatment of their womenfolk.
She stirred herself from her sudden reverie to find Elrond comfortably settled back in his chair, his goblet cradled between his hands, watching her. "You're being overly patient with me again," she said softly, with a blush. "You should chase me out of your office so that you can get your work done."
"I am in no hurry to return to reading dry intelligence reports of questionable value," he waved one hand lazily. "And I am enjoying the company of a good friend."
Yes, they were friends. And her leaving to go back to her village would mean an end to this remarkable, almost unbelievable relationship that had grown up between them over the years. Gilraen smiled at him and settled back into her chair as well. "As am I," she returned. "If you have no objection, I'm in no hurry to rush off."
Elrond smiled. "I have no objection whatsoever, Gilraen."
Two weeks later, the two of them were once more in the courtyard, watching men and horses preparing to leave Imladris. Gilraen tightened her arm around her son's waist as she walked him to his mount. "You will write, and tell me how it goes with you!"
"I swear, Nana. I will write whenever I have a chance." Estel – no, from this moment on, he would be Aragorn – bent to kiss her cheek and give her one more very tight hug. "I have your letters to your father and mother right here," he said, patting his chest where his inner pocket had been placed. "And I will give them your love."
"May the stars light your path always, my son," she managed, backing away as he swung up so easily into the saddle, looking so very much like his father all of a sudden.
"Go with the good wishes of the Elves, my son," Elrond intoned, coming up next to her and standing close enough to lend her a little of his warmth on the chilled morning. "And stay not long before you return home, Elladan, Elrohir."
The two warriors stood like mirror images in front of their father and gave him a warrior's salute and then accepted a hug from him before turning to Gilraen. "We will see him safely to the village," Elrohir promised.
"He will do well there," Elladan added. "And we will watch over him as we might."
"Thank you." Her tears made it impossible to do more than just mouth the words.
Both leaned forward and kissed the cheek closest to them in unison, and then they too had leapt to their mounts and the three of them cantered from the courtyard amid waves and calls of farewell. Soon the song beckoning those leaving to return soon was rising from the many corners of the estate, answered by the refrains of farewell from the travellers.
"I spoke with him," Elrond said softly, surrounding Gilraen's shoulders with an arm and pulling her close. "About Arwen."
She pulled far enough back to look into his face, wiping at tears that refused to stop flowing. "I told him not to say anything…"
"He did not. I saw the way his eyes would watch her when he thought no one was looking. He merely confirmed what I already suspected."
Gilraen had to work hard not to flinch. Was he going to chide her? "I'm sorry. I was hoping…"
"You owe me no apology. I was not angry with him," Elrond said, somewhat surprised. "I realize that he has little experience with women he did not grow up with as his caretakers. I merely let him know that Arwen's heritage is such that she is outside his reach, and that he had no idea what he was asking of me."
"It's but infatuation," Gilraen asserted firmly, leaning back into him again. "Give him a little time in the village, with all the pretty faces there, and he'll forget all about her."
His smile was thin. "My hopes exactly. Have you broken your fast yet?"
"Come then. You need something warm inside you, and do not let Aurin take you into the cellars today. You can plan your menus without chilling yourself all over again."
She smiled through her tears. "Yes, Master Elrond."
The large hand on her shoulder squeezed gently. "Enough of that. And have I told you how thankful I am that you chose to remain for a time with us?"
Gilraen leaned into his strength with a sniff and let him lead her back into the Last Homely House.
Three mornings later, they watched Arwen and the party from Lothlórien canter through those same gates, and this time it was Gilraen's turn to offer the comfort and lead the grieving father back into the warmth of their home.
A/N: Quotations in bold taken from Appendix A, part v.
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.