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Elrond did not expect the sound of his sons' laughter drifting down the path to cause the stylus lines on the wax of his tablet to blur. Blinking, he looked up and saw two of them sprawled on the path engrossed in a game of soldiers, the black hair of the one on the left sleeked into a clip of silver and moonstone, wisps of the other's straggling out of a leather tie.
He had three sons. Estel, though a son of his heart, was no less beloved than the sons of his body. When had that happened?
He had promised Gilraen, "I will be a father to him," intending to be only a stern and distant presence for the years the boy was hidden away until he was old enough to be properly fostered as always. Many sons of Men had passed through his hands as he trained them in leadership, and he had loved some of them well, but none before this one had evoked the same fierce protectiveness he felt for his other children. For no other than Estel would he have said "My sons" as he watched them together.
Shouts of glee distracted him. Elrohir had set up a lesson in basic strategy on the path, but with a fine disregard for the niceties, Estel held a soldier on top of a carved mumak and wreaked havoc on defenders and attackers alike, smashing through the set lines with much trumpeting and many yells as blood-curdling as a three year old could manage. Elrohir bent over to move some of his soldiers out of the path of the carnage. While he was off balance, Estel swarmed up his brother's side. Rolling over onto his back, Elrohir wrestled Estel over him and tossed the boy up into the air several times as Estel shrieked with laughter.
Elrond chuckled. Estel, who had collapsed onto Elrohir's chest, turned at the sound. Wriggling out of Elrohir's arms, Estel snatched up his favorite soldier and ran to Elrond's side.
"Are you done working, Daddy? Can you play with us now?" he asked, bouncing from foot to foot. "It can be me and Daddy 'gainst you and El'hir."
"You and who?" Elrond sent a startled look towards his son.
Estel brandished the soldier. "Daddy. My daddy is the best and the bravest soldier ever and we'll beat ya good."
Elrond steadied the soldier and saw with dismay that it was the figure Elrohir had carved into an exact likeness of Arathorn, Estel's true father who had died in an orc ambush. The words the boy had actually said penetrated. After nearly a year in Rivendell, Estel spoke almost exclusively Sindarin and Elrond was ada. The soldier was 'daddy' in Westron. He glared at Elrohir over Estel's head. Elrohir had promised months ago to wean Estel away from the toy. Though Elrond had not seen it lately, it was quite obvious it was not because the boy had given it up.
Elrohir walked over and stood behind Estel, looking warily at his father. Elrond smiled at Estel and ruffled his hair. "Yes. I can play now. But," he gestured at the litter of soldiers on the path, "I think we need more men to do a very big battle. Can you go find another basket of them?"
"Sure!" Estel gave an energetic bounce and ran a few steps down the path. Turning, he ran back and thrust the soldier he carried into Elrohir's hand. "Take care of Daddy for me." The boy danced out of the garden, singing random snatches of la-lolly choruses.
Elrond looked at Elrohir intending to castigate him, and the words of censure died on his lips. Elrohir stood rubbing his thumb over the doll's face, his eyes distant and desolate. Elrond stood, and held out his hand with sympathy. "Elrohir," he started gently.
Elrohir shrugged off Elrond's hand. "A year ago today, I also looked after his father. I took the arrow from Arathorn's eye, washed his blood from his face, and buried him in an unmarked grave to keep away the scavengers while we avenged him."
Men change and die in so few years. It was their nature, but their fates were no less bitter to Elrond now than when his brother had chosen to be numbered among them. He loved this boy. Was it because Elrond wanted his brother's line to survive into greatness once again? This boy had an aura about him that Elrond could not grasp. Foresight said the Age would end, and the line of Elros still had a part to play, but it could be in defeat as readily as in victory. Or was it only that it had been too long since a very young and vulnerable child had climbed fearlessly into his lap, rubbing sleep away with a grubby hand and asking, "Daddy, tell me a story?" It no longer mattered. Elrond had given the boy his protection for his own sake, and he would keep Estel safe, until he was a man.
"We must teach him, at least, not to call the doll 'daddy'," Elrond said, keeping his voice soft and persuasive, 'or the explanations will be needlessly complex should anyone visiting overhear."
Elrohir gave a mirthless snort. "The whole farrago is needlessly complex and will be impossible to explain. Arathorn was a good friend of mine and he loved and cherished his son. It is not right …."
Elrond cut him off. "We agreed…."
"No." Elrohir interrupted, "You decided, and have overridden all objections. If it were up to me, Estel would be Aragorn still and I would tell him stories of his father, so Arathorn would not be forgotten."
"If it were known that the Heir of Isildur still lived, there would be no Dúnedain by the time he reached manhood. The Dark Lord is stirring. His reach is still long and he does not forget. It is safest and best for all the West if Aragorn is Estel, and hidden here," Elrond countered in the face of Elrohir's insistence.
They heard Estel's chatter as he came into the garden, holding onto Elladan's arm. Elladan lugged a heavy, oversized basket.
"Daddy, I found El'dan and we brought all the armies!" Estel cried out as he ran ahead.
"A boy should know his father," Elrohir muttered.
"He does. I am his father." Elrond said. He turned to Estel. "Good. With all the armies, it can be you and me against your brothers."
Estel plucked the soldier from Elrohir's safekeeping and beamed up at Elrond. "With Daddy on our side, we'll beat them."
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