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A Lesson in Swordplay
For Rhonda, on her birthday. Thank you for always being so encouraging in real life.
Imladris 2947 TA
Estel scowled at the tip of the sword pressed lightly against his chest. He lifted his eyes to focus on the smiling face of Elladan, and his brother laughed and moved the sword aside.
“Good bout, Estel!” he cried, holding out his hand.
Estel accepted the hand and was pulled to his feet. He straightened his tunic and brushed the dust from his backside, using the time to wipe the scowl from his face too.
“You did very well, Estel, right to the end of the match,” said Glorfindel when Estel finally met his eyes. “I doubt Elladan has ever used that particular trick on you.”
The scowl returned. “I will never beat him! Each time I learn how to defend or counter one of his tricks, he simply hits me with a new one!”
To his horror, his voice cracked and he cringed at the shrill sound. He felt heat rising in his face and quickly averted his gaze from Glorfindel and Elladan.
“Estel - -” said Elladan quietly.
Estel sighed and looked at his brother, but Elladan did not continue. For once, he actually looked as if he didn’t know what to say. His look was almost pleading.
“May I be excused, please?” Estel asked.
Glorfindel nodded, and Estel grabbed his practice sword and walked quickly to the armory. He did not look at anyone as he wiped down the weapon and placed it back in the rack where it belonged. Then he ran out the back door and went to the waterfall.
Darkness was settling over the valley when Estel heard the soft whistle announcing that someone was approaching. A moment later, Elladan and Elrohir both appeared from around the rocks. Elrohir sank down at his side, but Elladan hesitated.
“May we join you?” he asked.
Elrohir snorted. “Of course we can. Why would Estel not want our company?”
“He would not even let me try to take you by surprise,” groused Elrohir. He jostled Estel slightly, but then casually slipped an arm around Estel’s shoulder. “Elladan can be very obnoxious, you know. Sometimes even I can barely tolerate him. Was he so bad this afternoon?”
“No, it was me. I was just frustrated.”
“Hmmm,” said Elrohir knowingly. “You have reached the point in your training where you are actually pretty good with the sword while having no one to battle who is your equal.”
“Exactly,” muttered Estel.
“I remember how that feels.”
Estel looked at him in surprise. “You do?”
“Well, not exactly. Elladan and I had each other. But Glorfindel taught us too – and Athranen and Angren, and they always beat us. What chance did we have of ever beating them? Do you know how many wars they had fought in?”
“Yes, and I have you two in addition to them. I will never beat Elladan. He knows more tricks with the sword than I will ever learn.”
“I disagree,” replied Elladan amiably. “A day will come when we will fight to a draw, and not long after you will win. And when you win, it will be an honest win.”
“Chance, more likely.” Estel sighed.
“Chance, or fate, can be a part of any win or loss. Many an experienced warrior has been beat by one or the other. You are very skilled, Estel. Your self control is admirable, especially in one so young. That will assist you against both foes of lesser skill and foes of greater skill,” replied Elladan.
“Do you really mean that?”
“When have I ever given a compliment that I did not mean?” asked Elladan. “Except for compliments about Elrohir’s hair. Those are made in jest. He still can’t braid it straight, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I am sorry I lost my temper.”
Elladan laughed. “You did not lose your temper. I could teach you a thing or two about losing your temper. You are an inexperienced novice in this area.”
Estel couldn’t help but smile. “Is there anyone closer to my skill level in Imladris? Someone I would have a chance of beating?” He grinned. “How about Adar? Does he still have a sword?”
“You have seen Adar’s sword. It has more kills than days you have lived,” teased Elrohir.
“I do not think it has been off the wall in all the years Estel has been alive though,” replied Elladan. He glanced down at Estel. “He might stand a chance.”
Elrohir just laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come, it is time for dinner. You need a bath first.” When they both looked at him, he added, “Both of you. You stink.”
Estel caught the look from Elladan and dove for Elrohir, but captured only a shoe for his efforts. Elrohir leapt down the rocks, but Elladan jumped beyond him to stop his escape. Estel tackled them both and knocked them off the rock landing into the pool below. He was just about to howl his victory when a hand caught his ankle and pulled him down into the cold water after them.
“I did not need a bath,” stated Elrohir when they had all surfaced. “Trolls.”
“Then I am sure you will be glad to go get us towels and clean clothing,” replied Elladan cheerfully, then added in a whisper to Estel. “Elrohir is the best valet.”
Elrohir shoved both of their heads underwater, but when Estel came back to the surface, Elrohir had gone to do as asked.
* * *
Several days later, Estel was back at the armory. Glorfindel had given him a break from sword play, but had told him at breakfast that he had scheduled a bout for that afternoon. The days off had improved his mood. He knew he would lose to whoever he was fighting, but he would persevere and learn and gain strength and skill, and his day would come. He had finished putting on his leather armor and chosen his sword, and was walking to the field when he saw Elrond.
“Adar!” he greeted him. He looked suddenly closer at Elrond’s attire. “You are here to fight!”
Elrond laughed. “I am. It is time that I tested your skills. Glorfindel also thinks it good that I work out a little restless energy.”
Estel opened his mouth to reply, then snapped it shut. Had the twins told their father what they had talked about at the waterfall? Was Elrond here to prove he could beat Estel too? “Did Elladan and Elrohir talk to you about this?” he asked cautiously.
A brow rose on Elrond’s face. “About swordplay with you? No. Why do you ask?”
Estel studied Elrond. He was so hard to read. But Elrond did not lie. Glorfindel saved him from having to explain himself.
“Estel has learned . . .,” he began, but Elrond held up a hand.
“I wish to discover what Estel has learned on my own,” said Elrond. He smiled at Estel. “And Estel shall discover what I know.”
He raised his sword, and Estel lifted his own to tap it lightly. Then at a nod from his father, he struck first.
He quickly forgot about the audience that had gathered to watch as he found himself in a bout unlike those he was used to. His father was simply defending against Estel’s blows, but thus far had not taken the offensive. Glorfindel or Elladan would have already driven him back by this point, making him change his tactics. But then, Elladan said it had been long since Elrond had used a sword.
He increased the pace of his blows, driving Elrond back a few yards. He tried the trick he had seen Elladan do a few days earlier. Elrond had to spin and jump another pace back to avoid being defeated by it, but he kept his feet. Estel wondered if he knew the move. Perhaps not.
Suddenly, Elrond tossed his sword from his right hand to his left and turned, blocking Estel’s blow in a way that knocked him off balance. Estel was caught off guard, but his training came back to him instantly and he corrected his step and turned into the blow, forcing Elrond to have to turn and come at him from a different angle. Elrond did as Estel expected, and he was ready for him. He blocked the hit and those that followed, then changed his stance and tried another move he had learned from Elladan. To his surprise, the strike took Elrond’s sword to the ground. His father did not let go, however, and instead he seemed to dive towards Estel. In that split second, as the force of his father’s weight pressed down upon his sword and sword arm, he knew he had to release the sword, fall forward or somehow turn the sword aside.
He turned the sword aside, but fell himself anyway. He rolled quickly and scrambled to his feet, noting as he did so that Elrond had done the same! They faced each other a moment later, both breathing hard. Then Estel darted forward and resumed the fight. He caught a gleam in his father’s eye and read it as respect!
His confidence nearly bursting, he threw himself back into the fight. Elrond took the defensive posture again and Estel pushed him. It was nearly too late when he realized his father had maneuvered him into a corner by backing up himself. He tried to halt the movement, and Elrond took advantage of his quandary to take the offensive. The blows came faster than they had at any time in their bout, and Estel found himself not only tired but unprepared for the onslaught. He was backed up against the trees and finding his options very limited. In a last attempt to stave off defeat, he repeated the move that had nearly disarmed Elrond before. They were both too close to the trees and unable to roll gracefully, and Estel dropped his sword.
He jumped up and spun to face his father, waiting for Elrond’s blade to pin him, but he found Elrond on one knee, holding his sword loosely. He laid the blade down and stood.
“That, my son, was a fine match. You are every bit as good as rumor whispers,” said Elrond, breathing heavily.
Estel was stunned. His father should have won. Or should he have?
Then his father slapped him on the back and pulled him against his side in embrace as the audience Estel had forgot about pressed toward them.
“Nice use of that move, Estel!” cried Elladan gleefully. “Adar had to think fast to respond to that. But it doesn’t work so well in close quarters.”
“I would say it worked quite well for Estel in close quarters,” replied Glorfindel. “It was a last ditch effort that time and served its purpose.”
“He would have been better served with . . .,” continued Elladan.
“Elrond should have . . .,” interrupted Glorfindel.
Estel looked up at his father and found Elrond smiling down at him. “Those two will be analyzing and arguing over what move would have best served each of our positions for the rest of the day and likely the rest of the week.” He laughed. “Come, let us go cool off in the pool.”
To Estel’s surprise, Elrond handed both of their swords to one of the elves standing nearby then removed his leather armor and handed it and Estel’s to another elf. Estel did not remember ever not having to care for and put away his own equipment before. His father was as courteous to these elves as he was to any within the house, thanking them as they took the items.
They walked in silence along the footpath by the stream, climbing to the high pool where Estel and the twins had bathed a few days before, though they came to it from a path that was little used and nearly overgrown with foliage. There Elrond stripped and then dove into the pool, his muscular arms breaking the surface as he swam to the far side.
Estel followed more slowly, joining his father on the rock ledge that was pleasantly warm in the sun, a contrast to the mountain waters that fed the pool and were always cool.
“Adar,” he finally asked, “did you purposefully not win?” He paused. “I mean, I did not win either, but did you just not want to beat me?”
Elrond studied him with an expressionless gaze. Estel knew it meant he was pondering something. He had given up trying to guess what might be going on in his father’s ancient mind long ago.
“What were you thinking as we sparred?” he asked instead.
Estel grinned, but refrained from pointing out that his father had not answered his question. He gave up arguing that angle long ago as well. “At first I wondered why you let me stay on the offensive so long.”
“Tell me some reasons an opponent might do that.”
Estel caught the nuance in the words. An opponent. Don’t make it personal. “The most obvious would be that he was overwhelmed.” He watched his father’s face to see if he would deny this possibility. “While you may not have engaged in swordplay in some time, I think it would be presumptuous of me to think that my skill was that much greater than yours, especially at the beginning.”
Elrond smiled at him. “Tell me other reasons, then.”
Estel felt a flush creep up his face before he even spoke his next words. “Another reason would be that you did not respect me as an opponent.”
Elrond nodded. “That is a possible scenario, though a dangerous one.”
Estel chewed his lip. “If you were merely playing with me, making a fool of me, how would that be dangerous?”
Elrond did not answer. “Any other reasons?” he asked instead.
Estel thought for a few moments. “You were testing me, Adar, but a real opponent wouldn’t do that.”
Elrond raised an eyebrow. “In the first few minutes of our bout, Estel, I learned much. I learned your strengths, I learned which moves you favored, I learned which of your strokes posed me the most threat. Would those not be worthy things for an opponent to know?”
“I don’t know,” answered Estel. “Why not just beat me? If you knew you were better than me, why waste time?”
“Who is to say that I knew I was better than you?”
“Adar, please,” scoffed Estel. But Elrond did not laugh. “An opponent who took me seriously and was not sure of victory would learn my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said slowly.
Elrond smiled. “In a sword battle such as we just had, yes. In a real war, with many opponents, perhaps not. But you and I were in one-on-one combat, and such fights have slightly different rules than battle would.”
“What do you mean?” asked Estel.
“Let us say that our two armies met in battle, and there was a challenge for one-on-one combat. I would expect a more fair fight with that individual. No sneak attacks, no dishonorable behavior. On the other hand, if there were hundreds of us fighting, I expect the worst behavior imaginable. I would expect no quarter and be less likely to give any.”
“Even with an orc?”
“Depends on the orc,” laughed Elrond. “After you tried Elladan’s trick on me, you attacked hard. What were you thinking then?”
Estel smiled. “I was feeling very confident. I was thinking of what other sneaky moves your sons might have taught me that I could try out on you.”
“And what happened?”
“You turned me inside out and backed me into a corner before I knew it,” responded Estel. He considered his words. “I did just what I feared you doing to me – I underestimated you at that moment!”
“You did not underestimate my skill with a blade, but you counted on knowing tricks I did not, so in that sense you did underestimate me as an opponent,” said Elrond.
Estel leaned back against the rocks. “My last move really was a last ditch effort,” he mused.
“In a way it was, yet I would not say it was inappropriate. You could no longer hope to defeat me in the position you were in, but you were unable to simply accept defeat or give up hope. That is an admirable thing, Estel. Chance, or fate, or the favor of greater powers in this world may come into play at such times,” replied Elrond.
Estel closed his eyes and let the sun warm his face as he considered his father’s words. When he opened them again, he found Elrond watching him patiently.
“I think perhaps my actions were not so much admirable as I am just tired of always ending up on my backside in the dirt.”
Elrond threw back his head and laughed. Estel couldn’t help but grin, for he had so seldom seen his father act so free with him.
“I love you, Estel, for many reasons, but most certainly for your honesty and sincerity and your unquenchable hope. You know in your heart that you will some day be good enough to take your turn pinning your teachers in the dirt. But you are honest about your own heart, your own motivations. You will also learn one day that the job of the teacher is to cultivate these characteristics without breaking the spirit of the one being taught.”
“They do not let me win.”
“No, nor would you want them to, Estel. In your heart, you want to know that anything you win you have won fairly. That is the only way it belongs to you. There is a doom on you, my son, one we will not speak of yet, but it will require great perseverance on your part to achieve. Thus we use these years wisely, not breaking you, but making you into the man you are meant to be.”
Elrond rose from the pool and walked a few yards beyond the rocks, then returned with towels and fresh clothing for them both. Estel had not heard anyone else, but he had always suspected that Elrond knew everything that went on in Imladris. He dried and dressed.
He followed his father down the path until it widened enough for two to walk abreast. Then Elrond held his arm out and drew him to his side, and Estel welcomed the fatherly arm about his shoulders. They returned to the house, but when they reached the rooms Estel shared with his mother, Elrond did not leave. Instead he waited for Gilraen to join them. She did not seem surprised, and the three walked to Elrond’s study.
There they found Glorfindel and Elladan and Elrohir and Athranen and others of the elves who had been training Estel. Estel’s eyes were immediately fixed on Glorfindel – or rather on what he was holding.
Elrond took the sword from Glorfindel and drew it from its sheath. It flashed in the sunlight that was streaming in the window. Elrond held it up, inspecting the blade, then motioned for Estel to come to him.
“This is a man’s sword, Estel, meant for battle. It is the work of Westernesse, and has seen many victories. You are capable of wielding it, and when you venture from Imladris it will serve you well.”
Estel took the hilt from his father and studied the runes on it, then the craftsmanship of the blade. He had had blades made for the stature of his youth, but this was, as Elrond said, a blade for a grown man. He would grow into it. He slipped it into its scabbard, hugged his father and then was surrounded by everyone else.
When he had accepted the congratulations of all and withdrawn to catch his breath, he saw his mother sitting quietly next to Elrond, watching him. He went to her and sat down, and was surprised when she took the sword from him. She studied the runes and engravings intently.
When she looked up at him, he saw tears in her eyes. She blinked them away, then reached out and hugged him fiercely. Then, without a word, she gave the sword back to him, stood and left the room.
He watched her go in wonder, but when he would have followed, Elrond laid a restraining hand on his arm. He rose instead, and followed Gilraen into the hall. Estel saw his mother throw her arms about Elrond as the door closed.
“Come, Estel, tell us why you chose that last move,” called Elladan. “Tomorrow I shall teach you a new move, more appropriate for one backed into a corner.”
Estel laughed and rose and rejoined the warriors. He would learn all they had to teach him. He could not wait for the day he would pin Elladan on his backside in the dirt!
“Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.” Aristotle
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