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Bitter Gift, A: 1. A Bitter Gift
“Mithrenben is dead,” he said.
I nodded as I looked down at the grey eyes that were fixed so intently on me.
“I know. Rochardin told me when I was down at the stables yesterday.”
Estel dragged his foot through the pile of muddy snow at the side of the path.
“He wasn’t hurt… nothing happened to him… he just died.”
“He was old,” I said, as gently as I could.
Estel had stopped and was staring out into the woods. He could have been watching where snow fell wetly from the trees, sliding down the sloping branches of the fir - but he wasn’t. His voice shook slightly.
“Not very. Rochardin said that he was born after the Fell Winter.”
“For a horse, even an Elven horse, that is old.”
Estel turned to look up at me, eyes damp.
“Mother is older than that…”
His voice quavered and I reached out for him. For a moment he resisted then suddenly pressed himself against my side. I felt the dampness of tears through my shirt as I stroked his hair. It felt almost icy beneath my fingers and I realised how cold the boy was. I pulled my cloak around so that it covered his thin shoulders.
“Here, sssh. Estel, your mother is not a horse – she is of the Dúnedain and will live for many years still.”
He snuffled a little against me, trying to stop the tears. “I know… but she is going to die.”
It was scarce more than a whisper but in the quiet woods, where only the dripping snow could be heard, it rang out. I stroked his hair, soothing him with wordless sounds. There was so little comfort I could offer. This gift of Ilúvatar is a bitter-tasting gift and I who rejected it am the last person to explain it. I did not understand my brother’s choice – fought with him for the first and last time when he gave away forever for what seemed only a handful of years – and centuries of wisdom and experience have not been enough to school me to gratitude for this gift. Yet this young one and all the others of my brother’s line that I have cared for need me to help them find grace in their fate. The days of Men’s glory perished when they came to fear death and see only darkness where Ilúvatar gave them a blessing. It is said that in shadowing this gift Melkor brought evil out of good and fear out of hope – and we named this child Hope because that must he bring to this darkening world and his fading people. He of all must not fear death.
Gently, I shook Estel. He looked up.
“Yes, Estel – one day your mother will leave the Circles of this world, as will you, and as did your father. For the hearts of Men will never find rest here but will – must - seek beyond the world. That is your fate. That is the gift Ilúvatar gave to the Atani.”
Firmly I took his hand, and began once more to walk. Estel scrubbed at his face with his sleeve and walked soberly around the puddles that lay in our path.
“I do not want to die. I want to live here forever with you and Elrohir and Elladan and everybody. I want to see the acorns we planted last spring become enormous trees – like the ones the twins planted when they were little. I want to watch the river carve the rock of its bed and see towns built and fall.”
We walked on slowly while I felt for words. We paused for a moment on the banks of a rill that, swollen by newly melted snow, splashed noisily out of its banks. I swung Estel across and steadied him, and then leapt lightly after him. The woods were denser here and the path less trodden so more of the ground kept its covering of white.
“None of us can choose our doom. We are all in some way a part of Ilúvator’s music, and only He sees the whole pattern. Even an Elf may be killed in war or by some mischance and go to the Halls of Mandos long before he would have chosen. It is not for us to choose our fates, but to live well that which is given to us.”
I looked down at him again. He was so young – only nine years born – and, for all he grew so quickly compared to our children, he was so small. The feet that paced beside me, though mortal, barely broke the snow crust here where it was hard-packed, the hand in mine had still the fine bones of a bird and the face that watched me was scarce above waist height. We had hidden his inheritance from him and the great doom that lay upon him - and would that I could have hidden this bitter gift yet.
With gentle pressure on the hand that I held, I brought Estel to a halt. Then I crouched down so we were face to face. I could not tell him who he was – but I could remind him of who his people were. He would learn in time what he was to these people, but it was enough for now that he knew that he was of them.
“You are of the Dúnedain, Estel – the Faithful. In times long past the Men of Númenor fought against this gift; they tried to prolong their life even into dotage. They feared death so much they forgot to find joy in life. It was the Men of your line who remained true to the Valar and accepted this gift with open heart. That courage and faith is your inheritance.”
His eyelashes were still spiky with tears as he nodded but it was acceptance, at least of sorts, and I let myself relax and breathe deeply for a moment of the cold air. The air was scented with the resinous smell of the pine trees, and the rich smell of the soil as it wakened and warmed. I felt the strength of Rivendell flow into me. I am no Wood Elf, but Rivendell is bound to me: each rock, stone, ravine, tree, forest, river is part of my fëa now, and I a part of it. Estel waited quietly by my side, eyes still dark. I smiled at him, then stood up.
As we matched our steps again through the grove of firs I rested my hand on his shoulder, and Estel leant into the comfort. As we began to follow the slope down to the river, where the sun had yet to reach, the snow still lay thickly on the path’s steep banks and it grew colder. I drew Estel back to me and under the shelter of my cloak. We stopped where the path turned to run towards the bridge to watch the beauty of the river splashing between the frosted banks.
“Father,” Estel began in a small voice, “I will accept Ilúvatar’s gift with an open heart as that is my duty… but I wish He had not given it to us.”
He did not look at me, but played with his boot in the half-frozen slush at the edge of the track. I stroked his hair, and gazed above his head at the trees around. So too did I wish. I had cared for each of Isildur’s heirs and lost them to that final journey: just as I had lost Elros. Still, this child needed my courage, not my sorrow. It was the trees of Rivendell that came to my aid. Gently, I turned the two of us so that we faced where we had come from.
“See the pines and firs up there, Estel… they are like the Elves. Old, unchanging, both strong and elegant, quiet and calm. From day to day, from month to month, from season to season, from year to year they remain the same. I love them as I love all the trees of Rivendell but I would not have them be the only trees to grow here.”
Estel looked up at me, eyes wide, and I knew he understood at least a little. I smiled down at him and turned us again so that now we looked over the river to the other bank where the firs and pines had given way to oaks and beeches.
“Look at them. They are just bare branches now but in a score more days we will be able to come here and see them welcome spring with gentle shoots of green. In summer they will billow with deep green leaves that then in autumn will die a glorious death. Remember how they glow so the whole hillside seems afire? Reds, yellows, oranges and then browns… no Dwarf’s treasure chest could hold so much beauty. Finally, the leaves fall, and the tree seems dead. We know, though, that it will come back to life in the spring; just as we know that Mortals will have a place in the Second Music of the Ainur.”
With a hand under his chin, I tilted his face up to look at me.
“Those leaves are the Men, like you. Short-lived, yes, but capable of a fiery beauty and glory that the unchanging Elves do not know.”
Estel smiled at me when I finished, eyes glowing with pride and courage, and I saw both his father in him and the man he would become.
“I will remember,” he said softly.
“I am sure you will, Estel,” I said as I began to lead him towards the bridge and the way home.
‘For you are Estel, you are hope,’ I whispered to myself. ‘And only hope can make this gift less bitter.’
Feedback, as always, would be much appreciated and, as always, any sort of feedback is very welcome I will, however, list a few specific queries:
*Snow – I live in Sydney, Australia so my knowledge of real snow is even weaker than my knowledge of real horses; if I’ve made any boners please do tell me.
*One of my reviewers mentioned that the writing was fragmented, and another that it needed more commas – so help with either issue would be appreciated.
*Thank you, as always, to all the wonderful reviewers at HASA and SoA who provided both encouragement and help.
Mithrenben is, I hope, Sindarin for grey one. Thanks to
Hiswelókë's Sindarin dictionary
Rochardin is based on a Sindarin word – roch, horse – but I’ve added an invented ending to it.
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