Learning to Smile

Chapter 12

by Little Jewel-(T)
February 9, 2017
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An old, bearded man walked slowly up to the gates of Rivendell. He wore a worn, pointed hat and his grey cloak was patched and tattered. In his hand he held a tall wooden staff. He paused for a moment and raised his head, taking in the sight of the Last Homely House that was east of the sea.

“Yes, time has changed many things, but not so much this place if my memory serves me well,” he mumbled under his breath. His face was wrinkled, but his eyes twinkled with a brightness even after his many long years.

The elven guards standing on either side of the entrance inclined their heads in greeting as the man passed them by.

“Mithrandir!” a voice called out in greeting, catching the wizard’s attention. He turned to his right to see a tall, brown-haired elf approaching him with a confident stride, clad in hunting garb.

“Ah, Faron!” Gandalf extended his arm in the traditional elven greeting. “It has been too long!”

The elf laughed lightly. “Indeed. My Lord Elrond is expecting you.”

“Ah, is he now?” Gandalf raised his eyebrows. “Well, that would explain a lot of things,” he muttered, then winked at the elf in front of him. “We’d best not keeping him waiting, then. Lead on, my good elf.”

Faron chuckled as he led the wizard into the main courtyard.

Gandalf sighed deeply. Imladris was as peaceful as ever – maybe a little more on edge that it had been in years gone by – but it was, and still remained, a haven of peace and safety for those who dwelt there. He smiled to himself as he followed Faron over one of the many bridges that led toward the main house. Bare branches bowed and rose in the wind. The new buds would soon begin to burst out, covering the valley in a blanket of delicate petals and leaves. Gandalf found himself humming contentedly.

He stopped abruptly as a rather strange sound reached his ears. He glanced around in confusion, hoping to identify the maker of the noise. However he could not hear it anymore. He was beginning to doubt himself when he heard it again.

It was laughter, most definitely laughter. But not the laughter of an elf, nor an elfling, but that of a child – a human child, to be precise. “I did not realise there was a child under Lord Elrond’s roof. Strange time of year for men to be visiting, is it not?” he inquired softly, his voice not betraying any of his curiosity. “Or perhaps there was a birth I was unaware of?”

Faron glanced over his shoulder, but only grinned at the wizard, saying nothing.

Gandalf harrumphed but continued to follow the elf, realising they were heading towards the sound. Rounding the last corner, his eyes fell on a child with short, dark brown hair running around on the grass of one of the private gardens. The cloak the child wore was too long, and he or she kept tripping over the hem and laughing as the nearby elf picked her up once again and set her on her feet. Gandalf realised it was one of the sons of Elrond.

In that moment, the child turned to face in his direction, and the wizard realized it was a little girl of no more than seven or eight years of age. As he watched, she pushed her hair behind one ear, revealing the rounded tip. It was, as he had thought, a human child.

Gandalf was puzzled. What was a human child doing in Rivendell? He gazed at the child, wondering what she was doing in the Hidden Valley at this time of the year. He was aware that during the summer months the Rangers or some of the northern men would stop by, but never in middle of winter. A child in Rivendell itself wasn’t unusual – Elrond had sheltered all of Isildur's heirs, after all – but that didn’t explain the presence of the little one in the garden.

“Mithrandir.”

Gandalf pulled his attention away from the child as he heard his name called. He turned his head to see Elrond himself coming down the steps towards him. “Lord Elrond!” He placed his hand over his heart and swept it out in a gesture of greeting as he bowed gracefully. “Mellon-nín, it has been too long!

Indeed it has!” Elrond agreed with a grim smile as he embraced the wizard. As he pulled away, he noticed the frown on Gandalf’s face. “What is it that troubles you, Mithrandir?”  

“Lord Elrond, forgive me, but there is a child playing in one of your gardens.”

Elrond’s face grew more serious for a moment. “Come, you must be weary.” He wrapped an arm around Gandalf’s shoulders and guided him toward the house.There is much we need to discuss.”

Lindir was waiting at the top of the steps to take Gandalf’s cloak and hat. “Nartho i noer; toltho i viruvor. Boe i annam vann a nethail vin.” Elrond called out to him. “Light the fires; bring forth the wine. We must feed our guest.”

Lindir nodded. “It will be done at once, hîr-nín.”

“You said in your message there was some urgent matter you need my advice on,” Gandalf began as he followed Elrond through the winding hallways and corridors towards the elf lord’s study.

Elrond glanced over his shoulder. “There is.” He opened the door and gestured for Gandalf to step inside. “Something has...occurred since your last visit not twelve months ago.”

“Oh? And what might that be, may I ask?” Gandalf moved over to the window that looked out onto the gardens. His sharp eyes caught sight of the small girl again, only this time, she was not alone. Both the of the twin sons of Elrond and Aragorn were now running around with her, all involved in some ridiculous game of hide-and-seek – as much as the wizard could make out, anyway. Knowing the elves, it could be anything.

As he watched, one of the twins – he couldn’t tell from this distance – swooped down, caught the child up, and started to tickle her before throwing her over to the other twin. The little girl squealed with delight, and Gandalf couldn’t help but chuckle at the amusing scene before him.

“I see you have spied our youngest resident.” Elrond’s voice drew him back from his thoughts as the elf lord came to stand beside him.

“Yes….yes I have,” Gandalf muttered slowly. “Pray tell me, Lord Elrond, what is a human child doing in the Hidden Valley? It is rather strange, for it is not like you to take in a child for no reason.” He looked carefully at the elf from under his bushy grey eyebrows.

Elrond resisted the strong urge to roll his eyes. “You were never one to be discreet when hunting for information, Mithrandir.” He folded his arms across his chest. “The child was brought here by my sons a little more than a month ago. She was starving, dehydrated and ill, very ill…. There were times I feared we were going to lose her, but she pulled through in the end.”

“She seems to be thriving here,” Gandalf as he tried discreetly to place his pipe between his teeth.

Elrond glared at him. “Do not tell me you are planning to smoke that thing in here? It is bad enough that you introduced Aragorn to that filthy habit. The twins spent weeks trying to break him of it when he came home. Legolas point-blank refuses to come inside if Aragorn so much as lifts it towards his mouth.”

Gandalf chuckled deeply, but refrained from lighting the pipe. It would never do to upset one's host. “So tell me. Where did the child come from?”

Elrond poured himself a drink from the silver canteen resting on the desk. “Aragorn found her in a village destroyed by Orcs. Cragnock, I think, was its name. She was the only survivor, trapped in a burnt-down building. Elladan and Elrohir were out searching for Aragorn at my request, they found him with the child and brought her to me. As far as we could gather, her parents are dead. She had been living with her ‘uncle’ up until the attack on the village. The child described him as a cruel man.”

Gandalf raised one eyebrow. “How can you be sure? Perhaps the child did not like living with him.”

Elrond walked onto the balcony and gripped the balustrade. “There was evidence that the child had been…beaten. There were marks and scars on her body, especially on her back, and I know the fear of being beaten when I see it,” the elf hissed as he remembered the days of his youth after being taken to the stronghold of Maedhros and Maglor. “The child is drowning in that fear.”

“And what exactly draws you to her?” Gandalf asked. He received a seething look from the dark Noldo elf.

“The child...her name is Aerinel.”

Gandalf looked momentarily taken aback. “Aerinel? Star of the Sea? Interesting name for a human child, is it not?” he muttered under his breath, but Elrond heard him quite clearly.

“The child is of Dúnedain descent.” Elrond crossed the room to his desk and pulled open a drawer, reaching into it and lifting out something which he handed to Gandalf. “This was found sewn into a pocket of the child’s clothing.”

Gandalf turned the small wooden disc over in his hand. “Interesting,” was all he said.

“Also…” Elrond continued, “Elladan believes that the child has more elvish blood in her that a normal Dúnedain would.”

Gandalf looked up. “What is his reason for suspecting such?”

Elrond sighed and rubbed a hand tiredly across his face. “The tips of Aerinel’s ears are not as rounded as a humans should be – just enough to be noticed, not so much by humans as by elves. And according to the twins, she bears a resemblence to Aragorn when he was a child, but I will leave you to make your own judgement on that when you met her.”

“Elrond,” Gandalf said sternly, turning for the desk. “This is not what you wanted to speak with me about, is it, old friend?”

Elrond sighed and sat down. “You are right as usual, Mithrandir.” Opening the drawer again, this time he lifted out the pendant on the delicate chain and silently handed to the wizard.

Gandalf took it and examined it carefully. His eyes grew serious as he took in the details of the small piece of jewelry he held in his hand. He looked up at the elf lord sitting across from him. “Where did you get this?” His voice was low, filled with urgency.

Elrond steepled his fingers in front of him. “It was found sewn into a hidden pocket on the inside of the child’s old clothing. One of the elves found it as she was preparing to throw them out.”

“Obviously, someone did not want it to be discovered.” Gandalf concluded.

“Aye,” Elrond agreed.

Gandalf gazed at the pendant. “It is similar to the Star of Elendil, as you must have already noticed. Do your sons know?”

“Aragorn knows,” Elrond said as he came around the corner of the desk, “but not the twins, not yet.” He paused before continuing. “I believe this may have something to do with Aerinel’s parentage. Someone must be connected to the line of Isildur to gain such an item, but I have no knowledge of any such piece being made. ”

Gandalf chewed on his pipe thoughtfully. “You suspect something about her parents, so you not?” He looked down at the elf through thick eyebrows. “You want me to look into it.” It was more of statement than a question.

“More or less, yes,” Elrond clarified, “although I admit I do not know where to start myself. The child’s uncle is dead, as are her parents. I do not know of anyone who could shed some light on this mystery, apart from Halbarad, perhaps. Elladan sent for him this morning.”

“We shall see, we shall see,” Gandalf muttered.

Elrond gave him a sharp look. “Mithrandir, if you know anything, it would be wise to tell me so.”

Gandalf looked up, surprise flashing across his face. “No! No, I was merely thinking aloud.”

Elrond fixed him with a stern gaze filled with suspicion, but he let it pass. “Come.” He led the wizard out of the study and towards the dinning room. “You must be hungry. Food is being served as we speak.”

“I am afraid I am not dressed for dinner,” Gandalf apologized as he followed the elf.

Elrond chuckled over his shoulder at the wizard. “You never are, mellon-nín.”

However, as they walked towards the room where the food was laid out, a still-unfamiliar but not unwelcome sound reached the elf lord’s ears. The sound of high-pitched, breathless laughter drifted around the corner of the hallway, heading towards their position. For a brief moment, Elrond was reminded of happier times as he half-expected to see one of the twins come bounding around the corner with the other in close pursuit.

Then he heard the din like a charging Mûmakil and was quickly reminded that the footsteps belonged to an Adan child. He knew it was not Aragorn from the sound of the footsteps; therefore, it could only be one other person.

Sure enough, as Elrond stood still with Gandalf, a small child came charging around the corner, her brown hair flying out behind her. Not watching where she was going as young children were wont to do, the girl promptly collided heavily into Elrond’s legs. The force of the impact sent Aerinel tumbling onto her bottom.

Gandalf chuckled, not seeming to be fazed. The small girl sprang to her feet to resume her mad sprint just as Elrond effortlessly leaned down to scoop her up into his arms.

Aerinel squirmed in protest against the arms that held her as she gasped in between giggles. “Please let me go! H-he’s going t-to get me!”

With those words, the wizard glanced around the elf lord to see one of the twins approaching. As the elf got closer, Gandalf could tell it was the eldest, Elladan, a bright smile on his face as he feigned breathless exhaustion.

Elrond’s eyes twinkled with mirth as he found himself being swept up in the child’s good humour. Rarely had he seen Aerinel as happy as she was now. He spoke lightly to the girl, ensuring that his approaching son would overhear. “Ah, Aerinel, I understand now your desperate need for such a flight. He is truly frightening, is he not?”

Elladan came to stand beside Gandalf, an exaggerated expression of mock indignation on his face. “Ada, that was not nice!”

Aerinel immediately jumped to the younger elf’s defence. “El’dan is not frightening! He’s fun!” She put her tiny hands on her nonexistent hips and “glared” at the elf lord. “We were playing chasing and I had to get away so Estel picked me up and we ran to the mud marshes and then we had to climb over Spooks Hill and then we had to escape from the trolls!”

Elrond bit his cheek to stop himself laughing at the indignant expression on the child's face. Really, it was too comical. He rubbed a hand up and down her back in a gesture of appeasement. “Peace, child. I was merely teasing you.” He paused for a moment to give a closer look to Aerinel’s disheveled appearance. Judging by her tale of adventure, it would seem to him that his sons had indeed succeeded in dragging the child through the most mud-covered, filthy places in Rivendell. He turned to Elladan and raised a single eyebrow. “It would seem you four have been having rather a lot of fun.”

Elladan had the good grace to blush and look apologetic. “Young Aerinel is..ah...rather energetic when she gets going, I’m afraid. We may have tossed a few handfuls of leaves at each other,” he continued, counting the events off on his fingers, “…jumped in mud puddles…and then there was the matter of rolling down the hill and oh yes, the—”

Elrond quickly forestalled any further details with a slight wave of his hand. “I have heard enough, thank you, Elladan.”

Gandalf chuckled and Elladan turned to him. “Mithrandir, forgive me for not greeting you! My manners have been mislaid in all the excitement.”

The wizard waved aside the apology. “No need, young Peredhel. I can see why!” He winked at the younger elf before his attention was drawn back to the squirming girl in Elrond’s arms.

Hosting the child more securely onto his hip, Elrond turned towards his son and Gandalf. “I need to get Aerinel cleaned up before she can sit down to her dinner.” He made to take a step away, then he stopped and turned back around to gaze at Elladan. With a sly smile, he said, “On second thought, since you had a hand in creating this mess, you may as well have a hand in undoing it.”

Elladan took the child from his father with an amused shake of his head.  Aerinel was not so pleased. She had come to understand that when the elves said ‘get cleaned up’ they meant a bath…for her. She squirmed indignantly as she was passed over. “No bath! I’m not messy!”

Elladan hoisted Aerinel above his head, giving her a playful toss into the air, and the child laughed in response. “I believe Elrohir has some special soap somewhere which makes excellent bubbles in the water. Would you like that?”

Aerinel’s eyes lit up with delight. “Yes please!”

Elrond smiled. “Get your brothers to help if you cannot manage alone. I know how easily a child can get excited when there are bubbles around.”

Elladan nodded. “I will. But I am sure I will be fine, won't we?” He settled Aerinel on his hip. “Come on, you little minx; let’s get you cleaned up and looking presentable. Wave bye bye to Ada and Gandalf.”

Aerinel curled her hands into the elf’s tunic and held on tightly to his hair as she jiggled around, waving tiredly.

Elrond and Gandalf watched as Elladan disappeared around the corner.

“Delightful child,” Gandalf commented.

Elrond smiled. “Yes, she is.”

“Lord Elladan seems quite attached to her, if I may say so.” Gandalf ventured into the unknown waters carefully.  

Elrond just pinned the wizard with a stern look before walking away. “The food will be getting cold.”

Gandalf followed with a twinkle in his eye. He could sense that Elrond wanted to avoid the topic of attachment as much as possible when Aerinel was involved.

~*~*~S~*~*~

Meanwhile, upstairs, Elladan pushed open the door to Aerinel’s room with the toe of his boot as Aerinel was still in his arms and he needed both hands to keep her from falling. It was with relief that he sat her on the bed. With a kind but firm warning o,f “Don’t you even think of running off,” the elf went about pulling open drawers and closet doors in search of clean clothing.

Aerinel watched him with interest from the bed. “Why do I need a bath?” she asked randomly.

Elladan looked over his shoulder at her. “Because you are dirty, penneth.” Something about Aerinel’s expression changed and made him forget what he was doing. He move closer to the bed. “What is it?”

But Aerinel shook her head and refused to look at him. Instead she pulled further away from him when he went to wrap an arm around her shoulders.

“Aerinel,” Elladan sighed in exasperation. What was wrong now? Was it something he had said? “Please tell me penneth, you were fine a few moments ago.”

Again Aerinel shook her head. A single tear splashed down onto her hands which were folded in her lap.  

Elladan crouched down in front of her. “Tell me, Aerinel. I will not be angry, you have my word. You can tell me.”

“You said I was dirty,” the child sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“Yes…” Elladan was puzzled as to why this word would cause the child to cry. A bit of mud never hurt anyone.

“My uncle said I was dirty.”

Elladan opened his mouth to reply, but Aerinel continued through her tears, “H-he said I was a dirty bastard child.”

Elladan was at a loss for what to do. The child obviously knew what the word bastard meant, judging by her reaction. Anger bubbled in his heart, but he pushed it aside. Taking her small hands in his, he said, “Aerinel, look at me…come on, penneth, at me, only at me. Now listen to me very carefully, alright?” he said when he got her attention. “You are not a...bastard child, do you hear me? You are a beautiful little girl.” He stroked the side of her face with his fingertips. “You are a beautiful little girl with only goodness and kindness in your heart. Every child is a gift from the heavens, and you are no exception.”

Aerinel sniffed again and rubbed her eyes. “Then why did you say I was dirty?”

The elf sat back on his heels, Aerinel’s hands still clasped in his larger ones. He absently rubbed his thumb over the small knuckles as he thought about how he was going to explain this. “Aerinel, sometimes a word can have several different meanings...when I said you were dirty, I meant that you were covered in mud, dirt from the ground, leaves and all sorts of other stuff you would find outside in the gardens. Not that you were bad.”

“Really?” Aerinel looked up, hopeful.

“Yes, penneth. I would never lie to you, I promise.” Elladan stood up and looked down at the child. “How about in the future we say you are mucky instead?”

Aerinel nodded. “I’d like that.”

Elladan smiled. “Very well, so it shall be. Now, time for that bath, I think.”

“Do I have to have a bath?” Aerinel glanced up at him with one eye open.

The elf chuckled. “Yes, you do, and you’re getting one! No arguments about it!”

Aerinel nodded meekly and allowed Elladan to pick her up with one arm, the other hand holding a small, clean tunic and leggings as well as a pair of socks. He entered the bathing chamber and set the child down on the floor, placing the clothes on a shelf to keep them dry while he ran the water.

Aerinel watched it flow into the tub with fascination. “Where does it come from?”

Elladan knelt down beside Aerinel. “From the rain. It gathers in special boxes near the roof and flows into the pipes. When we open the tap, the water comes out,” he explained. He gently removed the dirty clothing from her and threw them into a wicker basket by the door. The elf then picked her up and placed her in the tub that was half-full of warm water.

Aerinel fidgeted slightly a frown on her face. “But how does it get warm?”

Elladan held her still with one hand as he reached for a small jar. He poured a little of the liquid into the tub and swirled the water around. Bubbles began to form, much to Aerinel’s delight, and her earlier question was forgotten. Carefully, Elladan washed the grime and dirt off using a soft washcloth and some soap. Aerinel didn’t seem to mind when the elf gently worked the soap into her hair, running his fingers through it and washing it thoroughly. She was too preoccupied with the thick foam and making “bubble shapes” out of it. She then thought it was very funny to blow at the bubbles, making them fly up into the air. Several landed on Elladan’s head, causing her no end of amusement.

“Ai, Aerinel!” The elf scolded lightly, brushing them away, but secretly he was enjoying her happiness and would gladly suffer with bubbles in his hair, just to hear her laugh.   

Aerinel just giggled and went back to her sculptures, casting a glance at the elf every so often to check if he still watching her.

Elladan smiled as he saw the child yawn widely. “I think it is naptime for little people,” he murmured. He rinsed her head with clear water, careful not to get any soap into her eyes. Aerinel giggled sleepily as the warm water poured over her head. She tried to hold it in her hands, but it slipped through. She looked up at Elladan with a smile and reached out and wrapped her small hand over three of his fingers.

Elladan leant over the edge of the tub and smiled back. “Do you remember the day I shouted at you?” he murmured.

Aerinel nodded.

“And then that night I gave you your bath, after you found me in the garden, didn’t I?” The elf brushed her wet cheek. “I never felt more protective of you than that night.” He picked up the washcloth and wiped it gently across the child’s back. “You are a beautiful little girl, a little treasure...a little jewel.” Elladan knew in that moment that he would never be able to give the child up peacefully now. She had become too attached to his heart.

Aerinel looked up and rubbed her eyes, signalling that she was sleepy.

“Come on little one,” Elladan murmured, lifting Aerinel out of the tub and wrapping her in a thick, soft towel. “Let’s get you to bed.” He cuddled the girl close to him as he dressed her in the clean clothes he had brought in with him. They were less fitted than her normal clothes, but perfect for sleeping in.

Aerinel laid her head on Elladan’s shoulder and yawned again. The elf stood up and brushed her hair away from her face as he carried her into the bedroom. Even a month after the illness, Aerinel was still weak and tired and needed a nap most days. That in itself, though, was not particularly unusual for a child of her age.

Cradling her head in his hand, he laid her on the bed. He found her stuffed bear and tucked it in beside the child as he drew the blankets up around her little body, making sure she would be warm. Elladan sat in the chair beside the bed, his thumb repeatedly brushing her tiny knuckles until he was sure the child was fast asleep.

He stood up several minutes later, creeping towards the door so as not to wake her. He promptly ran into Elrohir and Aragorn in the corridor.

“She is asleep?” Aragorn asked, peering into the darkness of the room behind Elladan.

The oldest twin nodded. “Yes, bathed, clean, and now sleeping peacefully.”

“She will sleep for a few hours at the very least.” Elrohir said.

Elladan chuckled. “I’m not surprised; she tired herself out this morning! Anyway, Mithrandir has arrived, so we had better clean ourselves up and present ourselves.”

Aragorn sighed and rolled his eyes. “Must we?”

Elrohir pushed the ranger ahead of him. “Yes, little brother. It would be rude not to!”

~*~*~S~*~*~

The Hall of Fire was lit up by numerous candles. The fire burned brightly in the large hearth, casting a warm glow on the occupants closest to it.

Elrond sat in a high-backed chair near the fire, Gandalf chewing his pipe on one side of him and Glorfindel sitting on the other. The twins and Aragorn were sprawled out on a collection of large cushions on the other side of the fire. A chessboard lay between Elladan and Aragorn, but it was forgotten as the elf and ranger drifted in and out of their own private thoughts, listening to the idle conversation around the hall.

Other elves sat around the great room, some talking, drinking wine, others just enjoying the calm and peaceful atmosphere.

Aragorn cracked open one sleepy eye, his ears trying to catch the conversation his father was having with Gandalf. But his mind was too drowsy to concentrate on the words being spoken.

Elrohir glanced up from inspecting the contents of his own goblet as he noticed the elves moving and shifting near the top of the hall. He spied Telwen coming towards him. In her arms, she carried a sleepy Aerinel, still wearing the clothes Elladan had dressed her in for her nap. Obviously, the child had just awoken from her little catnap.

“Come here, penneth,” Elrohir crooned as Telwen expertly handed the child down to him.

The elleth smiled as she watched Aerinel snuggle in closer to Elrohir. “She awoke not too long ago and was eager to see you, Lord Elrohir. She has also been fed.”

The raven-haired elf flashed Telwen a quick smile. “Hannon le,” he murmured, settling the child more comfortably in his lap.

Aragorn sat up when his eyes fell on Aerinel sitting against his brother. “Did you have a good nap, Aerinel?” he inquired gently.

Aerinel nodded absently as she gazed around the hall with curiosity. She spied the elf lord on the other side of the fire and watched him for a moment. Tonight he was dressed in robes of deep yellow, almost a gold, with a brown sash around his waist.

Elrond smiled at her when he felt the child’s eye on him. Glorfindel chuckled at Aerinel’s wide-eyed expression. “It seems our youngest resident has decided to join us tonight.”

Gandalf looked up and noticed the child staring at him with unhidden curiosity. He smiled at her kindly. Aerinel, realising she had been caught staring, gave a little gasp and buried her face in Elrohir’s shoulder.

The elves around smiled and chuckled at the display of childish antics. It was good to have someone so young among them once more. It reminded them that there was still goodness and innocence in the world. Nothing was sweeter to them than to have the opportunity to interact with children.

Slowly, Aerinel peeked out at the wizard again. This time, she was rewarded with a wink from the elderly man, and she didn't hide. Her curiosity was piqued.

Elrohir chuckled and Aerinel looked up at him, her head tilted to the side as if she was asking a silent question. “That is Gandalf the Grey, penneth. He is a wizard.”

“What’s a wizard?” was the child’s question.

“A person who can do magic.” Elrohir explained patiently, fighting against a yawn. He put his hand behind his head and lowered himself back to rest against the many cushions behind him.

Aerinel was content to stay on the elf’s lap for a while, but then she started to move around, exploring her surroundings. She crawled over Elrohir and Aragorn and stared with puzzlement at the black and white board with the funny little figurines all over it. She had never seen one before.

“It is a chessboard, little one,” Aragorn explained when she asked him what it was, “a boring game that Elladan likes far too much.”

“That is because you always lose, brother dear!”

“That is because you cheat!” the ranger shot back just as quick. “Elves and their tricky ways. Never trust them, Aerinel,” he said in mock seriousness. “Never trust them. I will protect you from these mischievous beings and their trickster ways.” He winked at Aerinel.

“Shhh!” Elladan hissed, covering Aerinel’s ears with his hands. “Do not fill her head with silly notions about us! It is you she should be wary of!”

Aragorn just rolled his eyes. Aerinel gave a small smile and continued her exploring. She crawled over Elladan on her way, making the elf wince as her little knees dug into his thighs, but said nothing. He shared a smile with his twin over Aragorn's head as they watched where Aerinel was heading.

Aragorn noticed the look shared by his brothers. “What?”

“Shhh,” Elrohir held a finger to his lips and pointed to Aerinel, who was slowly inching closer and closer to where Gandalf was sitting.

The ranger chuckled. “Let her do as she pleases. It won’t do any harm.” He closed his eyes again.

Gandalf looked down and smiled at the small child at his feet. “Well, greetings, little one, and what would your name be? Mine is Gandalf.”

“Aerinel” was the whispered reply.

“That is a very pretty name,” Gandalf said, leaning down towards her. “Much nicer than any of the elves’ names, especially those twin friends of yours.” There was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke.

Aerinel giggled and glanced over her shoulder to where the twins were laying before looking back up at the wizard.

“And how old are you?” Gandalf inquired.

Aerinel paused for a moment with a frown and then held up eight of her fingers.

“Eight!” Gandalf exclaimed. “My, but you are a big girl, aren’t you?!”

Aerinel smiled and nodded shyly. Gandalf reached down and plucked her from the floor, placing her on his knees and saying, “Let us see if we can continue this conversation in a more comfortable position, eh?”

This time the child giggled as she clutched at the wizard's robes to stop herself from tumbling off. But she needn’t have feared; Gandalf had a firm hold of her.

Aragorn looked up and nudged Elrohir with the toe of his boot. “It would see that Aerinel has a new friend as of tonight.”

The elf tilted his head up to see the small girl perched happily on the wizard’s lap, listening to one of his tales of far-off adventures. “He is probably telling her of Bilbo and the Dragon,” he murmured lazily.

Elladan chuckled dryly. “Ada won’t like that,” he said. “He thinks Gandalf’s stories are too farfetched for children’s ears.”

Aragorn shifted his vision to Elrond, who was engaged in a seemingly heated discussion with Glorfindel, but all the while keeping one ear on Gandalf. He guessed his father did not want Aerinel to become frightened.

A while later, Glorfindel happened to glance up and smiled as he caught sight of Aerinel desperately trying to hide a yawn.  “Ah, young one, I do believe it is time for you to go to your bed,” the golden-haired elf said kindly.

Lord Elrond turned and saw the child’s eyes drooping as she struggled to stay awake. “Aerinel,” he called softly. The child looked up. “It is time for you to go to bed, penneth.”

Aerinel pouted. She did not want to go to bed; she was enjoying listening to the stories Gandalf was telling her. Elrond recognized the look immediately. “Aerinel, if you go to bed, one of the twins might tell you a bedtime story; would you like that?”

Aerinel smiled at that and slipped down from the wizard's lap, crawled her way over to Elrohir, and gently tapped his knee.

“What is it, little one?” the elf asked kindly.

“Elrond says that you might tell me a story if I go to bed now.”

Elrohir’s smile widened. “Of course I will. Come on, let’s go.” He stood up and scooped the child into his arms. “Say goodnight, penneth.”

“Night-night,” Aerinel mumbled sleepily as she was borne away by the elf.

“Goodnight, Aerinel,” Glorfindel said as Elrohir stepped over so Elrond could say goodnight. The elf lord reached out and brushed her hair back from her face. “Sleep well, little one,” he murmured, pressing a gentle kiss to her brow.

“Do not forget our ride tomorrow, Aerinel!” Aragorn called out, accompanied by a wink.

Aerinel giggled and waved to the ranger as Elrohir carried her off to her bedroom.

“She is a charming little girl,” Gandalf said, putting his pipe back into his mouth.

Glorfindel nodded in agreement. “Aye, that she is, and harmless.”

“It would seem, Lord Elrond, that all three of your sons dote upon her.” The wizard glaced at the elf lord with an expression of innocence.

Elrond frowned slightly. “So it would seem.”

Gandalf chuckled. “Now I wonder why?” His mind travelled back to what Elrond had said to him earlier that day. And more to the point, what the elf lord had shown him. Could there be a connection between Aragorn and Aerinel? Could there be another heir or heiress of Isildur?

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