Little Fledgling chapter 5

Notes regarding this story:

This story was inspired by Larrkin's wonderful 'Attention Deserved' series, of which I am a devoted fan. As other fans will recall, those stories are an AU, based on the idea that Aragorn stayed in Minas Tirith somewhat longer than he did in Tolkien's canon, and that he, as 'Thorongil', developed a close relationship with a then four-year-old Boromir. When they met again in Rivendell, Boromir recognised and remembered Aragorn, and that closeness was rekindled.

After Larrk first started posting her stories, I asked if she had any plans to write the tale of Aragorn and little Boromir, as I was longing to read it. She replied that she didn't, and so it came about that I started writing it myself, with Larrk's very gracious permission. Needless to say, I've tried very hard in writing this to stay true to Larrk's vision of the characters, and the story itself. I hope I've done it justice. :)

And for anyone who needs to re-read Larrk's stories and refresh their memory, they are all up on her page, here:

Thanks to:

Hadra – thank you for all the help, for booting me along when I got stuck, and for letting me bounce so many ideas off you.

Shotboxer – thank you for your careful editing, for catching my many errors, and for insisting that I get rid of all those unnecessary dashes. <g>

Laura – thank you for being so kind as to offer this story a home!

And finally, an extra-special thank you to Larrk, for being so very generous as to let me play in her sandbox, and so very encouraging while I was writing this. I'm truly honoured that you'd accept my story as the 'official' prequel to your wonderful AU. Your stories have given me so much enjoyment and inspiration, and I only hope that I've managed to give some of that back with this tale.

So, without further ado, my take on the story of Aragorn and little Boromir. I hope you enjoy it.

Disclaimer: No infringement of copyright is intended. All recognisable characters are the property of Tolkien Enterprises and/or New Line, and no profit is gained by the writing or posting of this story.

Warning: This story contains spanking, both of Boromir as a child, and (through flashbacks) of Aragorn as a child. If this offends you, hit the back button now.

Little Fledgling

Chapter 5

By Kat

Aragorn woke early the next morning, as was his habit, trained into him by years of travelling with the dawn-rising Grey Company. He was immediately aware of Boromir cuddled against him, curled up into a small warm ball at his side, and when he opened his eyes he could not help but smile, seeing that only the very top of the child's tawny head was visible above the bedcovers. The soft, steady breathing told him that Boromir was still fast asleep.

He glanced over at the window, judging the earliness of the hour by the amount of light coming in, and guessed that it was only just past dawn. It was probably some time earlier than Boromir would normally have to wake up, but Aragorn wanted to get the child back to the Steward's House before his nursemaid came looking for him. The poor woman would likely panic if she found Boromir's bed empty, and Aragorn wanted to spare her any more upset.

With that in mind, he gently peeled back the bedcovers, and smiled even more at the sight that met his eyes. Boromir was curled up into a tight ball, one hand pillowed under his cheek and the other wrapped around a fold of Aragorn's nightshirt, as if holding on for comfort. His face was still and peaceful, his eyes closed and his cheeks flushed pink from sleep, the very picture of childish innocence.

For a long moment Aragorn could only gaze at the child, loath to spoil the peaceful scene by waking him. But the decision was quickly taken out of his hands; as if sensing his scrutiny, or perhaps just the loss of the bedcovers, Boromir stirred and opened his eyes.

He looked sleepily confused for a moment, no doubt wondering where he was. But then his gaze fell on Aragorn, and he broke into a beautiful smile.

"Hello, Th'rongil," he murmured. "I forgot I was here."

"You have not been here before, so that is not surprising," Aragorn said kindly, returning the smile. "Good morning to you, little one. Did you sleep well?"

Boromir nodded, rubbing sleepily at his eyes as he sat up. "Yes. I didn't have any more bad dreams." He turned to look up at Aragorn, adding solemnly, "Thank you for keeping them away, Thorongil."

The simple, childish trust in that statement sent a warm rush through Aragorn's chest. He reached out to smooth Boromir's sleep-tousled hair, finishing with a gentle caress to his cheek. "It was my pleasure, little fledgling."

Boromir replied with another of those beaming smiles, and as Aragorn shifted back to lean against the headboard, the child promptly wriggled up to sit beside him. That was followed by more wriggling as he tried to find the most comfortable position, and Aragorn smiled, guessing the cause.

"How is your bottom feeling this morning, little one?" he asked kindly.

Boromir frowned for a moment, apparently considering. He had perched himself on top of a pillow and was now sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him, his small bare feet peeking out from under the hem of his nightshirt.

"It still hurts a little bit," he said finally, looking up at Aragorn. "But only a little little bit."

Aragorn had to grin at the description. "That 'little little bit' should be all gone by tomorrow, if not by tonight," he said. "In the meantime, though, you must use it to help you remember what happens when you are naughty. If you remember well, then perhaps I will not have to spank you again."

Boromir nodded solemnly. "I don't want another spanking," he said, but then he paused, looking up at Aragorn with earnest grey eyes. "I don't want another spanking . . . but I'm . . . I'm glad you spanked me yesterday. Well, not glad, but . . . sort of glad. Even though it hurt. Because I did something bad, and I made you and Ivoren worried. I'm sorry, Thorongil."

Some might have thought it very odd, hearing a child Boromir's age confessing that he was glad he had been spanked. Aragorn, however, did not. He knew enough by now of Boromir – and of Denethor's parenting methods – to understand how deeply ashamed of himself Boromir felt when he misbehaved. In the past, that shame had been forced upon him, and he had then been left to suffer it, feeling shunned and unworthy until his father decided to forgive him. Aragorn's method of discipline had offered a completely different approach – briefly painful but followed up by comfort and forgiveness, offering an immediate relief from the guilt and shame. Aragorn knew all too well how good that relief could feel, and he also knew that his little fledgling's feelings ran very deep. It was little wonder that Boromir would prefer the stinging bottom, so long as it came with that forgiveness attached.

He put an arm around Boromir now, gently encircling the small shoulders. "Aye, little one, I know. And it is most honourable of you to own up to your naughtiness like that. But it is all over and done with now, and you are very much forgiven. All children get into mischief. 'Tis the job of the grown-ups to try to keep the mischief to a minimum."

He winked at the boy, giving him a warm smile, and Boromir smiled back, apparently reassured. "I won't be mis – mischiefous? – like that again," he said earnestly. "I promise."

"Good boy," Aragorn said, nodding his approval. "And you were close, little one. 'Mischievous' is the way you say it."

"Mischievous," Boromir repeated obediently. "I won't be mischievous like that again."

"I am glad to hear it." Aragorn accepted the little boy's promise with due seriousness, although he knew it was very unlikely that Boromir would actually keep it.

He did not doubt that the boy meant it, of course. But he also knew how easy it was for a small child to forget such promises. After all, how many times had he, as a child, promised Elrond that he would never be naughty again, only to end up back over his ada's knee a day or a week or a month later? It was not that he had not meant his promises – he had, sincerely. He had just had a regrettable tendency to forget about them, especially if he saw an opportunity for adventure.

He had always tried to explain that to Elrond afterwards, wanting his ada to know that he had not intended to break his promise. The elf lord had always understood.

"You made a promise that was too big for you, my little son," Elrond would say kindly, when Estel tearfully apologised for his lapse. "As you grow older, you will learn to better know a promise you can keep from one you cannot. Once you can tell the difference, then you will see 'tis better not to make the latter kind."

Elrond had been correct, of course. Eventually, little Estel had realised that he would never be able to live up to a promise of never being naughty again, and had simply begun to settle for apologising for his misbehaviour as it happened. He could still recall Elrond's teasing comment, when he first noticed the omission.

"I notice you have not promised me that you will never be naughty again, my son," the elf lord had said, regarding Estel with fond amusement. The spanking had been long over by then, and Elrond had moved back to his desk to read, with Estel perched rather awkwardly on his lap to read with him.

Estel had shrugged ruefully in response. "I don't think I can be good forever, Ada," he had said, childishly solemn. "So that means I will be naughty again. And you always said that once I could tell the difference, I should not make promises I can't keep."

Regarding Boromir's earnest little face, Aragorn could not help but smile at the memory. His little fledgling doubtless had a way to go before he realised the futility of promising not to misbehave again. Although, he noted wryly, Boromir had been more carefully specific than he had been as a child. The boy had promised only that he would not be mischievous 'like that' again, which left him plenty of scope for other kinds of mischief. From what he knew of his clever little fledgling, Aragorn was fairly sure that the wording had been deliberate.

He is too clever for his own good, he thought again, and he had the feeling that it would become a familiar refrain.

Boromir was looking around the room now, his eyes alight with interest as he took in his new surroundings. His gaze lingered for a long moment on Aragorn's sheathed sword, lying on the low table beside the bed, then he continued his perusal of the room, finally turning to look towards the window.

"What time is it, Thorongil?" he asked after a moment, looking back at Aragorn. "It feels early."

"It is early," Aragorn confirmed. "I would say you could go back to sleep, but I am afraid we must get you back to your own chamber. I do not want Ivoren to find your bed empty and be frightened."

Boromir's eyes grew wide at the thought, and he shook his head. "I don't want that either," he agreed earnestly. "Should we go now?"

"Soon," Aragorn said with a chuckle. "We have a little while, I think, and I must get dressed ere we start marching around the Citadel. 'Twould not be seemly for me to go about in just a nightshirt, not even so early in the morning."

Boromir giggled, returning Aragorn's smile, and Aragorn tweaked his nose fondly before climbing out of bed. He dug a set of clean clothes out of the press, then held out his hand to the child.

"Up with you, little fledgling," he said. "We have no clothes for you here, but we can at least tidy you up a little before we make our journey."

Boromir obediently scrambled off the bed, and Aragorn led the way into the bathing chamber. He took care of Boromir first, helping the child to wash up and combing the tousled hair into some semblance of order. Once Boromir was as tidy as he was going to get, Aragorn worked on tidying himself up, then donned shirt and breeches before walking back out into his bedchamber to find his boots. Boromir trotted after him, stopping to wait beside the low table where Aragorn's sword was lying. He eyed the weapon longingly while Aragorn finished dressing, and Aragorn was amused to see that he kept his hands behind his back the whole time, as if to remove the temptation to touch.

"I wish I had a sword," Boromir said wistfully, as Aragorn came up beside him. "A real sword, not just a practice one."

"You will, one day," Aragorn replied. "All things in their time, little fledgling. You are very young yet. You must grow more before you are ready for a real sword."

"I know," Boromir said, sighing. "I just wish I could grow faster. I've already been wanting a sword for ages."

Aragorn could not help but smile at the long-suffering tone. "It is hard to be patient sometimes," he agreed kindly. "I was much the same at your age. I wanted a sword of my own, too. It did not seem at all fair to me, that my brothers got to have swords and I did not."

Boromir's eyes lit up. "You have brothers?" he asked eagerly, the topic of swords forgotten. "How many? Did you like having brothers? Did you have lots of fun together?"

"I have two," Aragorn replied, amused by the sudden barrage of questions. "And I did like having brothers, very much. They are both much older than me, but they spent a lot of time with me when I was small, playing with me and teaching me. So, aye, we did have a lot of fun together."

"I would like to have a brother," Boromir said earnestly, and Aragorn could see the longing in his eyes. "He would have to be younger than me, but that's all right. A little brother would be fun. When he was big enough I could teach him to fight, and we could spar together. And then I'd always have someone to play with, and so would he."

That last was said so wistfully that Aragorn felt a rush of sympathy for the child. No doubt the idea of always having a playmate was hugely appealing to a lonely little boy. If Boromir did acquire a younger sibling, Aragorn could easily imagine him taking on the role of a doting big brother.

He would have the little one sparring with him as soon as he could walk, he thought wryly, and found himself hoping that it might happen, although he had no idea whether Denethor and Finduilas were planning on any more children. In normal circumstances it would have been likely, for a noble house such as theirs – it would be expected for the sake of practicality, if nothing else. When an heir was required, it was generally regarded as sensible to have at least one spare, in case something happened to the first one.

Aragorn sighed inwardly at the thought. Practical and expected it might be, but given Finduilas' illness, it might not be possible for Boromir to have the little brother he so wanted. Still, for his fledgling's sake, Aragorn would hope that it might be so. The knowledge that he would, one day soon, have to leave Minas Tirith still weighed heavily on his mind, and the thought of leaving Boromir to a lonely childhood pained him deeply.

And yet, he knew he should not dwell on it. It would gain him nothing, and it would only cast a shadow over the time he and Boromir had together. He had resolved to give the child all he could, while he could, for however long that might be. He would do that, and he would try not to let his thoughts linger on that time when he would have to leave.

With that in mind, he shook off his sudden melancholy, and gave Boromir a fond smile. "I hope that you will have a little brother some day, my fledgling," he said. "And if you do, I am sure that you will make an excellent big brother."

"Oh, I would," Boromir assured him, nodding vigorously. "I'd look after him and play with him and make sure he wasn't lonely. And I'd teach him to fight, so that when he started lessons he would already know what to do. And I'd never let anybody pick on him, not ever."

Aragorn smiled at the earnest sentiments. "Aye, you will be an excellent big brother indeed," he said warmly, then added with a hint of teasing, "Although if you are to have a younger sibling, you must remember that you are just as likely to end up with a sister as a brother."

Boromir frowned for a moment, looking as if he hadn't quite considered that possibility, but then he shrugged. "I would still look after a little sister," he said. "I'd rather have a brother, though. I couldn't teach a sister to fight."

"Aye, well, you might be surprised," Aragorn said with a chuckle. "But I hope that you will have the brother you want, little fledgling. You will just have to be patient, and wait and see."

"I have to be patient for lots of things," Boromir said, giving another long-suffering sigh. He sounded so disgruntled about it that Aragorn had to grin.

"My poor patient fledgling," he said, his voice warm with affection. "It is hard indeed to wait for so many things! But I will tell you what – if you can be patient enough to get through your lessons this morning, then we will go and have that lesson of our own, and at least you will not have to wait so long to learn some new tricks. What do you think? Does that sound good?"

Boromir nodded, brightening again, immediately cheered by the thought of extra sparring. "Yes, please," he said eagerly.

"Very well, then," Aragorn said, smiling. "Now, we really must get you home, before Ivoren comes for you and finds you missing. Wait there a moment," he added, as he strode across to his desk. He had left his cloak draped over the back of the chair, and now he picked it up and crossed back to Boromir. Bending, he wrapped the cloak around the child's small shoulders.

"'Tis more like a blanket on you than a cloak, but it will keep you from getting cold," he said, as he scooped Boromir up into his arms. He braced the child with one forearm under his bottom, and bundled the cloak around him, making sure the small bare feet were covered. Boromir obligingly put his arms around Aragorn's neck, seeming quite happy to be carried. Once all was in order, Aragorn made sure to bounce a little as he headed for the door, and grinned at the resulting giggle.

"You're not taking your sword, Thorongil," Boromir remarked as they reached the door, glancing back over Aragorn's shoulder.

"Nay, I think I shall be all right without it for now," Aragorn replied, smiling at the child. He opened the door and stepped out into the corridor, adding teasingly, "Unless, of course, you think that we are likely to encounter orcs on the way to breakfast!"

That remark brought more giggles from Boromir, as well as a rather cheeky response. "Master Taracar says that a good warrior has to be prepared for anything," he told Aragorn, in tones of great innocence. "And there could be orcs, Thorongil."

Coming from a four-year-old, the almost-reproving tone made Aragorn laugh out loud. "Well, in that case I suppose I should bring my sword after all!" he said. "I would not want us to be set upon ere we even begin the day. It would be a most discouraging start!"

Chuckling, he turned and strode back through the open door, over to the low table where his sword was lying. He put Boromir down and smiled at the picture the child presented, swallowed as he was by the draping folds of Aragorn's cloak. The little boy returned his smile with enthusiasm, watching eagerly as Aragorn took up his sword and buckled the belt around his waist.

"There now," he said, leaning down to scoop Boromir back up into his arms. "Is that better?"

Boromir nodded, giving Aragorn another of those sunny smiles. "Now we don't have to worry about orcs," he said, with obvious satisfaction. A moment later he frowned, adding thoughtfully, "I still haven't thought of a name for your sword, Thorongil."

"That is all right, my fledgling," Aragorn replied, as he walked back over to the door. He slipped out into the corridor again, using his free hand to close the door behind him. "There is no hurry," he went on, as he started down the hallway leading to the outer door. "I trust you to name my sword well."

Boromir beamed at the praise, obviously pleased by Aragorn's confidence in him. "I'll think of a good name," he said earnestly, and Aragorn smiled at him.

"Aye, I am sure that you will."

They had reached the outer door now, and Aragorn turned to open it with his free hand, pushing it wide and stepping out into the courtyard. The morning chill was still in the air, and he paused to wrap the cloak more tightly around Boromir, not wanting the child to get cold.

Once he was sure that Boromir was well protected from the chill air, he set off across the courtyard, walking with his usual ground-eating pace from his own quarters to the Steward's House, over on the other side. This early in the morning, the courtyard was empty apart from the guards and a few servants, bustling back and forth on errands. Their short journey across went uninterrupted, and on entering the Steward's House Aragorn found it to be equally quiet inside, although he knew the servants would all be up and around by now. He hoped that Ivoren had not yet gone to Boromir's chamber. The poor woman would surely be terrified if she found her little charge's bed empty.

To his relief, his hopes were borne out. They were just approaching Boromir's bedchamber when Ivoren came around the corner at the far end of the hall, no doubt headed for the same destination. Boromir waved and opened his mouth to call to her, but Aragorn shushed him, gently reminding him of the earliness of the hour. The child obediently fell silent, and Aragorn continued down the hall, while Ivoren approached from the other direction. Aragorn could see the concern in her face, and nodded to her in reassurance as they drew near.

"He had a bad dream, and came to me in the night," he said quietly, as he reached the bedchamber door. "He was frightened, and I did not want to leave him alone, so I let him stay with me."

Ivoren nodded in understanding, seeming to recover from her surprise. She gave Aragorn a smile that appeared genuinely grateful.

"That was kind of you, my lord," she said warmly. "Thank you for looking after him. Those bad dreams do frighten him so."

"It was my pleasure to do so," Aragorn replied. He went to open the door to Boromir's chamber, but Ivoren beat him to it, gesturing for him to enter with a little curtsey. He nodded his thanks and took Boromir inside, depositing him on his bed cloak and all, and grinning as he watched the child scramble free of the voluminous folds.

Ivoren had entered behind them and closed the door, and Boromir cheerfully called a good morning to her as he slid off the bed. He trotted over to her, and she smiled and bent down to hug him, a gesture he returned with enthusiasm.

"Good morning, Boromir," she said, and then pulled back to look at him, her eyes warm and concerned. "And bad dreams again, my poor little one! Are you all right now?"

Boromir nodded. "Thorongil looked after me," he told her. "I was frightened, but he gave me a hug and sang to me, and then I went back to sleep."

"Well, that was very kind of him, wasn't it?" Ivoren said, giving Aragorn another grateful glance. "You are very lucky to have Captain Thorongil looking after you." She smoothed Boromir's hair lovingly, then began shooing him towards the clothes press. "Well, 'tis morning now, and the dreams are all behind you! Come now, we must get you dressed. Your grandfather would like you to join him for breakfast."

Boromir grinned at that, obviously pleased. "Will you come too, Thorongil?" he asked, turning eagerly to Aragorn.

"Aye, if you think your grandfather will not object," Aragorn replied, and Boromir shook his head vigorously.

"He won't! I know he won't! Please come!"

"Aye, very well," Aragorn agreed, chuckling. "But in that case, off you go and get dressed. We do not want to keep the Steward waiting."

Boromir flashed him another of his beautiful smiles, turning back to Ivoren as she made to lead him into the bathing room. "I can do it," he assured her, holding out his arms for the clothes she had chosen for him. She smiled in return and handed them over, and Boromir trotted off into the bathing room, clutching his armful of clothing.

Once he was out of sight behind the door, Ivoren turned to Aragorn, regarding him with obvious gratitude.

"I would like to thank you again, my lord, for looking after him last night," she said quietly. "He gets terribly frightened by his bad dreams."

"You do not need to thank me," Aragorn replied, keeping his voice low to match hers. "It was my pleasure to do it." He paused, his brow creasing, and added curiously, "He has nightmares often?"

Ivoren sighed, her expression suddenly sad. "They come and go, my lord, but they have become worse lately. He has been worried about his mother; I think that has been adding to it."

"Aye, most likely," Aragorn agreed. "He feels her absence."

"He does, sir, very much," Ivoren said. "He misses her so, and his father is so often busy. I can provide the care he needs, but I know I am not ideal company for him. He would much rather keep company with the warriors than with the women-folk," she added lightly, and Aragorn chuckled.

"Aye, well. Most small boys are the same."

"Indeed, my lord," Ivoren agreed. "I have three brothers, and they were young warriors all. But our father was not the Steward's heir, and he was not kept busy each day with a hundred and more duties. Boromir feels that lack so badly, and it grows worse the older he gets. It is so good of you to watch over him, my lord. I would just like to say that I am grateful."

She said the last in a rush, then looked nervously down at the floor, as if worried that she had overstepped her bounds. When she did not immediately look up again, Aragorn laid a hand lightly on her arm. Slowly, her eyes lifted to meet his.

"You do not need to thank me," he said again, his voice gentle. "It is my pleasure to do what I can for Boromir." He smiled then, a little self-consciously, and added, "Our association began as duty, a request from the Steward. But Boromir has become very dear to me, very quickly. I care for him a great deal, and I will gladly give him all that I can, and would that it was more."

Ivoren nodded, her eyes warm. "I can see how much you care for him, my lord – and he adores you," she added, with a little laugh. "You should hear him talk when you are not here!"

"I can just imagine," Aragorn murmured, and to his further embarrassment, he felt the telltale warmth of a blush across his cheeks.

"Nay, my lord, it is a wonderful thing," Ivoren said earnestly. "You have become his hero. He has been so unhappy, with his mother's illness, and his father so busy. It is wonderful to see him with you, so full of joy."

Aragorn smiled, hearing in her tone her genuine pleasure in seeing Boromir happy. "I can see how much you care for him," he said, echoing her earlier words. "Boromir is lucky in his nursemaid, as will be any children that follow him." He glanced towards the bathing room door, adding lightly, "He has been telling me how much he would love to have a little brother."

"Aye, so he would," Ivoren said, although her smile had turned rather sad. "I fear it may not happen, though, my lord. The Lord Denethor . . ."

She hesitated, throwing a cautious glance at Aragorn, as if worried about giving away family secrets. Whatever she saw in his face seemed to reassure her, however, and she went on, her voice very soft.

"The Lord Denethor does not want any more children, my lord," she told him sadly. "Lady Finduilas would have more, if she could . . . but Lord Denethor fears for her health should she bear another child. Her illness weakens her; he fears the burden of carrying a child would weaken her still further." She sighed, now caught up in her tale. "It grieves her, that Boromir might be her only one. She does love children so."

Aragorn nodded. Finduilas' joy in her only child had been obvious, and he could imagine how she would long for more. It seemed to him a cruel fate that such might not be possible, and he was reminded for a moment of his own mother, and of the wistful glances he had sometimes seen and wondered at. She, too, was a lady of gentle heart, and the very few times he had seen her with other children – on rare journeys away from Rivendell – he had seen the pleasure in her face. Had she longed for more children of her own, siblings for her son, denied her by the untimely death of Aragorn's father? Wondering on it now, Aragorn thought that she probably had.

Ivoren had fallen silent, perhaps recognising that Aragorn was lost in thought, but Boromir's reappearance from the bathing room pulled them both back to the present. The little boy looked very pleased with himself, and true to his word he had managed quite well with the various fastenings on his clothing. He looked a little rumpled, but quite presentable nonetheless.

"Ah, well done, love," Ivoren said, smiling warmly at the child. "Come now, let me straighten you up a little, and then you may go off to breakfast with your grandfather and the captain."

Boromir obediently stood still as Ivoren straightened his clothing, although he insisted on putting his boots on by himself. Once he was finished, he turned a beaming smile on Aragorn, holding out his hand in invitation. "Come on, Thorongil! I'm hungry!"

"You are always hungry," Aragorn said teasingly, taking the child's hand. Boromir's response was an unrepentant grin followed by an impatient tug, as he began pulling Aragorn eagerly towards the door. Chuckling, Aragorn allowed himself to be pulled, exchanging an amused glance with Ivoren as he and Boromir slipped out into the corridor.

They made their way to the dining hall, Boromir trotting happily at Aragorn's side, still clinging to his hand. He did not let go until they had entered the dining hall and he caught sight of Ecthelion, sitting in his usual place at the end of the table, on which platters of food had already been laid out.

"Good morning, Grandfather!" Boromir called, and he ran over to scramble up into Ecthelion's lap, kissing the old man's bearded cheek. Ecthelion chuckled and put an arm around the child.

"Good morning, Boromir. And good morning to you too, Thorongil," he added, turning to smile at Aragorn. "I am glad to see you. Come, sit down." He took a closer look, and his eyebrows rose in amusement. "Wearing your sword to breakfast? Do we fear invasion this morning?"

"I made to leave it behind, my lord," Aragorn replied, returning the Steward's smile as he took a seat. "But I was informed that it would be careless to do such a thing, as a good warrior must be prepared for all possibilities." He winked at Boromir, who was giggling. "I bowed to that wisdom."

"Impertinence, more like," Ecthelion said, although his tone was amused rather than scolding. "My grandson has more opinion than is seemly for his tender years. And that reminds me, my troublesome little lad," he added, turning a somewhat sterner look on Boromir. "What have you to say about your adventure yesterday? I had thought there would be no more sneaking off from you."

Boromir looked instantly sheepish, although Aragorn noted with interest that he did not appear at all frightened of Ecthelion. Clearly he did not fear his grandfather's displeasure the way he did his father's.

"I'm sorry, Grandfather," Boromir said, looking up at Ecthelion with earnest eyes. "I know I shouldn't have run away again. But Thorongil spanked me already, and he said that he forgives me." His gaze turned hopeful, the appeal in his eyes clearly asking for that forgiveness to be carried over.

"Thorongil spanked you, did he?" Ecthelion gave Aragorn a swift, approving glance. "I should think so too. Did it teach you a lesson?"

Boromir nodded vigorously. "I'm never going to sneak away again."

"I am very glad to hear it," Ecthelion said. "Although, it looks to me like you can still sit down. Perhaps he did not spank you hard enough?"

The sternness had left his tone now, and he ruffled Boromir's hair, his affection for the boy obvious. Apparently the earnest apology, and the report of Thorongil's applied discipline, had been enough to sway Ecthelion back to doting grandfather.

"He did spank hard enough!" Boromir protested, predictably. "He spanked very hard!"

Aragorn could not help but chuckle at that, although he knew that to a four-year-old, his carefully mild spanks would no doubt have felt dreadful. Ecthelion, he saw, had a twinkle in his eye, and appeared just as amused as he was by Boromir's claims.

"If he had spanked you so hard, my little lad, you would be having a good deal more trouble sitting than you are," the Steward said fondly. He saw Boromir's indignant look, and added, "But I am sure it felt very hard. Our Thorongil has a strong hand."

Boromir nodded vigorously, clearly in complete agreement with that claim, and Aragorn exchanged a grin with Ecthelion, having to work to keep from laughing outright. Ai, but his fledgling became more adorable by the day.

"But he hugged me a lot afterwards, and he said that he forgave me and that I shouldn't feel bad anymore," Boromir was chattering on, as if to reassure his grandfather that Thorongil was not the ogre he had been briefly painted to be. "And I had a bad dream last night and wanted a hug, so I went to find him and he sang to me until I went back to sleep."

Ecthelion's eyebrows rose at that, and he cast a glance at Aragorn, who smiled and shrugged in response. Ecthelion returned the smile, giving him a grateful nod.

"Well, that was very kind of him," the Steward said, looking fondly at Boromir. He added in a teasing tone, "So, you like him still, even though he spanked you so very hard?"

Boromir giggled in response and nodded. "He only spanked me because he wants me to grow up honourable," he said confidently, parroting Aragorn's words from yesterday. "And he promised he'd give me another sword lesson today, too!" From his tone, it seemed a sword lesson was quite enough to make up for a spanking.

Listening, Aragorn was touched by Boromir's trust in him, that the child would so readily, and confidently, repeat what he had said. He already knew that his little fledgling was not the sort of child who believed everything he was told – quite the contrary, in fact. But he believed Aragorn, he believed in Aragorn. It was a humbling thought, and one that made Aragorn all the more determined to live up to Boromir's faith in him.

The little boy turned to him now, his expression adorably hopeful. "And you'll come to my lesson this morning, won't you, Thorongil?" he asked. "Please?"

Aragorn grinned and nodded; how could he resist that face? "Aye, I will come," he said, and then to his surprise – and Boromir's obvious delight – Ecthelion spoke up too.

"And I think I shall come as well, if you do not mind a larger audience," the Steward said. "It has been far too long since I last came to watch you, and my schedule is clear enough this morning."

Aragorn suspected that Ecthelion's schedule was probably quite as busy as usual, but the Steward had obviously decided that his grandson was coming first this morning. Aragorn made a mental note to offer assistance later with any urgent matters, and watched with a smile as Boromir threw his arms around Ecthelion's neck.

"Thank you, Grandfather!" he burst out, planting another kiss on the Steward's bearded cheek. Ecthelion chuckled and pulled the boy close for a moment, before giving a gentle reminder.

"Do not forget to say thank you to Thorongil, too."

Boromir promptly turned a beaming smile on Aragorn, piping a cheerful thank you. Aragorn exchanged a grin with Ecthelion, who then lifted Boromir off his lap and gave him a little push towards his chair.

"You will need your breakfast so that you can fight well," he said, then added with a chuckle, "And Thorongil will surely need his so that he can keep up with you. Eat up, both of you."


Once the Steward's order to 'eat up' had been obeyed – with great enthusiasm on Boromir's part – Aragorn took the boy back to his bedchamber to tidy up, and to fetch his practice sword for his lesson. Ecthelion met them in the entrance hall a few minutes later, and they left the Steward's House together, crossing the courtyard and making their way down to the practice grounds. Boromir fairly bounced with excitement the whole way, clearly overjoyed to have them both coming to watch him.

They made their way to the children's lesson, and a murmur rose up as they entered the practice arena, and those already gathered caught sight of Ecthelion. It subsided fairly quickly, however, as the other spectators soon realised that the Steward was there only to observe his grandson's lesson. Polite greetings were given as the three of them passed, and Ecthelion returned them in kind, exchanging a few pleasantries with people he knew well.

They found a good spot to watch from, but Aragorn took a moment before shooing Boromir out onto the floor. He knew how seriously Boromir took his lessons, and how anxious the boy was to impress those he admired. With both Aragorn and Ecthelion here watching, Boromir would feel himself under great pressure to perform well, and Aragorn wanted to offer him some reassurance.

"Remember, little fledgling," he said quietly, going to one knee to be on Boromir's level. "All we ask is that you do your best. You do not have to be perfect."

Boromir nodded gravely, although he shot a quick glance at Ecthelion, as if asking for confirmation. The Steward gave him a kind smile, stepping closer to speak quietly to him.

"Thorongil is quite right," he said. "Do not worry about performing for us. Just concentrate on your lesson and do your best, and you will do well."

Boromir nodded again, more confidently this time, and Aragorn smiled at him. "Off you go, then," he said, turning the boy by the shoulders and giving him a little push towards the floor. Apparently reassured, Boromir grinned over his shoulder and scampered off to his place, his little sword clutched tightly in one hand.

The lesson began, and Taracar took his class through their usual warm-up drills, walking between the rows so that he could observe each child, and offer praise or correction. Unlike the previous day, there was not a hint of mischief or distraction among the children; every small face was intent and focused, and no one spoke a word out of turn. Taracar's reprimand yesterday had clearly had an effect, although Aragorn guessed that the presence of the Steward in the audience was also proving a good incentive to pay attention.

He watched Boromir closely as the lesson progressed, noting the little boy's fierce focus with fond approval. Boromir was clearly putting all his effort into giving them a good performance, working determinedly through his drills and earning praise from Taracar for his concentration. Aragorn heard a murmur of approval from Ecthelion, who was watching with equal interest.

"He has improved since I was last here," the Steward remarked quietly, and Aragorn nodded.

"He shows a lot of promise for his age," he replied, his eyes still on Boromir. "I think in time you will have quite a swordsman on your hands, my lord."

"So it seems," Ecthelion said. "He has the talent for it. And Taracar is a good man to take him through his early teaching. It was fortunate indeed that he was willing to train the little ones."

"Aye, he is very patient with them," Aragorn said. "Though I must admit, I do not envy him."

"Nor I," Ecthelion agreed, chuckling. "One child at a time is quite enough for me. In his place, I would likely have strangled the lot of them long ago."

Aragorn could not help but laugh at that, and he and Ecthelion exchanged a grin before turning their attention back to the floor.

The next exercise was the duelling drill, and the children hurried to get into place when Taracar gave the word. As always, the old soldier kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, and was quick to step in if any of the children got too rough. Aragorn had seen before now that the man brooked little nonsense from his young charges, and a sharp warning from him was usually enough to ensure instant contrition from an offending youngster.

The third time this happened, it was Boromir's opponent on the receiving end of the reprimand – one of the biggest boys, who in his zeal had apparently forgotten how much smaller his opponent was in this round. He aimed a rather wild strike at Boromir's shoulder, and Aragorn was both relieved and impressed when Boromir brought his sword up in a hurry, just managing to block the blow. The strength of it was enough to make him stagger, though, and the crack of wood on wood was enough to instantly draw the attention of Taracar, who came storming over.

"Careful, Targon!" he scolded. "This is not free sparring, and Boromir is smaller than you. You know better than to get carried away like that."

Targon nodded, looking abashed, and offered an apology to Boromir, who accepted it with a grin. He seemed to have taken the whole thing in stride. Taracar nodded approvingly, patting him on the shoulder.

"Good block, Boromir," he said, before striding away back to the head of the line. Boromir looked quite thrilled by the praise, his eyes sparkling as the exercise started up again. Aragorn glanced at Ecthelion, who answered the look with a raised eyebrow.

"Quite a swordsman indeed, in time," the Steward said. Aragorn nodded, smiling at the pride he could see on Ecthelion's face.

"Aye, my lord."

"Though I should not be surprised," Ecthelion went on. "He has always been a fierce one, even in his cradle. As sunny a child as you could want when things went his way, but when he was displeased . . ." He shook his head, chuckling. "I tell you, Thorongil, I had never seen such a scowl on an infant before."

Aragorn grinned. Knowing Boromir, he found he could easily imagine that.

The rest of the exercise passed without further mishap, and work then began on learning some new techniques, which Boromir picked up with admirable speed. Finally, the main part of the lesson concluded, Taracar allowed his young pupils two sparring matches to round off the class. This announcement was greeted with the usual enthusiasm, although the children waited with commendable patience for Taracar to assign the partners.

Boromir's first match was with a boy a couple of years older, but he held his own well, and the match came to a draw. Undaunted, Boromir put even more effort into his second match, a more even contest. This time he won by two points, and immediately turned a hopeful look on Aragorn and Ecthelion, clearly longing to have pleased them.

Aragorn replied to the look with a nod and a warm smile, aware that Ecthelion was doing the same beside him. Boromir's face lit up, and he came scampering off the floor as soon as the class was dismissed, beaming up at them both before throwing himself at Aragorn for a hug.

"Well done, little one," Aragorn said, going to one knee to hug the child. "You worked hard, and you fought very well."

"Indeed you did," Ecthelion agreed, smiling down at them both. "You have improved since I was last here, Boromir. I am most impressed!"

That earned Ecthelion a hug too, which the Steward fondly returned. Boromir appeared quite overjoyed by the attention and the praise, and bounced energetically on his toes, his cheeks flushed pink with effort and pleasure.

Around them, other guardians and parents were talking with their own small charges, offering praise for work well done before leading them away towards the exit. Ecthelion gestured for Aragorn and Boromir to follow suit, telling them to go on ahead while he stayed to speak with Taracar.

"I must offer my congratulations for how well he deals with such a class full of urchins," he said with a wink. Aragorn grinned, while Boromir giggled delightedly at being labelled an urchin.

"Aye, my lord," Aragorn said with a chuckle, and as Ecthelion turned away, he held out a hand to Boromir. "Come along then, little one. I am afraid it is time for those boring academic lessons now."

Boromir groaned, but it seemed that not even the looming torment of academic lessons could dampen his good mood for long. He took Aragorn's hand without protest and chattered animatedly as they walked back up to the Citadel, talking with obvious enthusiasm about the new techniques Taracar had taught them. He looked briefly mournful when he had to actually go in to lessons, but Aragorn reminded him that if he paid attention well they could have their own training session after lunch, and he went without a fuss.

True to his word, Aragorn went to assist Ecthelion until Boromir's lessons were over, then returned to collect the child from his tutor. Boromir had survived his academic lessons with high spirits intact, and he swung happily off Aragorn's hand as they made their way back to his chamber for lunch. Ivoren had already set out a meal for them both, and Aragorn thanked her politely, pleased when Boromir did the same without being prompted.

"So how were your lessons today, little fledgling?" he asked once Ivoren had left them to their meal, giving Boromir a teasing smile. "Were they terribly dull?"

Boromir made a face. "Yes. They're boring. I wish I could just have martial lessons all the time instead."

"Aye, I know," Aragorn said, his smile turning sympathetic. "I felt much the same when I was a youngster. I chafed at being stuck in a schoolroom, when I could have been outside practicing . . . or better yet, playing," he added with a grin. "And I once got into terrible trouble over it, when I was, oh, a little older than you are now. I was so tired of my lessons that one day I decided not to go, and sneaked away early to play outside for the day."

He smiled, memories of that day flooding back, as Boromir looked at him in awe.

"You just didn't go?" he breathed, his eyes wide. "Was your father very angry?"

"Oh, aye," Aragorn said wryly. "He was angry indeed."

"Will you tell me what happened?" Boromir asked eagerly. Aragorn chuckled.

"Aye, if you like," he said. He had been hoping Boromir would want to hear the tale. It had a certain moral to it, as it was that episode of misbehaviour that had led him to start taking his academic studies more seriously. Not because of the spanking he had received, although his stinging bottom had certainly reminded him of why disobedience was a bad idea. Rather, it was because of the long talk he had had with Elrond the next day, and the lesson that went with it. Boromir was several years younger than he had been – he had just passed his ninth birthday, at the time – but Aragorn hoped he might be able to pass on at least a little of that lesson as he told his tale.

Smiling at the boy, he sat back in his chair and began, describing to an eagerly listening Boromir how that fateful day had dawned warm and clear, the sun rising in a sky that promised to be brilliantly blue, and to stay that way. It had been a perfect day for playing outside, and Aragorn – Estel, then – had looked longingly out the window when he woke, thinking unhappily of the many hours he was doomed to waste in the stuffy schoolroom. It had not seemed at all fair to have to waste such a wonderful day by staying inside.

He had already been feeling increasingly bored and stifled by his academic lessons of late, chafing at being stuck inside while his brothers were out doing whatever they pleased. He had understood logically that they were much older, and that the only reason they did not have to have lessons like he did was because they had already done them all, but it still had not seemed fair. And to be stuck inside again, on a beautiful sunny day that would be just perfect for playing or fishing or practicing with his bow or just anything that was outside instead of inside . . . well, it had seemed even less fair.

And so, at the mature age of just nine, Estel had decided that day that he ought to be allowed to decide for himself if he wanted to go to lessons or not. Childish rebellion in full flight, he had dressed, gathered up his bow and quiver of arrows, sneaked into the kitchen for some bread and jam, and been off into the woods before anyone even knew he had gone.

He had not dared cross the bridge over the Bruinen – something he was strictly forbidden to do by himself – but he had gone as far as he was allowed, which was up to the top of the falls. He had spent the morning playing in the open woods there, climbing trees and practicing with the bow he was so proud of. He had carefully avoided the main paths, although he had also known that if Elrond really wanted him found, he would not be able to hide for long.

But as it turned out, he had been left to his own devices, something he was initially very pleased about. It was only later, as morning turned into afternoon and he began to feel hungry again, that he had started thinking about what an awful amount of trouble he was going to be in when he went home. It had seemed like such a wonderful idea that morning, to sneak away and play truant for the day. But the thought of imminent retribution had painted that good idea in an entirely different light, and it had suddenly seemed much more like a very bad idea.

Estel had known from the start that his ada would be very angry that he had been so disobedient, but he had been having so much fun not being in at lessons that he had managed to push those worries aside. However, once he had started thinking about going home – and the reception he would likely receive when he got there – that little bit of self-deception had become much harder to do, and it was not long before he was deeply regretting his rebellious impulses. Not only had he not gone to lessons, but he had not told anyone where he was going when he left, which in itself would have been enough to earn him a spanking. Ada liked to know where he was, and he worried when he did not, and that kind of worry usually meant trouble for Estel.

And given that he had just coupled it with truancy . . . Ai, he was in big, big trouble.

Oh, why had he ever thought that running away from lessons was a good idea?

Miserable and ashamed, he had put off going home for as long as he dared, feeling torn the whole time between wanting to stop his ada – and everyone else – from worrying, and wanting to avoid the inevitable discipline for as long as possible. He had even briefly considered staying out all night, but only very briefly, dismissing the idea almost as soon as he had it. It would be cowardly of him not to go home and own up to what he had done, and everyone would be very worried if he was still out after it got dark, not just Ada.

Not that he actually would have been out after dark, of course. He had known full well that Ada would send searchers out after him if he was not back for the evening meal – and if he was honest, he was not entirely sure why Ada had not done so already. But that in itself had presented a whole other reason to go home. Ada would already be angry over his disobedience, but he would be much, much angrier if Estel did not come home on his own.

And if he had needed any more reason than that – well, he was also very hungry.

And so he had gathered his courage and finally headed home, thoroughly miserable, but trying hard to be brave. He had told himself as he walked that when he arrived, he would go straight to Ada and confess and take his discipline bravely, like a warrior would. It had made him feel a little better, although the normal nine-year-old boy part of him had balked at the thought of offering himself up so readily for a spanking. As it was, though, the decision had been taken out of his hands, just as soon as he had stepped inside the house . . .


"Well, well," Elladan's voice rang out, as Estel stepped gingerly into the entrance hall. "Our errant little brother has returned. We were beginning to think we would have to come and fetch you after all."

Estel stopped in his tracks, swallowing hard as he turned to face the twins, who were sitting in an alcove beside the doors to the Hall of Fire. Waiting for him, he realised sheepishly, and hung his head as they rose to their feet.

"We wanted to come and fetch you hours ago," Elrohir said as they approached. "But Ada said we should wait. He is not at all pleased," he added, unnecessarily.

Estel gulped, looking miserably from one identical face to the other. The twins did not look pleased either, and their scoldings could be as awful as Ada's sometimes, although in a different way. They were not usually quite as stern as Ada was, but it was disconcerting to be scolded in such perfect tandem.

But wait . . . they had not said they wanted to find him, but that they had wanted to come and fetch him. Did that mean . . .?

"You knew where I was?" he asked, looking at them in confusion.

"Ada sent us out to look for you when you did not turn up for your lessons," Elrohir said. "We heard your arrows when we climbed the path beside the falls."

"We also heard you cursing when you missed a shot," Elladan put in sternly, falling into their usual pattern of speaking in turns. "It seems it has been far too long since your last session with the soap, little one."

"That is something we will have to remedy," Elrohir added, frowning.

Estel winced at the thought, blurting out an automatic defence. "I did not know you were there!"

"That is no excuse, Estel," Elladan scolded.

"Indeed not," Elrohir agreed. "Our absence does not make it acceptable for you to be so unmannerly."

"We would have called you on it then and there, but Ada also said that if you had not gone out of bounds, we should leave you to come home by yourself."

"We were most disappointed."

"Aye, we wanted to haul you back by the scruff of your truant neck."

So that was why no one had come after him, Estel thought. Or rather, they had come after him, but Ada had told them to let him be. But why would Ada do that? Had he just wanted to see if Estel would come home of his own accord?

"I think perhaps he wanted to see how high you would hang yourself with the rope he gave you, little brother," Elladan said, as if in answer to his unspoken question.

"As if you had not already hung yourself high enough," Elrohir added. "Bad enough to play truant from your lessons, but to leave without telling anyone? You know better than that, Estel."

"Aye, Ada was worried, and so were we." Elladan frowned, adding even more sternly, "You are lucky that we found you before he had to tell your mother you were missing."

Estel ducked his head, his cheeks flushing with fresh shame under the twins' disapproving looks. The comment about his mother just made him feel even more ashamed of himself. Ai, how could he have been so thoughtless?

"I am sorry," he mumbled, lifting his gaze to glance miserably from one twin to the other. "I did not mean to worry anyone. I just . . ."

"Did not think," Elladan finished. "Aye, we know, Estel. But that excuse will not save you. Ada is very unhappy with your behaviour."

"He wants to see you in his study," Elrohir said. "But he said that you are to go and take a bath first."

"Very wise of him," Elladan added. "You are a mess, little brother. I have never understood how you manage to get so dirty. And what happened to your face?"

He brushed gentle fingers over a scratch on Estel's cheek, Elrohir echoing his frown as they eyed the damage. Estel gave a miserable little shrug.

"I was climbing trees," he said softly. "I slipped."

"Climbing trees instead of going to lessons," Elrohir said, and now his lips quirked up at the corners, just a little. "That sounds somehow familiar, brother."

"Very familiar indeed," Elladan said, wearing a similar smirk. "You are picking up more from us than Ada would like, Estel."

"But you should have left a note, at least," Elrohir went on, his voice becoming stern again. "You know better than to run off without telling anyone."

"You have been over Ada's knee for that before," Elladan added.

"And you will be again before the day is over."

"You will be going to sleep with a burning little bottom tonight, bratling."

Estel had, of course, been well aware of what his fate would be once his ada got hold of him, but to hear it stated out loud made it so much more . . . real. He blanched as the words penetrated, knowing the twins were completely correct in their assertion. Ada was going to spank him. He would be put across Ada's lap, his upturned bottom bared, and Ada's big hand would smack down over and over again, until Estel could not help but cry and kick in that awful babyish way that he always did, no matter how hard he tried to be brave. Ai . . . Ada was going to spank him.

Oh, why had he ever, ever thought that running away from lessons was a good idea?

He ducked his head, his eyes filling with sudden tears, and heard both twins sigh. A hand settled on his shoulder and Elrohir spoke again, more gently this time.

"Oh, Estel. What a scrape you have got yourself into. You must learn to think before you do such things, little one."

"You are so impulsive," Elladan added. "You must try to think of the consequences."

Estel nodded tearfully. He knew the twins were right, and he did try . . . but sometimes it was so hard.

"We know it is hard," Elladan said, again showing his uncanny ability to read Estel's mind. "Ada does, too. We all expect a lot from you. But it is only because we love you, little brother."

"I know." It came out sniffly, and Estel took a deep breath, trying to stop his tears. Elrohir put a comforting arm around his shoulders.

"Come now, little one. It will be all right. Elladan will go and tell Ada that you are home, and you are coming, and I will come with you while you have your bath, and keep you company. All right?"

Estel nodded gratefully, dashing tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, silently scolding himself for acting like such a baby. He had not even seen Ada yet, and he was already crying. He had wanted so much to take his discipline bravely, like a dignified, grown-up warrior would, but it just didn't seem to be working out that way.

The problem was, he thought, he did not feel very brave right now. And he didn't feel very dignified either, or very grown-up, or very much like a warrior. He felt like what he was – a naughty nine-year-old boy, who would soon be over his ada's lap getting a sound spanking. And even though he knew it was well-deserved, he was frankly dreading it.

He let Elrohir lead him away to the bathing room, while Elladan went the other way on his appointed errand. Inside, Elrohir gave him a little push towards the bath and told him kindly to get started, while he went to fetch some fresh clothes and some salve for Estel's scratched cheek. Estel obediently undressed and got into the bath, and in a few minutes Elrohir returned, carrying a bundle of clothing and a small pot of healing salve. He set it all to one side and promptly took over washing Estel's hair, ignoring Estel's protests that he could do it himself.

"I know you can do it yourself, little brother," he said. "But sometimes I like to do it for you. Now stop fussing and let me look after you. Tilt your head back."

The brisk tone was enough to tell Estel that there was no point in arguing, and so he simply obeyed, tilting his head back to give Elrohir better access. If he was honest, he didn't really want to argue. Having his hair washed felt nice, and having Elrohir look after him felt nice too. And if some part of him protested that he was too grown-up for that now . . . well, he had already worked out that he wasn't feeling very grown-up right at the moment.

"Thank you," he said in a small voice, wanting Elrohir to know he was grateful for the comfort.

Elrohir's hand dipped down to briefly caress his cheek, the unscratched one. "I ought to be washing out your mouth, not your hair," he said, but the love in his tone belied the scolding words.

Still, Estel flushed at the reminder. "Are you going to?" he asked anxiously, twisting to look over his shoulder at Elrohir. Bad enough to be facing a spanking from Ada, but to have his mouth washed out on top of that . . .!

"Nay. Not this time," Elrohir said. "You have Ada to face, and that will be enough. But you know better than to use language like that, Estel. It is ill-mannered, and we will not have you growing up ill-mannered. If it happens again, it will be the soap for you, and plenty of it. Understood?"

"Yes." Estel nodded, very grateful for the mercy. "Thank you."

"Do not make me regret it." Elrohir gave him a fond smile and then took Estel's head between his hands, turning him to face forward again. "Now be still and let me wash."

Estel obeyed, but even grateful as he was for the reprieve from the soap, he was too anxious and upset to sit still for very long. He kept thinking about Elrohir's comment that facing Ada would be enough, and that only made him more anxious and upset, as he wondered just how bad it would really be. He was almost too afraid to ask . . . but long habit of looking to his brothers for reassurance won out over the fear.

"Elrohir?" he asked in a small voice.

Elrohir's hands did not pause in their work, rubbing gently through his soapy hair. "Aye?"

Estel turned to look over his shoulder again, gazing up into Elrohir's grave, handsome face. His voice was tremulous as he asked, "Is Ada . . . is he very angry?"

Elrohir frowned, his hands lowering to rest on Estel's shoulders. A moment later he moved sideways to perch on the edge of the bath, so that Estel was no longer craning his neck to look at him.

"Estel," he began gently, "Ada is angry, because you were very naughty today. But surely you are not afraid of him, little one?"

Estel shook his head solemnly. He was not afraid of Ada. He was dreading the spanking he knew he would get, because it would hurt and he did not like being spanked, not at all. But more than that, he was afraid of what Ada would think of him after he had been so naughty and thoughtless.

"I should think not," Elrohir said. "But then why do you look so worried? Are you just nervous about being spanked? I know how Ada can make it sting, but it will be over soon, and you cannot say you do not deserve it."

Estel shook his head again, more vigorously this time. "I do deserve it," he said. "But that is why. I was so bad today, and I did not think, and I worried everyone . . . what if Ada is disappointed in me?" The words came out in a rush.

"Disappointed?" Elrohir repeated the word as if it was foreign to him, his brow knit in a frown. "Nay, of course not. He could never be disappointed in you."

Estel eyed him hopefully. "Really?"

"Of course not," Elrohir repeated. "Ada loves you. He will always love you, no matter how naughty you might be. He may be angry about what you have done, especially if you worry him – you know what Ada is like when he is worried," he added wryly, and Estel nodded, smiling a little in spite of himself. "But even when he does not love your behaviour, he still loves you. Never doubt that, little brother."

The confidence in Elrohir's tone went a long way towards restoring Estel's own confidence. Elrohir was right; he had never had cause to doubt his ada's love, or the twins', or his mother's, or . . . well, anyone's. He never felt unloved, even when Ada was spanking him, and he certainly felt very loved afterwards, when Ada would hold him close and wipe away his tears and tell him how brave he had been. And then, once the spanking and the comfort was over, the slate was clean, and he was forgiven. That was the way it always was. Why did he think it might be any different this time?

"Because you are silly," Elrohir said briskly, and Estel realised that he must have said at least some of that out loud – either that, or Elrohir had suddenly become even more proficient at reading his mind than Elladan was. He gave his brother a reproachful look, which Elrohir answered with a raised eyebrow.

"Aye, little brother. Very silly. And today, very naughty indeed. But still very much loved, always."

Very grateful for the reassurance, even if he was silly to need it in the first place, Estel lunged forward to hug Elrohir around the waist, completely forgetting that he was soaking wet. "Thank you, Erro," he murmured, and heard Elrohir chuckle at the nickname, which harkened back to when Estel was very small and had trouble pronouncing the twins' names. He did not use those childish names often anymore – it felt more grown-up to call the twins by their proper names – but they sometimes came out in moments of special tenderness.

"You are very welcome," Elrohir said fondly, stroking a hand over Estel's wet hair. "But you are also a menace! It is supposed to be you having the bath, not me!"

The affronted tone actually drew a watery giggle from Estel, as he sat back and saw the large wet patch he had left on Elrohir's front. "Sorry," he said, trying hard to sound repentant.

"You are not a bit sorry," Elrohir said severely, but then he smiled. "It is good to see a smile from you, little brother. Anyone would have thought Ada was going to eat you, not just warm up your bottom."

Estel grimaced at the reminder, but he gamely offered another smile. "I was not afraid of Ada," he said, wanting Elrohir to understand. "I just . . . I felt bad."

"Aye, your conscience was pricking at you," Elrohir said. "I know, little one. But Ada will fix that for you, never fear. You may leave his study with a hot bottom, but you will also leave it with a clean slate."

He stroked Estel's cheek with gentle fingers, then rose to his feet. "And now, I think we had better get you to him. It does not do to keep him waiting too long when you are already in trouble. Elladan and I can attest to that." He winked at Estel and turned to take a towel from the nearby pile. "Come on, little brother. Rinse off and out you come."

Estel obediently rinsed the soap from his hair, leaning back to duck his head under the water, then gave his face a quick splash before climbing out of the bath. Elrohir promptly wrapped him in a towel and began drying his hair with another one, manhandling him with gentle, practiced ease. Estel did not bother to protest that he could dress himself. He would only get the same reply that he had about washing his hair, and so he simply allowed himself to be whirlwinded dry and into his clothes.

"Good enough," Elrohir said when he was finished, standing back to look Estel up and down. "Comb your hair, and then I will take care of that scratch on your cheek. We cannot have you facing Ada looking like the walking wounded."

Estel moved to obey, but just then the door opened, and Elladan stuck his head in. "What are you two doing in here? How long does it take to have a bath?"

"If it is you, hours," Elrohir replied with a smirk. "We are nearly finished. I just want to put some salve on his scratch."

"I will do it. You take care of his hair. Honestly, Estel, anyone would think a bird had nested on your head."

"And so of course you give me the duty of taming it," Elrohir said wryly.

"You are better at it," Elladan said with a wink. "It never cooperates with me."

"Typical," Elrohir murmured as he set to work with the comb, and Estel smiled. He knew that the teasing was mostly for his benefit, to help him relax before he had to face Ada. The twins could be very stern themselves, if they caught him doing something naughty and decided to mete out the discipline for it, but when they knew he was facing discipline from Ada, they always tried to comfort him, before and after. Estel appreciated the efforts. Although he was feeling better than he had been, he was still very nervous. Every time he thought about what Ada would say, his bottom tingled in anticipation.

Once he had been combed and salved, and both twins were satisfied with his appearance, they walked with him to Ada's study, flanking him one on either side. It probably looked as though he was being escorted under armed guard, but Estel knew that the twins only wanted to reassure him. By the time they were halfway there they had each looped an arm over his shoulders, bolstering him as his courage began to falter.

They stopped outside Elrond's study, and Estel bit his lip hard, knowing that he had to go in but quietly dreading it. The twins smoothed his hair, patted his shoulder, murmuring words of loving comfort. And then they were gone, leaving him to take a deep, deep breath and knock tentatively on the door.


Elrond's voice rang out deep and resonant, even through the heavy wooden door, and Estel gulped. Ai, Ada sounded stern! But there was nothing for it, and so he gingerly pushed the door open and stepped inside, shutting it quietly behind him. Taking another deep breath, he crept forward to stand in front of the large desk, where Elrond sat eyeing him sternly.

"Well, Estel," the elf lord said. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Estel bit his lip, knowing just from the tone of voice that Ada was seriously displeased with him. "I am very sorry, Ada."

"I expect you are," Elrond replied. "Do you know how disobedient you were today?"

Estel nodded sadly. He did know, all too well.

"Yes, Ada. I know I should not have skipped my lessons, and I know I should not have gone off without telling anyone. I am very sorry that I made you worry."

Elrond nodded once, accepting the apology, although his tone remained stern. "You know better than to run off without letting someone know, Estel. I have spoken to you about that before, have I not?"

"Yes, Ada," Estel said miserably. Ada had indeed spoken to him about that before, several times, and every one of those conversations had ended with Estel being soundly spanked. The rules were very clear: if Estel wanted to go out any further than the gardens, he had to tell someone where he was going. And if he didn't, then Ada would soon remind him of why it was a bad idea to disobey.

And to make matters worse, Ada had also spanked him twice in the last month for being disobedient over lessons, once for a missed assignment and once for continually being inattentive to his tutor. Ai . . . two episodes of disobedience, both of which he had been in trouble for previously. He would be lucky if he ever sat down again once Ada was through with him!

Elrond seemed to be reading his mind. "I have also spoken to you about the importance of paying attention to your studies, have I not?" he asked. Estel swallowed hard.

"Yes, Ada," he said in a small voice.

"Indeed." Elrond arched one elegant eyebrow. "Then perhaps you could explain your behaviour to me. Why did you disobey?"

Estel hung his head. The answer to Ada's question was simple: he had been feeling rebellious, he had not wanted to go to lessons, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. However, when he thought about those reasons now, he was so thoroughly ashamed of himself that he could not bear to voice them. He took refuge in silence, staring miserably at the floor, although he knew full well that Ada would not let him get away with that for long.

Sure enough, there was a pause that seemed to last forever, then Elrond spoke again, his voice softly warning. "Estel. Look at me, my son."

Estel knew better than to disobey, and so he slowly raised his head, forcing himself to meet his ada's eyes. Elrond regarded him sternly.

"When I speak to you, I expect an answer. Is that clear?"

Chastened, Estel nodded. "Yes, Ada."

"Good. Now, I will ask again. Why did you disobey?"

Estel bit his lip. There was nothing for it but to confess the truth, no matter how awful it might sound. But oh, he did wish it sounded a little less awful!

"I just . . . I just wanted to play outside, Ada," he began, shamefaced. "It was such a nice day, and . . . it was too nice to stay inside and do lessons, and I really wanted to practice more with my bow. I know it was wrong, but I wanted to go so much, and then I just . . . did it. I did not think about how worried you would be, or how bad it was to miss lessons and sneak away without telling anyone. I just thought . . . I do not know what I thought."

"You thought it was a good idea at the time," Elrond said evenly, and Estel bit his lip again and nodded.

"Yes, Ada."

Elrond sighed. "Ah, Estel. Always so impulsive. What must I do to get you to think about consequences?"

Estel shrugged helplessly. He knew he was too impulsive – that was almost always the reason he got in trouble – but it wasn't as though he meant to be. It just . . . happened.

"I do not know, Ada," he said, giving Elrond a miserable look.

"Hmm." Elrond steepled his fingers, eyeing Estel over the top of them. His expression had become thoughtful, his gaze raking over his naughty son as if he could read Estel like one of his many books. Which, of course, he could, or at least it seemed so to Estel. He often felt like his ada could see right through him, and he certainly felt that way now, as he struggled not to squirm under Elrond's penetrating gaze.

There were several long moments of silence, and then Elrond spoke again, decisively.

"We will try something else," he said. "Your academic studies are very important, my son – every bit as important as your weapons training. I have spoken to you about this more than once, and yet my words do not seem to be having any effect on you. So tomorrow morning, instead of going to the schoolroom, you will come to my study, and we shall have a different kind of lesson."

Estel's eyes widened with alarm at that ominous pronouncement, and Elrond raised a hand in reassurance.

"Not discipline, Estel," he said. "Merely another kind of lesson, one which will hopefully help you to understand how important your academic studies are."

Estel nodded, relieved, and replied with the expected, "Yes, Ada." His relief was short-lived, however; when Elrond spoke again, his tone had become noticeably sterner.

"Your discipline, we will take care of now," he said, and Estel's heart sank. Even though he had known it was coming, he could not help but feel dread that the moment of reckoning was now upon him. He knew he had been very naughty, and he knew he deserved the spanking he was going to get, but oh, he didn't want it, not at all!

But Elrond spoke on, implacable, beginning his usual questioning before discipline was meted out. "What rules did you break today, Estel?" he asked, holding Estel's gaze firmly in his own.

Estel's reply was barely above a mumble, but he did manage to meet Elrond's eyes as he spoke, although it was an effort. "I was truant from my lessons . . . and I went out without telling anyone where I was going."

Elrond nodded once, gravely. "Two counts of disobedience, my son. You know better; we have spoken about both of those things previously, and you know well what happens when you disobey. However, since you cannot seem to think about consequences before you act, I must give you another reminder of why you should not disobey."

With that, he rose smoothly to his feet, and walked over to the chair that sat in the far corner of the room. That chair only ever seemed to be used for one purpose; Estel had never once seen Ada sit in it unless he was about to mete out a spanking. If it was not for the fact that Ada also comforted him afterwards in that same chair, he thought he would probably have loathed it.

He watched anxiously as Elrond took a seat, his robe draping gracefully around him. Thus situated, the elf lord turned to Estel with a firm, expectant gaze.

"Come here, my son."

As unhappy as Estel was about the prospect of being spanked, he would not have considered disobeying. It was very hard to take those half dozen steps over to where Ada sat, but he took a deep breath, reminded himself about his promise to try to take his discipline bravely, and managed to take them. And then he was standing in front of Ada, and Ada's strong, gentle hands were helping him into position, lifting him up and over the familiar lap. Estel automatically wriggled until he found the most comfortable position, then obediently lifted his hips as Ada slipped his breeches down, leaving them bunched around his knees. His shirt was flipped up out of the way, and a strong arm wrapped gently but securely around his waist, as Ada's large, warm hand came to rest across his bottom.

There was a momentary pause, and Estel shut his eyes, awash in the familiar sensations. As upset as he might get about the prospect of a spanking, it was hard to be really frightened once he was actually in position. Ada's closeness, the comforting sense of him, was so reassuring that most of his fear simply bled away, leaving only a tingle of trepidation about what was going to happen to his bottom. The spanking would sting, certainly, but at the same time he felt so safe, so loved, and so very close to Ada. Ada was here; there was nothing to be afraid of; he had been naughty and he was going to have a sore bottom to show for it, and that was all.

Ada's hand was still resting across his bottom, and now it patted gently, the soft touch contrasting with the stern tone when Ada spoke again.

"Do you understand why you are being disciplined, Estel?"

"Yes, Ada," Estel replied softly. "I was disobedient, and I did not go to my lessons, and I went out without telling anyone. I am sorry."

"I know you are, my son," Elrond said. "But you know the consequences for breaking the rules, and you broke two important ones today. I will not tolerate disobedience from you, Estel. It will be answered every time, just like this – with you across my knee, and my hand across your bottom. Is that understood?"

Estel tried hard to keep the quiver from his voice as he replied. "Yes, Ada."

"Good. Now, you will have your spanking for your behaviour today. And I hope that the next time you are tempted to disobey, you will remember how your bottom is about to feel."

Estel felt Ada pat his bottom again, this time in warning, and he shut his eyes even tighter, desperately trying to brace himself for the first swat. A moment later Ada's hand lifted and then smacked down, and Estel jumped and gasped, his back arching from the sting of it. The first smack always seemed to take him by surprise, no matter how hard he braced for it – somehow, in between trips over Ada's knee, he always managed to forget just how awful it was. Ada's hand was big enough to cover both cheeks of his bottom with a single swat, and oh! How it stung!

There was a momentary pause before the next swat, and then the spanking began in earnest, Ada's hand smacking down in a steady, stinging rhythm. Estel's bottom was on fire after only a few swats, and he had to bite his lip hard to keep back the yelps that wanted to come. But he had promised himself that he would try to be brave, and so he lowered his head, stiffened his legs, and prepared to be as brave as he possibly could. Even though he knew he would not be able to stay stoic for long – he never could, no matter how hard he tried – and even though Ada always told him that it was all right to cry, he still felt compelled to make the effort.

This time, his efforts were successful for exactly six spanks – his best attempt to date. During those six, he wriggled a little and gasped with each smack, but he managed to keep from crying out or kicking, even though he badly wanted to. But oh, it hurt awfully, every swat lit a new blaze of stinging fire across his bottom, and by the fifth one his resolve was waning fast. He managed to hold out for the sixth, but the seventh was simply too much. Ada had smacked low, across the most tender part of his bottom, and Estel could not help but yelp loudly, his eyes filling with sudden tears. Although really, it wasn't even a yelp – he wished it had been, but no, it had come out as a squeal, and he hated squealing, but he just couldn't help it.

And when the next swat came down in exactly the same spot, he squealed even louder, kicked his feet hard and started to cry.

After that, he gave up any pretence of stoicism. There was never any hope of trying to regain his composure once it was lost, at least not until the spanking was over and his bottom had stopped hurting so badly. Besides, after another swat or two, he was far too concerned with how his bottom felt to be embarrassed about making such a fuss. He had already lost count of how many swats there had been, but it felt like hundreds.

It was not over yet, though. Ada never stopped until he was quite sure that Estel had learned his lesson, and he clearly thought there was still learning to be done. The swats continued to fall, still in that steady, measured pace, and each one stoked the fire in Estel's bottom a little higher, drawing yelps and sobs and yet more squeals from him. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he squirmed over his ada's lap, kicking his feet frantically until his breeches tangled in a restrictive knot around his ankles. Kicking became somewhat more difficult after that, but he managed, all the while trying instinctively to wriggle his bottom out of the path of those burning spanks.

It was a useless effort, of course. Ada's arm around his waist prevented him from actually going anywhere, and Ada's aim never seemed to falter no matter how much Estel wriggled. He had no doubt that he could have squirmed and kicked and fought for hours, and he still would not have been able to get off Ada's lap until Ada allowed it.

But as far as Estel was concerned, that was exactly why it was all right to do it. If he had thought even for a moment that he might be able to actually escape, he would have tried to still his involuntary squirming as best he could. He did not want to fight against discipline he knew he deserved, and he certainly would never have fought Ada! But since he knew Ada could easily restrain him no matter how much he struggled, it did not count as fighting to him. It was just wiggling, and he could not help it, and Ada knew he could not help it, and so it was all right.

His bottom, however, was not all right. Quite the contrary, it felt as if it was about to go up in flames, and now Estel was starting to wonder if Ada would ever stop. He had known this would be a stern spanking, given what he had done – but oh, surely Ada had to stop soon? It must have been hundreds and hundreds of spanks by now, and yet they were still coming!

And then – oh, horror of horrors – Ada shifted his right leg up, tipping Estel further forward, and an especially sharp spank landed right on that most sensitive spot, beneath the curve of his bottom cheeks. It was too much, and Estel let out a shriek that rattled the windows.

"OWWWW! Ada – Ada, please st-stop!"

The words came out as sobs, and Estel squirmed wildly, quite unable to keep his bottom still. But Ada was not finished yet, and Estel's writhing did not make the slightest bit of difference to his aim. Another swat landed in exactly the same place, eliciting a wail of pure misery.

"OWWWW! Ada, pleeease! No m-more! I'm s-s-sorry!"

There was a pause then, although Estel could tell that Ada's hand was hovering over his bottom, waiting to lay down the next stinging swat. But then Ada's voice came, soft now instead of stern.

"Have you learned your lesson, my son?" he asked, and Estel nodded frantically, struggling to speak through his sobs.

"Yes, Ada, I p-promise! I w-won't do it again, n-never, n-not ever!"

There was a soft sniff, as if Ada had smiled, and then another pause, while Estel waited on tearful tenterhooks. And then Ada's hand came down, not in a stinging swat this time, but to rest, ever so gently, across Estel's burning bottom.

"Very well, little one. It is over."

Estel sucked in a shuddering breath and went limp over his ada's lap, drooping with exhaustion. He cried even harder for a few minutes, sobbing from a combination of sheer relief and sore, sore bottom. But Ada's hand was on his back now, rubbing in gentle, soothing circles, and Ada's voice was murmuring to him softly, telling him that it was all right, it was all over, and that he had been very brave. He could not easily remain frantic under such comforting, and it was not long before his gulping sobs began to taper off.

Ada gave him a few more minutes to calm down, still rubbing his back in those slow, caressing circles, and soon Estel was weeping more quietly, his broken sobs reduced to shudders and sniffles. Then strong hands were lifting him up, turning him, and he was gathered up into Ada's lap, his sore bottom dipping between Ada's spread legs, his head resting against the elf lord's chest. Ada was still talking, murmuring the sweet endearments that Estel so needed to hear, and he gratefully snuggled close, wrapping his arms around his ada's neck.

Elrond's arms tightened around him in response, infinitely comforting, feeling like home, like love, like Ada. "Shhhh," the gentle voice murmured. "There now, Estel, it is all over now. Hush now, I have you safe. My dear little son, how very brave you are. So very brave, little one."

Estel did not feel especially brave, and he knew he had not sounded especially brave, but it was nice to hear that he was, especially in those warm, loving tones that Ada used. He might have been embarrassed about how loudly he had been wailing, but it was hard to be when he was cuddled so comfortably in Ada's lap. Besides, Ada always told him that there was no shame in crying. And it had been an awfully hard spanking, too.

He snuggled closer still, pressing his teary face into Ada's shoulder. It might have been an awfully hard spanking, and his bottom might still be stinging fiercely, but oh, it felt so good to be in his ada's arms. He felt so warm, so safe and loved, Ada's forgiveness and care surrounding him, flowing over him with every gentle word, every soothing touch. It was always like this; it didn't matter how upset he was, how frightened, how well-spanked. No matter what had happened, Ada could always, always make it better.

He was not sure how long he stayed there, cuddled up in his ada's arms. Ada never rushed him, letting him stay close for as long as he wanted to, and so he cried a little more, and when his tears finally stopped he just cuddled close and sniffled, breathing in the comfort of that strong, loving presence. And all the while, Ada was rubbing his back and stroking his hair, speaking quietly to him, soothing him with gentle words and gentle touch until Estel was half-dozing, his head propped against Ada's shoulder.

It was only his growling stomach that finally roused him, and at first he was almost annoyed with it for disturbing his doze. But as he came back to himself a little, he realised how very, very hungry he was, and remembered that he had not had any lunch. It had to be getting close to dinner time now, and it had been hours and hours since he had last eaten, and even then it had only been bread and jam. No wonder he was so hungry!

He drew in a deep breath and opened his eyes, rubbing at them sleepily with one hand. Slowly lifting his head, he looked up to see Ada watching him with a gentle smile on his lips. Estel offered a sleepy one in return.

"I'm very hungry, Ada," he murmured, still trying to wake up.

"So I hear," Elrond replied. "Your stomach has been telling me."

"It woke me up," Estel said. His stomach chose that moment to growl again, and Elrond chuckled softly.

"It sounds most displeased, little one," he said. "I think we must get you some food ere you waste away." He stroked a hand over Estel's hair, adding, "Are you all right to get up now?"

Estel considered for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, Ada. But my bottom is very sore."

"I am sure it is," Elrond said gently. "But it will feel better soon. A good night's sleep will help."

"I'm tired," Estel agreed, leaning wearily against his ada's shoulder again.

"I know. It is getting late, now," Elrond said. "I think perhaps we should get you settled in bed, and then I will bring you some supper." He stroked Estel's hair again, asking kindly, "Does that sound all right, little one? Or would you like to stay with me a little longer?"

That also required some thought, because Estel would have liked to stay with Ada longer. But he really was very tired now, and bed sounded very nice.

"Could you stay with me, Ada?" he asked hopefully. "After you bring supper?"

"Of course I will," Elrond said. "Until you are asleep, if you would like."

Estel nodded, and Elrond smiled gently at him. "Come then, little one," he said, and before Estel could say a word Elrond had got to his feet, gathering Estel up as he went. He crossed the room in a few swift strides, took down the cloak hanging behind the door and deftly wrapped it around Estel, disguising the fact that Estel's breeches were still tangled around his ankles. "No need to walk, not with such a sore bottom," Elrond went on, his voice very kind. "Put your arms around my neck, little one, and we shall be off."

In other circumstances, Estel might have protested that he was too big to be carried around like a baby, and he would almost certainly have protested being toted through the halls with his breeches around his ankles. Right now, though, he just wanted to stay as close to Ada as possible, and so long as no one could see that he was wearing his breeches as ankle decorations, he didn't much care. After all, the alternative was to pull them up, and his bottom seemed to throb in protest at the very thought.

So, he obediently wrapped both arms around his ada's neck, and cuddled close as they left the study and made the journey to Estel's bedchamber. There, Ada finally put him on his feet, and then helped him out of his clothes and into a nightshirt, manoeuvring him about with the same gentle ease as the twins. He lovingly tucked Estel into bed, fetched a wet cloth to wash the tearstains from his face, then kissed his forehead and left to fetch supper for him, promising Estel that he would be back very soon.

As the door shut behind him, Estel snuggled down under the covers, pressed his face into the soft pillow, and was asleep in mere moments.


Recounting the tale now, Aragorn smiled at the memory. He had no recollection of Elrond coming back, but he had woken early the next morning to find not only a tray of supper – cold, but still quite palatable – waiting beside his bed, but also a twin cuddled up on either side of him. Elladan and Elrohir had been determined to comfort him, and on finding that he was asleep, they had stayed to watch over him, as they so often did. They had also, rather illegally, sneaked into Elrond's healing supplies for a soothing salve, and proceeded to liberally apply it to Estel's still pink bottom before he went to his appointment in Elrond's study. He had been very grateful indeed, even though his bottom really had not hurt that much anymore.

Having related that brotherly act of kindness, Aragorn glanced over at Boromir, who had been listening with obvious fascination. The little boy met his eyes and smiled, saying earnestly, "Your brothers were very nice, Thorongil."

Aragorn grinned. "Aye, they were indeed – and they still are."

"I'll be like that if I have a little brother," Boromir said, and Aragorn chuckled.

"I am quite sure that you will, little fledgling. And a very lucky little brother he will be."

Boromir beamed at the praise. "So what happened afterwards?" he asked eagerly. "When you went to see your father?"

"Ah, well, he had a lesson for me," Aragorn said. "A different lesson, as he had said, but a very good lesson indeed. He wanted me to realise that my studies were just as important as learning how to fight, so after we had talked for a while, he sat me down and began to explain in detail all the many reasons why a warrior must be educated, especially a warrior who might one day lead other men into battle. And there were many indeed."

"Like what?" Boromir asked. Aragorn smiled, leaning back in his chair.

"Well, for a start, a warrior must know how to read and write well. He must be able to read maps and plans, and missives from his men, and he must be able to write his orders so that his men can understand them. Also, he must be able to read and write in order to learn all the other things he needs to know. A good soldier knows at least some military history, and a good commander needs to know even more, so that he is aware of what has happened in the past, and knows not to repeat others' mistakes. He needs to know planning and logistics, so that he will know how to approach battle without putting his men in unnecessary danger. He needs to know about his enemy – their history, their culture, what they are trying to achieve. And he also needs to know about his friends, so that he knows where he can find allies, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. He may need to know how to speak other languages, so that he can communicate with both friends and enemies."

He stopped then, seeing Boromir's wide-eyed look, and chuckled wryly. "Aye, it is a lot," he said. "And the list goes on and on. But you see what I mean, my fledgling. While it may seem that it is most important for a warrior to know how to fight, academic learning is just as important. Knowing how to fight makes you a good fighter, but it is training, and discipline, and education that make a good warrior, and a good soldier. Do you understand?"

Boromir nodded uncertainly, and Aragorn smiled at him. "If you understand a little, then that is enough for now," he said kindly. "Just try to remember that even though your academic lessons may be boring at times, they are just as important as martial training for teaching you how to be a warrior." He winked, adding, "By the time my father had finished explaining all that to me – and I had finished writing the very long essay he set me – I understood that very well."

Boromir made a face. "I don't have to write an essay, do I?" he asked anxiously.

"Nay, you do not," Aragorn said, laughing. "Quite the contrary, if you have finished your lunch, then it is time for us to have another practice session. Are you ready?"

"Yes!" Boromir said eagerly, his face lighting up. He was out of his chair in an instant, dashing across to collect his practice sword from where he had left it, and Aragorn could not help but grin at his enthusiasm.

"Very well, my fledgling," he said warmly. "If you are so ready, then we had better go, and use up some of that boundless energy you seem to have!"

With that, he held out his hand to the child, and led a jubilant Boromir out of the Steward's House and back down to the practice grounds. They found one of the smaller, private rooms to work in, and Aragorn began the lesson, first giving Boromir some practice with the techniques he had learned last time, then instructing him in some new ones. For his part, Boromir listened intently and with obvious enthusiasm, watching with shining, adoring eyes as Aragorn demonstrated each move.

The lesson was an enjoyable one. As before, Boromir picked up the techniques with remarkable aptitude for such a young child, and Aragorn praised him warmly for his efforts. The little boy seemed quite overjoyed to have pleased his hero again, and the look of sheer adoration in his eyes brought a faint flush to Aragorn's cheeks. He still found it somewhat disconcerting, to be regarded with such . . . worship.

Nevertheless, he hugged the child fondly, praising him again for working so hard. Boromir was starting to droop a little by then, and so Aragorn brought the lesson to an end, promising more the next day if Boromir behaved well. The little boy emphatically denied being tired, but Aragorn would not be swayed, and Boromir wisely gave in. Aragorn took him back to the Steward's House and settled him in bed for a nap, and for all Boromir's protests about not being tired, he had fallen asleep before Aragorn even left the room – although not before extracting a solemn promise that Aragorn would come back for supper.

While Boromir took his nap, Aragorn took advantage of the time and made his third trip to the practice grounds for the day, eager to do a little sparring of his own. He looked about for potential partners as he entered the main practice arena, and while Beredil was nowhere to be seen, he soon spotted Damrod. The young lieutenant was currently watching from the sidelines, his rather dishevelled appearance indicating that he had already fought a match or two of his own. He smiled warmly as Aragorn approached.

"Good afternoon, Captain," he said, then asked politely, "How is your arm, sir?"

"As good as new, or it seems to be," Aragorn replied. "I am just trying to catch up on my practice, now."

"Do you need a sparring partner?" Damrod asked. "I would be happy to match you."

"I would appreciate it," Aragorn said, smiling. "And I also wanted to thank you again for your help yesterday, Lieutenant. That, too, was much appreciated."

"It was no trouble, sir," Damrod said easily. "I am just glad your young truant came home safely."

"Aye, at least until I got hold of him," Aragorn said wryly, and Damrod grinned.

"You had your talk with him, then?"

"I did, although it was mostly the flat of my hand talking to his bottom." Aragorn smiled a little, adding, "I believe I made an impression."

"I dare say," Damrod replied dryly, although he looked entirely approving. "If I may say it, Captain, young Boromir has been needing that for quite some time."

"Aye," Aragorn agreed, but then he sighed. "Though in truth, discipline is only a small part of what he has been needing. I am trying to give him what I can; I only wish it were more."

Damrod shook his head. "Do not underestimate what you are doing for him, sir," he said firmly. "You are giving him your time, your attention, and now your loving discipline. Those are precious gifts indeed."

Aragorn regarded him for a moment, feeling new admiration for Damrod's insight, and then he nodded. "True enough, Lieutenant," he said, giving Damrod a grateful look. He smiled then, adding in a lighter tone, "Although you seem very sure that it was loving discipline I meted out."

"None who know you would think aught else," Damrod replied simply, and Aragorn raised an eyebrow.

"Hero worship from you, too, Lieutenant?"

"Nay, sir," Damrod said, his tone even. "No hero worship here. Only respect."

Touched, Aragorn reached out to clasp the younger man's arm, offering his own gesture of respect. "My thanks, Damrod," he said, deliberately dropping the formal title.

"None needed, Captain," Damrod replied, and clasped Aragorn's arm briefly in return. "I only speak the truth."

There was a moment of silence between them, but it was the comfortable silence of mutual respect, rather than an awkward pause. Aragorn finally broke it, giving Damrod a warm smile and gesturing towards the practice floor.

"Spar?" he offered, and Damrod nodded, replying with a smile of his own.

"Gladly, sir," he said, then added wryly, "After all, humbling defeats are character-building."

That drew a laugh from Aragorn, and he led the way out onto the practice floor, where they engaged in a rather lively bout of sparring. Aragorn did finally emerge as the victor, but Damrod put up a good fight, and by the end of it they were both panting hard and sweating, their grins belying the apparent fierceness of the match.

Damrod cheerfully offered congratulations for the victory, saying with a grin that he had expected nothing less, and Aragorn offered his own for a match well fought before taking his leave. Dishevelled as he was after his exertions, he returned to his chamber to bathe and change clothes, then made his way across to the Steward's House.

Boromir was eagerly awaiting him, and greeted him with great enthusiasm, his face lighting up as soon as Aragorn walked in the door. He reported happily that Ecthelion had asked that they join him for supper, and so they headed for the dining hall, where the Steward was already waiting for them. With Boromir so cheerful, it was a pleasant meal indeed. The little boy chattered happily and was quite ready to offer his opinion on anything the adults might mention, although he usually had a dozen questions to ask first. Aragorn and Ecthelion both indulged him, answering his questions patiently and exchanging amused glances across the table.

Once the meal was over, Ecthelion took his leave, asking if Aragorn would stop by his study after he was finished with his other obligations. He winked at Boromir as he said this – the little boy had managed to extract a promise from Aragorn to take him for a walk before bed, claiming that he had had a very long nap and so he was not nearly tired enough to go to sleep yet. Aragorn had been quite unable to resist Boromir's hopeful expression, and had consented to a short walk in the gardens. He had added a condition, though, thinking that he really did have to draw the line somewhere.

"Straight to bed afterwards, and with no fuss," he had told Boromir firmly, and the little boy had grinned and nodded, clearly delighted to have got his way.

So it was that sunset found them strolling in the gardens that adjoined the Houses of Healing, walking along the well-kept paths between trees and shrubs and flower beds. Aragorn was enjoying the fresh air and the scenery . . . but he was also curious about the sudden change in Boromir's demeanour. The little boy had chattered happily on the way to the gardens, but once they were actually inside and walking, he had become rather quiet. Aragorn did not get the impression that he was sulking, but something was definitely on the child's mind.

"You are very quiet, little fledgling," he remarked, as they strolled past a rose-bedecked trellis.

Boromir glanced up at him, his brow knit in a small frown. "I was just thinking."

"Oh?" Aragorn played along. "What were you thinking about?"

Boromir bit his lip, worrying at it for a moment before replying, as if he was debating how to answer. The change in his mood was even more apparent now; he looked very serious, his eyes solemn grey in his small face.

"Your brothers," he said finally, daring another frowning glance up at Aragorn.

"Ah." Aragorn nodded slowly, not yet sure where this was going. "And why do those thoughts trouble you, little one?"

"Well . . ." Boromir hesitated for a moment, but then he seemed to come to a decision, and forged ahead. "You're from far away. And they're not here. Don't you miss them? Doesn't it make you sad? I don't want you to be sad, Thorongil."

It had all come out in a rush, Boromir gazing up at him with anxious eyes as he blurted out his concern, and for a moment Aragorn was almost speechless, he was so touched. They had both stopped walking, and as soon as he recovered his composure he knelt down in front of Boromir, smiling into the worried little face, marvelling at the child's compassion.

"Oh, dear one," he said lovingly. "Thank you for thinking of me. I am grateful for your concern – and I can see why you might think I would be sad. But I promise you, I am not. You do not need to worry for me."

But Boromir's worried look did not change. "If I had brothers and I was far away from them, I'd be sad. I know I would," he said stubbornly. "Don't you miss them an awful lot?"

Clearly Boromir was not going to be placated, at least not as long as he thought his Thorongil was suffering. Now that his concern had been voiced, he seemed quite determined to pursue it, at least if the stubborn tilt to his chin was anything to go by. Aragorn could not help but smile at the boy's tenacity. But he would honour Boromir's compassion; he would try to explain as best he could, and hope that the little boy would be able to understand.

"Aye, little one," he said now, keeping his voice gentle. "I do miss them sometimes. I love my brothers dearly, and it has been years now since I saw them. But try to understand, even though they are not here with me, they are here with me – in here." He patted his chest, above his heart. "I think about them often, and remember them, and when I do that I feel close to them, even though they are far away. Does that make sense?"

Even as he asked, he could see that it did not. Boromir's brow had creased into a frown of confusion, and Aragorn knew that the boy did not understand. Glancing about, he spotted a convenient bench over to one side, tucked away beside a row of white-flowered shrubs. Rising to his feet, he reached down to take Boromir's hand.

"Come, little one. Sit with me a moment."

Boromir followed obediently, his face still scrunched up in thought. Reaching the bench, Aragorn took a seat and lifted the child onto his lap, steadying him with an arm around the small shoulders. Picking his words carefully, he began again, trying to put across the concept in a way that a four-year-old might understand.

"Boromir, when you love someone, you carry that person with you in your heart, always. Your memories of them, your love for them, allow them to live within you, even when you cannot be with them. And that, little one, is why I am not sad. Aye, I am far from the land of my birth, and I have left behind my brothers, and others who are dear to me. But even though we are apart, I still think of them, and remember them, and I keep those memories close to me. In that way, they are with me always." He smiled, seeing the expression of wonder on Boromir's face, the sudden, awed comprehension. "Do you understand?" he added gently, although he could tell that the boy did.

Boromir nodded, his eyes very wide. "I understand," he said, and his voice was hushed, as if Aragorn had imparted a great secret. "You're not sad because they're here with you – even though they're not really here. They're inside you, because you remember them and you love them."

"Aye, little one. You have the right of it," Aragorn said warmly. "And you see how important it is. We must all be parted from our loved ones sometimes; that is the way of life. But we can carry them with us in our hearts, and so we are never truly alone."

Boromir's expression was still wondering, but after a moment he smiled, one of those beautiful sunny smiles that never failed to melt Aragorn's heart. "I'm glad you're not sad, Thorongil," he said, leaning forward to wrap his arms around Aragorn's chest. "I'd be sad if you were sad."

It was said so simply, but there was so much compassion in those childish words, so much empathy and kindness for such a young one to display. Beneath his surface stubbornness, Boromir had his mother's gentle heart, and Aragorn spared a moment to hope that Denethor, with all his spite and spleen and bitterness, would never take that from him.

"Thank you, little fledgling," he murmured as he put his arms around Boromir, and he hugged the boy tightly, pressing a kiss into the tawny hair.

They sat like that for several minutes, Boromir seeming quite content to simply cuddle in Aragorn's lap. In truth, Aragorn would have been quite content to keep him there. But the sun had fully set now, and darkness was descending rapidly, the gardens now lit only by the lamps set at intervals along the paths. Knowing that he ought to get Boromir home to bed, Aragorn pulled the child to him for a last hug before lifting him off his lap, setting him gently on his feet.

"It is time we got you home, little one," he said as he rose, and held out a hand in invitation. "Come now. It is past time that you went to bed. And remember – no fuss."

"I won't fuss," Boromir said, taking the offered hand. "But can I have a story? Please? A story isn't fuss."

Aragorn smiled down into the hopeful little face. "No, I suppose a story is not fuss," he allowed, as he began leading Boromir back along the path. "Very well. You may have a story, but after that you must go straight to sleep."

"I will, I promise. Can I have a story about a battle?"

"I think perhaps that could be arranged."

A beat, and then Boromir asked innocently, "Could it be about a really long battle?"

Aragorn looked down, catching the glint of mischief in the boy's eyes, and raised a warning eyebrow, trying hard not to smile. "Do not push your luck, little fledgling."

Boromir's giggle carried on the evening air, as they continued on their way.