By DarkRiver (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DISCLAIMER: The characters herein belong to J.R.R. Tolkien, not me and appear without the author's permission, of course, since he's all dead and stuff. This is set in the same continuity as "Sunset Ride" and "Wicked Games," though a few years later. Feedback is welcome!
Year 13, 4th Age
Faramir slouched in his favorite chair, contemplating the staccato rhythm of the pounding of his head and the way it throbbed in counterpoint to his pulsebeat. His bearded chin rested comfortably in his hand, which was propped up by the elbow on the armrest. A long, slender finger tapped his cheek as his gaze hardened to something approximating boundless frustration.
The unfortunate object of his vexation stammered, stuttered and trembled as he offered up his best explanation of the events that had led him here.
"And how did you arrive at the idea that wriggling into that armor -- an irreplaceable family heirloom -- was a good idea?" Faramir finally asked.
Elboron quivered, his slight frame reflecting the terror he felt at facing his father's wrath. "Well, uh, sir, we were playing Last Alliance, you see, and we didn't want to cut ourselves on the swords..."
The boy winced at his tone. "So, we saw the armor and..."
"And you decided it was much too far to walk to go and get some practice padding and wooden swords."
"Well, it would hardly be the same, father."
Faramir felt a nervous twitch coming on. He took a deep breath and plunged onward. "And so, of course, once you had your Uncle's armor on and your grandfather's sword in your hand, you were inspired to reenact the Last Alliance?"
Elboron studied his shoes very intently. "Yes, sir."
The headache increased its tempo. "And the case containing my old helmet?"
"I tripped, sir."
"I didn't mean to!"
"I should think you didn't."
"It was Thormir's fault!"
"Ah, yes, there is the problem, my little prince." Elboron flushed at the nickname he had repeatedly insisted his father cease referring to him with. It was all well and good for a boy of five, but for a young man of ten, it was mortally embarrassing.
Which was why Faramir saved it for special occasions.
"You see, Thormir may be the guard captain's son, but you are the heir to Ithilien. I'm sorry to tell you, your responsibility is a bit larger than his."
"Hush." Faramir gathered the last of his tattered patience. Elboron had been wild since birth -- a fact he blamed entirely on Éowyn. He reminded her constantly that the horses in her bloodline had made their son wilder than the wind.
To which, of course, she would laugh and say he knew full well what he was getting into when he married her.
Faramir could not keep the love from his eyes if he tried, but his son had done much damage to things that were important -- not just to him, but to the posterity of their family. And he had broken at least a dozen rules along the way.
The boy gave him a pleading look that would have melted any heart not prepared to withstand it. Faramir raised an eyebrow in response, parrying his son's blatant emotional play with an ironic smile. He /was/ prepared, since he had faced that look on many occasions.
He never raised his voice in anger to Elboron. He had learned from his long-departed father's mistakes and the legacy of pain that they had left behind.
"I'm in a great deal of trouble, aren't I?"
"Oh yes." Faramir sighed heavily. "You'll not be taking your pony out for a few weeks, that much is certain. And don't even look at me like that."
Elboron slumped. "Yes, father."
"Go on, then. I'll think of other ways for you to suffer later on."
The boy gave him one more look of exaggerated penance and then quietly shuffled out. Faramir rubbed his temples, wondering if he had ever been so much trouble in his youth. It wasn't likely. If he had, then perhaps his father would have noticed the boy standing in his brother's shadow...
A side door opened and Éowyn glided in. She wore a simple dress, as was her habit, of a deep green color. Her long golden hair was tied back in two braids seemingly on the verge of disintegration. Though she had adapted to her life at court with ease, there was always the hint of the rough-cut girl he had fallen in love with.
"So, what was it this time? Slaying Smaug in Laketown? Facing down Gothmog perhaps?"
Faramir laughed and pulled her into his lap. Just the sigh of her lightened his mood. It astounded him, sometimes, to think they had been married for over a decade; for she still took his breath away.
"The Last Alliance."
"Was he Isildur or Elrond?"
"I forgot to ask. I'm hoping he wasn't Sauron."
She placed a hand on his chest and looked into his eyes. "The servants tell me the damage is not irreparable. The smith is looking at the sword as we speak."
His father's sword was missing two inches off the tip. It was all he had left of the man who had raised him; sometimes with love, often with cruelty and derision. It was also the sword of the Stewards, an artifact that needed preserving.
"Thank you for seeing to it. Though I noticed how quickly you excused yourself from speaking to the young Lord of Gondor."
She giggled and kissed him. "It was a matter between father and son."
"You are fond of that excuse."
"As you are quick enough to escape when one of the girls acts up."
"True." He wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned his cheek against her shoulder. "Sometimes I don't know what to do with that boy."
"Children need to play."
He frowned at that. "But he doesn't respect rules or boundaries."
She ran her fingers through his hair. "He is a bit wild. I suppose I take no notice, because all the children I grew up with were the same. But it's easier to deal with rambunctious children on the plains."
Faramir looked up at her. "You know I love him, right?"
"A blind man could see it," she assured.
He relaxed, wrestling the old doubts back into their cages. It was a constant struggle, especially with a boy like Elboron. He wanted to be the best father in the world, but that was a desire his clever son often exploited. The boy needed discipline, but the whispers of a ghost caused him to hesitate every time it came to punishing his son.
"Maybe I'm not spending enough time with him."
"Fishing trips, camping, riding, sword lessons...you spend more time with him than you do with me," Éowyn said with a fond smile.
"Then maybe I'm not listening very well to him."
She took his chin between her fingers and looked into his eyes. "I've said it before and I'll keep saying it until you believe me. You are not your father."
Faramir gave her a helpless look. "I know...but sometimes, I... I just worry about hurting him." /Like I was hurt,/ he thought but would not say.
Her eyes positively glowed with love. "And that worry will keep it from ever happening. Not to mention the fact that I won't tolerate it for a moment."
He grinned and kissed her. "I love you."
"Good," she replied with a smirk.
Faramir looked away, thinking. "You say such children as he are common in Rohan?"
"Are you back to blaming me?" she asked archly.
He winked at her. "I know you're at fault."
She smacked his chest. "Slander, it is, and the worst kind."
He laughed at his wife's mock ire. "My point was...maybe we should think about sending him to your brother. Elfwine is about the same age. Might be good for them both. Elboron can race the rivers until he's calmed down a bit and he can teach Elfwine to use silverware."
She smacked his chest again, laughing in spite of herself. "Sometimes you can be impossible."
He winked again.
She pondered it. "It might be good for him, being out of the city and all."
"It will be good for the city as well. There's a lot less to break in Rohan."
"And can you bear to be without him?"
Faramir fidgeted, not really willing to meet that question head on. "If it's for his own good, I will have to. Besides, if the word from King Elessar is to be believed, I won't have as much time for him as I'll need."
The boy stared at him with betrayal in his eyes, tears threatening. "I swear I'll be good. On my honor."
Faramir swept a hand through his hair, unable to bear the anguished look in his son's eyes. He settled on the stone bench beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. The garden around them, dormant now in the autumn, filled the air with an earthy scent.
"This isn't punishment, Boro."
"You don't want me around," the boy said sullenly, a tremor in his voice.
"Now you know that's not true."
"Then why are you sending me away?"
"I am sending you off on an adventure," Faramir said with a wink. "A great adventure where you will learn lots of things and make your mother and I very proud."
"But I don't want to go."
"Now that's no way for a Prince to act. You're supposed to be brave, remember?"
His son looked down, swinging his feet back and forth. "I guess."
"Come on, buck up. You'll love Rohan. Your uncle has lots of horses to ride and streams to swim in."
Elboron did perk up at that, if only slightly. "But what about all my friends?"
"They'll be here when you return. It's just for a few years, and you can come back for visits...and your mother and I will come see you as often as possible."
His son sagged against him. "I didn't mean to break grandad's sword," he said quietly.
"I know, son."
"Can I take my pony with me?"
The young Prince let out a heavy sigh. "Okay. I'll go."
"Good boy!" Faramir squeezed him tightly, feeling relief wash over him. He mussed Elboron's hair and kissed his forehead. "I love you, son."
"Oh I see. Moments ago you were terrified I didn't want you around and now you whine because I say I love you."
Elboron squirmed uncomfortably. "I love you too, Da...but the kitchen women are watching and I think they're laughing at me."
"I'm sure they're not."
"Will you have them beheaded if they are?"
"No, I don't think so," Faramir replied with a wry smile.
His son laughed, breaking the last of the chains of sadness. "What?"
"Flogged indeed. You're as bad as your mother."
They shared a laugh, both feeling a good deal better.
"Son, come on, you've got to come along to meet your cousin," Éomer reasoned.
Elfwine, nose in a book, shook his head adamantly. "No, sir, I really want to finish this passage."
The King of Rohan folded his arms. His son should have been doing saddle tricks at five, and yet here at nine he could barely ever be cajoled onto a horse's back. It was baffling and somewhat embarrassing. It was much worse because his painfully shy son did not seem to want to talk about it.
"Don't you want to meet your cousin?"
Elfwine smiled angelically, his wild blond hair hanging in his eyes. "I'll meet him when he comes here, sir."
Éomer raised an eyebrow. "Son, there's more to life than maps and books."
Elfwine sank deeper behind the tome in his hands. "Really, sir, I'd much rather just stay here."
The King shook his head in frustration. It was a depressing fact to discover he had no idea how to talk to his own son. Something certainly had gone wrong in the last few months, but none of his inquiries had yielded a clue as to what it was. Accustomed to problems he could attack, Éomer felt frustration at his powerlessness.
"All right, then. We'll expect you down at dinner."
Éomer stalked away, angry with himself for failing once again to find the right words. He caught an unoffending braid in his fingers and ground it mercilessly, wondering for the thousandth time what was bothering his son. Had he said something, done something to inadvertently hurt Elfwine?
The King fretted over it as he stormed through the hallways. It was true he spent months away from home, visiting the various Marches and seeing to their concerns -- not something he enjoyed, but something he insisted on doing. His reign would not be marred by a lack of involvement or a failure to watch over his people. And, of course, he had to answer King Elessar's call when evil stalked the borders of Gondor.
But when he was home, he made a point of spending time with his family. It had never seemed a problem before, but something had gone awry during his last trip. For upon his return his son -- always rather introverted -- had withdrawn in upon himself.
So consumed was the King by his worries that he nearly trampled Amrothos when he came around a corner. He drew up short and stammered an apology.
"He's not coming?"
Éomer shook his head. "He's buried in a book again."
The Prince furrowed his brow. "I wish I knew what was bothering him."
"That makes two of us."
"Should I speak to him?"
"Do you remember the last time he got the impression the adults were ganging up on him?"
Amrothos nodded unhappily. They walked together down the hall. "The greeting party is ready to go. Oh, and my sister is in foul mood."
The King smiled faintly. "That's normal these days."
It was, too. His sweet, delicate wife transformed into an absolute shrew when she was pregnant. Somewhere about the sixth month, she announced her deep-seated resentment of Rohan in general and Éomer in specific. From then on, everything the King said was heard as a hidden barb, and every attempt to reconcile was met with a most un-ladylike string of curses.
"Was she suggesting she'd drop this one on its head like a proper herd animal?"
Amrothos laughed. "As a matter of fact, yes. She seems to think two daughters and a son are quite enough."
The King laughed ruefully. "She said mostly the same thing last time. And yet she was the one who wanted another baby."
"Perhaps she likes the attention."
"Perhaps she enjoys having cause to castigate me at the top of her lungs."
Amrothos grinned. "That's possible too."
The King and a handful of men, along with Amrothos, rode out shortly, moving swiftly to meet up with Faramir's party. They encountered them just after noon, finding them taking a leisurely picnic under the spreading bows of an elm tree.
Éomer barely dismounted before a blond flash streaked over to him. He laughed and opened his arms to receive his sister. Éowyn hugged him tight enough to make him wince.
"You've gotten fat," she announced, dabbing at her eyes.
He grinned. "You're a might padded yourself."
Her eyes flashed fire and he stepped back with a grin. "I've had three children, what's your excuse?"
"An excellent cook. Hello, Faramir. Well met."
The Gondorian shook his hand warmly. "You are looking well."
The King grinned back at his sister. "I see you've not managed to dull his manners."
"It's all that horse-manure Gondorian etiquette," she explained. She looked past her brother and smiled warmly. "Amrothos, I presume."
"Filling in for my sister, who informed us we were not getting her onto a horse without the use of winches and pulleys -- an indignity we felt wisest not to inflict upon her."
Éowyn snickered. "And where is my nephew? Did you lose him already?"
Éomer's face fell. "He...stayed behind."
His sister read his concern and frustration on his face and her look clearly told him they would speak of it later. "Probably wisest. I can't imagine the effort it would take to control two boys out here."
Éomer started. The boy he looked upon had a very familiar face, though he realized it was but an echo of a distant memory. Dark hair, well-kept, hung in a small tail over his collar. Grey eyes, full of a child's excitement, completed the unsettling image.
Faramir caught his look and nodded, a twinge of sadness crossing his features..
He's the spitting image of Boromir, I'd swear it, he thought, recalling a long-ago visit to Minas Tirith when he had met the Steward's heir.
"Elboron?" He knelt before the lad, who was wary at suddenly being the center of attention. "The last time I saw you, you were attached to your mother's teat."
The boy instantly went flame red.
Behind Éomer, his sister laughed. "I'm afraid my son isn't quite used to the Rohirrim habit of honest speech."
The King grinned, gripping the boy's shoulder. "Apologies. I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"I'm not, Uncle." Elboron's cheeks were still flaming.
"Ah, of course." Éomer stood. "Shall we ride on to Meduseld? There's quite a table being laid for such fine guests."
"That means he's laying out napkins and keeping the dogs in the kennel," Éowyn murmured to her husband.
"The Royal treatment indeed."
The King gave them both expressive glares. "Remind me to not invite you to my home again any time soon."
They laughed. The two parties mounted up and set off at a brisk pace. Éomer rode beside his sister, bantering with her and gauging how much distance had grown between them. More mature in many ways, and with her edges softened by city-living, she was unmistakably his sister. Her laugh, the mischievous twinkle in her eye, even the biting comments harkened back to their childhood.
He had dearly missed her.
The two boys sized each other up, awkward and uncertain. Elfwine saw a boy taller than him but skinnier, dressed in more layers of clothing than he thought could ever be put on a human being, with perfectly combed hair that was tied back in the beginnings of a tail. His grey eyes were like smoke and his posture was that of someone always poised to run into or out of trouble.
Elboron saw a boy that was both pensive and uncertain, broad at the shoulder for his age and with knobby elbows and knees. His blond hair was a mess and the stained tunic he wore was a disaster. Had he not been told this was the heir of Rohan, he would have guessed he was a servant's child.
They shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. The adults had left them to themselves, not wanting to hover. It was something both boys were grateful for. The last thing they needed was one of their parents cooing over how cute they both were.
"You, er, ah...that is...I could...if you wanted to, that is...you want me to, uh, well, show you around?"
"You took all those words just to say that?" Elboron asked with a laugh.
Elfwine went beet red. "Ah, er...well..."
The Gondorian shook his head at his cousin. "I'd love to see the place."
"Okay. Um, do you want to change first?"
Elboron looked down at himself. "Into what?"
"Er...something, less, well...that is, into something not so...heavy...?"
Elboron compared their two modes of dress and decided that if it was acceptable for a Prince to run around like that, it was certainly preferably to the itchy, hot, miserable thing his mother had stuffed him into.
Elfwine ducked his head and shuffled along a winding corridor. Elboron ambled along beside him. "So, uh, what's Ithilien like?"
"Boring." Elfwine laughed nervously. "No, really, there's nothing to do there."
"Hey Winer!" a boy called suddenly. "Who's that? Your new valet?"
Elfwine went red to the roots of his hair.
Elboron rounded on the speaker, fists clenching at his side. The boy was perhaps a year older, more evenly proportioned than either of the Princes. His blond mane was tied back in a scraggly tail and his blue eyes were sparkling with meanness.
"Who are you?"
"Hama, son of Haleth," the boy replied with an indolent smirk. "You?"
"Elboron, Prince of Ithilien."
"Do all princes dress like girls where you come from or is that dress all your mommy could find to put you in."
"Dress...?" Elboron looked down at his formal clothes. He considered punching the infuriating boy, but he knew how badly that would go for him. Getting into a fight just minutes after arriving would earn him the scolding of a lifetime.
He looked to Elfwine, who was staring at his feet. There was no help to be found there.
Hama laughed. "Well, I'll let you girls go find some dolls to play with. I'm going to go riding. I'd ask you to join me, but, well..." He gave Elfwine a pointed look, who visibly trembled. Then he walked on past, bumping Elboron hard in the shoulder.
"Who is he?" Elboron demanded of his cousin.
"Stablemaster's son," muttered Elfwine. "His grandfather was Doorwarden and his father was at Helm's Deep. Very important family."
"And he's a complete jerk."
Elfwine shrugged. "Just ignore him. Come on, I'll show you where you're staying."
Elboron followed, disgruntled by the encounter. He didn't want to do anything that would get his Uncle and Aunt angry with him...but he wasn't sure he could keep his temper in check. It occurred to him that he should talk to his father...but he didn't want his father to think he couldn't handle a little teasing.
His room turned out to be nothing like his own room back home. Smaller and draftier, it hardly seemed appropriate quarters for a Prince. The walls were covered in very old, musty-smelling tapestries depicting young Kings of Rohan learning swordcraft and romping with horses. The bed was a weathered wooden frame containing a mattress of fresh straw.
Elboron looked dubious. "Er..."
Elfwine glanced at him. "What?"
His clothes were in saddlebags at the foot of the bed. He rummaged through them until he found an old tunic of his fathers that he cherished. He tugged at the laces his mother had bound him with, grimacing over at his cousin. "Is it always so, well, drafty in here?"
Elfwine cocked his head in thought. "Uh...I...we can, um, well, you know, find you another room."
Elboron couldn't help but laugh. "I was just asking; not declaring war or anything."
Elfwine cracked his first smile...a nervous, shaking thing. "I don't notice it much, really. And you'll be grateful in summer, because it can get so hot you feel your skin's gonna melt off."
"Wow...it's almost always cold around Ithilien." He finally worked the laces loose. "So, where's your room?"
"Down the hall...thankfully."
"Well..." Elfwine stumbled, clearly uncertain he should continue.
"Well what? Go on."
Elfwine stammered awkwardly for a moment. "It's just that I spent a lot of years down the hall from my parents' room..."
"Always an eye on you, eh?" Elboron remarked knowingly.
Elfwine nodded, flashing a conspiratorial smirk. "I kept asking to be moved, but there was always some excuse. They finally had no choice. They needed another room for the new baby."
"Now you're free to raid the kitchens at will, hmm?" he murmured through miles of cloth as he struggled into the tunic.
Elfwine gave him a startled, guilty look. "Um..."
"I do it all the time at home."
He cinched the over-large tunic about his waist with his belt and rolled up the sleeves. "Shall we?"
Elfwine stifled a giggle.
"Your legs are the color of milk."
Elboron blushed and glared at the same time. "Well, I don't run around like a savage, do I?"
The Rohirrim Prince fretted, worried he had offended. The smile tugging at his cousin's lips, though, set him at ease. "Well...you'll get your chance, living here. You don't want to be wearing your best if you're suddenly called to help deliver a lamb or something."
"Deliver what?" Elboron let his panic show.
Elfwine laughed nervously. "Kidding. That almost never happens."
"Come on, I'll show you around Edoras first." He winked mischievously. "If you can keep up."
Elboron grinned and chased him out of the room, down the corridor and around a corner. The fleet Rohirrim boy was barely able to stay ahead of his long-legged Gondorian cousin as they pelted through Meduseld at full speed. Only his knowledge of the keep aided him; he knew where to expect turns and was prepared while his cousin, unfortunately, had to scramble to keep from smashing into walls.
Outside Meduseld, it was a brisk autumn afternoon. Thunderheads loomed overhead, threatening and ominous. The boys dashed along the main road, laughing breathlessly. Putting on a burst of speed, Elboron launched himself at his cousin and tackled him into a pile of hay.
"Ack!" came the muffled protest.
Elboron sat back on his heels, straw sticking in his now disheveled hair. "Can't keep up, eh?"
"Simple mistake," panted Elfwine. "Come on, there's sweetmeats to be had at Goodwoman Thaster's shop."
The Rohirrim Prince stood and plucked straw from his hair. His cousin brushed himself off as well and fell into step beyond him. Edoras was cold and bitter to the Gondorian boy's eye. The whistling wind and tired faces of the citizens made it mournful at first glance. But with the Prince beside him, the city transformed. People shouted greetings with bright smiles, asking after the King and Lady Lothiriel and inquiring about Elboron. Elfwine folded in upon himself, returning the warm greetings with nervous ones, the smiles with forced displays of cheer.
Elboron noticed, but did not know how to ask about it, so he just let it go. They were given sweetmeats by Goodwoman Thaster, whose bakery provided the city with most of its few pleasant smells. She was a sweet old woman with the spark of youth in her gray eyes. Without their asking, she loaded them up with candies and sent them on their way.
"How many?" the Rohirrim King asked.
"Five thousand at the least," replied Faramir.
"Orcs spawn like insects and the wastelands of Mordor are still a haven for them."
Éomer shook his head wearily, gripping his goblet angrily. His sister and his wife had gone to look in on the girls, leaving them to talk of the more serious matter Faramir had come to discuss.
"And just the year before last, we had that invasion from the south. I begin to wonder if I will see peace in my lifetime."
Faramir paused in his pacing to give him a sympathetic look. "There is always the hope of that. Can I tell King Elessar that we can expect you in Ithilien come spring?"
"Of course, with a thousand men at my back. I will also send Amrothos to speak with his brother. I'm sure we can count on troops from Dol Amroth as well."
"Then this encampment shall surely be destroyed. And maybe this time we'll finally take those black gates off their hinges."
Éomer smiled viciously at the thought. "I am curious, though. Does this shadow on your border have anything to do with you bringing Elboron to the plains?"
Faramir threw himself into a chair. "I admit, I'll feel better knowing he is far from danger. But, no, honestly, I think he just needs a less constrained place to grow out of his wildness."
The brooding man swirled his finger in the pool, banishing the image. Around him, the darkened hall was still save for the scraping footsteps of his servants. None dared approach him while he was using the scrying pool. It took immense concentration on his part and interrupting him was certain to earn the transgressor a lashing at the least.
"So...the sons of both my enemies are in Meduseld. Perhaps there is an advantage there." He tugged his wolf-skin cloak tighter about himself. There seemed to be no banishing the constant chill of his stronghold.
An orc shuffled forward. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Send for Utuk. I need to get a message to our spies in Meduseld."
"At once, my Lord."
He slouched back on his throne, irritated. Orcs were incredibly stupid and that he had to rely on them irked him. His blood was rich with royalty. He should be holding court in Edoras, not in this dank, forgotten place.
He pondered the new events he'd seen in Edoras. It was a strange turning, to suddenly have both Éowyn and Éomer's sons together. The heir of Rohan had never figured very heavily in his plans, but with his father leaving in the Spring for a year's campaign...opportunities might avail themselves.
But he would be patient. That was his strength; the ability wait out his enemies and strike only at his choosing. Long had he lurked in shadow and secrecy...but the time was drawing nearer...the time when he would destroy the heirs of Rohan.
"Is it ever going to stop raining?" Elboron asked with a despairing look out the window.
Elfwine diverted his attention briefly from his book. "Maybe. Or maybe we'll sink like Numenor."
"Numenor. You know Numenor."
Elboron shrugged. "Of course. /Everyone/ knows about that old wreck," he said dismissively, glaring at the rain again.
The choking laugh from Elfwine brought his head around. His cousin was red-faced from the effort of stifling a fit of giggles. "Numenor wasn't a ship, muckbrain. It was an island."
Elboron was caught between irritation at being talked down to and intrigue at the image of an island sinking. He decided to yield to curiosity now and save the irritation for a grudge later.
"How does an island sink?"
"I can't believe you don't know...well, it's just the best story ever. You want to hear about it?"
"Sure beats staring at the rain." Elboron sauntered over to an old divan whose stuffing was coming out in places and flopped onto it bonelessly.
"Okay, so, back in the day...that is, a really really long time ago, Sauron got himself in good with the Numenorian King, Ar-Pharazon, and was his most trusted advisor."
"What kind of moron do you have to be to make Sauron your advisor?"
Elfwine huffed impatiently at him. "They didn't call him Sauron the Deceiver for nothing, you know."
"I didn't know they called him that at all."
"Honestly, how can you not...oh, never mind. Do you want to hear this or not?"
Elboron shrugged. "Yeah."
"Okay, so, what happened was Ar-Pharazon captured Sauron -- well, he let himself be captured, really -- and Sauron used his powers of persuasion to worm his way into the King's trust. Well, of course, once he had the King's ear, he started corrupting him and through him all the rest of the Numenorians. Except Amandil and his son Elendil and Elendil's sons--"
"Isildur and Anarion!" Elboron put in excitedly.
"Oh, you /do/ know a little history."
Elboron made a rude gesture. "So, what happened?"
"Well, it was almost no time at all before the King started worshipping Morgoth -- you know who that is?"
"Ancient Elven King?"
Elfwine gaped at him.
"Kidding! Evil Vala, very bad news."
Elfwine gave him a disgruntled look, as if wondering if he was being mocked. "Yes, right, so this Ar-Pharazon guy starts doing all kinds of bad things -- building temples to Morgoth, having people sacrificed, attacking other people for slaves and sacrifices and stuff."
"Why didn't Isildur just kill him?"
"Because that would be treason."
"So? Arferzan was a bad man."
"It's Ar-Pharazon and that didn't matter. Men of old took their oaths very seriously."
"But Isildur, he got him in the end, right?"
"No, he didn't."
"Was it Elendil, then?"
"Do you want me to tell you this or not?"
Elboron fidgeted. "Okay, but there'd better be some fighting or something coming up."
"Well, sort of. Amandil went to plead with Manwe to spare the faithful Numenorians from their King's blasphemy. No one ever heard from him again. Elendil and Isildur got ready to run if things went wrong. Oh! I forgot. You know the white tree in Minas Tirith?"
"Yes," Elboron said impatiently.
"Well, the first tree was in Numenor and it was absolutely sacred and stuff. The King chopped it down, but not before Isildur stole a fruit from it. Oh, but before he could get away...he was attacked!"
"Yes, by twenty of the King's best men."
Elboron stared at him in horror. "What did he do?"
"What could he do? They demanded he surrender what he'd stolen, but he refused!"
"Of course he did," Elboron said fiercely.
"He fought with them for a day and a night without rest. The ground was red with his blood and the pieces of his enemies. Even in the moonless night he did not fall. They say he was favored by the Vala. No one knows. They only know that Isildur returned with the fruit, and he was coated in blood and barely able to stand."
Elboron was hanging on his every word.
"So, then, the Vala got very angry with all the stuff Ar-Pharazon was doing and they sent down all this fire and lightning and stuff onto Numenor to punish them and warn them of what would happen if they didn't change their tune. The air was thick, they say, with the stench of burned corpses.
"But Sauron, being all powerful and so on himself, deflected their fury from himself and that made the bad Numenorians brave so they sacrificed more and it got really bad and then, the King was convinced to do the worst thing of all. You know how the elves sail into the west?"
"Well, the Numenorians were forbidden from doing that. Well, Ar-Pharazon was old and he was afraid to die and Sauron convinced him that he could get away with it if he went into the west. Well, that was the torch on the funeral pyre of Numenor. They'd broken just about every rule they'd been given. So, Manwe goes to Illuvatar and tells him he's had it and that Illuvatar could do whatever he wanted with the Numenorians.
"So, er, this huge monster looms up out of the sea and attacks the fleets of Numenor. It bit ships in half, it swallowed men whole, it breathed fire and spat lighting!"
Elboron swallowed hard, staring.
"Before long, the whole fleet was under the waters and the island was covered by the sea. Sauron wasn't killed, but his body was destroyed and only a few, led by Elendil, survived."
"But what happened to Ar-whats-it?"
Elfwine lowered his voice to a whisper. "He was entombed in the undying lands, trapped there until the end of time for his crimes."
Elboron gasped. "Really?"
"So it's said. Though no one really knows for sure."
Elboron stared at him for a long time, and then he broke into a grin. "You made that all up."
"I did not!"
"Take that back!"
Elfwine pounced, but Elboron was faster. The Gondorian lad darted out of reach, laughing. Elfwine nearly tripped over his giant feet trying to turn, but he surprised Elboron with a quick grab. The dark-haired boy danced aside again and then bolted, flying out of the chamber recklessly.
He stepped on something soft and slick and went skidding across the hall with a panicked yelp. His arms pin-wheeled helplessly, but to no avail. In the next second, he crashed face first into the unyielding stone wall.
Elfwine was doubled up laughing.
"Hey, you shut up. I slipped."
Elfwine was laughing too hard to respond properly.
Rubbing his sore temple, Elboron got up and looked to see what he had stumbled on. A smeared line of mud ran from where he had first slipped to the wall he had crashed into. Beyond the swear he saw more mud in the shape of footprints.
"That's odd, don't you think?"
"What, that you /still/ don't know a wall from a doorway?"
Elboron glowered at him. "No. Muddy footprints. The mud should have come off a man's boots by the time he got this far into Meduseld, don't you think?"
Elfwine shrugged. "I guess. But Edoras is a muddy place."
Elboron, son of one of the finest human trackers in Gondor, frowned thoughtfully and knelt to examine the footprints. Heavy boots, certainly, and big. Scoring on the stone suggested metal-shod boots.
"Come on, I think I smell apple cobbler in the kitchen."
Elboron's ears perked. "Apple cobbler, you say?"
"Race you. I'll even give you a head start, since you're such a clutz."
Elboron shoved him and took off running, the footprints forgotten in the face of the challenge. When they returned to their rooms later, chambermaids had washed away the mud, and Elboron worried over it no more.
"It's rutting cold!"
"You shouldn't swear."
Elboron glowered sourly. "My fingers are going to fall off."
Shivering, Elfwine nodded, looking around his cousin's room. "I know! We could build a fort. That's what I usually do when it gets this cold."
"Yeah. We gather up all the blankets and pillows we can find and make a fort out of them."
Elboron was plainly dubious. "That works?"
"It sure does. Come on, I'll show you."
They stripped the bed of all its blankets and pillows, pilfered a trunk by the wall and then snatched a pile of furs by the door. With their materials in hand, they made their way to Elfwine's room where they gathered up more coverlets. Not satisfied yet, Elfwine got his cousin to go with him to unoccupied guest chambers to thieve more items.
"Okay, now, put that chair over there," Elfwine ordered, dragging a high-backed seat to a position far from the window.
With a curious look, Elboron did as he was asked. Very shortly, the skeleton of the fort was arranged to Elfwine's satisfaction. The Prince of the Mark then began meticulously laying out the foundation -- covering the floor in coverlets and pillows. Then he got Elboron to help him arrange the last of the blankets over the frame, creating a dense tent of woolen comforters.
Elboron grinned. "I guess all those books aren't totally useless."
Elfwine shoved him, smirking. "Go on."
They crawled into the space they had created, and it was indeed far warmer than either of their rooms. It was also surprisingly comfortable. Elboron flopped and stretched out, totally relaxed.
"So?" Elfwine asked again, poking him in the ribs.
Elboron yelped and cringed. "Hey!"
"Oh I see! Ticklish!"
Elfwine pounced, fingers tormenting Elboron's ribs. The Gondorian boy shrieked with laughter and retaliated, pinning his cousin and glaring at him.
"I hate that!" he complained, still grinning. "Give up?"
Elfwine struggled ineffectually. "I suppose."
Elboron flopped again, breathing hard. "Okay, this is pretty good."
They stared at the woolen ceiling in silence for a moment.
Elfwine propped himself on an elbow and looked at him. "Yeah?"
"I'm glad my father sent me here."
Elfwine smiled. "I am too. Hey, did you want to here another story?"
"Has it got Isildur in it?"
"What is it with you and Isildur?"
"I don't know, I just like him. He did defeat Sauron."
"Yeah, and he took the ring instead of destroying it."
Elboron glared at him, also propping himself on his elbow. "Yeah, but the One Ring made him do that."
Elfwine rolled his eyes. "I suppose."
"Who's your hero, then."
"My father," Elfwine said without hesitation.
Elboron huffed impatiently. "Of course, but besides him."
Elfwine lounged back and stretched. "I hadn't really thought about it. I suppose I should pick somebody from Rohan history...Helm, probably. I really like the way he dealt with Freca."
"Okay, tell me. I know you want to."
Elfwine smiled to himself and closed his eyes, recalling the story to his mind. "Helm was our king almost three centuries ago. Fierce, brave, no one crossed him. Until one day, this powerful landowner made a play for the throne. Oh, he didn't come out and say it, mind, but everyone knew what he was about.
"Freca was the man's name. He wanted to marry his son Wulf to Helm's daughter Theolen. That would give his son a claim to the throne, and if Wulf did ascend, well, he certainly wouldn't deny his father anything he asked for. Well, Helm, he was wise as well as strong and he saw right through Freca. They argued a lot, mostly in private, though. But then one day Freca made the mistake of defying Helm in public.
"A King can't allow that for a second, you know. Freca had gone way too far. So Helm took him outside, challenged him, and killed him with one blow of his fist."
"No way, one blow?"
"That's what history says. That's why they called him Helm Hammerhand."
"What happened then?" Elboron asked.
"Dark times. Wulf actually did take the throne and drove Helm out of Edoras. Theolen became his prisoner. Some of the stories said she married him to have her people spared.
"Helm died during a brutal winter. He had gone out looking for food and had frozen to death -- but on his feet. His sons Hama and Haleth also died. It was Helm's nephew who eventually got Wulf and took back Edoras."
Elboron yawned mightily. "You know the best stories. All my tutors ever taught me was boring stuff like who married who and when and who their kids were."
"I'm lucky. My grandfather collected quite a library. Brought a lot of them over from Gondor."
"What was your grandfather doing in Gondor?"
"He was born there, muckbrain. Surely you know that."
Elboron lazily threw a pillow at him. "I fell asleep when my tutors started talking about you mud-herders."
"Mud-herders?" Elfwine protested with a giggle. "Your own mother's Rohirrim."
"Well, she's become all civilized like. I guess she likes the idea of walls that aren't made of twigs and clay."
Elboron laughed as his cousin pounced on him again, grappling clumsily and giggling all the while. Finally, spent and sore from laughing so hard, they subsided beside each other.
"Mud-herders indeed..." Elfwine muttered, eyes closed.
Elboron laughed softly, feeling more safe and content then he had yet since his arrival. A quiet fell over them and they both began to drift off, their dreams filled with adventures and peril. Neither had the slightest inkling that their own futures were filled with dangers.
"What happened...to that Theolen girl...in end...?" he asked his cousin sleepily.
Elfwine's quiet snores were his only response, and, drained, Elboron succumbed to the pull of sleep as well.
"You're going to behave yourself in my absence, yes?"
Elfwine nodded to his father. He wanted to beg his father not to go, wanted to tell him he was desperately frightened for him, but he knew better. He could not shame his father before his men.
"And listen to your mother."
"And not avoid your riding lessons?'
Elfwine went red to the roots of his hair. "No, father."
Éomer hugged his son fiercely. "I love you, boy. You know that."
"I love you too, father. Um...come home soon."
Éomer mussed the boy's shaggy mane and turned to Lothiriel. Their youngest daughter, Finduilas -- a bundle of blankets and pink skin -- was clutched to her. She smiled bravely at her husband. What worries she had he had heard the night before.
"Give my love to my brothers. And don't forget to put Elboron's letter into his father's hand the moment you arrive."
"I will, beloved," he told her, coming to stand before her and holding her hands. "I will return to you. My vow on that."
She smiled away tears and kissed him. Then the King of the Mark swung into his saddle. Those warriors from Edoras that would accompany him were saying their goodbyes as well. The company would meet the rest of the éoreds out on the plain.
In a cloud of dust and with the clatter of gear, the men of Edoras galloped away from their homes for a year of fighting. Lothiriel watched them until they were out of sight, her son under her arm. Then she turned and, with a somber expression, headed back to the keep.