Jubilant at the discovery of the spoil in the orc's knapsack, Fródwine was in an extraordinarily good mood as he led his brothers over the Great West Road. Once safely across, he considered sampling the orc draught, but decided that a celebration at that time was premature. He wanted plenty of time to savor the purloined brew at his leisure. The boy paused for a moment and gazed up at the dark, shadowy silhouettes of the mountains far away. Already In his imagination, he could see all three of them back in Rohan.
"How far are we from home, Fródwine?" Fritha asked curiously, not really understanding the concept of the great distance. As he gripped Frumgár's hand, his gaze followed that of Fródwine's. "I know it is a very long way."
"Over seventy leagues."
Frumgár groaned. "Over seventy leagues! Do you have to remind us? There will not be any soles left on our shoes by the time we get there!"
"Merely answering his question, Frumgár, but we will never get there standing around like this and talking about it. Time to move out once again, brothers," Fródwine replied jauntily as he swung into a quick walk, his loose swinging stride leaving his brothers lagging behind. He fumed whenever he had to stop for Fritha, whose short legs stumbled over the uneven ground. Still, he drove the two younger boys onward at a fast pace, stopping only when Fritha was too exhausted to walk any longer. Then Fródwine reluctantly allowed a short rest, but soon he pressed them to get up and start moving again.
Occasionally the two older boys glanced over their shoulders to see whether they were being followed. Surely by that time, the orc would have discovered that his knapsack had been filled with rocks and realize that he had been robbed. However, their fears were for naught. When at last the orc found that he had been tricked, he decided that it was wiser to keep silent and suffer rather than risk punishment and ridicule for his gross negligence.
Heading due west towards the mountains, the boys appeared as an infinitesimally small speck of life upon the vast, dark landscape. The only sounds in that great expanse were their breathing, their quiet, subdued talk, and the thudding of their footsteps upon the barren ground. Even Fritha did not ask his usual questions, and the little boy walked along quietly, his face screwed up as though he were pondering something.
Suddenly, he gave a little cry and stopped dead in his tracks. "Brothers, do not move!" he exclaimed in an urgent whisper. He gripped Frumgár's hand so tightly that Frumgár wondered if his little brother might crack his very bones.
"Fritha!" Frumgár muttered sharply. "Stop that! You are going to break my hand!"
Holding on even tighter, Fritha looked up at Frumgár incredulously. "What is wrong with you two? Have you gone deaf? Can you not hear the man? He is very sad." The little boy raised his head and gazed up at the inky heavens.
"What are you talking about?" Frumgár snapped irritably as he forcefully pried Fritha's fingers away. "There is no one here but us. Now, come along and quit stalling! Do you have to pee or something? We can stop for that."
"No, I do not have to pee or anything else! I am not a little baby!" Fritha returned testily. "Oh! The man is talking to you now! He is calling your name! Can you not hear him?"
"Man? What man? There is no man! Stop talking such rubbish!" Alarmed by Fritha's strange revelation, Frumgár went pale. Why was he talking such foolishness? If Fritha were playing a joke, it was not a welcome one. Still it was not his little brother's custom to invent people who did not exist and expect his brothers to go along with the game. He must be ill! On the verge of panic, Frumgár grabbed his older brother's sleeve and jerked it hard. "Fródwine! Something is wrong with Fritha! I think he is sick!"
Scowling, Fródwine halted and turned back to them. "There is nothing wrong with him! He is just sleepy and cross, and we do not have time to pamper him! We need to cover more distance before we can rest! Be quiet, Fritha!"
Frumgár frantically jabbed his finger towards Fritha. "But just listen to him, Fródwine! He is talking that same sort of mad nonsense that poor Breguswith did after her baby died! He is ill, I tell you! He is ill! We need to stop and rest!" he cried desperately.
"I am fine!" Fritha adamantly insisted, "but something is the matter with you! Look up there!" He pointed towards the sable sky. "You can see him, too, if you just try!"
"I am looking, Fritha; believe me, I am looking," Fródwine muttered coldly as he stared intently into the heavens. "But I can see nothing! Is this man I am supposed to be seeing just floating there, or does he flutter back and forth like a moth?"
"No, he is riding on a great big bird," Fritha declared, annoyed at his brothers' disbelief. "Let me see... the bird looks something like a vulture... with bat's wings."
"See what I mean, Fródwine," Frumgár whispered nervously. "He is coming down with something, perhaps the Plague! We must halt here and allow him to rest!"
His expression threatening, Fródwine crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the little boy. "While you might entertain yourself by making up these outlandish stories, I am not amused, Fritha."
"Fródwine, I am not making up anything!" Fritha stomped his foot and crossed his arms over his chest, sarcastically imitating his brother's stance.
Fródwine sighed in resignation. Though Fritha appeared in excellent health, one never could tell with these little children, and he did sound sincere. "Perhaps Frumgár is right and you really are coming down with the Plague or some other ailment. You are talking out of your head, Fritha!" With the back of his hand, he felt Fritha's forehead and then spat in disgust. "Your forehead is perfectly cool, little brother, so I must conclude that all this commotion is simply an attempt to get attention. This is no time for silly antics, so behave yourself!"
"I told you I was not ill! And I am not sleepy, either! There really is a man in the sky flying on a big bird!" Fritha's eyes went wide. "Oh! Oh! He spoke to me again!"
"All right, Fritha. If you insist on maintaining this farce, I will humor you, but only for a little while," Fródwine grumbled. "We still have a lot of walking to do tonight. What did this man on the flying vulture have to say?"
"Well, it was very strange indeed. He asked me, 'Do you prefer the vintages of Dorwinion or Nurn?' And then he said something else, in a pleasant, jolly sort of way, but I could make little sense of it." Fritha scratched his head in bewilderment.
"All right, what did he say?" Fródwine huffed in disgust, rolling his eyes skyward. "Fritha, your foolishness is beginning to vex me. I do not want to spank you, but if I must..." Pausing, he gave Fritha time to contemplate his words.
Undeterred by Fródwine's thinly veiled threat, Fritha charged forward. "I think he said, 'The revelers are merry in the halls of Mandos, and the goblets are filled to the brim with limpë. But upon this bitter earth, the cup is overflowing with woe, and all must drink the dregs.'" Confusion written on his face, he cocked his head and looked at his elder brother. "Does that make any sense, Fródwine?"
Groaning, Frumgár clasped his forehead and muttered, "By Béma's bones! Our brother has gone mad!"
Fródwine snorted. "The only thing it says to me is that little boys who make up such stories need a switch taken to their behinds. They must learn that lying is wrong, else they will grow up to be deceivers!"
"I am not making up anything; he is really there!" Fritha exclaimed emphatically. "I think talking to me made him feel better, because he seems much happier now. But he is really not happy at all; I mean underneath where his heart is. He is a lot like the ghosts you tell about in your stories, Frumgár, the ones who are sad and melancholy all the time. You always say they haunt because they are trapped here and cannot leave. He really does not scare me... well, maybe he did just a little at first."
Frumgár and Fródwine exchanged knowing glances. Frumgár whispered into his brother's ear, "Fródwine, Fritha is becoming stranger and stranger, babbling mad talk. He is alarming me. I think he is out of his head with some kind of fever. Maybe he took a chill when we had to stay in the cold water under the bridge. Perhaps you should let him rest a while. He is so very little... I know it is not time for us to eat, but perhaps you could part with a little bread for him. He is so very little. Give him my breakfast rations."
"I will keep your suggestion under consideration, Frumgár, but we cannot stay here any longer," Fródwine growled and turned away. "We have to go!"
"Come, Fritha, take my hand." Frumgár told him gently, extending his hand to his little brother. "We will not be marching much longer, and then we can rest."
"Frumgár, I am afraid that my new friend would be disappointed if we left now. He said that the time had not yet come for him to depart! I am not going anywhere until he grants me leave!" Fritha stamped his foot defiantly.
"Fritha, we have to be going. Do you want to get Fródwine started again?" Frumgár bent down and whispered in his ear, desperate to convince Fritha to cooperate. "You know how he is when he is angry!" It would be just like Fródwine to go off and leave them for spite!
"Fródwine ought to be a lot more afraid of making the man on the big bird angry!" Fritha exclaimed. "He said that Fródwine is a bad, ill-mannered boy, and really quite rude!"
Overwhelmed with worry, Frumgár began to bite his already over-short nails. "Stop talking like that, Fritha! You are so tired that you are imagining things!" Frumgár began to wonder if there was some truth to Fritha's words, but he did not like to think of that possibility.
Suddenly Fritha burst out into giggles and clapped his hands together. "Guess what, Fródwine! My friend says he is going to carry you off and drop you in a lake if you are not nicer to me!"
"Oh hell!" Fródwine cursed under his breath. "That does it, Fritha!" With a roar, he lunged for the little boy. Just when he grabbed for the smirking child, a bottle plummeted from the heavens and landed right in front of his toe. Screaming in alarm, Fródwine leapt high in the air, sailing over the bottle. The two older boys gaped speechlessly as they watched the bottle roll away over the ground without breaking.
Above their heads came the sound of fey laughter which seemed to echo and reverberate as though coming from the shadowy depths of a cave. A gust of frigid wind blew about them, tousling their hair and raising icy prickles upon their skin. Howling and shrieking in mirthful morbidity, a great shape darker than the night soared across the star-strewn heavens, causing the celestial lights to vanish as though a cloak had been thrown over them.
"By Béma's beard! What was that?" Fródwine's voice trembled and he felt dizzy with fear. He needed to sit down but he stood on shaky legs, not wanting his brothers to suspect that he was on the verge of swooning.
"It was the man on the great bird!" Fritha exclaimed, a broad smile lighting up his features. "Come back!" he cried, waving his arms as he stared towards the east where the rider of the skies had disappeared. "Please come back!"
"Do not say that!" Frumgár admonished in horror. "He might just do it!"
"Oh, I hope so!" While Fritha was on the verge of tears, at least he had the satisfaction of being right all the time. "I told you that he was there, but you would not believe me! Maybe you will next time!"
"Next time?" Frumgár cried. "I pray that there will never be a next time! Please let us flee from this place! He might come back!"
"Oh! Oh! I am going to get the bottle!" Fritha exclaimed excitedly as he raced towards the bottle which had rolled a short distance away.
"You will not touch that accursed thing, Fritha! The fiend no doubt dipped it in poison!" Fródwine shouted as he lifted his shocked little brother and threw him over his shoulder. "Come on, Frumgár! This place is evil!" The two older boys broke into a trot while Fritha struggled and cursed, straining his eyes as he stared into the darkened heavens.
"Put me down, Fródwine!" Fritha yelled as he drummed his feet against Fródwine's chest and pounded his hands on his back. "He did not drop the bottle on purpose! It was only an accident! He is a tipsy wraith, after all. Oh, Fródwine, how could you have been so unkind? You have hurt his feelings and made him leave! Now he will never let me ride on his flying steed!"
Still maintaining a brisk pace, Fródwine muttered a long string of curses. "This foul phantom has bewitched you, lad, and put you under some kind of spell! At first I thought you were only jesting with us or playing some kind of pretend game. Now I realize just what your new 'friend' is! He is a wicked and dreadful foe, one of the darkest beings in all of Middle-earth. The demon is a dwimmerlaik, a fell spirit who possesses the blackest kind of evil magic! He has enchanted you!"
"Fródwine," Frumgár whimpered, "I fear now for all of us! This has been a dreadful day, my brothers!"
"He is not evil! He is not, I tell you!" Fritha sobbed as he renewed his struggles. "He is my friend, and you are just mean and jealous, Fródwine!"
"Lad, you do not know what you are talking about! We are all lucky that he did not kill us! He easily could have, you know! We have no way of fighting a monstrosity like that! Now settle down before you kick me in the kidney!" Fródwine growled.
"You are just plain cruel, Fródwine," Fritha wailed. "Now he will never come back and talk to me!"
"Good riddance," Frumgár added, muttering a prayer against evil.
Hiccuping, Fritha used the back of Fródwine's tunic to wipe off his tear-drenched face and, with a loud honk, he blow his dripping nose on the cloth. "You never even let me tell you the last thing that he whispered to me!"
"Now that is too much!" Fródwine bellowed as he smacked Fritha's upturned bottom with a smart slap and then lowered him to the ground. "Next time, wipe your snivel off on your own shirt!"
"I had to use something!" he wailed. "I do not have a handkerchief!"
"Here, use mine, it is not too soiled," Frumgár offered.
After giving Fródwine a very offended frown, Fritha blew his nose loudly on Frumgár's handkerchief. "You would not even listen to the last thing he said!"
"All right, all right, what did he say?" Fródwine's gruff question came out in a resigned, long-suffering sigh.
"He said that someday that I would learn that life is only a game between kings, and men are the pawns. This turn, the White Knight has put the Black King into check. He also told me that even that is of little consequence, for victories and defeats are only grains of sand in the hourglass of time. Oh, he said many high and lofty things and used big words which I did not understand! Do you know what he meant about the White Knight and the Black King?"
"No, I do not know what he meant!" Fródwine growled. "Some sort of magic gibberish, I suppose!" Kneeling down on the ground in front of Fritha, he placed his hands on his shoulders, his voice a forced calm. "Fritha, I would suggest that you never mention this incident to another soul. They will be convinced that you are either mad or enchanted, neither of which is an enviable position! Now come along! We are going!"
The dark shade had frightened Fródwine to the depths of his being, but he had also believed that the dwimmerlaik was laughing at him personally. If the powerful spectre had meant to do harm to all of them, he certainly would have had that power. No, instead, he had chosen Fritha to be the brunt of a mischievous joke… or did the phantom have ulterior motives? Would he come back, and if he did, was there any way to fight him? One more heavy burden to be added to his already worried mind, the youth's square jaw clenched in a hard line. He fell into silence until near dawn, when he led his brothers to the perimeter of the Grey Wood. Low in the eastern horizon, the light blue sky was scattered with clouds of peach and rose.
"Eat," came his somber command. Opening the food sack, he took out the leather bags and parcels. A scowl upon his face, Fródwine unfastened the leather packet of orc bread and broke a piece off for each of them. They chewed their bread silently until at last Frumgár gathered the courage to speak on a neutral subject - the weather.
"From the appearance of the sky, our heads will be wet before the day is done," Frumgár pointed out as he prosaically regarded the slowly brightening sky.
"Aye, Frumgár," Fródwine muttered as he chewed the tasteless bread and gazed at the clouds. "Except for that incident last night, things did not turn out that badly for us. Our scent should have been mingled with that of others when we crossed the road. I do not think the orcs can pick it from all the many others. Then after the rain falls, any remaining tracks and scents that are left will be washed away."
Frumgár shook his head as he dubiously regarded the grayish piece of orc bread in his hand. "I do not know, Fródwine. Does it really matter now about the orcs? According to my way of thinking, all that phantom or whatever it was has to do is tell his soldiers where we are."
"He will not, Frumgár! I know he will not! He is my friend!" Fritha declared emphatically.
"I thought we were not speaking any more about that, brother." Frumgár shot him a warning look.
"Maybe you will not talk about it, but I will speak about him whenever I want!"
"Be still, Fritha!" Frumgár warned him in a whisper.
Fródwine rose to his feet suddenly, and, stalking over to Fritha, he glared down at the little boy. "You will not mention any of that again! You did not see anything! There was nothing there! Do you understand?"
Fritha's eyes narrowed. "But what about the bottle?"
"There was no bottle."
"Come on, Fródwine. Everyone saw the vulture riders as they flew by when we were all marching down here. You cannot deny that." Frumgár felt that he should take Fritha's part on this. "We just never knew that they could talk, only shriek and howl."
"Look, Frumgár," Fródwine bristled up angrily, his face turning red, "when we get back home, we do not want him blathering about his 'friend' to everyone he sees. People will think that he is fey, or even worse, that he has become a thrall of the enemy! For his own good, he must speak to no one about this! You have more influence with him than I do. Try to reason with him. I have done all I can."
Fródwine turned his back and walked away into the woods. The storm clouds broke loose over Fritha's upturned face before his older brother had gotten out of sight, and tears ran down his cheeks like rain.
"What he says is true, Fritha." Frumgár looked down at the ground. "Whatever that thing--"
Fritha interrupted with a sob. "He is not a thing!"
"That - that - person... Whether he is good or bad, people believe that his kind are all evil. If you say you are friends with him, you know what people will think about you - that you are just like he is. So, please, little brother, for all our sakes, for the sake of our parents' reputation, speak nothing about this to anyone! Now promise me that when we get back home, you will not talk about it."
"Can I tell you about him, Frumgár?"
Frumgár sighed in resignation and looked up at the sky. "Oh, I suppose so."
Sniffing, Fritha beamed a teary-eyed smile at his brother. "I do not think he is bad, Frumgár! Maybe he will come back, and then we will all be friends!"
"Maybe... But we should not think any more about him now. You need to get some rest." To avoid arguments, he decided that he would humor his brother. Rising to his feet, Frumgár tousled the little boy's shaggy blond mane, bringing a protest to his lips.
Here ends the third book of THE CIRCLES.
The story continues in the fourth book, PATHS BOTH EAST AND WEST.