Frumgár awoke, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his knuckles. Above him, towering like a tall poplar sapling, was his older brother. As he stood with his back to the morning sun, Fródwine stared down from eyes set within hollows, sleep-starved, obscured, dark and foreboding. Frumgár felt uneasy, though he was not sure why.
"Fródwine?" Frumgár asked apprehensively. "What is wrong?"
"Nothing," he growled out.
Frumgár knew that arguing with Fródwine was a risky matter, for his older brother would only become angry if he were provoked. Sitting up, Frumgár glanced into the shadows that enshrouded his brother's eyes. "Have I slept too long?" Fródwine seemed different somehow, and the change which had come over him bothered Frumgár greatly.
"No, it is not time for you to be about yet. Sleep, brother," Fródwine replied tersely. "I have business to attend."
"Can I go with you?" Frumgár asked hesitantly, daring to hope that his brother would allow him to join his adventure.
"No. I will handle this alone."
"When will you be back?"
"I do not know. Do not press me so much." Fródwine's orders were crisp and cutting.
"All right, Fródwine. I did not mean to make you angry. I am sorry." Frumgár hung his head sadly. He heard a twig snap and looked up to see his brother stride away, disappearing into the trees. Yearning desperately for his mother, the younger boy felt very small, very insignificant, and very much alone.
He simply needed to be away from them for a while. There were too many things on his mind at that moment for him to contend with his little brothers. A fortnight or more of traveling and endless enemies still lay between them and Rohan. Their food would run out long before they ever reached the border, and then how could he hope to keep his little brothers from starving to death? He would watch them sicken and waste away by the day until there was nothing left of them but skin drawn over bones.
If his brothers died... he did not want to think about that... but if they did... Would he be counted responsible? Many would think that he had failed somehow and would place the guilt squarely on his head. But how could they! He had never been the cause of this misfortune! "It is Mother's fault!" a voice in his mind justified. For a while after that, he felt a little more comfortable with himself.
Their mother, while always kind and loving, had changed dramatically, becoming devoid of all practicality. He had seen the transformation in her come about since their father had ridden off to war. There was no point in trying to hide it from himself; she was different. Often he had come upon her when her eyes were red and swollen, and though she tried to deny it when he questioned her, he knew that she had been weeping over his father. Often, her moods had troubled him. Sometimes she seemed exuberant, happy, almost giddy, while at other moments, she would plunge into abysmal bouts of gloom and despair. What worried him the most about her, though, was the expression that sometimes transfigured her face. Her eyes would be blank and vacant, and she would stare into space. He had excused that as sorrow for their father, but sometimes he truly wondered.
Fródwine walked over to the trunk of a white oak and gazed up into the great, spreading branches. In the fork of the tree, silhouetted against the blue sky, was a squirrel's nest, its structure of gray and brown twigs, bark, leaves and moss long abandoned. An ancient graybeard, a frequent visitor of his father, once had told him that some woodsman supplemented their diets when necessary by preparing "forest bread" from ground acorn meal. Harvesting the nuts in autumn, the woodsmen would then dry and peel the nuts. Then after soaking the acorns in water to remove the acidic tannins that the nuts contained, they would grind the fruits into meal. Though not the tastiest of breads, to a hungry stomach, a loaf could seem delicious.
These thoughts of food caused Fródwine's intestines to spasm and growl like a pack of hungry hounds fighting over scraps and bones. He balled his hand into a fist and pressed it against his stomach, feeling the vibrating rumble. His eyes glanced back at the squirrel's nest and then up at the faraway blue sky before wandering to the base of another oak. A cache of nuts, stored and forgotten by a squirrel last autumn, had sprouted, and then died, the withered seedlings grasping like spindly fingertips for a sun that had never shone.
When Fródwine had been a little boy - how many years ago was that? - he and his father had taken their bows and quivers and gone hunting for deer, pheasant and grouse. The fresh meat had done much to relieve the monotony of the winter diet of dried peas, lentils, and salted beef. The recollection of the bear they once had killed touched his mind comfortingly. He smiled as he remembered sleeping under the warmth of that massive hide on cold winter nights.
In the summer, their mother often called upon the two older boys to help her plant and tend their garden or to search for wild berries and herbs in the woodlands. Then when autumn shared its bounties, they had gathered mushrooms, nuts, wild apples, quince, and plums. While he would rather be hunting instead of gardening and gathering, there was some satisfaction in knowing that he had added his part to the family larder.
As he came to the end of the grove which bordered the bank of the River, Fródwine slid his hand down the rough bark of the white oak. The broad plain lay before him and far away beyond that rose Mount Mindolluin and the eastern eaves of the White Mountains. In all that vast expanse from the tree line to the mountains, not a single blade of grass grew. The only signs of new growth were the slimy gray green patches of dried pond scum that had formed in the puddles of water after the rain, and those did little to lessen the starkness of the barren vista.
Sweeping his gaze over the landscape, he tracked the route of the Great West Road. He hesitated to depart from the protection of the trees and leave himself vulnerable to detection by any enemies which might pass along that road. He was relieved when he saw no movement and heard nothing other than the sigh of the wind. Still hesitant, however, he rested a hand against the tree and waited a while longer before venturing farther. Even though there was no sign of any life across that spreading plain, he would feel more comfortable if he had something to use as a weapon. Picking up a large, strong branch, he broke it in twain. He balanced the improvised spear in his right hand, thrusting it back and forth as though he were about to hurl it at an enemy. The weight and balance were good, and he was satisfied that should he have to wield it, the point of the stick was capable of penetrating unexposed flesh.
Even if he did venture beyond the trees, what did he hope to accomplish? Was he trying to test his courage, tempting fate, or playing a little boy's game? That was an interesting question, but he was uncertain whether he had the answer or not. Was he subconsciously hoping that the enemy would catch sight of him? Perhaps if a contingent marched down the road, he would call to the soldiers, and then have the satisfaction of making a face at them, crossing his eyes, and sticking out his tongue, and then running as fast as he could. He would tell his brothers about the joke at the expense of the soldiers, and they would all laugh about it for days. It was a mad idea, but he did not really believe that a patrol would waste time for only one young boy.
Sighting on the western mountains and grasping the reassuring shaft of his rude spear, Fródwine left the trees and strode briskly onto the barren plain. He glanced back to the place where he had left his brothers and wondered if they were still sleeping. He frowned again when he thought of the two of them panicking, yelling at the tops of their voices, and rushing out to search for him. That was something they did not need. A patrol might consider that while one was not worth chasing, three boys would be a good catch.
His swift pace quickly put a third of a league between himself and the river. Deep in thought, he considered what would be their next course of action. Before he and his brothers had escaped the night before, he had begun devising plans for their return journey. He would lead his brothers across the Great West Road in the darkness of night. They would travel south of the road, moving parallel to it. Although there was always the danger of a patrol coming upon them, this was the only logical route that he could determine. How he wished they could climb over the mountains, but the foreboding rocky faces of their sheer cliffs would present too great a barrier for the younger boys ever to attempt.
As Fródwine observed the summits of the mountains, a glimmer of movement caught his eye. Soon the shape came into focus, and he saw a barred peregrine tercel swing out and fly high above the plain. The tercel soared to a great height and then plunged down, his sickle-like wings folded back tightly to his sides. Down, down, he plunged after a gray dove, altering his course as his terrified prey frantically tried to evade him. As the male peregrine drew closer to the dove, his claws thrust forward. The peregrine scored a hit in his prey's left wing and an explosion of torn feathers drifted slowly downward like snowflakes. As the dove dropped towards the earth, the peregrine chased after it, clamping his talons around its bleeding, mangled flesh.
Fródwine felt his heart swelling in his chest as he watched the wonder of the falcon. His eyes followed the peregrine's flight back towards the mountains. There was a certainty inside Fródwine that the male was returning with the prey to his nest, where his mate and fledglings waited for him to return. "Birds still mate and nest, and their fledglings are a proof that nature goes on," Fródwine reflected. Though he exulted at the triumph of the peregrine, still he felt a twinge of envy at the bird's freedom. Tossing the thought aside as one unworthy of a man, he marveled as the bird flew out of sight.
The sun had traveled higher in her orbit, and Fródwine realized that he should soon return to his brothers, but he would journey on a little longer. He had actually accomplished nothing on his scouting expedition, but still he felt better. He had walked but a few steps when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of something that he had previously overlooked. There but a short distance away, growing near a grove of cypress in the barren meadow, was another proof that nature was not doomed. A gastronomical wonder which would be heralded with delight on the boards of both king and commoner, a crop of common button mushrooms spread across the ground.
Of course, his brothers would refuse to accept them, pleading that the fungus was not fit for consumption and might even upset their stomachs and loosen their bowels. However, these delicacies could fill his own stomach and provide some nourishment. After gathering all he could in that spot, he moved on, searching for more until he had filled the canvas sack he had slung over his shoulder.
Fritha, who had been piling small stones on top of each other to form the walls of a castle, was the first to see Fródwine return. With a cry of exclamation, he jumped up, rushed to Fródwine, and wrapped his arms around him.
"Do not make so much noise! You will alert every orc within a league by shouting like that!" Fródwine chided, but Fritha hugged him tighter and buried his face against his brother's stomach.
Fritha wrinkled his face up the way he did when he was about to cry. "Fródwine, I was afraid you were not coming back, but you did! You did!"
"Of course, I was coming back, urchin! I will always return. Now move away and I will show you the delights that I have found," Fródwine replied importantly.
"I hope it is something good!" Taking a step back, the little boy looked up at him with wide, blue eyes.
Fródwine shrugged. "You might not think so."
"Fródwine, what is it? What is it?" Fritha asked eagerly, jumping up and down.
"Mushrooms... Are you sure you want to see them?" Fródwine was wearing that infuriating teasing expression that always made Fritha want to kick his shins or hit him.
"Eww, no!" Backing away, Fritha scowled as Fródwine opened the sack and displayed an unsavory looking collection of mushrooms. "You know I hate those disgusting, nasty things!"
"You were away so long, brother. In all that time, could you not find anything else?" Frumgár asked, his tone disappointed.
"You do not have to eat any of them, Frumgár. No one is forcing you." He paused and looked at his brothers sharply. "And, no, I could not find anything else to eat because there is nothing out there, not even a blade of grass nor a bud on a tree! After I wash them in the river, I will have some of these delectable morsels raw for breakfast." He turned from the boys and strode off down the riverbank, the sack slung over his shoulder.
"I am going, too!" Fritha shouted after him and ran on his short legs to catch up with his brother. Giving a long-suffering sigh of resignation, Frumgár followed behind the pair.
"Stop!" Fródwine hissed in a whisper and halted in his tracks halfway down the bank. "There, across the river!" he gestured with a pointed finger towards the Anduin. There, across the Great River, the boys could see the silvery glint of sun off metal helmets, breastplates, and spear points on the other side of the Anduin. "Patrol! Stay where you are and do not move a muscle! Do not even breathe!" With the grim knowledge of the orcs across the Anduin, Fródwine forgot his earlier ideas about doing brash or brave deeds if he ever saw orcs again. "What if they signal some way to their fellows on this side? They will be right on our trails as soon as they see it!" his frantic mind told him.
"I will be quiet, Fródwine," Fritha whispered as clasped his hands over his mouth. "I do not want to see them!"
The three boys stood locked in place, motionless as statues until the patrol had marched by. "Whewww," the sound came as a whistle from Fródwine's pursed lips. "They could have seen us! Wait here a while longer until I give the word. I want to make certain that no more are coming along behind them."
"Fródwine, I am scared!" Fritha whimpered. Never far from tears, he clenched Fródwine's hand for comfort.
At last Fródwine grunted, "No more orcs! As fast as you can, go up the bank and deep into the trees. We are going to lie quiet until nightfall. Remember that there is a long march ahead of us tonight, and we will not be stopping until tomorrow morning. When I was out scouting, I saw a grove of trees. I think we can make it there by dawn and hide in the woods. Go now!"
When they were once again gathered in the grove at the top of the bank, Fródwine doled out some of the precious rations to the two other boys. The stale bread and dried fruit did little to fill their stomachs, and as they ate it, they looked askance at Fródwine, who plopped one mushroom after another into his mouth. As he chewed the nutty tasting fungus, he smiled as though he had never dined upon anything that had tasted so delicious. "Not that they are very good," he reflected wryly to himself, "but it does no harm to make my brothers think they do."
After they had finished eating, Fródwine wiped his grimy fingers on his breeches leg, strolled over to a tree, and leaned nonchalantly against the trunk. Watching his brothers, Fródwine knew that he never could just abandon them into the hands of the slavers and their lackeys, the orcs. Never before in his almost twelve years had he had such wicked thoughts. He wondered what had possessed him. Searching his soul, he reasoned that it was his own uncertainties about the future and about himself that had thrown his brain into such a turmoil.
The time had come to tell them of "the game." Clearing his throat, Fródwine began to speak. "Attention! We are going to have a moot, and I am going to do the talking for a while. I want the two of you to be quiet."
Humming a tune of his own composition, Fritha finished arranging the stones for his castle. Placing small twigs representing soldiers before the shallow moat that he had dug, he grinned proudly over at Frumgár, who scratched his back against the spine of a crooked poplar.
"Frumgár and Fritha, pay attention!" Fródwine reminded the younger boys. Fritha ignored him and continued giving orders to his toy soldiers. After burping loudly, Frumgár scratched his left ankle with his right foot and paid half-hearted attention to Fródwine. Frowning at both of them, Fródwine resumed. "Right before she left, Mother told me that it might take some time before she would be rejoining us. She did say, though, that she would meet us before we reached the mountains."
Of course, what Fródwine had just said was a lie, but it was a convenient one, told to give his brothers a reason to journey on - the hope of seeing their mother. Fródwine had no such illusions, however, and the idea that she was never coming back had grown in his mind from a suspicion to a certainty. He must persuade Frumgár and Fritha to believe the misconception that they would meet their mother again. If they did not, he was convinced that the two of them would just give up.
"She really said that, Fródwine?" Fritha asked innocently as he looked up from his twig soldiers and into his brother's eyes.
"She certainly did," Fródwine replied smoothly, certain that he sounded convincing. "She said that all of us must be very brave, like Father. She also said that we must have a leader. Since I am the oldest, she wanted me to be the captain of this company."
"Captain?" Frumgár demanded suspiciously. "Since when do you set yourself so high above us? What will you be next? Our king?" He looked up at his brother defiantly.
"That might not be a bad idea," Fródwine grinned impishly.
Frumgár stared at him skeptically. "Rising high rather fast, are you not, brother? Are you trying to replace Théoden, the rightful king?"
"Nay, but I hereby name myself lord of this vassal state under Théoden King. I do not like to boast, but some men are born to lead and others to follow." A haughty expression upon his face, Fródwine took a deep breath and thrust out his chest. "A lord must have a court. Fritha shall be my page."
"Oh, Fródwine, you are just pretending!" Fritha giggled.
"Aye, but do not tell Frumgár that this is a game," Fródwine whispered with a wink. "He takes things so seriously, you know."
"Who am I then?" Frumgár asked peevishly. "The jester?"
"Nay, you have not enough wit for that. Those who are witless are always named Marshals." Before his brother could protest, Fródwine had quickly hurried to his next theme. "Now there must be a throne..." He pointed to a large rock nearby, gray-green with lichens and scored with bird droppings, and then walked over and jumped on top of it. "Kneel before me and I shall knight you."
"Aye, my liege," Frumgár bowed with an exaggerated flourish. "I am ready to swear an oath of fealty to you... but only because Mother wanted it, and not because you did!" He did not like this silly game at all, and was surprised that Fródwine had even thought of it, but it was far easier to go along with him than it was to argue.
"Then come forward so that I may hear your oath."
"I must excuse myself, for I have no sword by which to swear," Frumgár proclaimed. Maybe Fródwine was being serious about their mother's rejoining them later, but it might be just another one of his exaggerations of the truth. However, it never paid to take a chance, because Fródwine had always had the nasty habit of telling on him when Frumgár had been disobedient and surly.
"Swear then on the name of the King and of his family and of his hall and of the people and the country and the horses in his stable and the men of arms at his side!"
"What will it be next, Fródwine? The pots and pans his scullions clean in the kitchen?" Frumgár asked, and he could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice that time.
"Knave, varlet! You are a knight-errant who has strayed too far from truth and honor! No, of course, do not swear upon the pots and pans! Those are not worthy to swear upon!"
"They do belong to the King," Frumgár reminded him, a little too flippantly for Fródwine's taste.
"It is silly to swear by pots and pans," Fritha pointed out. "I am tired of this game."
"Be quiet, Fritha!" Fródwine ordered sternly. "This is serious business! Come forth now, Frumgár, if you will ever come forth, and swear your oath of fealty!"
"You are only pretending, Fródwine. Besides, I want to play with my soldiers," Fritha complained.
"Be quiet and let us get on with it!" Fródwine made a lunge towards the younger boy, which sent Fritha scurrying away in mock terror.
Resigning himself to this game, Frumgár knelt on one knee before his older brother and began to intone in a grandiose style. "Though I have no sword, I, Frumgár son of Fasthelm, swear upon the King, his family, his hall, the people, the country, the men of arms at his side, and the horses in his stable. This my vow to you - I will serve you, honor you and respect you as my liege lord and will do all honor to the King above you. I, Frumgár son of Fasthelm, do solemnly swear this oath, and may I be struck down dead if ever I disavow it!"
"Then I, Fródwine son of Fasthelm, do accept this your pledge of fealty. I, as your liege lord, promise to protect you, your family, and all that you have, both in time of war or time of trouble. May I never enter the halls of the fathers if I do break this oath to you! You may rise, knight!"
"My liege," Frumgár rose to his feet and put his hand over his heart in mock obeisance, "I am honored... truly honored."
"I want to be a knight, too! Let me play! I will swear!" begged Fritha, who had finally decided to enter enthusiastically into the spirit of the game.
"No, Fritha," Fródwine declined in what he thought was a lordly tone of voice, "I already named you my page."
"Fródwine, when can I be a knight?" His innocent blue eyes looked up trustingly at his big brother.
"After you have served as page and then as squire, but that will take you years of training and service. During those years, you will learn hunting, horsemanship, swordsmanship, the arts of combat, and all the skills attendant to the rank of knight. You must also uphold the knightly virtues of cleanliness, comportment, courtesy, generosity, compassion, and loyalty. After you have achieved all that, you will be knighted. Now this session of court is hereby adjourned."
"But, Fródwine, I do not have a horse!" Fritha groaned, a look of disappointment replacing his expression of hopeful expectancy.
Frumgár walked over to his little brother and placed his hand on his shoulder. Looking down into his eyes, he grinned, "Neither do we."
Just as in the book, Théoden was slain at Pelennor Fields by the Witch-king of Angmar, and his nephew Éomer is king of Rohan. However, the boys do not know that. News travels slowly, especially during a war when communication routes are interrupted. In this alternative universe, after Minas Tirith fell, the road north was blocked by the Mordorian forces, and little news reached Rohan.