Wary of the treacherous lime kiln which had brought so much misery to the young brothers, Headman Ghân ordered his people and the Rohirric boys to leave the summit and go to the base of the slope. Soon his men had a fire going, tea brewing, and an aromatic potion steeping on a grate over the fire. Fritha, enjoying his position as the center of attention once again, waited while a cup of medicinal tea was brought to him by a young tribesman. When Guri, one of the tribe's healers, set the broken bone, Fritha could not hold back his tears.
"You brave young warrior," Guri applauded him as he wrapped the fractured arm with soft fabric woven of grasses and plant fibers. Splinting the break with clean sticks, the healer bound the injury with sturdy cords. "There, arm grow back straight." Guri bobbed his head up and down as he attached a sling of wide fabric around Fritha's arm before fastening it about the boy's neck.
"Very brave, little brother; you will make a good soldier someday," Fródwine added gravely as he patted Fritha's good shoulder. "Father would be proud of you."
"Oh, Fritha, I was afraid that we had lost you forever! Now the sons of Fasthelm are back together, and we are all going home soon!" Frumgár gingerly hugged the little boy and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. Neither boy caught the slight flicker of guarded emotion deep in Ghân's dark eyes, but Fródwine did.
"I love you, Frumgár," Fritha smiled, a sweet gentle smile. "And you, too, Fródwine." A dreamy expression was on his face, one of the languorous effects of the tea which he had just consumed. Though his arm pained him, the hurt was no longer important, for Fritha felt himself floating, buoyant upon a jeweled sea that rocked him as gently as his mother's arms...
"Wild Men stay here until evening. Break camp then. Eat now, warrior boys." Before making his way back to his men, Ghân had watched approvingly as the three boys lifted bowls of soup made from desiccated roots to their lips. Though the taste was unique, the soup was far from unpleasant, and, flavored with thyme and sage, the soup had a comfortable familiarity to it, like a memory of home. They were famished anyway. The broken arm did not pain Fritha unbearably, though it forced him to use his left hand.
"Feeling better, little brother?" Frumgár asked cheerfully in Rohirric. He was almost ecstatic, overjoyed at the delivery of Fritha from the terrible fate of being buried alive, and he could not get enough of the sight of him. How he loved his little brother, and he swore that he would never be hesitant again in telling him! He inclined his head and offered up a prayer to the olden Gods of yore of whom legend told.
"Aye," Fritha replied, running his tongue over his lips, "but I am not very hungry. My arm hurts too much, and my stomach feels a little restless."
"Then do not eat very much yet," Frumgár cautioned.
Fritha set the bowl down by his side. "I would rather hear a story now, I think. Tell me again what happened after I fell into the hole. Right from the beginning!"
"I have told you three times already," Frumgár laughed ruefully. "I have just finished my bowl of soup, and I really would like to have another." He excused himself and took his empty bowl to the Wild Men who attended the fire and the soup pot.
"Tell me again and again," Fritha giggled after Frumgár had returned.
"No, Fritha. It is your turn now. You have not told us yet what happened to you. While I drink my soup, tell us... that is if you feel up to relating the tale," Frumgár urged him after he had taken a sip from his bowl. "By the way," he smiled, "this is good soup."
Fritha began talking excitedly. "First the ground slid and then I rolled to the bottom. When I landed, I guess that is when my arm was broken. After that, a rock crashed down and hit me on the head, and then I fell asleep." He tried to remember what happened next, but his tale was interrupted by Ghân, who walked over and squatted down on his haunches in front of the boys.
"Men make litter for smallest warrior boy to ride back to Ghân's village. He no need walk when he can ride." A slight smile flickered over the headman's face. "Boys stay in village with Ghân's people for a while."
"How long, sir?" Fródwine questioned, a scowl playing over his brow. Though these men were some inches shorter than he was, they were still adults, and adults always wanted to impose their rules upon those whom they thought of as children. Fródwine no longer considered himself a child, but a man capable of making his own decisions. "As soon as possible, I intend to lead my brothers back to Rohan."
"Not possible," Ghân shook his head. "Boys no go back now. Too dangerous."
His temper quickly flaring, Fródwine rose to his feet in an angry stance. "Sir, we did not come all this way to be detained at this point!"
An intractable expression on his face, Ghân rose to his feet, folded his arms across his broad chest and looked into the boy's eyes. "Your king and people come this way in spring. No come back."
"He is right, you know," Neithan intoned matter-of-factly as he cut into the discussion. Bound hand and foot at a distance from the boys, he had a serene, placid expression on his face, a result of the infusion of mind-numbing tea which he had been forced to drink.
"Let man of Stone-land tell of this. He know Horse-men language better," Ghân added flatly.
"Ghân, my friend, could you at least tell your men to untie my legs so I may come closer?" Neithan smiled, a too broad smile which showed far too many gleaming white teeth.
"No. Boys finish eating first. They go to you. You stay where you are." The headman looked at him sternly.
Collecting Fritha's bowl and water flask and helping the little boy to his feet, Fródwine and Frumgár escorted their brother to where Neithan was tied. Spreading a blanket out on the ground, the boys sat down. Frumgár tucked a too-large cloak about the child's shoulders and placed his utensils close by his side.
"Tell us then, Neithan. You seem so eager," Fródwine snapped sarcastically as he rested his hands across the sword on his lap.
"The armies met at Pelennor. It was a disaster for the West." Neithan's voice was solemn, weighted with the sorrow of defeat.
"We are aware of that." Fródwine scowled, his lean jaw clenched firmly. "We saw the carnage of the battlefield. The enemy is as fond of boasting as they are of displaying their battle trophies in bizarre ways."
"Aye," Neithan remarked sadly. "They would turn all of Middle-earth into their own kingdom and rule it with an iron fist from the Dark Tower. The mad Fiend will make a feast of all the kingdoms of the world."
"He will never succeed!" Fródwine cried with grim determination as he clenched his right fist in anger. "Not while there are men with steel in their hands who will risk all and dare to fight Him!"
"Like you, boy?" Neithan replied, his voice low and solemn, his eyes showing his bemusement.
"I am not afraid to die, sir!"
"You are a brave lad; I attest to your valor," Neithan concurred. "And what about you, boy?" He glanced over to Frumgár.
"To be honest, I would much prefer to live. I do not have much liking for weapons and warfare, but I suppose if I were faced with battle, I could bear it." Frumgár's thoughts turned introspective, and he wondered, if faced with the decision, could he bear to kill a man? He was glad he did not have to decide that today.
"What happened after the battle, Neithan? We know nothing of any of this," Fródwine pressed him. He had no great liking for the madman, considering him a danger to them all, but he might still be able to relay some useful information.
"I have not told you all," Neithan explained. "There is more bad news that perhaps you have not heard. Your king met his end at the battle. The armies of the West fled from the city and fought a delaying battle on the run as they made their way through southern Gondor. Back in April, there was a great battle at the Fords of Ethring. The first battle was a victory for the West, but the second battle was a defeat. Then in May, the City of Tarnost was taken."
Unable to understand much of what was said because it was spoken in Westron, Fritha lost interest in the conversation. The little lad began to nod, dreaming dreams while he was still awake. He was flying in the air, upon the back of a great beast which was guided by a kind man dressed in a tattered black surcoat over a gleaming halberk. Fritha giggled as the rider turned back to look at him and remarked dryly in that deep, rich baritone voice of his, "'Tis a pity that you did not cross the Sea. I hear that the voyage is extraordinarily marvelous, and that the fish are delicious. Sadly, though, the company is rather bland and unremarkable. Enduring them is worth the tedium, however, for you will meet the Guardian of the Forever Portal when you reach that far distant shore. Should you have gone, you could have relayed my regards to the Keeper."
"I like fried fish done up nice and crisp and golden brown!" Another burst of giggles hit Fritha as the rider guided his beast in a severe upward climb on a current of air. Fritha wrapped his arms around the warrior's thin frame as they plunged rapidly in dizzying twists and turns towards the earth. Unfortunately, Fródwine's loud exclamation roused him away from the beautiful dream before he could find out what happened next.
"How do you know so much about it?" Fródwine demanded coldly.
Neithan eyed the boy. "I was in the battle of Tarnost, and I slew the enemy until the bodies of the fallen surrounded me in great heaps. Then, in the midst of the fighting, my vision dimmed until I could see nothing but shadows, and the next thing I knew, I was once more among the Wild Men. They told me that there was not a mark upon me when I wandered into their village... that I was sick again. I am not certain if I deserted. Perhaps I did. Sometimes the way seems dim to me. Some say I am mad," he laughed, the corner of his right eye twitching. "Perhaps I am."
"Your news is indeed grievous. In the short time I have known you, Neithan of Gondor, I do not believe I have heard one word from your lips that was not fraught with grief and desolation." Fródwine shook his head. The man should be kept chained, he thought to himself, and put in a cage so he could not harm either himself or anyone else. He hoped that he never escaped!
"Desolate though my words might be, surely you can see now why old Ghân will not allow you to adventure back to Rohan. The sword is dipped in blood and the ravens call a great feast! The hearth is bleak and cold, and the horn sounds in the East!" A strange, gurgling laughter tore itself out of Neithan's throat, and he rocked back and forth, nodding his head up and down.
"Have you any other news that you wish to impart to us, Neithan? How goes the war, or do you know?" Fródwine's blue eyes burned coldly beneath his pale brows.
"I know many things. The Lady tells me."
"The Lady?" Frumgár ventured.
"Lhûnwen," Neithan replied softly.
Neithan lapsed into silence, a peaceful expression on his face as he gazed far beyond the horizon into his own world of visions and illusions. Lhûnwen pressed silken fingertips across his bearded cheeks and spoke to him of love and promises, while Vorondil and Hallas stood at a distance, smirking. The rest of the spectral horde of the madman's victims hovered amongst the trees, their shadowy outlines barely visible to Neithan.
"Is he asleep?" Frumgár whispered.
"Aye, I believe so. May he sleep long! His words are arrogant and vainglorious! I yearn to be rid of him!" Fródwine replied, touching the hilt of the dagger at his belt.
"Poor man," Frumgár murmured.
"Poor man?" Fródwine retorted heatedly. "He would have killed me!"
"Brother, peace! Let us talk no more of this pathetic, tortured man. I would much rather hear Fritha continue his tale." Turning to the little boy, Frumgár asked, "What happened after you woke up?"
Fritha picked up the water flask which lay beside him and took a deep drink. "I saw a man, and he led me down a dark tunnel."
"That is impossible!" Fródwine exclaimed, always a skeptic. "You are still suffering the effects from the blow to your head. There could be no man down there!"
"Oh, but there was a man!" Fritha insisted. "He was tall and had shaggy black hair, and his clothing was tattered and wayworn. He was kind, but seemed very sad. He told me that this place had once been called the Nimgil Lime Kiln, and the pit was really a great chimney out of which flames and smoke would spew continuously when the men were burning lime. He was a poor man, a wanderer, and one winter he came to the fire seeking to warm himself. He was unsure if he drank too much or was overcome by the smoke and fumes, but he plunged over the side of the shaft and into the fire. Now he is trapped there forever!" Fritha looked down sadly.
"Oh, Fritha!" Fródwine shook his head in disgust. "Where do you come up with these tales? Frumgár tells you too many stories about ghosts and barrows. I will hear no more of this! I have had enough of spirits and dead people!" He rose to his feet. "I want to go now and talk to the headman. He considers it unwise for Neithan to retain his sword, and so he has given it into my keeping. Drûgan has promised a bit of leather that I can use to strap the scabbard on my back. You may have the spear I made. It is not of the best workmanship, but I had never made a spear before. It stood us in good stead, though, when need was upon us." He glanced down at the spear before turning back to Frumgár. "Fritha can stay here and entertain you." He chuckled dryly as he walked away.
"Oh, Fritha, finish the rest of your story!" Frumgár exhorted eagerly as he leaned forward to hear his brother speak.
"The man told me that the workmen had already prepared the kiln with limestone and fuel, and would soon put the torch to it. He said that he would lead me out before the lime burner set to work. He showed me to a tunnel and led me down it. When we came to the ending, the sun had climbed into the sky and everything was green and growing again. We were upon the brow of the hill, and a pathway led away before us and wound about across the beautiful plain. Spring flowers were growing again, and I picked a bouquet for Mother." Fritha's eyes shone eagerly in his small face.
"We came to a spot on the path, and the man said he could go no farther. Before us was the sea. Oh, Frumgár, I had never seen anything like it before! It was so big and wide. The man told me that I could sail on a boat to the other shore. It was as though I could gaze all the way to the other side of the broad sea. There, on the distant shore, I could see Father smiling and beckoning to me." The little boy's face had taken on a dreamy quality as he mentioned his father.
"Fritha, that is a strange dream! While it seems lovely and peaceful, I have an uneasy feeling about it, and the dream makes me sad." Frumgár looked down, his expressive blue eyes pensive and melancholy.
"The dream was not mournful at all, Frumgár! Never before have I dreamed about Father, and I was glad that I did this time."
Frumgár had heard that those who were close to death sometimes had visions or dreams such as the one which Fritha described. A cold shudder rippled down his spine as he remembered the grim spectre on the dreadful flying beast that they had seen two nights before. Surely that phantom was a harbinger of doom! How perilously close his little brother must have been to dying! What had snatched him back from Death's claim?
There was nothing in his expression or voice to reveal how alarmed he had been by the dream, though. "Go on, Fritha," he urged gently. "Is there more?"
"A little," Fritha replied. "The man said that it was my decision whether I wished to cross the sea or stay upon the shore, but that he would never be able to go there. He waited for me while I thought a while, and when I finally decided, I chose to stay because I did not want to leave my mother or brothers. That was all, Frumgár. Was that not a wonderful dream?"
"Aye," Frumgár lied, feeling uncomfortable. "Oh, look, brother," he touched Frumgár's shoulder to try to catch his attention, "the headman and Fródwine are coming this way!"
When the man and boy had reached them, Ghân was wearing a satisfied expression on his face, as though he had won a small victory. "Little warrior agrees with Ghân. Boys will stay with Wild Men until it safe for them to go home. Old king who died was good man. He make peace with Wild Men, and always be friendship among us. We help Horse-lord boys. Teach them ways of forest, how to live in woods, find food, hunt, fish, craft. Maybe you find you like, stay with Wild Men."
"Aye, chieftain," Fródwine interjected, "and you have promised that you will show me how to make weapons and fight!"
"I would like to learn about healing and plants," Frumgár admitted shyly.
"And what about you, little warrior? What you want to learn?" Ghân turned to Fritha.
"Make toy horses and riders," Fritha giggled, "and a drum!"
"Boys will learn," Ghân nodded, his rugged face covered with smiles. "Now time to go back to village. Getting near evening. Time we break camp, go to village."
A wry grin on his face, Fródwine considered that while his plans to lead them home had been postponed, still he and his brothers would gain by their stay with the Wild Men. It would be good to rest a while in a camp... and there would always be time for him to go off by himself and taste the commandeered flask of orc draught. He was now a man, after all.