No matter how many times Frumgár turned from side to side or twisted from his back to his stomach, he could find no position that was comfortable. Even if he had been lying upon the softest feather mattress, he would still toss and turn, unable to sleep. He could think of nothing except the fell rider.
Though he could not fathom the strange events of the previous night, there was no question in Frumgár's mind that they had seen one of the mysterious beings who haunted the skies. While none of the prisoners had ever been threatened by one of these foul riders, they still lived in terror of the strange phantoms and their flying beasts. Whenever the creatures tore out of the east or west, women would scream and grab their children, cowering from the shrieking demons who left darkness and fear in their wake.
Fródwine steadfastly refused to listen to any talk about the incident and cut his brothers short when they mentioned anything about it. Fritha, however, had kept Frumgár awake with a steady stream of whispers about the "kind ghost." Frumgár was worried; his little brother would talk of little else except the dark spectre. "Bewitchment," Frumgár shuddered. Everyone knew what happened to people who had been bespelled; they were all doomed to terrible fates. There was no getting out of it; the inevitability of disaster was as inescapable as death.
But why Fritha? Why his little brother? How had he attracted the attention of the cold, dead thing? Had their family not suffered enough already without this calamity? Poor Fritha! Lost to enchantment! Would he now weaken and sicken, turn ghostly ashen gray, slipping away to oblivion, only to join that dark being on the other side of life? What would happen to Fritha... over there? Frumgár could not bear to think any more about it!
Frumgár's attempts at falling sleep were futile, and so he gave up the pursuit. He heaved a sigh of frustration. Drawing himself up to a sitting position, he rested his chin on his hands and studied his brother's features. The younger boy was sleeping peacefully, a gentle smile on his face. "Too peacefully," Frumgár thought apprehensively. "What is he dreaming about?"
When his little brother was born, Frumgár had been overjoyed. He had always wanted more than anything to have a playmate, friend and companion, which he seldom found in Fródwine. His older brother never seemed to have much time for him. He was either helping their father or away on an adventure with friends his own age. While Fritha regarded their elder brother in awe, almost worshiping him, he went to Frumgár when he had a secret to share or when he was troubled.
Before dawn, Fródwine had left them and set out on another one of his solitary journeys, not bothering to say where he was going, or when he would come back. Frumgár had learned long ago that questioning him about his plans only made his older brother angry. While he had never been close to his two younger brothers, lately Fródwine spent as little time as possible with them. "Maybe he plans to leave us and never come back," Frumgár wondered, a feeling of dejection settling over him.
In the east, the sun began to chase away the night. "I will never be able to sleep now," he groaned as he lay down on the hard ground. He had just closed his eyes when he had the strange sensation that something or someone was behind him, gazing intently at him with piercing eyes. Perhaps Fródwine had decided to come back, Frumgár reasoned as he slowly turned his head and looked over his shoulder. There, deep amidst the shadows that still lingered under the forest trees, he caught a fleeting glimpse of a tall figure. Then it was gone, swallowed up by the forest. A spasm of panic shot down Frumgár's spine and fear caught in his throat, choking him like a tight hand. Had the dark rider of the skies returned?
Skirting along the edge of the Grey Wood, Fródwine followed the small stream that they had come upon the night before. As his gaze skimmed the surface of the water, he tossed in a few bread crumbs. Hardly had the crumbs settled upon the water than a dark shape darted up and snatched the food. "By Béma! There are fish here!" he almost shouted. He watched the waters for a while, and then with a lingering look at the stream, he turned away. There would be time for fishing later. Now that their provisions had been replenished with the store of orc bread, Fródwine did not feel the great urgency to find food. Anyway, with the discovery of the tinderbox, no longer did he have to worry about how he would cook any game he managed to kill.
Moving away from the stream, Fródwine smiled to himself. Things had definitely improved, and it was all his doing. He had found the orc's knapsack the night before and added that hoard to their own supplies. Boastful of his prizes, he had shown them to the eager eyes of his brothers. He had let them gaze upon the tinderbox, the dagger, and even the orc draught, but he had secreted away a small leather pouch decorated with strips of intricately laced leather. Now that he was away from his brothers and their endless, repetitious questions and their curious eyes, he could examine the pouch at his leisure.
Tossing the bag of food down under a maple tree, he squatted on his heels and inspected the pilfered booty. As he opened the pouch, his hands trembled with so much excitement that he had difficulty loosening the drawstring. He dumped the contents on the ground and a thrill went through him when his eyes caught a flash of ruddy orange. "Jasper!" he inhaled sharply. Once he had seen this kind of stone set in a lady's brooch. He shivered when he thought that the stone had probably been torn from the neck of some Gondorian noblewoman. "Poor woman," he thought sympathetically. "The orcs probably killed her."
A hole had been bored through the stone to string it on a leather cord. It was an orc amulet, Fródwine realized with revulsion. He ought to throw the wretched stone into the stream, where someday it would be swept away to the sea. He turned the jasper over in his hand and thought how pretty it was. In the hands of a skilled jeweler, it could be made into a necklace which would look beautiful about his mother's neck. A look of sadness came over his eyes, and he rubbed the jasper between his fingers.
Even though an orc had once possessed it, that did not make the object itself evil. Holding the stone in the palm of his hand, he watched as the sunlight glinted off its orange-red surface. He tossed it up into the air and quickly caught it before it could fall to the earth. When he clenched the stone tightly in his hand, he felt a warm, glowing heat against his skin.
What could be the harm in keeping this pretty trinket? Cleaning it off in the stream, he dried it with a tattered rag. As he put the cord about his neck, he looked down at his reflection in the water. The rippled image he saw was no longer that of a little boy, but a young man. He rubbed his hand across his chin and imagined himself with a fine blond beard. Then he pushed the charm into his tunic, where it would be safe from questioning eyes. No one need know that he had found it.
Spying the flask of orc draught, Fródwine picked up the container. "I have been wanting to sample this stuff ever since I found it, and I am surely not going to share it with Frumgár and Fritha!" Taking a deep breath, he swallowed a sip of the fiery draught. The liquid hit his stomach with a vengeance, a hot rush of fire churning through his stomach. Momentarily he felt dizzy, and put his hand to his forehead to steady himself. When the sensation had passed, he took another drink, and the second one did not burn nearly so much. A smile lit up his face. Yesterday was his twelfth birthday, the day he became a man, and there was cause for celebration. Perhaps he should consider the contents of the orc pack as his birthday presents, he grinned smugly.
Next he looked at a curious creation wrought of fired clay and embellished with a primitive design done in blue paint. A crude piece of orc rubbish, the disk had been molded with patterns of runes encircling the image of a clenched fist. A tribal emblem, he concluded. The last piece of paraphernalia which he inspected was of much better quality than the pottery disk. A round, convex brooch made of bronze, it was molded with the emblem of the Great Eye.
Fródwine knew exactly what this latter symbol represented. As he raised his arm to throw both the disk and the brooch into the stream where they could do no harm, his hand seemed to freeze in the air. Slowly he lowered it down and looked at the objects. There was a certain fascinating appeal about the two charms, and what could be the harm in keeping them for a while? Perhaps he might show them to his grandchildren someday as he thrilled them with tales of his adventures. "They are only mementos and have no power," he concluded. Before putting them away in his pouch, he wiped the two cultic pieces off with the rag. He took another swallow of the orc draught before he stoppered it again.
As dark clouds frothed and foamed in the skies, the rain that had threatened all morning began to fall. Fródwine muttered to himself; he had to get back to his brothers. He knew that Frumgár would be worried and chewing his fingernails to the quick if he did not return before the storm broke. After glancing around at the small clearing for a few moments, Fródwine slung the pack over his shoulder and then set off to rejoin his brothers.
The rain pelted down in gray silver sheets, obscuring everything in Fródwine's vision except for a few feet in front of him. He had pulled his trail-worn hood down low over his face, and the rain dripped off the wool like water falling from the eaves of a roof. Coming quietly upon his brothers through the blinding downpour, he heard Frumgár gasp in terror. Then as he drew close enough to be recognized, he saw the younger boy's shoulders slump in relief.
"You two look as miserable as cats that fell into a well," Fródwine commented as he came closer.
"You do not look so good yourself!" Frumgár muttered churlishly. "Do you always have to frighten us half to death by slipping up like that? Where were you anyway? Fritha and I were worried about you." He snapped out a string of questions before his voice dropped to a calmer tone.
"You should not worry about me. I am old enough now to take care of myself," Fródwine boasted as he moved by his brothers.
"We always worry, brother," Frumgár reminded him quietly. Perhaps it was not the best time to tell Fródwine about the mysterious figure he had seen in the woods. Perhaps it was only his imagination, but what if it were the fell rider himself?
"Yes, we were worried, Fródwine." Fritha sounded both fretful and relieved. "Could you please give us something to eat now?"
"Patience, Fritha," Fródwine scolded as he moved closer to the trunk of a large oak. "To answer your questions, Frumgár. I was hardly slipping up on you. You just did not see me because of the rain. As to where I was, I have been looking for breakfast as usual. Sorry to disappoint you, but I did not find any mushrooms today," he replied dryly as he opened up the food pack and distributed their meager midday rations. His face a mask of seriousness, he found that lying came easier and easier.
"Are you not going to eat?" Frumgár asked before putting a piece of dried apricot into his mouth.
"A little, brother, a little. I do not require as much as you do," he remarked before biting into a dried fruit.
"Could we please have some more, Fródwine?" Fritha gazed up at him with expectant blue eyes that were so pleading that Frumgár could not bear to look at them. "My stomach hurts, and I am miserably cold and wet!" That smile and the pathetic, wan expression would have twisted their mother's heart and earned him all that he wanted, but Fródwine had no pity.
"Here, Fritha, you can have the rest of mine." Frumgár managed a halfhearted smile that was meant to be encouraging. His stomach hurt maybe as much as Fritha's did, but his mother had taught him that he should make allowances for the smallest one of them. "I do not see why you cannot give us more, Fródwine. After all, we have the orc bread now."
"Frugality, brother, always frugality." Fródwine smiled that supercilious big brother smile. "We have to conserve. Now, lads, there is no comfort in standing here in the rain." He closed the pack and returned it to his shoulder. "Since we could not get any more drenched than we already are, we might as well take a little stroll in the direction of Rohan. Take heart, brothers; we are closer to home today than we were yesterday."
"Your optimism is cheering," Frumgár replied dryly, shooting his brother an icy stare.
Throughout the afternoon, the rain fell in torrents, alternating from time to time with light showers. Fródwine drove them at his usual furious pace until they came to the edge of a thicket. Leading them deeper into the grove, he finally allowed them to rest. The place that he had chosen was no more than a tiny opening between great trees that had grown so closely together that their branches were intertwined. At least they provided the boys some shelter from the driving rain. Frumgár and Fritha huddled together, their tangled masses of blond hair soaked with water, their clothing saturated.
"Fródwine," Frumgár asked miserably, "do you know where we are?"
"Certainly," Fródwine replied, sticking out his tongue to catch a drop of water which fell from the tip of his nose, "we are a safe distance from the Great West Road and are heading in a general westerly direction.
"That tells me nothing!" Frumgár growled disdainfully. "Do you know if we are even going in the right direction?"
"Not exactly, though if we follow along the base of the mountains and keep away from the road, I think we should be safe. The way that I have figured it, there would be no reason for anyone to be here so far from the road." Slumping against the trunk of a tree, he sat down and pulled the hood of his cloak over his eyes, preparing to nap.
"Fródwine, I am cold," Fritha complained, his teeth chattering. "Please build a fire for us!"
"The wood is far too wet for that, Fritha," the older boy shook his head. "The rain is not that cold anyway. You just like to whine whenever you can. Now be still!"
"I am not whining! I am just telling you that I am cold," the little boy glared. "My clothes are soaked and I am hungry. You do not care anything about us at all, do you?"
"We are every bit as soaked as you are, Fritha, and there is nothing I can do about it," Fródwine reminded him testily as the little boy angrily scowled at him. "Tell you what, little brother," he muttered as he hunched his shoulders against the driving rain. "Maybe if you concentrate, you could conjure up that glorious new friend of yours. Since you think he can do anything, maybe he will build a fire for us, and while he is at it, make a meal appear magically from the air. Then our troubles will be over!"
"Fródwine, you are just mean and hateful!" Fritha blurted out, his face clouding in tears. "All you ever do is make fun of us!"
"Fródwine, perhaps you should not joke about the man we saw last night," Frumgár told him hesitantly.
"Why not?" Fródwine demanded impatiently, his eyes narrowing in a scowl. He considered sampling the orc draught again, for he liked the way it had warmed his body, but he was not prepared to share his secret with the little boys.
"For one thing, you are just alarming Fritha." Shooting their older brother a scolding glance, Frumgár put his arm around Fritha's shoulder.
"We have seen all we will ever see of him," Fródwine replied in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. "The thing was only some kind of night apparition, because strange things happen around Midsummer. He was just out celebrating a little early." He laughed raucously at his own joke.
At least he was not angry, Frumgár thought with relief. He had always dreaded his brother's rages. Usually when he was in a fit of anger, Fródwine would curse everything from the sun to the moon and then stock off into the woods to brood. Once he had been so enraged that he had driven his fist through a board on the side of the barn. "Well," Frumgár reasoned, "while he is in a good mood, now is as good a time as any to tell him about the figure I saw in the woods."
Taking a deep breath to give him courage, Frumgár plunged ahead with his account. "Fródwine, while you were away this afternoon, I could not sleep, and so I sat there, and..." Frumgár's throat felt dry, and his voice choked off.
"And what?" Fródwine was instantly on the alert. His good mood vanishing, he sat up quickly. "You sat there and what? Get on with it! Do not keep us waiting all day!"
"Well, I--" He hated the way his voice trembled when he was intimidated and upset. He could not seem to make his tongue operate. Stuck in his mouth, the little organ stubbornly refused to work. He pushed his shoulders back and faced his brother. "Even though he might hit me for this, he has to know," he thought.
Fródwine's eyes bored into Frumgár's with that daunting frosty blue stare that he always employed when he matched his will with someone else. "Sat there and what? Get on with it!" he repeated angrily. "I see that you have gone back to stammering and shuddering the way you used to do. You are such a weakling and baby! I do not think you will ever grow up and will remain an infant all your life!" Fródwine spat out his hateful words, enjoying the feeling of power they gave him.
"Fródwine, do not be so mean to us!" Fritha spoke up. "He is only trying to tell you something, if you will be quiet and just give him a chance." Fritha hated the way Fródwine bullied both of them, always criticizing them and saying unkind things, especially to Frumgár. "You should apologize for those awful things you just said!" the little boy scolded in his high voice. "Mother would not want you to be so rude."
"I never apologize for telling the truth," Fródwine replied coldly as he folded his arms belligerently across his chest.
When Frumgár had gained control over his stumbling tongue, he cleared his throat and looked his brother in the eye. "You are not going to like this one bit, but you have to know... When I was trying to sleep, I felt as though someone was staring at me. When I looked, way back in the trees, I saw a man."
"And, of course, you are assuming that it was the very same man whom we saw last night," Fródwine replied in a tone of wearied resignation. "Well, little brother, you have listened too long to Fritha's stories, and now you both are imagining that you see hobgoblins. Next you will be jumping at your own shadows!"
"Call it whatever you want, Fródwine, but I saw him!" Frumgár exclaimed adamantly.
A great bolt of lightning raced out of the west and streaked across the sky, the thunder rumbling sullenly behind it. Fritha jumped at the loud crash, shivered in fear, and clung to Frumgár's hand for comfort. Fródwine cursed out a railing accusation at the sky. The other two boys huddled together forlornly and waited for the next onslaught of light and noise, but the storm had spent itself in one final barrage. Mulling ominously to itself, the tempest moved away towards the east as the clouds began to lighten behind them.