Two become three as Eldarion, Prince of Gondor, joins the story.
For any number of reasons—some more rational than others —the two cousins chose to not mention their encounter with Gondor's Heir to anyone. They were, they felt, in quite enough trouble already and there were far too many ways their actions could be interpreted badly.
They came down to breakfast the following morning and encountered a stranger sitting at one of the tables, quietly eating bread and porridge. There was nothing exceptional about the man other than his height. Even Eomer would have to look up to him. But his clothes were nondescript; his face was worn, aged, but plain. In a crowd, they'd have never noticed him.
Curious, the boys approached him. "Good morrow, sir," Elfwine greeted him stiffly.
The man's reply was a low grunt.
"I am Elfwine, Prince of the Mark," the boy tried again.
The man looked up impatiently and then returned to his breakfast. "Course you are," he muttered.
"And you are...?"
The man did not reply for a long moment as he shoveled porridge into his mouth. "Hurin."
The boys started and exchanged amazed looks. "Hurin the Tall? Warden of the Keys?" Elboron asked.
The loyal servant to the throne of Gondor tore off a piece of bread and devoured it. "Indeed."
"What are you doing here?" Elboron asked excitedly. The stories this man could tell were endless, and he desperately wanted to ask many questions.
"Looking for someone."
The two went wary. "Oh?" Elfwine asked.
"Yes," the warden replied and returned his attention to his breakfast.
Servants brought bowls over for the two Princes and they sat across from Hurin. They affected an air of nonchalance as they dug in to the morning meal, not daring to look at each other. It could not be a coincidence that the King's best man was here, looking for "someone" the day after their encounter with Elessar's son.
"You're not going to ask me who I'm looking for?" Hurin asked.
Elboron dropped his spoon. Elfwine studiously picked out apple pieces from his bread.
"Well...we, that is...I didn't think it proper to ask," Elboron managed at last.
"That's right decent of you." There was an element in Hurin's tone that made the boy think the warden was mocking him. "Perhaps you've seen this person I'm looking for. He's a boy, about your age. Dark hair, dark eyes, wearing a gray cloak and probably calling himself 'Whisper.'"
Elfwine went white as a sheet. Elboron forced himself to look casual as he said, "No, I'm afraid not."
"So, you have seen the errant Heir of Gondor," Hurin pressed. He smirked knowingly. "Better liars than you have tried to pull the wool over my eyes, lad. I wouldn't bother if I were you."
Elboron bowed his head contritely. "Sorry, sir."
"Now, which way did the Prince go?"
"South," Elboron said with an absolutely straight face.
Hurin arched an eyebrow at him.
Elboron's shoulders sagged. "West, sir."
"Thank you," Hurin told him sincerely. "And don't fret on it. You've done the right thing. I swear I'll not tell his Highness you had anything to do with me finding him." The warden finished his tea and stood. "I'd best be getting on, then. Tell the Queen I thank her for her hospitality."
They watched the weathered man stalk from the Great Hall, feeling dreadfully guilty for no reason they could clearly define. They did not truly owe anything to Eldarion, but some part of them felt it violated an ancient code of honor among boys like them—boys that had a penchant for getting into trouble. No matter how unwise and unsafe it was for the Heir of Gondor to be running around in the wilds without an escort, it was a terrible thought to endure that they had been part of his capture.
Elfwine raced Elboron across the plain, urging Thornshoe to run faster than they had ever gone before. His lingering worries about his horsemanship would not cause him to delay in his goal. With permission from his mother, he and his cousin had gone forth this day and ridden far from Edoras. It was the only reasonable alternative, the Queen felt, to the boys shaking themselves apart with excited anticipation.
Today was the day King Eomer returned home.
The boys flew over hills and pounded across well-used paths, grinning and laughing in delight. This was the freest they had been since their return and it was wonderful.
After many leagues they halted on a hill overlooking a sea of grass. Down below, the men of Rohan rode in a long column, banners whipping in the wind and spears held aloft to catch the sun. The boys stared at them in awe for a moment and then rode down to meet them.
As they drew closer, they saw a familiar group of men at the head of the column. The tall, commanding figure riding unassumingly at Eomer's side was none other than King Elessar himself, seeing his friend home. As they drew close enough to make out the details of his face, they could see he bore many wounds—all inexpertly stitched. His manner was relaxed, however, demonstrating that his strength was undiminished.
Eomer looked mostly the same as when he had left, if a little wearied by the year's fighting. His begrimed face lit up when he saw that it was his son who had ridden out so far to meet them. He called a greeting and made a remark to Amrothos, who was riding beside him. The Dol Amroth Prince appeared in much better health than when the boys had last seen him, and in higher spirits as well.
The other figure they recognized caused Elboron to gasp in shock. "Father!"
Faramir flashed his son a bright smile. "I do hope you're here to meet us and not on your way to endanger yourselves elsewhere in the lands of Men."
Elboron beamed at his father, feeling a love in the words he had sorely missed but not known how much. He rode up launched himself at his father, hugging him fiercely. He did not see the way Faramir winced or the worried look Elessar cast in their direction. The boy's whole world was the familiar warmth, the unmistakable presence of his father that he had not known for a year.
Elfwine stopped before his own father, fidgeting awkwardly. "Hello, sir."
Eomer looked him up and down. "You ride that horse like you belong on it."
His son blushed crimson and looked down. "Thank you, sir."
"I understand I owe you a debt of gratitude," Elessar commented.
Elboron, reseating himself in Melefel's saddle, glanced over sharply. He did not quite know what to say to the King, so he instead shifted his nervous gaze over to his father.
The ruler of Ithilien winked at him. "Before he set sail for home, Elphir told us the whole tale."
"Oh," was all Elboron could think to say.
The King grinned at them both. "Your fathers have the unhappy task of gauging what punishment is appropriate for the two boys who saved the Army of the West. I am free to simply commend and reward you. Of that, we shall speak once we reach Edoras."
The Royal stables were frantically finishing preparations when the King rode in. Stableboys rushed to take their tired mounts, and there were a few happy reunions between fathers and their sons. There were some unhappy moments too, though, as men were looked for and not seen. The inevitable conclusion hit home for those who had so anxiously awaited word, and many of the lads worked with tears on their brave faces. Hama was too busy to console each one, but he took the time to grip the shoulders of some or offer an encouraging nod.
The Royal party filed out of the stables, Elessar in the lead. Eomer sought out Elboron, who was staying close to Faramir. "Might I speak with the young Prince?" he asked with a smile.
Faramir nodded, his eyes curious. "Of course." He hugged his son firmly around the shoulders and then trotted to catch up to Elessar. Relatively alone with his Uncle, Elboron was not sure what to expect or what he should say. He worried, briefly, that Eomer would blame him for the misadventure with Dol Amroth. It was fairly clear to him by now that no one could accept that Elfwine would ever get into trouble without encouragement.
"I wanted to thank you," the King said unexpectedly, walking slowly so as to let the party ahead gain some distance. "I've not seen my son this happy in a few years."
Elboron had no idea how to respond to that. "I didn't do anything, really," he finally managed.
"Yes, you have. You've become his friend, and there will come a time when you realize how important friendship is." He smiled paternally at his nephew. "I am guessing you're planning on asking your father if you can return to Ithilien."
Elboron started, unprepared for the all-too-accurate guess. "Well, no insult meant to your hospitality, sir, but..."
"You miss your home."
Elboron nodded wordlessly.
"I understand. No, I truly do," he said in response to Elboron's skeptical look. "I was fostered by my Uncle when I was your age. I missed my home, too."
"Well ... how did you handle it?"
Eomer chose not to mention that he had been fostered because both his parents were dead. It was not truly relevant, since he had felt just as homesick as Elboron now felt.
"I ran away a lot," he said with a grin. "Not that I'm suggesting you follow my example. I guess I ended up telling myself that Aldburg would always be there and that I should make the best of my situation." He glanced down at the now-troubled Prince. "Do you like it here?"
"I.... Well ...yes, but..."
"Then I would ask that you stay a while. You've spent your whole life learning how to be Gondorian. Maybe you could spend a few years learning about the Rohirric half of your blood."
Elboron had, in truth, been greatly looking forward to going home, but now that he was faced with a request by his Uncle, he found himself terribly conflicted.
"May I ask you something?" the King asked.
"Of course, Uncle."
"Win.... When I left, I could not even toss him onto the back of a horse. Now I return to word that he rode with you to Dol Amroth and to the surprise of you two coming out to meet us. What happened with him?"
Elboron stiffened. "He does not wish you to know," he said quietly, hating to have to deny his Uncle such a simple request. "But I can tell you that it's over."
Eomer smiled wistfully. "I did not think you would say, but I had to make the attempt." He paused and turned Elboron to face him. "Will you stay?"
Elboron was not at all prepared to make this decision, so he reached for the only wisdom he could think of: What would his father do?
From there, the answer was easy to arrive at.
"I will stay."
The Great Hall was decked out in celebration of Eomer's return, as well as the honor of hosting King Elessar. All the fires and torches were lit, making the customarily somber hall warm and inviting. The Marshalls were all in attendance, as well as many others who had distinguished themselves in the battle. Thaedenbrand was foremost among these men, boasting loudly and repeatedly of his many deeds of valor. At nineteen, he was anxious to prove his might to his fellow Marshalls.
Once the meal was concluded and they were enjoying honeyed teas, Eomer drew their attention and told the tale of the War in grandiose fashion. Both Elessar and Faramir shouted with encouragements or corrections, as the mood struck them. It was told with much smiling and humor, but at the end the King of the Mark raised his goblet in a toast to the brave men who fell defending the West.
Amrothos then told his tale, of the capturing of Elphir's family and how Dol Amroth was held hostage. Angry mutters rippled through the Hall as everyone imagined women and children being used as leverage by the cowardice of Warlord Kaeliz.
No one's expression was darker than Eomer's. His love for Amrothos was well known, though never spoken of. The Marshalls sensed their King was even now planning a vengeful strike, and in their hearts they gave him their support. Though bloodied and weary from this year's fighting, they would follow Eomer to the very gates of Mandos if he but asked.
At the end of Amrothos' tale, eyes shifted to two very surprised young Princes. Eomer raised his goblet to them, his smile warm and encouraging. "Many tales of daring have we heard this night, but we've yet to hear the story of the two who pulled the linchpins from Kaeliz's plan. Boys, we are all very anxious to hear the story from you."
Ecstatic at the attention, the two launched into a slightly exaggerated retelling of their adventure. They interrupted each other often and argued over details, but in the end the story came out mostly as it had happened.
As they concluded, Elessar stood and raised his goblet to them. "The King of Gondor toasts the heroes of Rohan and Ithilien."
All present saluted the boys, making them blush and grin stupidly. Lothiriel smiled blandly at them and leaned close to her husband. "I am as proud of them as you, but I trust you agree that our son acted most irresponsibly."
He nodded and kissed her. "But I shall not ruin this night for him. Tomorrow, I will speak to him."
Elessar quieted the crowd once more. "For such true service to me, I must reward the young heroes. Prince Elboron, Prince Elfwine, approach."
The boys felt all eyes upon them as they nervously approached Elessar. He was possessed of such a daunting presence, built from the legends spoken of him and augmented by the gravity of his features. Though they had no reason to feel anything but welcome before him, they both could scarcely keep from trembling.
"For your bravery which ultimately led to victory for the West, for the honorable nature of your intentions in trying to bring relief to Dol Amroth and your wit in rescuing the Princes of the city, I name you both Wardens of Gondor and friend of her King. Wheresoever you travel in my realm, you shall find shelter and hospitality. Bear these tokens as a symbol of this bond."
He took up carved wooden medallions hung upon leather thongs and placed one over Elfwine's head and the other over Elborons's. He smiled at them and applauded.
The Hall erupted in cheers.
Elessar held up his hands for quiet once again. "That is the debt of my House paid, but my honor must yet be appeased, for you saved my life." He unbound the bracers from around his wrists and held them out to Elboron.
"I have had these in my possession for many a year, as a reminder of a good friend lost in dark times. But now I think it is time they went to Boromir's nephew."
Elboron was stunned speechless. He did not need to even turn and see the astonished look on his father's face to know what a momentous gift this was. Woodenly, he bowed low at the waist and accepted the bracers, both intricately inlaid with symbols of Gondor, like the White Tree.
"Thank you, Majesty," he said sincerely.
Elessar gripped his shoulder and looked deep into his eyes, telling the boy without a doubt that he was worthy of the gift. Then the King turned to Elfwine and drew himself up. "For you I have this," he announced, unbuckling a knife-sheath. He pulled the small blade out and allowed the firelight to reflect off elvish runes. "It is a rare thing, this dagger. Forged by the elves and gifted to me by the Lord Celeborn, it has served me well in times of danger. May it guard you when you are in peril."
"Thank you, Majesty," said Elfwine with wide eyes.
More cheering and applause followed and the two returned to their seats. For the rest of the evening, they were treated with as much honor as Elessar himself. Even the boisterous Thaedenbrand came over to shake their hands. It was tremendously gratifying, particularly for the way Hama was glaring at them at every opportunity.
Faramir was pacing agitatedly. Eomer was sitting with his head bowed and his hands on the back of his neck—whether this was because of the ample quantities of mead he had imbibed or because he was dreading the meeting with his son, his friend was not sure.
"I can't believe I'm in the position of punishing my son for saving my life," the King of the Mark complained.
"Well, we're not punishing them for saving us, specifically. It's really about the idea of them running off without guards and without telling anyone. Unless you fancy the idea of your boy running loose in the wilds these days, with all we've seen of the numbers of Orcs moving about."
"But getting that distinction across will be hard. I've told you I've not had any luck getting through to Win in ages."
"Well, we're in this together."
There was a knock on the door. "Come in," Eomer called.
The two boys shuffled in, eyes locked on the floor. Miserably, they sat upon a divan and waited for the lecture to begin.
"Do you two know what you did wrong?" Faramir began.
"We went to Dol Amroth without permission," Elfwine replied in a low voice.
"No, that isn't it," Eomer replied.
The cousins exchanged baffled looks. "We didn't tell anyone where we were going?" Elboron tried.
"No, not that either," Faramir told them.
"You endangered yourselves," Eomer said gravely.
The two looked guiltily at their fathers.
"Your lives do not belong to you," Faramir explained to them.
"They belong to the people of the Mark and Ithilien. If anything should happen to Faramir or myself, the people must know that our sons are ready to take our place—not gallivanting all over Arda as it suits them."
"Sorry, father," Elfwine said miserably.
"I am too," Elboron added. "We thought that, well..."
"You wanted to be heroes," Faramir observed. "And you certainly have become that. But sometimes people such as us do not have that luxury. Can you imagine what would happen if the people of Ithilien learned they had no one to watch over them? Chaos on the border of Mordor—chaos that would ultimately lead to many lives being lost needlessly."
"Or if the people of the Mark came to know that the long line of Eorl's people was ended at last, despair and confusion would take hold. That is exactly the sort of thing whoever organized this year's battle is looking for."
The boys looked up sharply. "You...think this was all done by design?" Elboron asked.
"Of that, we have no doubt," Fararmir told them. "And that there is someone out there plotting evil for the men of the West is only that much more reason we have to impress upon you two how important your safety is. Now, you won't be doing this sort of thing again, will you?"
Both boys quickly shook their heads and said in unison, "No, sir."
"We take you at your word," Eomer told them. "And will consider this affair ended."
They gaped in astonishment at their fathers. "Ended?" Elfwine asked.
Faramir smiled and nodded. "You are not children to be sent to your rooms. You are already on the path to becoming men and deserve to be treated as such. We've explained the error of your actions and trust you won't make the same mistake twice."
"And if you do, the consequences will be grave," Eomer concluded.
The two boys cringed at the ominous note in the King's voice. Not knowing what to say, and fearing that if they said something they should not they would find themselves back in hot water, they fidgeted and waited for their fathers to finish.
"Boys?" Faramir asked. They glanced anxiously at him. "It was bravely done," he said with a grin.
"Most bravely done," Eomer agreed with a broad smile.
They started to smirk and thought better of it, choosing instead to mumble contrite "thank yous" and wait .
"You can go," Faramir told them.
Like leaves caught in a strong breeze, they vanished from the room. Once they were gone, the two men let out explosive breaths.
"That went fairly well.," Faramir observed.
"It was hard enough," Eomer complained.
Faramir grinned at him. "You're not accustomed to disciplining your children, are you?"
"Well, no. Lothy takes care of the girls and Elfwine never left the library before."
"Consider yourself lucky. Boro's done more damage to Minas Ithil than the armies of Mordor ever managed."
Elessar came in, then, looking very much at ease. "Well, I crossed paths with your boys and they aren't weeping rivers, so I take it things turned out for the best."
"As well as can be expected," Faramir replied.
"Well, for what it's worth, I don't envy the position you're in. I think I'd lose my mind if I learned Eldarion were running around in the wilds with nothing but his wits to guard him. In fact, with all the orc activity of late, I would not be able to sleep at night if I were not secure in the knowledge that my son was home safe in the White City."
"Maybe we should send our sons to you, then," Eomer suggested.
"Now, that is an idea. I imagine it would take them at least a year to level Minas Tirith, between the two of them," added Faramir.
Both Kings turned , but it was Elessar who spoke. "Hurin?" His eyes narrowed. "I would like to say how pleased I am to see you, but that your very presence precludes that. I fear to ask what—or who—has brought you to the Mark."
Hurin's expression was carefully guarded. "My reason awaits you in the Great Hall."
"I see..." Elessar turned to his friends. "Excuse me. I have an unexpected problem to deal with."
Elboron and Elfwine were in high spirits. They were heroes in the Mark, friends of the crown of Gondor and, apparently, liberated from punishment. The future was looking bright once more.
They raided the kitchens in celebration and headed for the Great Hall. Just outside the door, though, they paused because they heard a familiar resonating baritone. Elessar was within, and by his tone, he was not happy at all.
"...ask you why I find you here in Rohan, but I fear the answer would only exacerbate the headache plaguing me."
"Father, I was practicing!"
The cousins exchanged a look as they recognized the voice of Eldarion. Though eavesdropping was not a terribly appropriate habit, they had discovered it was a profoundly useful way to get information. Without a word spoken, they both stole into the shadows around the entryway to the Hall and strained their ears to listen.
"Practicing, were you? That makes all the difference, then. Tell me, which of your Royal lessons were you learning in the wilds? Diplomacy? Creating treaties between the wolves and the deer, perhaps? Or, no, I have it, you must have been reviewing your history with some vastly knowledgeable squirrels!"
"I'm practicing my Ranger training!" Eldarion shot back hotly.
"Why? Why, pray tell? Are you planning on being the King of the Rangers?"
"You were only a Ranger before you were King!"
"I was also raised by Elrond in Imladris. I learned my history from their songs and I learned it well. Can you even tell me who was Steward before I took the throne?"
Eldarion made no reply.
"I did not think so."
"I don't see why it's so important."
"Because there is more to being King than swinging a sword or hunting Orcs," Elessar told him in exasperation.
"I don't want to be King!" Eldarion stopped himself too late, shocked that he had dared to speak the words he had hidden in his heart.
"Father, you were free to wander the lands as you chose before they slapped the chains of Kingship on you. I don't want to fall into that trap."
"Hand the rulership back to the Stewards, as far as I'm concerned."
"Eldarion!" Elessar snapped. "You shame me with your childish selfishness. The Kingship of Gondor is not some plaything to be tossed aside if it is not to your fancy. It is a duty...and a man honors his duty."
"I'm not a man, I'm an elf!" the heir returned, baring one ear.
"You are both, and I know that is a burden to you. But I do not have the time to coddle you. The throne will pass to you when I am gone, and I will not have you take it unprepared. That is my duty and I will not fail in it."
"What are you saying?"
"That I will lock you in the tower of Ecthelion, if I must. You will be visited solely by your parents, your tutors and servants who bring you food. You think the Kingship is a prison? Well, I can show you what a prison is really like."
"For the sake of Gondor? For the integrity of a Kingdom many spilled their blood struggling to save? Yes, my son. Yes I would."
"I have had it, Eldarion. I am sorry you were not born in Imladris, free of duty and obligation, but your course is clear. You will learn your lessons, you will set aside these foolish notions and you will take up the throne."
Eldarion fought back tears. Elessar fumed, unable to give comfort to his son, as he sorely wanted to do, and yet angry with the position he was put in. After a long, awkward moment, he stormed from the Hall, walking past the cousins without noticing them.
Elboron and Elfwine looked at each other, shocked by the King's words. Uncertain if they should intrude, they lingered outside the doorway.
"You might as well come in," the Heir murmured.
They had forgotten to account for his uncanny Elven hearing. Feeling guilty for their eavesdropping, they shuffled over to him.
"Um...you all right?" Elboron asked.
Eldarion sniffled and wiped at his eyes, masking his broken heart with anger. "Of course. My father and I are always arguing." He started picking through the fruit and bread on the table.
"He didn't mean what he said, did he?" Elboron asked, who could not imagine anything more terrible than being locked in a tower.
"Maybe. I don't intend to find out," the Heir said, bundling up his selections in the folds of his tunic.
"What...what do you mean?" the Rohan Prince asked.
Eldarion shrugged, his expression dark. "I won't be here when he comes back with the shackles."
"You can't run away again!" Elboron protested.
"Shout it louder, he might not have heard you," Eldarion growled.
The cousins exchanged worried looks. "Hurin will come after you, you know," Elfwine told him.
"If you'll but give me a horse, he'll never catch me."
"If he doesn't, your father will do it himself. You don't think you can escape from Strider, do you?" Elboron argued.
"What would you have me do?" Eldarion snapped. "Go to my cell with a smile on my face? Sing for him like a songbird in a cage?"
Elboron looked down, feeling horrible for the Heir. Elfwine snapped his fingers, his face aglow with inspiration. "I've got it!"
"Got what?" Eldarion demanded.
"The answer. I'll ask the King to let you stay with us. You can learn anything you need to learn here. And, with us, you'll at least have the run of the Mark."
"My father won't agree to that." But the Heir's tone held the barest hint of hope.
"Your father has told us we're friends of the Crown," Elboron chimed in.
"But if he doesn't feel there's any guarantee I'll not run away again..."
"I'll swear on my family honor that you won't," Elfwine told him.
Eldarion smiled mischievously. "And how do you know I won't?"
"Because that would dishonor my entire family, and I don't think you'd do that."
"So, instead of being my father's prisoner, I get to be yours?"
Elfwine frowned at him. "It's your choice. A room in a tower, or all of the Mark."
Eldarion twirled a dark braid, pondering it. "And you trust your family honor to me?"
"I do. And if you try anything, Boro and I will track you down and beat the stuffing out of you, Heir or no."
Eldarion laughed, a high, musical sound. "If you can get my father to agree, I'll give you my promise."
"Do you have the slightest idea what you're asking?" the King demanded.
Elfwine blanched under Elessar's scrutiny. "Yes, sir. But, um, it's a better solution than locking him in a tower."
Elessar paced back and forth fitfully. "You think you can control him where even Hurin has failed?"
"He...has said he will promise to remain with us."
"My son's promises, you should know, are roughly as constant as the wind," the King informed him irritably.
"I...ah...well, I'd ask this is a boon, majesty. And, um, I'll swear on my family name...and stuff...to, well, to keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't run off."
Elessar came over and went to one knee before the Rohan Prince. His intense gaze softened slightly. "That is a lot to gamble on my son's honor."
Elfwine fidgeted. "We can at least try it, can't we sir?"
Elessar gripped his shoulders and smiled benignly. "We can indeed, lad. I'll need to speak to your father, and Eldarion will need to make his promise publicly...but it is certainly worth trying."
Elfwine let out a huge sigh of relief, smiling slightly. "Thank you, sir."
Elessar winked at him. "Thank you, Prince of the Mark. I was not looking forward to explaining to the Queen why her son was being locked in the tower."
Very shortly, it was done. Words were spoken in the Great Hall and oaths were taken. Elessar thus placed his son and Heir into the keeping of the Mark. And soon after, the King of Gondor and Faramir took their leave of Eomer, leaving behind their most precious treasures.
Life was not returned to normal for the cousins after that, though, for Eomer assigned a formal tutor for them. Fearing some tiresome old bore, the boys were enormously relieved to find it was, instead, Amrothos. Though it was pointless to hope for mercy from him, at least they felt they could rely upon him to not put them to sleep.
The only other significant change was the need for a larger bed in Elfwine's room. Upon hearing of the sleeping arrangement the two had become so accustomed to, the Heir had announced, "That is fine. I certainly would prefer that to that cell you showed me earlier."
And that had settled that.
The surprises were not yet done, though. For Eomer called the boys before him shortly after Elessar's departure. Baffled, the three came to him in the Audience Hall, fearing what new rules would be imposed upon them.
"I have spoken to Galmund just this morning. He tells me he is having some behavioral problems with Fellfang."
"Sir?" Elfwine asked, unsure how they could be blamed for this.
"My kennelmaster informs me that it is not uncommon for a hound to develop an attachment to a human after a particularly stressful experience. In such cases, the hound will no longer take direction from anyone else."
Seeing that he had inadvertently ruined one of his uncle's dogs, Elboron felt awful. "It's my fault, sir."
"It is both your fault," Eomer corrected. His stern mask faltered, betraying the hint of a smile. "In any case, what is done is done. The only thing left to do, since Fellfang is of no further use to me, is to gift him to you."
"Sir?" both Elfwine and Elboron said at once.
A side door opened and Galamund came in, Fellfang beside him. The hound barked excitedly and ran over to them. Astonished and delighted, the cousins knelt to hug and pet him.
"You'll need to spend a few mornings with Galamund to learn how to properly handle him, but yes, he is yours," said the King.
"Thank you, uncle!"
"Yes, sir, thank you!" Elfwine echoed.
Eomer smiled to see them so happy. "Why don't you boys take him outside? He looks ready for a run."
Eldarion, standing just a bit apart, looked no less eager than the cousins. "He's a hunter if I ever saw one."
Elfwine nodded, smirking. "An orc hunter. And a true friend."
"I sense a story here," said the heir, interested.
The cousins looked furtively at Eomer, who arched an eyebrow. "There is indeed. I'm sure you'll have no trouble getting it from the boys."
Smiling sheepishly, Elfwine glanced at Eldarion. "We'll tell you outside. Wait until you see how fast he can run!"
The three boys departed, Fellfang yipping happily behind them. Galamund laughed and gave the King an odd look. "You lost possibly your best hound there, Majesty."
Eomer shrugged, his expression content. "But I've gained the security of knowing that whatever trouble they get into, they'll have a faithful companion to guard them."
"You don't think they've been scared off of adventures, after this last little experience?"
Eomer laughed, smiling warmly. "First and foremost, they're boys. They are born to find trouble. And, as if that weren't enough, King Elessar went and made them Wardens of Gondor. They're going to feel duty-bound to endanger themselves."
Galamund gave him an understanding smile. "Then maybe it's time they started learning to defend themselves."
Eomer waved a dismissive hand. "It's not nearly time, yet."
Eomer was quite sure the boys would love to start their warrior-training, but he was not quite as certain that he was ready to see steel in his son's hands. But Galamund's practical eye had seen straight to the heart of the matter. If they were bound for trouble, then they should be ready for it.
"You're right, again, Gal. I'll start them on it soon."
There was only one man he would trust with the job—if he would consent to come to Edoras for a few years. Ordering him was not something Eomer was inclined to do. His respect for the man was too high to abruptly pull him from his hearth and home.
Eldarion lay upon a hummock, pondering the rolling clouds overhead. Elfwine was seated besde him and Elboron was just apart, wrestling with Fellfang. The hound was having a grand time, struggling to wrest a stick from Elboron's grip.
The Heir had gotten the story and was chewing over the details. "Heroes already," he remarked.
Elfwine grinned from ear to ear. "Well, it was really a lot of being in the right place at the right time."
"I wish I'd been there," Eldarion said seriously.
Elfwine's smile faded. "It really wasn't much fun while it was going on. Pretty scary, really."
"But you did it!" Gondor's Heir returned. "In the thick of it all, you saved the whole Army of the West!"
"Well..." Elfwine shrugged uncomfortably. "But Elboron got hurt pretty bad in the process. That guard nearly killed him."
"It wasn't as bad as all that!" Elboron interjected, his pride stung.
"It was so!" Elfwine argued.
"Did you tell him about the Orcs spying on Edoras?"
Eldarion's eyebrow raised. "There are Orcs spying on Edoras?"
Elfwine glowered in Elboron's direction. "No, but he thinks there are."
"You've yet to explain the tracks!" Elboron shot back.
"And you've yet to explain how no one here has seen them." Elfwine rolled his eyes. "Boro insists these tracks we found were left by Orcs, which is ridiculous. No one's seen any foul kind here."
"Except for the caravan attack," Eldarion corrected thoughtfully.
"Well..." Elfwine looked disgruntled at the argument.
"Fellfang's an Orc hunter, Dar, and he found a scent around the howes," Elboron said, throwing the stick in a high arc and watching the hound race after it.
Eldarion looked very interested. "Where did they lead?"
"Nowhere," Elfwine informed him. "They went around the wall and then Fang lost the scent."
"Maybe there was a secret passage."
The Prince of Rohan frowned at him. "There aren't any secret passages in Edoras."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes!" Elfwine grumbled to himself. "You're as bad as Boro."
"Maybe we should check it out..." Eldarion pondered.
"It was a year ago. I don't remember where the trail led."
Elboron came up to join them, Fellfang trotting along behind. "See, Win, Whisper thinks it was something."
Not sure if he was being mocked or not, Eldarion glanced from one cousin to the other. "Well, if a hound trained to hunt Orcs scented them outside your walls, I'd sure be worried."
"And inside the keep," Elboron added.
Eldarion sat up, now keenly interested. "Inside?"
"You're making wild guesses about those tracks, Boro. Stop tossing your mane for Dar."
"Well, maybe Whisper won't think I'm jumping to conclusions."
"Is there something funny about my Ranger name?" Eldarion finally asked.
"No," Elboron said quickly. "I think it's neat."
Still not certain of the Ithilien Prince's sincerity, Eldarion arched a thin eyebrow. "All right, then, what tracks was Win talking about?"
"The floor was muddy," Elfwine cut in.
"They were tracks!" Elboron insisted.
"You slipped and made a fool of yourself and you've invented all this to make the whole thing mysterious instead of funny—which it was!"
Elboron glared at his cousin. "There were muddy bootprints...in the deep interior of Meduseld. Much further in than mud should have still been clinging to a person."
Eldarion fidgeted with one of his braids. "That's odd, I'll agree. I still say it might be a secret passage."
Elfwine rolled his eyes. "I can't believe you're even taking him seriously."
The Heir leaned forward, his eyes serious. "I've heard stories...old stories...about Orcs tunneling under cities...sneaking out at night like rats to steal food...or anyone not strong enough to fight them off. Orcs, you see, love the flesh of young humans—they say it's a tender treat."
Elfwine looked pale and uneasy. "You're not serious..."
Eldarion held his gaze for a long time, dark eyes twinkling. Slowly, a grin broke out...which grew into a laugh. "No, I'm not. But it was funny to see that look on your face."
Elfwine blushed and smiled a bit. "Tender treat indeed."
The Heir laid back down again. "What do you suppose the Orcs were doing outside the walls? You said they were near the howes?"
"Digging," Elboron replied before Elfwine had the chance to make a snide comment. "The earth on King Helm's barrow was disturbed."
"Buried treasure?" Eldarion asked, grinning. "I wonder what it is."
"Win says there wouldn't have been anything buried with the King that would be worth digging up."
The Heir considered that. "I don't, uh, well...I don't know anything about Rohan history."
"Well..." Elfwine leaped in, launching into the story with even more enthusiasm than when he had told it to his cousin.
Eldarion chewed on it. "And that's all the histories say?"
"Yes," the Prince of the Mark replied. "I've read everything in our library on King Helm."
"He has," Elboron agreed with a smile. "Probably more than once."
"At least I know Numenor was an island and not a boat," Elfwine shot back.
"You thought Numenor was a boat?" Eldarion laughed merrily. "Even I know it was an island."
Elboron blushed, giving Elfwine a sour look.
"You know what my father taught me, though," said Eldarion thoughtfully. "If you want to know the real history, ask the losers of the conflict as well as the victors. Between the two you will find the truth."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Elboron wanted to know.
"Just that I'm sure the Dunlendings have a different view on what happened with Wulf and Helm. We should ask them."
"They're savages!" Elfwine protested. "You don't just waltz into one of their villages and ask for a history lesson!"
"We could ask that man from the Elk tribe. He seemed nice enough," Elboron suggested.
"My mother would never allow it," Elfwine said seriously.
"So we don't tell her," Eldarion responded glibly.
Elfwine blanched in horror. "You...but.... She'll flay us for sure!"
"If she finds out..." Elboron argued.
Elfwine stared from one to the other. "We're supposed to stay out of trouble."
"We're just going to ask a few questions," Elboron wheedled.
"From the sworn enemies of the Mark, yes. I can't see how this could possibly go awry."
Eldarion grinned. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"Of course I am, but that's hardly the point," Elfwine fidgeted. "It's dangerous. The Dunlendings have no honor, no sense of decency."
"But we're friends of the Elk tribe. That means they won't hurt us," Elboron reasoned.
Elfwine chewed his lower lip, giving them each a dubious look. "You do realize what will happen if we're caught, right?"
"We won't be," Elboron assured him.
"It could be a piece of the puzzle..." the Heir murmured.
Elfwine groaned. "But...oh, very well. I swear, though, I will blame this on the both of you if this adventure slips its harness."
And so the three friends put their heads together, plotting their foray into danger with the carelessness of children, not truly believing that anything could ever go wrong.