Eldarion and Elboron must evade the orcs pursuing them. Elfwine rushes after them to help.
Year 16, 4th Age
Faramir paced anxiously, condemned to wait while others searched for his son. He had wished to lead the search party himself, but Eowyn—as she so often did—calmed him and reminded him he was not yet back to his full strength. Whatever trials this visited on him did not matter in his eyes. However, he refused to slow down the searchers. Every moment counted.
Eowyn watched him pace, her own heart aching for their son and for Eldarion.
Faramir saw that in her eyes, but there was no comfort he could offer her. His vision from last year was haunting him, still crystal clear. His son, battling for his life....
The face of his son in the vision was older, though, if only a little bit. He did not doubt that at all, but it was a slender hope to fight back his fears with. His son, his pride was out in the wilds and who knew what had happened to him.
It did not help that he had not slept. The hunting party had brought the news last eve, and the search had begun immediately. All night, his best trackers had scoured the forest for any sign of the boys, without success. Now it was the afternoon of the next day, and he still knew nothing.
But that itself told him something was terribly wrong. If they had somehow gotten lost, and that was hard to believe, their trail would have been easily found. If some tragedy had befallen them.... Again, they would have been easily found.
They had been taken, he was sure of it. By what or whom and why, he could not guess. The enemies of the west had been quiet of late, something he had hopefully attributed to the Easterlings finally giving up. As absurd a hope as that had been, he still could not fathom they would be behind this. Kidnapping was not an orc habit.
He glanced over at his wife, who was staring vacantly ahead. She had endured a great deal, over the last couple years. He stepped over to her and knelt, taking her slender hands into his calloused ones. "They're smart boys, beloved. You know that. And tough and resourceful. They'll come back to us."
Her eyes focused on him, glassy-eyed with anguish. "I see the fear in your eyes. I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking the same thing. They've been taken."
He swallowed hard and nodded, not surprised that she had come to the same conclusion.
"My brother said something about a new evil, something plotting wickedness. Is it true?"
Faramir sighed, knowing how much she hated talk of war and danger. "We have nothing but our own suspicion—orcs acting in an organized fashion, that two-pronged attack where Dol Amroth was neutralized while the King's army was ambushed. The strange happenings in Rohan...." He nodded. "It's almost certain, and not terribly surprising. There were many powerful warlords and orc chiefs who were promised a great deal by Sauron. Even with him dead, they still want what they feel is their due."
She shivered and looked down. "Is that the legacy we give to our son? War? Is that all we can leave him?"
He touched her face, his expression adoring. "No, beloved. There will be peace. I know it in my heart."
Eowyn's expression did not relax. She appeared forlorn and wistful. "Such a sad world for a child to grow up in."
Faramir's smile was gently humorous. "I think Boro might prefer to not be called a child."
Her eyes fixed on him and she managed to return the smile. "Not him, dear heart. I mean the child I carry under my heart right now."
The Prince of Ithilien gaped at her and then he smiled so brightly it lit the room. In the midst of all this dark, there was still joy. "Fear not, my lady. All our children will know safety and peace—"
The door swung open suddenly. Faramir stood, chilled down to his bones by the ashen look on the runner's face. "Orcs, sir. We found a trail, leading northeast. Agalon is leading the searchers."
Faramir nodded, his worst fears realized. "Understood. Take your rest, boy. And send Hubrik to me."
The runner nodded and departed. Faramir took his wife into his arms and held her, giving strength but seeking it as well.
Hubrik, his fastest and most trusted messenger, entered the chamber after a few minutes. "Highness?"
"Go to Minas Tirith. Tell the King his son and mine are in the hands of orcs. Send what aid he wills, we are on the trail."
Back in Rohan, in a small house near the royal stables, the master of those stables was finishing preparing supper. Haleth tasted the stew and, after a moment's thought, he added another pinch of salt. It was very nearly perfect. And, of course, he would settle for nothing less.
His companion Eothain sauntered in, grinning toothily. "Almost ready?" He began scrubbing his hands in the basin of water.
"Almost. Any sign of our errant son?"
Eothain laughed and shook his head. “He was helping me in the garden, and then I put him to repairing the shed. I assume, from the lack of banging, he's lazing about somewhere."
Haleth pointed the wooden spoon at him, almost like a weapon. "You're entirely too easy on him. Not sure if you were told, but parents aren't supposed to let their children escape their chores."
"I prefer a gentler approach."
"You prefer to let me be the troll so you can be the hero," Haleth accused.
Eothain attempted to look wounded. "Well, we do strike a balance, between us." He attempted to swoop in for a sample of the stew and took a wooden spoon to the knuckles for his trouble.
"Not yet. Don't make me boil your head."
Eothain retreated, leaning against the kitchen table. "You're in a feisty mood."
"You make it sound unusual."
"Point." Eothain scratched at his mane of blond hair. "So, little Faela and her family have decided they can't keep her and our son's baby. I understand her grandfather needs a lot of looking after and they just can't take the time."
"You gossip more than an old woman."
"That's not very nice," Eothain objected. "And it's not gossip. It's information. And the sort of information you might care to know."
"As you say." Haleth was finally satisfied with the stew and began to spoon it into bowls.
Eothain took the bowls and put them on the table, assuming his seat across from the man he had loved for almost twenty years. "And I was thinking...."
"It worries me when you think."
"What does that mean?" Eothain asked defensively.
"Only kidding," Haleth said, bringing the morning's bread over and placing it on the table as well. He touched an old scar on Eothain's temple with a fond smile and then took his own seat. "I have this sinking feeling I know what you're thinking."
"That little boy is family...."
"I suppose one could make that hurdle of reasoning."
"He's Hama's blood," Eothain argued. "Don't get surly, deore."
Haleth glowered for a moment, focusing on the stew. "It was hard enough raising Hama, and we had your mother and sister to look after him when we were off at war. Now your mother has taken her final ride and your sister has a family of her own. And we can't hope our beloved idiot can care for a child." He was still angry with Hama for his indiscretion.
Eothain nodded, chewing thoughtfully on the bread. "Haven't we fought long enough? Isn't fifteen years of following the King from one bloody battle to the next enough for our personal honor?"
Haleth eyed him in surprise, swirling his stew pensively. "Fifteen years is a long time, léoft, " he agreed with neutrality.
Eothain smiled at him, sharing in that moment the years of memory, from Helm's Deep where they had met as children drafted into war, fighting side by side, to all of the battles that had followed— and much more tender moments between.
"You have an odd fixation with adopting orphans," Haleth accused finally.
Eothain laughed. "I seem to recall you being the one refusing to give up Hama when we found out his parents were both dead." There had been many war orphans, but Hama had been the one they had found in the caves underneath Helm's Deep and Hama had been the one who had stolen their hearts and bonded them together.
"Is that the way it was? I must be losing track of the details after all these years." Haleth's smile was brief and genuine; the most he ever had to give. "We'll need to add a room on to the back of the house, then. And Hama had best give up on the notion he isn't changing the nappies."
Eothain's eyes lit up. "You mean it?"
"Fifteen years is long enough," Haleth said with finality.
Elfwine stopped again, shaking his head. This was not right. He had already brought it up to Agalon, but the huntmaster had not been willing to hear it. Frustrated, he finally stopped Aldurn and knelt with him so he could whisper at him.
The Rohirrim was in a state of near-panic. Elfwine had never seen him like this, and he was touched by the concern. He had long suspected that Aldurn protected them more out of fondness than duty, but it was nice to know it was true.
"I'm telling you, it makes no sense," he murmured insistently to the rider. "Carefully wiping away their tracks for a mile and then leaving a trail a blind man could follow?"
Aldurn grimaced dubiously. "Orcs aren't terribly bright, highness."
"No, but if they're bright enough to know to conceal their trail, they're bright enough to know our search will go out at least that far."
"What are you saying, highness?"
"That we're being led away, taken off the real trail." He nodded grimly, certain that he was right.
"It's the only trail to follow, highness," he argued softly. "Unless you just want to wander around blindly in the hopes we find Boro and Dar."
Elfwine considered it. He was exhausted, having been a part of the search from the beginning almost without rest. But he could not—would not let his friends down.
"Tell Agalon we're going back to the city. Then we'll backtrack a bit, see if Fellfang can find another scent."
Aldurn did not hesitate for long. His concern for his charges and his faith in Elfwine's wisdom outweighed any nagging doubts. He nodded and went to confer with the huntmaster.
Elfwine called Fellfang to him, petting the agitated hound and scratching behind his one white ear. The hound knew something was wrong; Elfwine could sense how uneasy the animal was.
"We'll find them," he whispered. "We will."
Days went by, the Uruks almost never stopping. North and east they traveled, near as Elboron could tell. There were tales of how fast Uruks could move, of course, how they never tired, but Elboron had thought them just stories.
But now they were far, far from home and there was no sign of rescue. Escape seemed impossible; even when the boys were set on their feet they were watched constantly. If they did escape, they doubted they would have any success outrunning their captors.
The situation was very bleak indeed.
The air thinned as they climbed into a higher elevation, heading now on a course the boys new would lead them to Mordor. Once within that scarred land, they were sure they'd never get out again. Through glances and minute gestures, they promised each other that one way or the other, they would have to take their moment soon.
When they finally stopped for a real rest, they were on a small promontory overlooking Gondor. There were many orcs shuffling around what appeared to be a fairly large camp. In the midst of this camp, seated like a gargantuan king, sat a huge creature with a giant hammer at one side and an equally sizable axe at the other.
Elboron had heard all the stories of trolls, but he had never thought he'd have the misfortune of seeing one. Seated upon a massive boulder, the gargantuan creature looked very much like some sort of monstrous king. Indeed, the way the Uruks bowed and scraped before him suggested he was not a mindless slave like his brethren always were in the armies of the foul kind. This one was, impossibly, the leader.
The Uruks and he exchanged words that neither of the boys understood, of course, but the tone did not sound happy. The boys watched haplessly, unwilling to even dare wriggle in their bonds for fear of reprisal from the orcs standing guard over them. It was a terrible dilemma to wrestle with; cooperate and hope they did not get their throats slit or resist and almost certainly get cut down.
The lead Uruk who had brought them here tapped his own ear and pointed at Eldarion, making his case even more stridently. Whether it was anger or terror in his tone, they could not tell. The massive troll, however, was clearly not impressed by the tirade. After a few minutes, he broke into the litany with a few harsh, guttural words of his own. One hand moved to pat the hammer that was easily as big as both boys if one of them was to sit on the other's shoulders.
That seemed to end the argument. The Uruk bowed and turned to the boys, drawing forth his sword. There was no doubt what the decision had been.
"I need you to run, Boro. Fast as you can and don't look back," Eldarion whispered.
"Run!" Eldarion said and surged to his feet.
Elboron stared in shock as his nimble friend darted away from first one lunging grab and then another. Thinking they were making a break for it, and not being the focus of the Uruks at the moment, Elboron did as commanded and bolted into the tree line. It was not too long before the awkwardness of running with his hands behind his back caught up with him and he fell.
Gulping in the thin air, he squirmed until his arms were in front of him and looked around for his friend, certain Eldarion would be right behind him. His face fell, though, when he saw no sign of his companion. They had caught his friend—but they would not keep him, he decided.
He scratched up the crude ropes binding him against the rough bark of a tree, and chewed on them as well. They finally loosened to the point where he could pull a hand free and then he dropped them. Picking up a rock, he turned and ran back to the clearing, determined to free his friend or die trying.
It turned out to be utterly unnecessary. Eldarion had spent a good amount of time dodging, weaving and ducking to give Elboron a little time. And then he had bolted. He knew that he, unlike Elboron, could run fast and steadily even with his arms behind his back. So it was that he was running away nimbly, darting into the forest even as Elboron was rushing to his aid.
"I told you to run!" the Prince of Gondor hissed, drawing up short and looking wildly around. The orcs were right behind him.
"My father will tell you, I am no good at following orders." Elboron informed him and made quick work of the ropes. Then he spotted an orc bearing down on them and he hurled the rock in his hand, hitting the creature in the face and felling him.
"Well," Eldarion said with a bright smile. "You can stay if you like!" And the fleet-footed Gondorian heir shot off like a rabbit.
Elboron almost followed when the orc he had hit stumbled, half-blind, over to him. Elboron ducked under the flailing arms and grabbed a knife at the orc's belt. It was instinct, it was a question of survival. Elboron slashed the knife across the orc's throat and then ran without a second glance.
The orcs were right behind them, shouting in their guttural snarls at the boys. It was a contest of longer legs versus lighter bodies, and it was a dead heat. The trees gave them a small advantage, as they were able to maneuver through the underbrush without losing speed. But it was hardly enough, and they knew it. Even if they managed to pull out of sight, the Uruks would track them, hunt them down and kill them like a brace of rabbits.
It was fear of that which kept them going, long after they could not seem to get air into their lungs or find strength in their legs. Pure, primal terror made them run blindly and foolishly, more concerned with what was behind them that what was in front of them.
Eldarion reached the edge of the long, steep slope before Elboron, and he was already teetering when his friend crashed into him. They tumbled downward, rolling and, at times, plummeting helplessly. They came to rest, finally, at the base of a clump of trees, and they were already out cold.
Above them, the orcs began to look for a way to follow....
For Aldurn and Elfwine, their initial task had proven easier than they had hoped for. In less than an hour, Fellfang found a second trail, and an hour of following it was enough to be sure that it was not a false spore. Of course, once they had this certainty, a new dilemma faced them:
To follow it or to retrieve Agalon and his men.
The trail was already faint enough that it took Fellfang's keen senses some time to find it, and the hours it would take to round up the huntmaster and his men and convince them they were following a false trail could be time they could not afford to lose.
However, there was absolutely no denying that Aldurn and Elfwine were not up to the challenge of taking on a raiding party of orcs.
In the end, the inevitable decision was to split up—and Elfwine had already tried and failed to get Agalon to listen to him.
"I'll just be blazing the trail, after all," Elfwine explained rather reasonably. "You and the others should be able to catch me fairly easily."
Aldurn was not too excited about the idea of sending off the third of his charges alone, but he actually did not vocalize his protests. His look was grave as he eyed the youth up and down. "A man looks after his friends," he told the boy and then went off to get help.
It was the first time anyone had called Elfwine a man and the compliment put his head in the clouds for an hour. Having the respect of someone as brave and honorable as Aldurn made Elfwine puff up proudly. And the words, well, they did ring of truth. These were his friends, his responsibility.
Elfwine was not nearly so versed in outdoor survival as Eldarion, or even Elboron, but he had picked up a thing or two just being around them. With the dried meat and hard biscuits in his pack, a full waterskin and a warm cloak, he braved the wide wilderness of Ithilien without hesitation. This was for his friends—though that word truly failed to encompass the bonds they shared. Elfwine was quite sure he would cross Mordor and back to help them, and equally certain they would do the same. His love for them was so profound that he could scarce comprehend it, but he did not have to.
He made good time, day after day, his lanky, sturdy frame carrying him swiftly through the deepening forest. Fellfang led him and set a hard pace, seemingly as desperate (or more) to find their friends. Ever since Dol Amroth, Fellfang had been especially fond of and loyal to Elboron. As anxious as the hound was, however, he never went so far that Elfwine could not see him. The dog's training was simply too good for that.
As he walked (and when he was not wracked with worry for his friends) his thoughts kept turning, with a somewhat disturbing consistency, to Magda. He had been missing her, truthfully, since leaving the Mark. However, it had been a formless, nameless pain somewhere in the vicinity of his heart. After all, there were a lot of things about his home that he missed and he had not had the time to sort through them all.
Alone in the wilderness, though, with thoughts of friends hanging heavily upon him, her face came unbidden to his mind. And once there, the ache became more pronounced and took on a very definite form. Elfwine was not simple, by any means, and he knew very well what these feelings meant. But he did not dare to entertain them much; a Prince of the Mark and a Dunlending Chieftain's daughter would not be a match accepted by either people.
Which left him sighing often and mooning about like a lost calf. Elfwine had begun to find girls interesting in many ways, but he was also a bit daunted by them. There were a pair of kitchen girls, about his age, back at Minas Ithil, who had the most discomfiting habit of giggling whenever he walked by. It was nerve-wracking. Was there something about him that was funny?
Beyond the incomprehensible bursts of mirth in his direction, though, he was also somewhat put off by their manner. They gossiped and nattered about things he could not imagine one structuring a whole conversation around. And they did so as if those things were of a paramount importance.
It baffled him.
Magda, though, was not like that. She was unlike any Ithilien or Rohirrim girl he had ever met. She was, for one, incredibly easy to talk to. And she had a love of learning new things that rivaled his own. He could talk to her about things he could not even broach with Dar and Boro without an undue amount of fun being had at his expense.
More and more, as he walked, he found himself wishing she was with him. The endless, lonely hours of trudging would have been a lot more bearable with her company, he was sure. It would certainly help to distract him from the growing terror of what he would find when he did track down his friends.
And then he would touch the lock of hair she had given him, which he kept in a pouch at his belt, and he would think of the softness of her lips and he would not be able to think about much of anything for some time.
Elboron stood on the bluff and looked down at the world far below him. He at least had some idea of where they were now, but that news had no joy in it. A hundred miles from home, by the most hopeful estimation, and that was if they had wings. Getting out of the mountains would take them through numerous switchbacks that would almost double the distance. The orcs were looking for them, almost certainly, and Eldarion was hurt.
They had wakened not too long after falling, and after assessing things, had determined that Eldarion's right arm was fractured. A quick splint job did nothing for the pain, of course, but they were both glad it was not a leg. They had so far to go….
Elboron saw the Anduin in the distance, gray in the morning light. He had his bearings and while it was a hideously long journey, he knew how to get home. Resolved, he turned and came back to where Eldarion was waiting.
The Prince of Gondor gave him a bright smile, undaunted by the pain he was in. "So, over hill and over dale and home?"
Elboron smiled right back at him. "Even your skinny legs can make it."
"Lithe, goat-spunk, the term is 'lithe—-I realize you never actually read..."
"It all means the same thing, dung breath." Elboron knelt and picked a pine needle out of his friend's hair. "It's a long way. Especially since the orcs will try and get ahead of us and head us off. And we've no supplies."
"So? One step in front of the other..." Eldarion got to his feet with a smile. "The sooner we start, the sooner we get there."
Elboron smiled as well. "I still blame you for this mess."
"I suppose I can't really dodge that," Eldarion replied with a laugh.
"Still.... Still.... Orcs should not be prowling about that close to Minas Ithil." Elboron frowned thoughtfully and started to walk. They lived in dangerous times, certainly, and Mordor loomed just on the other side of the mountains... But still, a large scouting party?
"I always thought trolls were the slaves of the orcs, but that one, he looked like he was the one in charge," Eldarion said, breaking into his thoughts. "That's passing strange."
"There's a lot of strangeness to be found these days. Orcs in Rohan, orcs near my home, that attack that was meant to kill our fathers.... It's almost like the Dark Lord is rising again."
"Don't even joke about that," Eldarion replied with a look of horror. "Don't even think it. The One Ring was destroyed, his power was broken. He can't ever come back."
"Well, I'd guess you would know more than me, but.... Well, how do we really know? He was one of those Maiar, wasn't he? How can you kill something like that?"
"The legends are pretty clear, Boro. He bound his fate to the Ring when he forged it, pouring his power into it."
"That never made sense to me," Elboron argued. "If I was a powerful being, immortal and so on ... why would I want to make something that could destroy me?"
"Because it would mean controlling the other nineteen rings and their bearers," Eldarion told him, reciting it by rote.
"And that worked so well, didn't it? He wasn't able to control the elves or the dwarves, and even the Kings of Men who took the Rings brought little to the field. Most of the humans followed Elendil, right?"
"Well.... Yes.... But he did not know it would fail." His brow furrowed.
"Maybe not, but even so, once it was proven that it didn't work, why not just unmake the thing?"
"Maybe he couldn't...."
"Maybe, but he was called the Deceiver, right? What if the whole thing was a trick, a way to get people to think he could be killed when he really couldn't?"
"Boro...." Eldarion stared at him for a long moment before shaking his head. "No. That can't be true. The elves and Mithrandir would never have left if there was any chance...."
"All right, if you say so. I certainly hope you're right. But all this activity from the foul kind is making me nervous." Elboron gave him an uneasy look and then started to climb down a slight slope.
Eldarion picked his way down after him, his balance keeping him from having to strain his arm at all. "I know. It' really unsettling. They're obviously up to something big, but I'm sure our fathers are ready for them."
Elboron desperately wished that were true. But if it were, would he and Eldarion even be in this predicament? Clearly Faramir had no idea how bold the orcs were getting, or he never would have let his son and his charges roam so far from the city walls. Surely Eomer would never have agreed to foster his son in Ithilien if he knew that forces of the dark were skulking through the wilds that surrounded Minas Ithil. No, the leaders of the west must not know anything about how grave the danger was.
Now their sons had to somehow survive long enough to tell them.
A storm swept over Ithilien, sending howling winds and driving rains down across the forested country for two days. It was a nightmare for Elfwine in more than one way. He lost time, for one, which had him fretting and agitating in the small shelter he had made for himself. It also put him through two days of worry over whether or not the trail would still be there when the storm passed.
There were times he screamed into the storm, as if that could cause the skies to clear.
Sure enough, once the storm blew itself out, Elfwine and Fellfang discovered the trail was broken. Rather than scream and throw things as he was first inspired to do, Elfwine paced the ground and looked around. It was time to put the wisdom that he prided himself on to use.
Assuming he was not more than a few days behind the Uruk-Hai and assuming they, too, had been bogged down by the storm, the trail would resume a few dozen leagues ahead. The boy did not want to think too much about how large of an assumption that was. His friends were in danger. He had to try and keep going.
"They were headed north, more or less," he murmured to Fellfang. "So, let's keep going that way and hope we find the trail." Giving up was simply not something he could stomach.
Four anxious days passed. Elfwine moved as fast as he could for as long as he could, trying to make up time, driving himself to the point of collapse. Desperation drove him on when his strength failed him, and when he could not run anymore, he stumbled and sometimes crawled. In the back of his head he knew that no matter what his will stated, if he could not find the trail again, his quest would end in defeat.
On the morning of the fifth, he was just breaking his spare camp when Fellfang bounded up to him, barking excitedly. Elfwine had thought his canine companion had merely been off chasing rabbits. He should have known better. The hound had been looking for signs of their friends and the orcs that held them, as he had constantly for four days.
And he had apparently found them.
Rejuvenated by hope, Elfwine took up the chase again. Already the rigors of this hunt had added to the toughness from Erkenbrand's training and hardened the Prince of the Mark to where he could run most of the day. It was a terrible irony, considering he was the heir to the throne of the Horse Lords, but then, Elfwine was shaping up to be rather different than any previous heir of the Mark.
His elation at finding the trail and his determination to locate his friends caused his judgment to slip—and he became quite a bit less cautious. It was possible to argue that he had, perhaps, no reason to watch for danger this far along the trail— the orcs would surely not think they are being followed, would they?
Unfortunately for the brave young prince, unbeknownst to him, this area he was racing through had become more orc territory than man's. There were eyes watching him, surveying both his intended route and the progress he was making. And those eyes belonged to orcs who did not wish anyone to be blazing a trail for more men to follow.
Flying over the ground at top speed, Elfwine never even sensed the snare he had sprung until the flexible branch that had been bent back at an impossible angle snapped forth. It struck him square in one shin and then went on to sweep his legs out from under him. Elfwine screamed and crashed to the earth, tumbling over and over again.
Tears tracked down his face as he gripped at his wounded shin - if there wasn't a break, than it was surely almost so. Cursing with every word he knew, he rolled back and forth, unable to think beyond the pain.
Which was a lucky thing for him, because otherwise he would have realized he was alone in the wide wilderness and he could not even walk.
Elboron cupped the water into his mouth frantically, feeling he could drink the tiny brook dry. A sentiment, he could tell, that Eldarion shared. They had gone for days with only the morning dew to quench their thirst. It was weakening them and making them vulnerable, wandering lost in a haze of dehydrated misery.
Which was the only thing that distracted them from the pangs of hunger.
Elboron finally sat back, wiping his chapped lips with the back of his hand. As weak and tired as he was, he knew Eldarion had to be much worse off. But his friend bore up under the exhaustion and the pain of his injuries with sardonic humor. Only his pale, drawn features told the real story of how the young Heir of Gondor was fairing. It hurt Elboron deeply to be so helpless while his friend suffered, and the intensity of that feeling seemed out of place in his head. As a rule, Elboron did not have a lot of deep feelings.
"Well, at least we're not going around in circles," he murmured to his friend.
Eldarion grinned wanly. "We would be if not for my unfailing sense of direction. You'd be in Mordor if not for me."
Elboron tossed a few pebbles in the prince's direction and laughed a little. "Maybe. I don't have all that convenient elf-blood running through my veins. How much do you have, exactly?"
"The math defies reason," Eldarion replied glibly. "My mother's side of the family is pretty clear, but tracing my father's bloodlines gives the most staid scholars fits of apoplexy."
Elboron grinned. "I just bet." His stomach rumbled and the Heir of Ithilien sighed. "I'm going to set up a snare and hope to catch something. We need food. You want to try and get a fire going?"
Eldarion sighed and rolled his eyes. "You ask so much of the Prince of Gondor. And me injured, at that."
For a moment, Elboron felt guilt stab him, but then the joking tone removed the barb and he just gave his friend a lopsided smile. "His lordship forgot to bring along his servants, so he will just have to carry his own weight."
"I brought you," Eldarion replied with a smirk.
"Yes, and?" the Ithilien Prince shot back with raised eyebrows.
"I am merely reminding you that your family has served mine for many years."
"Actually," Elboron replied dryly. "We took care of your country while your family ran around in the forest like heathens for a few centuries."
Eldarion laughed and yet managed somehow to look horrified. "When we get back, I intend to have you flogged for that."
"Hardly any incentive for me to drag your scrawny carcass back, then." Elboron grinned at him.
Eldarion sniffed and waved his hand pompously. "You will, I command it."
Elboron genuflected and bowed, getting a strange feeling as he did so. Some part of him did recognize Eldarion as his lord and knew that one day he would be swearing an oath of fealty to him. And his being seemed to yearn to do so. Shaking off the feeling, he smiled at Eldarion and started to look about for things he could use for a snare.
Some time later, as evening took over them and the smell of cooking rabbit (and one very unlucky squirrel) filled the air, the two boys laid back and looked up at the sky. Lost and far from home, they found that strength to go on came from each other. So all did not seem hopeless.
Off in the distance, they heard a throaty howl. It sounded somewhat like a wolf and yet ... not quite. They exchanged worried glances. After dinner and a short rest they would have to be on their way. Their pursuers had not given up.
As two lost boys struggled to find their way home, a son of Dol Amroth was at last fulfilling his promise to the King of the Mark. The change in Elphir was as stark as it was disturbing. Amrothos stared in shock at his brother for the longest time before remembering to do him the honor of a half-bow. It had been two years since last they had seen each other, but that was not unusual. Years tended to pass without them coming face to face. Elphir tended to stay close to home, while Amrothos had made his home at Edoras.
But at each meeting, it had always seemed that his brother remained the same—face perhaps a bit more windblown, eyes nested a bit deeper in crow's feet, but nothing so noticeable that Amrothos had paid it any mind.
The man before him, though, was nearly unrecognizable as his brother. Eyes sunk in and smoldering with anger, hair tied tightly back in a severe braid and so thin. Elphir was painfully, shockingly thin. And pale, as if he had not stepped out into the sun he loved for many months.
"How does the day find you, brother?" Amrothos asked carefully.
Elphir snorted and shifted on the sandstone throne. "Do not put on the face of diplomacy for me, Rotho. It does not suit you and it insults me."
Amrothos approached his brother cautiously, put on edge by his tone and his bearing. In truth, they had never been close. As the youngest son, Amrothos had been doted on and allowed a great deal of leeway in regards to things like responsibility and proper behavior. Elphir, by contrast, had always been so obsessive about rules and etiquette that sometimes it had seemed they were speaking different languages.
And Elphir had never had even a modicum of tolerance for his brother's more intimate proclivities.
In the end, though, they had always been family, and that bond had seen them through some very serious differences. Amrothos counted on that holding true for this as well.
"Very well, Elphir, may I ask at least how Alphros is doing?"
A shadow passed over Elphir's eyes and he shifted even more uncomfortably. "He is recovering very slowly. The healers suspect he will never again be as strong as he was." The bitterness in his tone cut through the air like a swing sword.
Amrothos nodded slowly. "But he lives."
Elphir's glower deepened. "You needn't mince about, Rotho. Eomer sent you here to purchase back my friendship. Which is clearly not terribly important, since he did not come himself."
Amrothos bristled at the sneering attack on his lord. "He did not come, brother, because he did not want to upset you further. He sent me to plead his case."
"My son's broken body pled his case fairly effectively already."
Amrothos shook his head and gave his brother a level look. "Your son is no child. He is a man; you made him so by putting him in charge of your army."
Elphir's eyes sparked with rage. "Do not, I warn you, seek to place the blame for the debacle in Harad on myself. I gave Alphros a duty, yes, but Eomer was charged with the care and guidance of the whole army. As such, he was my son's guardian in that miserable land and he blithely faltered in that duty when it was most important."
Amrothos had not wanted to go in this direction, but Elphir was forcing it. "Your son left Eomer very little choice."
As expected, it threw Elphir into a rage. The man stood up and shook with red-faced fury. "My son is but a child in the world. He needed guidance from Eomer and instead he was thrown to that barbarian."
"Alphros threatened to keep the entire Amrothian force there and fighting if Eomer did not grant his request. What would you have had him do? Let our men linger there and fight and die in a battle that had already been won?"
Elphir's lip curled in disdain. "My son would have seen reason. He may be full-sailed in a strong wind, but he listens to men he respects. Did Eomer really try that hard to convince him? Did Eomer order him to rescind the request?"
"Shoals, brother! You know Eomer loves Alphros like he was his own son."
"And his son he allows to traipse all over Arda without any sort of protection... You'll forgive me if I am not comforted or assuaged by your words."
Amrothos reined in his temper and looked away for a moment, gathering his thoughts. On the side of the audience chamber was a great fresco; the scene was one from legend, the great Ulmo standing amidst giant rolling waves as a storm raged all around. Amrothos felt rather like that, at that moment, as chaotic as everything had gotten.
"Elphir.... This is madness. You can't blame Eomer for what happened. Lothy and I would not stay loyal to a man who would so negligently put a loved one in the path of danger."
"You and our beloved sister are blinded by your love for the man."
Amrothos gritted his teeth and looked into his brother's haggard face. "You should know our love is not given lightly. Eomer would not be worthy of it if he were the man you seem to think he is."
Elphir laughed nastily at him. "Rumors once abounded that your 'love' was given for a smile or a mug of ale."
Amrothos paled, shocked that his brother would sink so low. "What are you saying?"
"Merely that were you not sharing the King of Rohan's bed, your loyalty would reside more consistently where it belongs—with your family." The sneer in his voice became even more obvious.
Amrothos was, for the first time in his life, tempted to take a swing at his brother. He met that disdainful gaze with a frigid one of his own. "Even were I not so close to Eomer, I would find it difficult to find any sense in your position."
"Perhaps if you had ever had children, brother, my position would not be so very difficult to understand." His bitter expression did not shift or falter.
Amrothos shook his head, not willing to be dragged into an argument of hypotheticals. "I do not wish to put it this way, brother, but you aren't listening to anything else I have to say. He is a King. You are a vassal of his friend, the King of Gondor. Eomer will not grovel before you for your forgiveness and he does not need to. He has expressed his regret and made overtures of friendship, and now as a Prince, it is time to do the wise thing and swallow your pride and put this away."
"Do not seek to lecture me on my duties, Rotho. You have never been interested in learning to rule and do not have the slightest idea on how to do so. You lived your life as the vapid fop, Rotho, as was your choice. The time to be a Prince, for you, is long past." He drew himself up. "Return to Rohan and your King. You are not welcome in this house or this city."
Amrothos gaped at his brother, stunned beyond words or even thought for a long moment—in all of their fights, in spite of all of the rancor and disagreements, Elphir had never gone this far. Under all the bitterness had always been the incontrovertible truth that Amrothos had always known he had a home here.
"You cannot be serious. Elphir, we're family."
"You should have considered that before you broke with me, brother." Elphir settled in his chair and glowered darkly. "I will do you the courtesy of giving you the chance to leave without an escort, but that courtesy will not be extended overlong."
Amrothos was rigid as he stared in pale-faced shock at his brother. He searched that merciless face for some hint of the brother he knew, but there was only coldness. "As you will, then, brother. But know that even in spite of this, I still love you."
Then he bowed again and turned on his heel and walked away from the brother who had forsaken him.
Amrothos was checking his saddle and making sure his things were all packed, a dark, angry expression on his face. The betrayal of Elphir cut far deeper than he wanted to admit. He wanted nothing more than to be on his way, to get far away from this city and that cold, baleful man who had replaced his brother.
Amrothos turned to see a very pale Alphros standing at the entrance of the stable, leaning heavily on a walking stick. Gaunt and pale, much like his father, his eyes did not hold the simmering anger of Elphir. They were, instead, placid and even thoughtful as he regarded his uncle.
"Alphros.... " Amrothos closed the distance between them and enfolded Alphros in a gentle hug. "Nice to see you up and moving around."
Alphros returned the hug fiercely, leaning into his Uncle and sighing into his shoulder. "I am sorry. Father isn't listening to anyone."
"Don't even think on it." Amrothos got the sense that his nephew was not anxious to leave the embrace so he did not make him. Amrothos certainly knew Elphir was no great dispenser of physical affection.
"But it's my fault. This whole mess is my fault. But the more I try to convince father, the angrier he gets."
"I got that impression." Amrothos stroked the young man's hair back. "My brother is, possibly, the most stubborn man ever born."
"Please tell Uncle Eomer that I'm sorry. That I should have listened."
Was the boy crying? Amrothos blinked and led his nephew over to a bench and sat him down. From the way Alphros surreptitiously wiped at his eyes, Amrothos realized he had been right. "I will tell him, but I know he doesn't blame you. Don't be upset."
"It's not ... that. Not just that, Uncle. I.... I should be dead, really, and I would be were it not for you and Eomer. You should be given a parade in your honor and instead my father is treating you like you are the butcher who...." Alphros shuddered. "I'm so ashamed. I thought I could defeat him. I thought I could beat anyone...."
"You're young, Alphros," Amrothos told him gently. "And it is the habit of the young to think themselves invincible. You survived and you'll learn from the mistake. It is how men make their way in the world."
Alphros smiled faintly and leaned against him. "Why couldn't you be my father?"
Amrothos elected to not explain precisely why that would not be likely. "Don't say such things. Elphir is a good man and he loves you. I know he thinks the world of you and that is why this has him all sort of rudderless. It will all be okay."
"But he's cold and you're warm," Alphros told him quietly. "I don't want you to go. Or I want to go with you."
Amrothos hugged him around the shoulders. "I have to go and I really rather doubt that taking you to Rohan will improve relations between Eomer and your father."
The young man laughed a little. "I suppose not."
Amrothos kissed his hair. "We'll see each other again soon, I promise." He was very worried for the young man, sensing so much vulnerability in him now. The experience in Harad had clearly shaken him to his bones.
"I'll hold you to that promise," his nephew told him sternly.
"May I never see the sun touch the ocean, should I break it," Amrothos swore eloquently. He did not make to get up, though, content to share this quiet moment and let his nephew store up as much comfort and affirmation as he could in the short spans of time. Banished he was, but he could dally a little bit longer for his nephew. The long road home could wait.