The night of Nárië 17th, Fourth Age 19, was uncharacteristically warm in Ithilien. With Midsummer drawing nigh, the days had become warmer, but the nights remained cool to the point of being chilly. This night, however, windows all across the realm were thrown open to let the pleasant breeze wander where it pleased. Lantern flies winked their lights in the tall grasses, relaying secret messages in their own codes. In the wooded glades, owls hooted pleasantries to one another while raccoons scuttled among the undergrowth, searching for a meal. Ithilien, it seemed, lay in peace.
But in Emyn Arnen, the night was far from peaceful. Lights shown from every window in Dol Arandur, the Steward’s Hill. The outer courtyard was ringed with torches ablaze. In the center of this courtyard, a fountain’s streams caught the light, causing the water to shimmer and glow. Tension hung in the air. Meriadoc and Peregrin Faramirion, the Rohirrim sons of the Steward, were missing. The straw-headed 8-year-olds had disappeared shortly after lunch and had not reappeared by suppertime. A visit to the stables confirmed that the pair had their ponies out, and a further search of their room found their rucksacks, canteens, and compasses missing.
“Let’s hope they’re only out on another one of their mad journeys,” Éowyn sighed, rubbing her forehead. Since receiving ponies as a Midsummer gift the year previous, the two had developed a habit of wandering off for hours at a time, returning just in time for meals. When questioned, they would give accounts of marvelous battles and heroic charges, the latter often seen as wild gallops across the greenway behind Dol Arandur. But this time there had been no heroic charges and no occasional glimpses of boy and pony as there would have been had they been roaming the woods near home.
Faramir had left the table during supper, changed into more appropriate attire, and searched the nearby countryside for any signs of the boys. When the boys had not shown up by twilight, he sent out six units of ten men, three horsed and three on foot, to do an extensive search. They had orders to return at midnight if they had not found the duo by then. The men dispersed, and Faramir went indoors. He found Elboron sprawled across his bed, reading a letter from his uncle, which doubled as a Rohirric lesson. “You’re certain you don’t know where they are?” he asked the boy.
Elboron rolled onto his back. “The last time I saw them was at lunch, and they were just talking about what sort of sweets they were going to buy in Minas Tirith at Midsummer.”
“Their `dwarves’ horde’ of two copper pennies,” Faramir murmured. “All right then, if that’s it,” he said aloud. “Lights out for you in half an hour.”
He turned to leave, stopped when his eldest asked, “Do you think they’re really in any danger?” The concern in the 10-year-old’s voice belied his scrutiny of the letter.
His father sighed. “I don’t know. Like your mother said earlier, we can’t be sure how safe they are until they’re asleep in their beds.” With that, he went in search of his shieldmaiden to see how she was faring. He found her tidying the twins’ quarters, placing forgotten Adunaîc lessons on a desk, putting loose toys on shelves, and straightening already straightened covers on the beds. Faramir watched her for several minutes before she realized he stood in the doorway.
“I hate it when you watch me like that,” she said distractedly as he walked over and took her into his arms. “I can’t believe that they would run off like this,” she said after a moment’s silence, “without telling anyone, or being seen, or…” She shook her head. “The longest they’ve ever been gone is four hours, and it’s now been, what? Almost eight.” Her voice quavered. “This isn’t like them, Faramir.” She pressed her cheek against his chest, trying to steady herself. On his clothes she could smell the woods and grasses of Ithilien from when he had gone out earlier in search of his sons. She thought she could smell the faintest trace of wild mint…
“You need to rest, melda,” he said gently, drawing back to study her. Her face was paler than usual and pinched, clearly reflecting the strain she felt. But, he was not surprised when she shook her head and said firmly that she planned to stay here until the boys were back. He knew it was useless to try to convince her otherwise once she had made a decision. Kissing her lightly on the forehead and giving a few more words of comfort, he let her resume her cleaning while he went out to sit on the steps leading to the outer courtyard and think.
The cool stone felt soothing as he rested his back against a pillar. The courtyard was silent except for the tinkling of the fountain. Faramir faintly heard a clock chime the eleventh hour. “One hour,” he said to himself. He heard footsteps across the courtyard, saw Beregond striding toward him, a grim look on the captain’s face. Standing, he asked, “Any news?”
Beregond shook his head. “Nothing substantial, my lord. The horse units have reported that the two have done an excellent job of exploring every inch of ground around here and have made it almost impossible to find a clear track. One unit is following what looks to be recent hoof prints on the Northwest Road. As for the rangers on foot, they have found nothing suspicious. No camps, no strange footprints, nothing out of place.”
“While that information is relieving,” Faramir spoke after a brief pause, “I have not ruled out kidnapping entirely. If nothing new develops over the next hour, at midnight they will be officially declared missing with possibility of injury and potential kidnapping. By half after I want all of White and Green Companies out on a full-scale search. I want riders on the roads as far north as Osgiliath, if need be, and as far south as the crossroad to Pelargir. Messages should be sent also to the harbormasters along the Anduin, asking if they have had reports of any unusual activity on the water.”
“Emphasizing the kidnapping possibility?” Beregond asked.
“To an extent. I have gone through the list of usual suspects and none of them seem to fit the situation. Al-Jahmîr would be the most likely to attempt something like this, but lately he has not had the resources he would need to succeed. I would prefer not having to think that we need to add someone new to the list, but…” His voice trailed off into silence. Shaking himself slightly, he said, “You have your orders.”
Beregond saluted and took his dismissal. Faramir returned to his seat on the steps, eyes closed. He had already been weary from a day that had started before dawn, and the prospect of a longer night was hardly appealing. He stirred when he heard steps behind him. Éowyn had left her self-assigned post in the twins’ room and had come out to sit by her husband. “I thought you said you were going to stay inside all night,” he said quietly, reaching up to push some strands of her hair out of her face. She shook her head.
“I’m too restless,” she said, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. Faramir slipped his arm around her back and rested his hand on her shoulder. They sat together in silence for several minutes. From somewhere in the house, they heard a clock chime the half hour. Éowyn shivered.
Another moment passed. Then, in the distance, from the north, the sound of rapid hoof beats rode on the air. Faramir tilted his head, listening intently. Only one set of hoofs, he thought, and too heavy to be a pony. The pace was quick; someone was trying to make time. The sound drew nearer until horse and rider passed under the arched entryway to the courtyard, scattering a few stones along the way. Faramir and Éowyn stood as the member of one of the mounted units dismounted, walked up to them, and saluted.
“My lord, lady,” he said, “we have found your sons. They are uninjured, and by the looks of them and the ponies, they’ve had a day of it somewhere. We found them about four miles out on the Northwest road. The return will be a bit slow because one of the ponies is developing a limp in the near hind.”
“Thank you, and well done,” Faramir said. “Cool your horse, but stay nearby. I still want all who were sent out to meet back here.” With that, he led Éowyn inside where he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly to him, burying his face in her hair. From his ragged breaths, Éowyn could tell that he had been much more worried and concerned than his composure revealed. For her, this was the first time all night that she felt she could breathe again.
“They’re safe. They’re really safe,” she whispered repeatedly. When Faramir loosened his embrace after several moments, she looked up and said, “I’ll get their nightclothes ready and have baths drawn for when they–” She stopped suddenly, seeing the look on her husband’s face.
“It will be several hours ere they are ready for those,” he said softly with a touch of sadness.
Éowyn’s face clouded. “Faramir, they’re children. They’ve had a long day and need to–”
He held up his hand. “I know they’re children, but if they can have their fun all day long, they can surely put things in order once the fun is over,” he replied gently but firmly. “I’m not going to have them move the Anduin.” He raised her chin with the side of his finger. “I know the mother in you wants to hold them and make sure they are safe and whole, but that time has to be delayed until they have realized the consequences of their actions.” As he lightly brushed a kiss across her lips, she knew that he had said this as much for his benefit as for her own. “Now, I’m going to go tell Beregond that they’ve been found. It’ll still be awhile before they arrive.”
Away on the Northwest Road, the mood was considerably lighter. Meriadoc and Peregrin gave an account of their adventures to the rest of the unit. Meriadoc sat in front of one of the riders, as his pony was the one developing a limp, his pony’s reins tied to the horse’s saddle. Peregrin rode near the center of the group. “You should’ve seen us,” he was saying. “We chased a hundred orcs through the trees. They were absolutely terrified of us because a wizard had put a spell on us to make us look like great Elven warriors. So we chased them through the trees and down into the river. We went in after them, to make sure none of them didn’t escape, right, so we were in water up to our ankles, because we were on our ponies and the water was getting deep, when we saw that they had all disappeared. I guess the current was too strong for them.”
“And all that armor must’ve weighed a lot and sunk `em,” Meriadoc piped up.
Peregrin’s eyes lit up. “Yeah! Yeah! They couldn’t swim, y’see, with all that armor on, so they must’ve just sunk to the bottom and turned into fish food. Well anyway, after that we got out of the river and started back to where the armies of the West were trapped in a great big huge pit that the orcs had dug, when–”
“A great red dragon appeared and said he was going to cook us for supper right there on the spot,” Meriadoc interrupted. “But then an even bigger golden dragon flew over and scared the other dragon away, and this dragon said that we were the bravest warriors he had ever seen and that if we would follow him to his cave in the Ephel Duath we could have all the gold and jewels we could carry.”
“But we didn’t go,” Peregrin continued, “because we knew he was lying because dragons are greedy and wouldn’t give up their gold and jewels even to save their lives, so we knew he was lying to us and probably wanted to eat us once we were in his cave. So we tricked HIM instead! We said we’d go through the woods and find him in a clearing on the other side, so he flew off into the northeast and we galloped as fast as we could to the south because when he found out we tricked him we knew he was going to be mad, and we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby when that happened.”
“So did you leave the armies of the West stuck in the pit?” one of the riders asked, encouraging a round of snickers from the rest.
Peregrin glanced back at the rider, glaring. “No, of course not. We were heading right for the pit because we had chased the orcs north. When we got there, we dug a ramp down into the pit so the armies could get out.”
“And King Elessar and all the captains thanked us a dozen times, no, two dozen times, and said that we were going to get awarded when we came to Minas Tirith for Midsummer and that we could take charge of training all the new officers and soldiers because we’re such great warriors ourselves that he thinks we could teach them a few tricks.”
“Such as disappearing for hours at a time without requesting permission from a superior officer?” a seasoned ranger near the front asked. His grave tone effectively dampened the boys’ mood. “You may think your stories are fine, but I doubt your father will be as impressed.” The other rangers murmured in agreement.
Peregrin dropped back beside his brother. “How mad do you think he is?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“I don’t want to find out,” the elder twin replied. “What d’ya think he’s going to do? Take away the ponies?”
“Yeah, that’s what he did last time. Probably do something else too,” Peregrin said. After a moment’s thought he added, “Might keep us inside for awhile. Don’t know what else he could do.”
They talked for several more minutes about what might happen when they got home, what they were going to say, what they could do to pass the time if things came to the worst and they really were forced to stay indoors for a few days. But, as the road home grew shorter, their words grew fewer until they moved along in dreadful silence.
Meanwhile, the other five units had gathered in the courtyard of Dol Arandur. Faramir addressed them briefly, informing them that the boys had been found and should be arriving shortly. He added that he was certain his sons would have a few things to say to them all. As the clock chimed midnight, he heard faint hoof beats coming from the northwest. Soon after, the last search party entered the courtyard, dismounted, and, taking a cue from the other units, stood off to the side, leaving the twins alone in the center with their ponies.
Faramir worked to supress a smile. Both boys and ponies looked like they had escaped from a swamp. The ponies had dried mud all over their legs and bellies while the two boys had their share of mud and grass stains on their clothes. It would have been a comical sight under different circumstances.
As he walked down the steps, Faramir would have startled himself at how much he looked like old Denethor with his grim and serious expression. He stopped in front of his boys and silently studied them for a moment. The twins seemed to find the ground enthralling as they preferred to keep their eyes focused downward instead of looking at their father. Faramir noted that while Meriadoc’s lower lip was already starting to quiver, Peregrin was trying to act as nonchalant as he could. Sensing his father’s gaze, the younger looked up and returned the gaze for several seconds before looking away quickly. Faramir felt a twinge in his heart as he realized that it would not be long before this one would be able to hold his ground in a silent battle of wills much in the same way that he had battled with his own father years ago. He pushed that thought from his mind. Now was not the time to dwell on it.
Taking a deep breath, he began. “Meriadoc, Peregrin, you two have disappointed me greatly today.” Though his voice was low, it carried far on the still, charged air. “I had to call out sixty men to search for you. Have you had a good time this evening? They have not. Many of them were off-duty and would have liked to spend the evening doing things other than looking for you. I had to do this once before. I will not have to do it a third time, for I will have no need to.
“Your mother has not had a happy evening either. She has worried about you two for hours. I have not had a wonderful evening. When you two did not show up for supper, I went out and looked for you myself, until twilight. I have spent hours trying to figure out what happened to you. I did not know if you were simply taking your time in coming home, lost, injured, or worse.” He paused to let them think about his words. Peregrin toed a rock with his boot; Meriadoc scratched his pony’s shoulder slowly.
“Now,” Faramir continued, “I want you to apologize to each unit for your irresponsible behavior today.” He stepped forward and took the reins from each son. Then he sent them to opposite sides of the courtyard to begin.
Éowyn pressed a hand to her mouth. From her windowseat, she had seen her babies ride in and stand together, waiting for what came next. When she saw them split up and go to the rangers, she knew what Faramir was having them do, and it broke her heart, though she knew it was for the best. Humiliating them like this in front of the men they adored would hurt far more than anything else he could do.
Faramir watched them move from unit it unit, mumbling their lines. Meriadoc finished first and came back, rubbing his eyes with his sleeve. This left a new streak of dirt across his face, and Faramir had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling. Peregrin joined them, looking completely miserable. Faramir gave them the reins and stepped back. Raising his voice, he called out, “Well done men. Good work, as always. It is appreciated. Dismissed!”
He waited until the men had filed out of the courtyard before speaking again. “You know you’re in trouble and probably have known for awhile. Am I right?” His sons nodded slowly. His tone was slightly gentler than before, but it still carried the weight it needed. “I am not angry with you for riding around and exploring. What has upset me is that you run off without letting anyone know where you’re going or what you’re doing.
“The land your ponies can cover in a day is safe, for now, but it has not always been that way and may not be, at times, in the future. There are people in this world who would steal you if they had the opportunity, and a day like this would be a golden opportunity for them. I am not trying to scare you,” he added, seeing the glance between the boys. “I’m only explaining why what you did today was dangerous. Do you understand?” They nodded again.
Faramir sighed. He was not looking forward to what he had to say next. “You’ve shown me that you do not have the responsibility to manage your free time. However, by fall you will have learned that lesson better. You will have no ponies for the rest of the summer.” He had expected their shocked looks. Summer “began” on Elboron’s birthday in mid-Lótessë and “ended” with their friend Vorondil’s birthday in early Yavannië, which was over two and a half months away.
“Starting tomorrow, for the next month the farthest outside you can go is the gardens. However, most of your time will be spent inside, working on a list of things I want you to do. After that month is over, you can roam where you please, provided that you’ve finished what you’re supposed to do for the day and that you let your mother or I know where you’re going.” He watched their expressions sink into gloomy resignation.
“Lastly,” he said, knowing that this would get a reaction greater than silence and dreading what that reaction might be, “because you have no ponies nor permission to leave the gardens, you will not be going to Minas Tirith for Midsummer.” He glanced from Meriadoc’s shattered expression to Peregrin’s look of stinging betrayal. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, “but you left me no choice.” He watched as Peregrin’s face hardened into a cold stare. Meriadoc buried his face in his pony’s neck and pulled the animal’s head around, as if he were trying to hide.
“What I want you to do now is take your horses back to the stable, wash and bed them down, and clean your tack thoroughly. Meriadoc, your pony needs to have that back leg examined. Go on, I’ll follow you two to the stables and have a look at it there.”