1. King's Justice
"Frea, for the love of all horses, would you just go to sleep?!"
Frea squinted out at the darkness and ignored his twin who lay comfortably stretched out on the other side of their fire. They had camped in the westfold and it was a glorious summer night. The twin's were, perhaps, three days ride from their home and it was a time of peace. They came to experience such a wonder, so long at war with the Black Company… Folca studied his brother's back. Frea's shoulders were wound tighter than a spring. Watching, always watching for attack unlooked for. Folca had hoped time away with their family would help to ease his twin's frame of mind. Each day since they had set out on leave, Folca had nursed that hope. Each night, before he went to sleep, Folca marked another day had passed without so much as a faint smile from Frea. Aside from the crackle of their fire, their camp grew silent.
"What do you watch for, brother?" Folca asked. Again Frea made no answer. With a sigh, Folca rolled to his side. "Good night, Frea," he said as his eyes drifted shut. "Good night, Folca," Frea answered in his mind, eyes roaming the far horizon and anything that moved between them and that distant perimeter. The following morning unfolded like those before it since they had set out. Folca awoke to find the fire had been coaxed through the night and Frea was awake and cooking breakfast. Again, Folca wondered when his twin slept.
"Good morning, Frea," Folca said, stretching.
"Is it?" Frea snapped, jiggling the fry pan so hard that their breakfast fell out of the pan and into the fire. Folca wondered if he was about to meet the same fate. Had the unrelenting strain finally caught up with his twin?
"Something amiss?" Folca asked warily.
"Robbed…. Here in the westfold! Robbed!"
"How? Were they invisible? You were watching."
"Not the whole night, if you must know."
"Yes," Folca said firmly. "Good. You cannot continue without sleep indefinitely. I see our horses and tack are still here, so what did our bandits make off with aside from your sunny disposition?"
"A whole side of bacon and the rest of the eggs," Frea growled, poking at the sausages he had dropped into the fire with a blackened stick. Folca's good mood dampened somewhat.
"So, I take it that the last of our breakfast is what you're currently attempting to stab to death with a pointy stick?"
Frea left off poking at the sausages and straightened to peer about them. There was only plains, undulating and punctuated by rocky gatherings of boulders, as far as the eye could see.
"I'll find you, you filthy scavenging thieves and when I do…" he shouted. Folca stood, rolling up his bedroll and crossing to an unplundered saddle bag. No, he amended as he opened it and saw that someone had been through it. There was simply nothing to compete with a side of bacon and eggs. He didn't blame them, whoever they were. If he had a choice, he would chose boiled grass over hardtack. Folca fished the hardtack out and returned, handing Frea a piece to gnaw on.
Chewing on his own piece of leather, Folca left Frea to his brooding and started to perform an inventory. Horses, tact and weapons were all accounted for. Hardtack, unfortunately, was still in abundant supply. But Folca noted that they were missing other things… apples and cheese… and a spare water skin that he carried just in case, along with a spare pair of simple hide shoes he also carried in case of emergency. He summoned up a mental image of the perpetrators… hungry, barefoot, thirsty… Folca stowed this knowledge away. His twin was already frothing to pick up the pursuit and hunt them down.
When they pulled in for another night, Frea was positively quivering with frustration. Another meal of hardtack only made matters worse.
"Faugh! If they come back tonight, I'll skin them alive," he snarled between tearing at the hardtack.
"In that case, they had better take your knives," Folca said loudly. Frea's eyes narrowed at his twin.
"Oh brother… all they've taken is food, water and some shoes… these are hardly bandits. They left the money untouched and left the most valuable things in camp," Folca remonstrated.
"They'd better not lay a finger on my spear."
"I meant the horses."
"All the same, Folca. Thieving is thieving. They get caught in Edoras, they'd swing for it… maybe the gibbet if Eomer were in a particularly foul mood. I'll not withhold the King's justice and neither should you."
"Well then… all you need to do is find some trees, knock up a gibbet and wait," Folca said, losing his patience with the rigidity of his brother's thinking. Frea was a good man. One the best he knew, truth be told, but woe betide anyone that slights his pride or sense or right and wrong.
"Starved of bacon, eggs and rational conversation, I think I'll turn in," Folca grumbled. He wrapped his bedroll around him and left Frea to squint in the darkness after desperate thieves. He woke with a start much later at a signal all in the Black Company knew. Frea made the bird call again and a third time. Years of deployment together soon had Folca up and moving silently with his spear and bow in hand towards where his brother waited.
The moon had already started to set. By the light of its rays, Frea hand signed his twin. Folca almost slapped his forehead for him. Frea had woken him up from a perfectly fine dream of a certain northern maid for this? Folca didn't need hand signals to convey his response. Frea signed again and Folca resigned himself to the current situation. One thief sighted around a nearby boulder. They were to split up and circle around to apprehend the rascal. Folca laid down his spear in the long grass and partially nocked an arrow to his bow. Frea did the same. The twins then headed off, keeping below the grass-line and moving with the experience stealth of men accustomed to covert activity in the name of the Reunited Realm.
They hit the boulder at the same time and different positions. What they found brought both up short. Their thief was a thin slip of a girl, barely more than a child. She huddled against the stone trying to shield herself from the wind and peered from time to time around in the direction of the camp. Folca looked across to where his brother had stationed himself and was relieved to see the arrow sagged. Folca studied the girl. Ten summers or younger, if he had to guess. Her hair was a startling pale gossamer that drifted in the wind like spun silk. It was hard to make out her face in the darkness. Moon light danced over her skin. Thin legs and arms, too thin… and more holes than dress was what she was clad in. She looked to have outgrown it. A more forlorn, heartbreaking sight could not be contrived.
Folca and Frea sat. She was anxious, agitated. If they emerged, she'd fly into the grasses. She was waiting for someone too. It wasn't long before a slightly older boy emerged, displaying remarkable stealth for one so young. The girl flitted to him like a frail bird and they spoke. It was hard to make out what was said, but it was clear from the shaking of the boy's head that there would be no thieving tonight. He was in little better shape that the girl, his own hair sandy and his own clothing in poor condition. Still, he wrapped a protective arm around the girl's shoulders and they slunk away. Once Frea and Folca were sure that they had gone, they too returned to camp. Both men sat there, staring at the fires.
"Children," Folca said. He did not think he would ever forget what he had just seen. They were so frail as to nearly be ghosts.
"Robbed by children," Frea observed. "Starving children." The gibbet suddenly seemed ghoulish now that he knew who had been pilfering from them.
"Where are their parents?" Frea asked.
"Dead and buried is my guess, like so many others," Folca replied softly. Frea nodded at the truth of this. Few had survived the War without death touching them. Some felt the touch harder than others. No parent would permit their children to wander the westfold alone at night, even in these times of contented peace.
"They'll freeze come winter," Frea said, voice bleak as the first blizzard of the year. Both men fell silent and wrapped themselves in their bedrolls. It took both men some time before sleep claimed them. When Frea and Folca woke, the hardtack for breakfast did not taste so bitter. Neither twin spoke to each other about what they did next. Rather, each man implicitly understood what they were doing.
Each evening they would stop early, set up camp and leave. When they returned at nightfall, invariably something had been taken. First to be left out for the children were blankets. It went on from there. Each night, the boy and sometimes the girl, would steal hesitantly into camp. Each night, the twins would watch. Frea's smile would flicker as he studied them turn things over with the curiosity innate to all children. Without fail, they passed over weapons, tack, horses and even money. Coins could not be eaten. They learned the children's names… Loch for the boy who was perhaps fourteen, and Rin for the girl. Loch would linger wistfully around the weapons until Rin scolded him away from them. She would linger around the various medical supplied they carried with them until Loch scolded her away from them.
It took Frea and Folca a little longer to reach their home, but when they did they were both considerably lighter of heart. Their little thieves were not so bold as follow them that far. Too many people about, Folca surmised. When it came time to leave, the twins ensured they were well supplied for the journey north… very well supplied indeed. No more than a days ride out, did their young thieves reappear. They continued this all the way through Rohan and even into Dunland. Frea did not once complain about the delay their slower pace caused. On the outskirts of Bree, the twins spoke briefly.
"No one can ever know that we were robbed by children… and let ourselves be," Frea said as they neared Bree's south gate. Folca agreed entirely.
"Absolutely, brother. We have a reputation to uphold after all," he replied. After a brief pause. "Do you think they fare well?" he asked Frea.
"I hope so, Folca. I hope so."
Many years passed before the twins sighted their thieves again. They rode late at night through the East Gate of Bree to find the girl was a girl no longer. She stood, a woman flowered, with their captain. Her gaze flickered over the party the twins rode with, partly curious and partly concerned, never hesitating on Frea or Folca. The twins exchanged quiet grins with each other as they rode for the Prancing Pony. There they found the other thief, a man in his own right, with the same tangle of sandy hair. He too did not recognise their benefactors from long ago. Indeed, how could they given the care both had taken to avoid contact with Frea and Folca at the time. As the twins climbed the stairs for their beds, Folca could not help himself.
"Is it them, do you think?" he asked Frea.
"Lock up your hardtack," Frea responded, drawing puzzled glances from the other men. Who would want to lock up hardtack?
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.