The Serpent's Lure - Part Seven and Eight
Wide eyed, Estev carefully balanced the dagger on his palms and tipped it to catch the afternoon sun. The serpent writhed menacingly, startling the boy into almost dropping the blade. Recovering, he told himself that it was merely a trick of the light and excellent craftsmanship. The knife was certainly an example of that. In spite of long exposure to the elements, the handle of deep dark wood bound with rings of copper and iron was smooth to the touch. As Estev rubbed his fingers along the guard, a faint hissing filled his ears.
"What did you find?" demanded Ferlan.
A strange desire to deny the other boy even a look at his discovery overwhelmed Estev. Closing his fist around the handle, he said, "You can't have it. I found it."
"Found what? Let me see it," Ferlan demanded.
"No. You can't touch it." Estev scrambled to his feet and put the knife behind his back.
"You little sneak." Face flushed and fists clenched, the farm lad sneered, " All your talk of agreements and bargains and you're trying to steal the first thing we find."
Estev blinked at the accusation and said, "I'm not stealing anything."
"Then hand it over and let me see." Ferlan grabbed the sturdy Rohirrim lad's arm and attempted to pull it forward.
Jerking free, Estev brought the knife from behind his back. Ferlan jumped back with an angry cry as the blade slashed through the air, and Estev shouted, "Leave me alone!"
Alerted by the noise, Rolfe hurried back. Grasping Ferlan by the forearm before the thin boy could attempt to snatch at the knife, he said, "Stop it, both of you. Estev, put it down."
Panting heavily, Estev ignored his foster brother and glared at Ferlan. "He can't have it."
Placing himself in front of Ferlan, Rolfe said softly, "No one's trying to steal it, Estev."
From across the fields came the excited barking of the dogs. Estev blinked, drew a deep breath and lowered the knife.
Giving no sign of his relief, Rolfe held out his free hand palm up. "We just want to see it."
Shaking his head, Estev rubbed at his forehead. "What? What did you say, Rolfe?" He stared down at the dagger clutched in his fist in confusion.
"No one's trying to steal it," Rolfe repeated gently. His hand squeezed Ferlan's arm tightly in silent command not to speak.
"Of course not," Estev replied, holding out the blade toward Ferlan. "It's share and share alike, isn't it?"
After checking with Rolfe for permission, the farm lad accepted the knife then stepped warily away from Estev.
The younger boy rolled his eyes and exclaimed, "What's wrong with you two?"
"Nothing's the matter with us." Rolfe studied the boy's pale face carefully. "Why did you say that?"
"Say what?" Estev demanded.
"That you found it and it was yours." Ferlan hissed. "You won't get away with that, you know?"
"I never said any such thing." Estev's hands balled into fists. "You take that back."
Once again, Rolfe stood between them. Worry filled his brown eyes as he insisted, "But you did."
"I never! I'd never break a bargain like that."
"I know that," Rolfe replied. "But, Estev, you did say it. Don't you remember?"
"No." Estev glared at the other two boys, righteous indignation written across his face. How could they possible accuse him of going back on a bargain? Why, his father would disown him if he ever did such a thing. Raising his chin, he said in a low voice, "You must of heard me wrong."
Seeing that it was useless to argue, Rolfe looked to Ferlan, who shrugged his shoulders. Uncertainly, Rolfe nodded his head. "Yes, we must have."
When Estev gave a curt nod of acceptance of this faint apology, Rolfe motioned for Ferlan to hold the knife out for all to see.
Nearly a span in length the blade's edges rippled in a design unfamiliar to the boys. The deeply etched serpent imparted a coppery sheen to the steel so that it gleamed dully.
"It's sure to be worth a lot," Ferlan said with a soft whistle. "No one finds things like this any more."
"No, which will make it easier," responded Rolfe cryptically.
Estev reached out to trace the runes surrounding the serpent. "I wonder what it says."
"What does it matter?" asked Ferlan impatiently. "What did you mean make it easier? Make what easier?"
"Hiding it," replied Rolfe.
"From who" Ferlan exclaimed indignantly. "You said Shaymur got a share no matter what; and Karston and Curthan have already worked longer than you did."
"From Harlan, you fool," sneered Estev. "If he sees this, we won't get anything. That's what you're thinking, isn't it, Rolfe?'
"Yes. We've got to have somewhere to keep all the best stuff until we're ready to sell it. We'll show Harlan all the bits and pieces." Rolfe pointed at the almost filled barrow. "That should keep your brother satisfied."
Ferlan looked dubious. "Where are you plan on hiding it? I don't have anywhere that doesn't get searched regularly."
"I suppose we could just leave it out here. Hide it somewhere and check it everyday." Rolfe replied slowly.
"No!" exclaimed Estev and Ferlan together.
"Not a good idea. Harlan's bound to come out here on his own at least once," Ferlan countered.
"Right, it's not safe out here," Estev extolled solemnly.
Rolfe forced a laugh. "It's been safe enough for three years, surely it can stay for the week or so it will take us to clear the rest of the field and do a good search of this area."
"We found it, didn't we?" insisted Estev. "Someone else might too."
Ferlan nodded his agreement. Rolfe was at a loss. "Where do you suggest we hide it then?" he asked with asperity.
The new voice startled the three debaters and they whirled about to find Shaymur, his cap tipped back at a jaunty angle, grinning at their surprise. "Sorry I'm late. A group of merchants from Dol Amroth arrived just as I was about to leave and wanted to be taken all the way up to the sixth circle." He jingled several coins in his pocket. "Couldn't turn them down. They might have gone wandering about for days." With a nod toward the barrow, he added, " You made a good start I see.
"That's nothing," Ferlan said eagerly, dismissing the pile of broken bits and pieces. "Here, look at this." He thrust the knife into the older boy's hands. "Estev just found it. I told you there was something good out here."
Shaymur whistled softly as he examined the blade in his hand. "Aye, this is worth something."
"Rolfe thinks we should hide it." Ferlan went on. "He's afraid my brother will try to take it. He's probably right about that."
Estev interrupted, "Or worse, he'll hire someone else to clear out the field. And I'll bet you there's even more out here. Remember those medallions. We don't want anyone else to come around here."
"No, we don't. Rolfe, what do you think?" Shaymur asked. "We could show Harlan stuff like what's in the barrow everyday. But this is different."
Rolfe turned in a slow circle, eyes searching for something that could be used as a hiding place for whatever they found. Seeing the dogs in the distance, he considered a squirrel's hole. No, it would be their luck the squirrels would push it out of their burrow. Under a stone? Too much chance of forgetting which stone unless you marked it, and if you marked it then you merely announced its importance for all to see.
"I still say it needs to be hidden," Rolfe said stubbornly. "If you don't want to hide it out here, couldn't we keep what we find at someone's house?"
"And how do we know that person won't suddenly decide it all belongs to him and run off with it?" Ferlan exclaimed, with a glare toward Estev.
Estev flushed and balled up his fists. "I never said it was mine."
"Sounded like it to me," taunted Ferlan.
Shaymur and Rolfe sprang between the smaller boys and pushed them apart.
"What's this all about?" asked the freckle-faced leader after staring Ferlan into muttering obedience.
Rolfe eyed Estev, who had turned away from the others and was pacing back and forth giving Ferlan evil glances over his shoulder.
"It's hard to explain," said Rolfe. His loyalty was first of all to Estev.
"Try," ordered Shaymur.
Slowly, with many repetitions that he still was not certain that he had heard Estev correctly, Rolfe related the tale of the finding of the knife. As he finished, the other boy looked down at the knife in his hand. When he had first held it, he could have sworn the snake's eyes were glowing. But now, it looked just like any other knife.
"Strange. Estev's not the type to try to take something."
"I know. That's why I think we must have misheard him."
"Maybe," said Shaymur. "Is there any one that we could leave things with that could be trusted? Someone not connected to any of us?"
Rolfe shook his head. "Almost everyone I know is related to Estev's family somehow. Don't you know anyone? One of the guards at the gate?"
"Maybe, but I don't like getting anyone else involved. Hard enough to keep secrets with six people."
"You can't have it both ways, Shaymur. We leave it with one of us or we leave it with someone else. Either way that person has to be told what it is."
"All right then. We can't hide it anywhere close to Harlan. And there's no place at my grandsire's that's safe from my brothers and sisters and cousins. Ferlan's gonna holler clear to the Tower, but it'll have to go home with you two."
Rolfe grimaced and agreed, if given the chance he would have said he did not want the weapon anywhere near Estev. He pointed at the sun, well on its way to the peaks of the mountains. " We need to get back. Or Estev and I won't be allowed to come out tomorrow. We've still got extra chores to do to make up for being late yesterday."
Nodding his understanding, Shaymur said loudly, "I think you made a good start today. Curthan and Karston will be back in the morning, and I'll be certain to be here at noon. Estev and Rolfe, you'll take the afternoons?"
"I suppose I have to be here all day even though I get the same share all of you do working only half the time," Ferlan remarked sourly.
"Any time you want us to leave, you let us know, Ferlan," said Rolfe quietly, having grasped a lunging Estev by the collar.
"No one's leaving, ...yet," stated Shaymur firmly. Holding up the knife, he looked to Ferlan. "Rolfe's going to take this to keep it safe. Can you agree to that?"
The smaller boy nervously ran a hand through his shaggy hair. It was plain enough that Shaymur was issuing an ultimatum. Either he could trust the other boys would be fair and keep to their words, or he would be left to cope with his brother alone.
Finally, Ferlan's shoulders slumped. "Who's going to help me get this barrow back? Harlan's going to expect to see we done something."
"We'll help you get it home." Shaymur pulled a ragged piece of cloth from his pocket to wrap the dagger in before handing it to Rolfe.
Estev chewed his lower lip when Rolfe accepted the bundle and tucked it inside his shirt. He wanted to ask if anyone else had seen the serpent move, but could think of no way to pose such a question. Rubbing his fingers together, he remembered the cool feel of the blade as it had rested on his palms.
"You two take the barrow," said Rolfe. "We've got to hurry before we get in trouble again for being late."
Ferlan flushed, but unable to think of anything to say he picked up the handles of the barrow and began bumping across the fields toward his home. After helping Rolfe move the stakes marking the areas already cleared, Shaymur hurried to catch up with the farm lad. Rolfe and Estev whistled for the dogs, then trotted toward the ramps that would allow them to climb over the outer wall into the first circle.
The everyday routine of evening chores in the stable yard was followed by dinner with Esiwmas in the small house he had acquired in the fourth circle. The boys, especially Estev, found the house tucked against the north face of Mount Mindolluin to be rather cold and cramped in comparison to the open rooms of the holding in Rohan. They did enjoy climbing the rocky path from the roof to the outer wall, but the narrow courtyard with its carefully tended patch of greenery would never be an adequate substitute for the wide meadows and open fields of the Deeping Stream.
The food however was certainly equal if not better.
A distant cousin, Sarantha, had come south to tend the household for Esiwmas. The ancient woman rose at dawn each day to haggle with every merchant from the fishmonger to the broom maker, proving that trading instincts ran through many branches of the family. But even more than the bargaining, the variety of foodstuffs available in the markets of Minas Tirith delighted her. The results were meals that, if perhaps not equal to hobbit cuisine, managed to appease even the extreme hunger of young boys.
Esiwmas harrumphed as Rolfe slipped a meat pastry beneath the table. The boy grinned an apology that proved completely insincere when a small slice of roast pork disappeared in the same manner.
"Father," said Estev slowly. He wanted very much to tell about the magnificence of the relic he had found, but hesitated because he knew his father disapproved of disturbing the peace of the dead. Finally, deciding that as he had been given leave to make up his own mind and always told that having engaged in a course of action a man should be proud enough to tell of his deeds, he blurted out, "We found something today. Something really important."
His father speared a bit of boiled potato and frowned momentarily, then nodded and said, "You did?"
While not the enthusiastic response of which Estev dreamed, it was better than a refusal to listen. Bobbing his head eagerly, the boy replied, "Yes, and I found it. We were just walking along picking up all these broken pieces of armor and stuff, and tossing them in the barrow. Rolfe kept throwing them so they landed almost on Ferlan's toes and made him jump every time. I kicked at some grass and saw this handle. So I got down to dig out the pieces. That's all we'd found so far, so I thought that's what it would be. But it wasn't, it was a whole knife! It's even got a serpent on it. Like the one on the banners the Southerners carry. You know?"
"Yes," replied Esiwmas wryly. He was quite familiar with the insignia of the Haradrim. It often haunted his dreams; but in the face of his son's enthusiasm, he would not say as much. "A whole blade. That is a unique find."
"I think one piece we found was part of a harness for a mûmak," Rolfe slipped another piece of pork to the canine at his feet before adding, "It looked a lot like one of the pictures in Master Gemthir's books."
"No," countered Estev. "It was on that map we were copying today. Down in the corner."
Esiwmas covered a grin with a large hand as the boys argued good naturedly. For all his complaining about wasted time, it appeared that Estev had managed to find some use for his lessons after all. If only the knowledge was to be put to a more honorable usage. This obsession the boy had with seeking out that which would be better left buried and lost was disturbing. But then, the trader supposed, his own youthful passions had disturbed his family no less.
The appearance of a bread pudding bursting with raisins brought the boys' debate and any discussion of their discovery to an abrupt end. Tolerant as she was about most masculine behaviors, Sarantha would not allow any talk of battles or armaments at the table, sternly insisting that the topic interfered with her digestion.
Not until the boys bid Esiwmas `good night' and climbed the stairs to their small corner room did Estev speak again of the blade, though it had gleamed in his thoughts throughout the evening.
"Where did you put it?" he asked toeing off his boots and kicking them under the bed.
Voice muffled by the shirt half over his head, Rolfe answered, "It's in the chest. Why?"
"I just wondered."
Estev reached across his bed and pushed open the narrow window. Far below lay the shadowed fields of the Pelennor. Once, the fires of the armies of Mordor had blazed there; now, only the scattered lights of farmsteads glowed in the night.
Suddenly, he wondered what his mother was doing back in the Mark. Was she sitting in her chair with a basket of sewing or was she singing his little brother to sleep? Estev jerked off his shirt and tossed it aside telling himself he was far too old to be such a baby. A furry head nudged his hand, and he knelt down to bury his face in Jesse's neck. When a warm wet tongue licked his ear, he laughed and pushed the dog's head aside.
"Stop that, I already washed behind my ears."
Jesse wiggled happily and licked his boy's nose.
"And my nose too."
Scratching behind the dog's ears, Estev sat on the cool stone floor and counted the days until they would leave for home. There was a holiday, Tuilérë, set for the end of this month, and he knew his father planned to return to the Mark shortly after that to spend most of the summer at home. Esdav and Rolfe would be the ones to accompany him back to the White City in the fall.
"We've only got two weeks. You think we can finish?"
Already under his blanket, Rolfe rolled onto his side and stretched one arm over the edge of his bed and gave Dog a pat. As the dog licked his dangling fingers, he studied Estev with solemn brown eyes.
"Clearing the rubbish won't take that long."
"No," Estev responded slowly. "But ..."
"Even if we have to dig a bit." Rolfe yawned. "Tell you what, we'll go down to the stables before breakfast tomorrow and get Martham to give us our chores then. That way we can go straight to the fields after Master Gemthir's lessons."
Nodding eagerly, Estev said, "If we can catch Sarantha before she goes to the market, she'll fix us up some food." He rubbed soft ears fondly. "Take Ferlan a treat to make up for the lunch he gave Jesse."
"Good idea. Now, put out the light and let's get some sleep. Dog will wake us up, won't you, boy?"
A deep throated woof was the animal's reply as Estev stood and blew out the small lamp. Climbing into bed, the boy curled on his side to gaze at the slit of black sky dotted with stars.
"Do you think there's anything else out there?"
"If there is, we'll find it." Rolfe pulled the blankets over his head and tucked his hand beneath his pillow. "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Estev repeated.
From the moment, he had seen that golden medallion gleaming in Ferlan's palm he had wanted to find something important. But now that he had, it didn't seem enough. The knife was not really his. Share and share alike, that is what they had agreed on. But why shouldn't he get to keep it? Why shouldn't he be the one to carry it? After all, he had found it.
"A man who can not keep his word is one who can never be trusted."
Estev's eyes sprang open and he expected to see the tall form of his father silhouetted beside the bed. But no, it was only his father's words resounding in his mind. Of course, he would never keep the blade for himself. He could be trusted to keep his word. Pulling his blankets tighter, the boy assured himself that it was just a wild thought that would never become reality. He would never do such a thing.
Jesse whimpered softly. It was dark, the time for sleep. His boy had curled beneath the coverings the two legs used instead of fur, but he did not sleep. Instead he lay with open eyes staring at the darkness. Many days had gone by since Jesse had a boy, but he had not forgotten what to do. Cautiously, he crept onto the bed and lay his head on Estev's chest.
A long moment passed, then the boy relaxed beneath the weight. Slowly his fingers moved up to run gently down the furry back.
"Good dog, Jesse, good dog."