The Serpent's Lure - Parts Eleven and Twelve
Master Gemthir adjusted the small lamp hanging above his table and the serpent engraved upon the blade began to dance once again. Estev quickly averted his eyes. Watching it caused a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Surreptitiously, he studied Shaymur and Rolfe's faces for any sign that they had noticed anything unusual. Seeing nothing, he sighed. Was he the only one? Did that mean it was just his imagination? For the hundredth time, he wished the blasted thing was still buried in the field.
At his knee, Jesse whimpered, and Estev reached out to stroke the furry head. It had only been a short time since the dog had found them, but already the boy could not imagine being without him. Not as exuberant as Dog, Jesse was nevertheless equally intelligent. Time and again the boy had turned to find the animal watching him steadily, seeming to understand everything. Estev rubbed behind the dog's ears and smiled as Jesse pressed more firmly against his leg and quivered with happiness at being noticed.
"You may give him one of the tarts if you wish, Estev," said the tutor setting the knife back on the table with a click. He lightly touched the three medallions, the assorted spear points and arrowheads, and the silver chain which Karston had found, then motioned toward the tray at his elbow. "Do be careful of the crumbs. You know how my housekeeper is about such things."
"Thank you, sir." Estev considered the contents of the tray carefully and selected the largest jam filled tart. A veritable dragon when it came to dirt and crumbs, Mistress Tarmanil's baking almost made up for her scolding tongue. "May I divide this one between Jesse and Dog? I'll take them outside, then there won't be any crumbs on the floor."
"An excellent idea." Master Gemthir gathered several more of the pastries onto a napkin and held it out. "There are more than enough, so take a few extra."
After Estev thanked the tutor with a grin and led the dogs out, Gemthir placed the platter between Rolfe and Shaymur and said, "Help yourselves, boys."
Taking great care not to dribble crumbs and being certain to leave several tarts for the tutor, the two boys made quick work of the offering. Pouring a tangy juice into small cups, Master Gemthir asked, "Why me?"
Uncertain what to make of this question, Shaymur motioned for Rolfe to attempt to explain their reasoning. "We thought you might be able to tell us more about what we found since it was you who told me about the way the badges the Haradrim use have the serpent going in different directions." Rolfe spiraled a finger to demonstrate.
"'Tis gratifying to know that you recall your lessons," replied the tutor dryly. He tapped his fingers upon the table. "Let me try again. Why is it necessary to ask me rather than one of your guardians?"
Rolfe dropped his gaze to the floor as Shaymur said, "Sir, we thought it would be better if we found someone not related to any of us."
"Why?" the man asked bluntly.
Shaymur looked uncomfortable and replied, "We just thought that..."
"You are not attempting to cheat Farmer Harlan out of his rightful share, are you?"
"No, sir. It's more that we don't trust him not to try to cheat us."
"Careful what you say," cautioned Gemthir, "to cast aspersions on a man's honesty is serious business."
"I know, sir. But it's true. Ferlan's brother would see it as his due and think that since we are only boys he can get away with it." Shaymur's solemnity impressed the tutor.
"I will accept your word that there is reason for concern. But I cannot accept that you have doubts concerning the honesty of either Esiwmas of Rohan or your grandsire, Shaymur. Surely, either of them would be the more obvious choice."
The boys grimaced and fell silent. Until in an almost inaudible voice, Rolfe said, "Esiwmas doesn't like us searching for relics."
Startled by this revelation for only a moment, Shaymur added hastily, "And my grandsire is becoming rather forgetful. Just the other day he lost his favorite cap and `twas on his head the whole time."
Leaning back in his chair and templing his fingers, the tutor said, "Rolfe, are you asking me to be party to something your guardian does not condone?"
"No, sir," Rolfe said firmly and raised his head to meet his teacher's intent gaze directly. "He has said that we must make up our own minds about whether digging up such things was correct or not. Estev and I talked it over. We don't see anything bad about it. Lots of folks do it. But it wouldn't be right for us to ask Esiwmas to help."
"No, it would not."
The tutor rested his chin upon his hands and closed his eyes. In the silence of the room, it was possible to hear Estev speaking to the dogs. There was more to this than the boys were telling, but nothing said thus far appeared a lie. There were indeed many who searched the Pelennor fields for the artifacts which lay hidden there. Though it was understandable why Master Esiwmas felt as he did, as a scholar Gemthir had amassed a rather extensive collection of objects from all corners of Gondor and beyond, several of them garnered from the fields outside the walls. However, nothing he possessed came close to the quality of the knife these boys had stumbled across.
Opening his eyes, he leaned forward to study the weapon again. Even considering Harlan's exorbitant percentage and dividing their share six ways, the boys would be in possession of a fair amount of coin when all was said and done. For a moment, the serpent upon the blade appeared to shiver as the tutor considered how different his life would be if he were the knife's owner.
Frowning up at the flickering lamplight, Gemthir said, "I will accept the position of mediary if you are prepared to meet my terms."
"Terms, sir?" Rolfe shifted uncertainly in his chair.
"First, you agree to allow me to arrange for the sale of all artifacts you come across. I assure you that my contacts within the City are such that you will receive the best possible price."
"That would be wonderful." The worry faded from Rolfe's eyes.
The tutor held up a warning finger. "I will expect to receive a percentage of the sale as my commission."
Shaymur nodded. He was accustomed to commerce and understood the need to receive compensation for your work. Thinking quickly of all the trades and bargains he had witnessed since his adoption by Esiwmas, Rolfe asked, "Would five percent be acceptable?"
"Quite adequate in this situation." More briskly, Gemthir said, "The next order of business will be to make certain that Farmer Harlan agrees as well."
"Harlan?" Rolfe said weakly. This was growing more complicated than he had expected, and from the way the freckles were standing out on Shaymur's face, his friend thought so as well. "If he knows we have anything worth while, he'll..."
"Never fear, I believe that you boys have determined a masterful way of dealing with the man. You have sent the scrap to him on a daily basis. He has, if I understand it, peddled it to the smiths and metal workers for melting down without returning any of the profit to you boys. When I meet with him, I will simply inform him that you have commissioned me to arrange the sale of the items of importance that you have recently discovered." Seeing the renewed concern on the boys' faces, the man said, "Trust me to deal with any problems that arise with Farmer Harlan."
"Yes, sir," the boys responded.
"Third, your parents and guardians must be informed of the arrangements we have made. They are aware of how you have been spending your time, are they not?"
"Yes, sir. They know." Shaymur sat up straighter in his chair. "Curthan's father, Curthimir, knows about everything we've found too. He's seen everything but the dagger."
Rolfe added, "We've told Esiwmas about all of it. But he's never asked to see anything, and well..." His voice faded and he shrugged. He had already explained it once.
"You are to be applauded for your tact in the matter, Rolfe," replied Master Gemthir softly. "The Rohirrim saved the City that day, but at great loss. Death frequently has a way of haunting those who survive."
"I know, sir," Rolfe answered and ducked his head at the memory of two lonely graves beneath towering trees.
Shaymur placed a hand on his friend's arm for a moment, then met the tutor's eyes in silent reprimand for bringing up such a topic.
"My apologies, Rolfe. I had forgotten that you gentlemen know well the pain of losing those you love." The tutor's voice was filled with sincerity, and Rolfe nodded stiffly. "As I said, your handling of the situation has been most astute to this moment, and I am honored that you have consulted me. Will you allow me to keep the items you have for sale here at my home?"
When the boys exchanged troubled glances, the man said, "It would make it easier for prospective buyers to view them, and I assure you that I will keep them quite safe."
"It's not that we don't trust you, sir," Shaymur hastened to say. "It's just ..."
The Gondorian scholar leaned back in his chair and sipped at his cup. In the quiet that fell when the freckle faced boy paused, the sound of Estev calling, "Bring it here" could be heard clearly. Some game of fetch must have been started with the dogs.
Suddenly, Rolfe said firmly, "We would appreciate it very much, sir, if you were to keep the relics here."
Shaymur looked doubtful. For a moment Gemthir expected the boy to reveal what they were keeping secret, but to his disappointment they merely exchanged worried looks.
"I believe you said you would require at least another two days to complete the task of clearing the field for Farmer Harlan. As my contribution to this undertaking, Rolfe, I will excuse you and Estev from lessons tomorrow." The tutor held up a hand to forestall the exclamation of appreciation that greeted this announcement. "I will spend my hours meeting with your guardians and consulting with those of my colleagues who might have information concerning the Haradric writing. I trust you will put your time to productive use."
"Yes, sir. We will, sir." Rolfe paused, then said slowly, "Consultations would be costly, would they not?"
Master Gemthir raised an eyebrow. Trader Esiwmas would be quite pleased to hear that young Rolfe had developed such an understanding of the intricacies of trade. Being careful to keep his voice bland, the Gondorian said, "All fees of that nature would be paid by me from my commission. After all, in order to receive the highest price I must know what it is I am offering for sale."
Nodding wisely, Rolfe said, "True, sir. Esiwmas is always saying that if you can match the goods to the buyer properly, things will sell themselves and for a larger profit."
"Hmm," responded the tutor, hard pressed not to smile at such an observation. Rising to his feet, the man shook the hand of each of his young guests then said, "I will endeavor to meet the standards of our worthy trader by returning to you a substantial profit."
Standing quickly, the boys thanked him again and set a time to meet the day after next to hear what had been discovered. Returning to the table, after ushering them out, the tutor reached a bony finger toward the snake etched upon the surface of the blade. He drew back as a hissing noise filled his ears and the serpent wiggled. Blinking up at the lamp, he muttered, "I must ask Mistress Tarmanil to have the lamp oil strained again."
Without further thought, he turned to his shelves to gather the books and scrolls he would consult first.
"Did you have to leave everything with him?" Estev exclaimed sullenly, eyes flashing in the glow of the lantern hanging in the archway of a bootmaker's shop.
"Yes," Shaymur replied peacefully. "He has to have time to study everything and show them to people."
Perched on the rim of the public well by the gate between the third and fourth circles, the older boys watched Estev carefully. What effect would taking the dagger away have? No one, except Ferlan, believed that Estev's attachment to the knife was mere greed. Something else was at work here, but they had been uncertain what to do. How did you go about trying to explain that you were worried about your friend carrying around the knife he had found without sounding foolish? Nothing Estev did or said was that unusual, except for the fact it was Estev doing and saying it. Esiwmas might have taken their tales of sleeplessness, missed meals and surliness seriously, but the fear that the trader would withdraw his permission for Rolfe and Estev to search the fields had caused them all to hold their tongues and cling to the hope that once the blade was no longer in his possession their friend's strange behaviors would cease.
After pacing furiously around the well several times, Estev blew out a heavy breath and rubbed his hands against his thighs as if wiping away the feel of something distasteful. While mostly relieved to escape the temptation of the knife, there was still a part of him that wanted to run back up the winding road to the fifth circle and demand its return. But the bargain was equal shares, which meant the knife must be sold. Even if he did not keep the dagger for himself, at least everyone would know he had been the one to find it.
Deciding that the situation called for some celebration after all, Estev pulled a slightly crushed tart from inside his tunic and divided it with his friends. Tossing the crusts to the dogs, the boys made short work of the treat. Shaymur then waved a good night and trotted off toward the third circle gate.
Twilight deepened and in the east stars began to appear as Rolfe and Estev retraced their steps through the fourth circle tunnel and turned down the narrow street leading to home. The dogs, knowing their evening meal would be waiting, urged the boys on impatiently.
Opening the wrought iron gate into the courtyard, Estev stopped and proclaimed with satisfaction, "You know, we've already made a profit."
"How's that?" asked Rolfe pausing on the doorstep.
"We don't have to go to lessons tomorrow," the younger boy stated with a sly grin.
Rolfe's laughter rang off the stones, and the dogs joined in barking happily as they hurried inside.
"Sir, there is a gentleman to see you."
To Mistress Tarmanil's intense relief, for she had already repeated the announcement three times, Master Gemthir raised his head and said, "Who is it?"
Her lips pressed together in firm disapproval, the Gondorian woman glanced back into the entryway. Her household keys swinging rapidly, she hastened to her employer's side and whispered, "One of those Swertings, sir. Shall I send him away?"
"By no means, madam." The tutor set aside the documents he had been studying and smoothed the sleeves of his robes. "Send him in and bring us some refreshment, please. An herbal tea would be appropriate and some of those excellent cinnamon cakes you served at the noon meal."
"But sir, he's ..."
When the tutor raised his eyebrows, she clamped her jaw shut tightly, gave a stiff nod and returned to the doorway. The sharpness of her "The master will see you now" would have left furrows of blood on a less worthy opponent. However, Ahmose of the House of Tharan, having faced many enemies in his long years and knowing well the desire of a loyal servant to protect the solitude of a scholarly master, merely touched his fingers to his forehead and bowed low before passing through the door the portly woman held open.
Taking the prescribed three steps into the room, the dark man bowed again and kept his eyes lowered in accordance with the customs of his country. In rhythmic, yet eloquent Westron, he said, "Gemthir son of Ralthir, I bring you greetings from my master, Karif, Phazgân of the House of Tharan. If it pleases you, I am called Ahmose."
Gravely polite, the Gondorian replied, "Ahmose of the House of Tharan, you are welcome. Your master is well respected in Minas Tirith."
The gold wires twisted amidst his black hair shone as Ahmose bowed low again, his full robes of deep red sweeping the floor. "My master is, as are you, sir, a scholar. He turns his thoughts to learning the lessons of the past in hope that a better future might be created."
"A worthy purpose," Gemthir said. "Will you be seated?"
"It is my honor, sir."
Allowing his curiosity about his surroundings to be seen, Ahmose lowered himself into the chair Master Gemthir indicated and ran his fingertips along the smoothly carved arms. Well made, yet worn with years as was the tapestry above the doorway. Sunlight sifted through pale curtains to reveal tall shelves bulging with bound books and tattered manuscripts. An ornate cabinet, specially designed to store rolled scrolls, stood open in the far corner of the room; its contents spilling out upon the floor. A smile flickered across the lined face at the thought that scholars did not differ a great deal, no matter what their country.
The rattle of cups heralded Mistress Tarmanil reappearance. Settling the silver tray upon the small table before Master Gemthir's chair, she bobbed a curtsy and hurried from the room, eyes averted at all times from the visitor.
"I apologize for my housekeeper," the tutor said as the door closed rather more firmly than was necessary.
Ahmose lifted his hand in a brief gesture of denial. "Apologies are unnecessary; a loyal servant is a treasure beyond price."
"Loyalty does not excuse rudeness to a guest."
"Ah, but then she is female. Perhaps she is attempting to attract my attention." The small smile flashed again as if inviting Gemthir to join him in a private jest. "Surely, the women of Gondor are not so different from those of Harad."
Closing his eyes briefly at the thought of his housekeeper's reaction to such a suggestion, Gemthir said dryly, "No, I rather believe that women everywhere are much the same. Allow me to pour you some tea. Will you take a cinnamon cake?"
Accepting the steaming cup and a cake, the Southron waited until the other man had partaken of both food and drink before taking a delicate sip of the strong herbal tea. Nodding graciously, he said, "If you will pardon my haste, my master has directed me to discover the truth of information he has recently received."
"How might I be of assistance?"
"It has reached my master's ears that you are making inquiries concerning items found upon the field below." Ahmose glanced toward the window standing open to the warmth of the springtime air.
"Your master has heard correctly."
"Anticipating that the tales were true, my master has extended to me the privilege of examining the objects."
"To what purpose?"
At the tutor's sudden bluntness, Ahmose returned his cup to the table and placed his hands upon his knees palms up in sign that he held no weapon. "Forgive me, I do not understand."
"Sir, I have been entrusted with these objects by my clients for the express purpose of offering them for sale. It would be inappropriate for me to allow those who have no intention of purchasing to examine them without more reason than you have given me." Though polite in both tone and word, the tutor's voice held a touch of steel.
Ahmose blinked slowly. Defiance of the wishes of a phazgân of the Twenty Houses was a rare occurrence. One, however, must make allowance for the fact that the Gondorian did not realize his error.
Bowing his head respectfully, the Southron said, "It is my master's understanding that you seek to ascertain the meaning of various markings upon items you have been commissioned to sell. It is his intention to offer you assistance."
"Assistance? What manner of assistance?"
Raising a hand to touch his chest, Ahmose dipped his head deferentially. "Myself. I am familiar with many aspects of my master's studies."
Gemthir considered the man opposite him. There was an air of vitality about him that belied the seamed appearance of his face. What else was not as it appeared about his unexpected visitor? Karif of the House of Tharan was known as a scholar and a driving force behind the treaties recently made between Gondor and lands to the south, but never before had the phazgân indicated any interest in artifacts discovered upon the Pelennor Field. Among the Haradrim, if those who had died had done so in defeat, neither the bodies of the dead nor their armament were to be recovered.
Could the phazgân's sudden interest be why his attempts to decipher the markings upon the dagger had been met with polite silence? Yet, word had obviously spread about the blade's existence. Ahmose of Tharan was not the first to come knocking at his door this day. There had been two respectable dealers in antiquities and rare commodities, and others had also appeared whose reputations were not so well known.
"Forgive me if I seem unappreciative of Karif Phazgân's offer, but the interests of my clients must take precedence."
Muffled voices were heard from the entryway. The housekeeper's voice raised in protest as several younger, and rather insistent, speakers clamored for an audience with Master Gemthir.
"Pardon me," the tutor said ruefully, rising from his seat, "I believe Mistress Tarmanil has met her match with these visitors."
The corners of his eyes creasing with amusement, Ahmose murmured, "A situation one would not believe possible."
"Indeed," Gemthir agreed.
He opened the door to find not the three youth he had expected but all six of his young clients and their canine companions. Liberally streaked with dirt and excited almost beyond comprehension, they swarmed upon the tutor. Voices spilling over one another, the boys proclaimed a new discovery.
Mindful of Ahmose's presence, Gemthir raised his hands and attempted to halt the flood. "Gentlemen, let Tarmanil take you into the kitchen, and I will be with you momentarily."
"But Master, this is truly important," protested Estev.
"Yes, it's even better than that dagger," insisted a wild haired lad. Whom Gemthir guessed was Ferlan, as he resembled Farmer Harlan.
Estev retorted, "You're only saying that because you found it."
"Am not," argued the other boy. "You'll see. This is going to be worth even more. Show him, Shaymur."
"Boys, boys, I can not ..."
His words died as Shaymur held out a bronze armband. The coiled serpent of the noble houses of Harad gazed at him with fiery eyes. Along the edges were twisted iron and copper wire in a pattern instantly recognizable as matching the dagger now resting in a locked chest.
"Are they real rubies?" asked Ferlan eagerly.
"Yes, young masters, they are," was the soft reply of an unfamiliar voice.