The Serpent's Lure - Parts Nineteen and Twenty
Calm heads and cool thinking are not traits commonly assigned to those of the Riddermark. They are better known for their fierceness in battle, their dogged determination to stand against even the most outrageous odds, and their intense devotion to family. Qualities that were very much in evidence in the defiant stance of the towering figure of Esiwmas of Rohan.
"My son's life can not be bought." The rolling accent of Rohan lent the words a softness that was in opposition with the grim features revealed by the glow of the oil lamp hanging above the table.
Head bent in respect, Ahmose said, "Nay, honored sir, you mistake my intentions. No price could be set for the service your son has done for the House of Tharan. We seek only to...."
"Do not insult me with your offers." Forcing down the demon of anger born of the Southron's words, the Rohirrim replied, "There is not gold enough in all of Harad to begin to compensate me for the harm you have done my family."
Stepping between the two men, Master Gemthir said, "Let us delay any discussion of this nature until we know the extent of the damage wrought here. What say the healers?"
Fury drained away, leaving only a grieving father. "That he sleeps. There is no visible injury, yet he does not wake." With a sharp gesture, the trader said, "They say it is best to allow him to wake on his own, but...he is slipping away. I can see it. And there is nothing I can do."
Gemthir sighed. When Curthan had knelt beside Estev's still form and pressed probing fingers alongside his windpipe to announce, "Faint, but steady", they had all been hopeful. But with each passing hour, that hope grew ever more frail.
"The hand has been splinted. He refused the healer's potions and sits at his brother's side even yet."
Esiwmas passed a hand over his eyes. He had been driven from the room upstairs by the need to do something, anything, other than sit helplessly and watch his son sink ever deeper into a sleep from which there was little hope of awakening.
"His loyalty is commendable. The young master does not understand the danger he faced. It has happened before that brother killed brother."
Face flushed with renewed anger, Esiwmas stepped around the tutor to confront the Haradrim. In a deathly still voice he said, "You dare suggest my son is capable of kinslaying?"
"Worse has been done under the influence of the Blade of Nuphar." The Haradrim waited silently until the blond giant before him clenched his fist and withdrew it from the hilt of the long knife at his side. "Your sons, Master Trader, fought evil until the end. Together they stood and defeated it. Their names will be recited with honor by the House of Tharan."
"One must wonder, sir, if it is possible to hear such recitations from the barrow," Esiwmas replied coldly. Turning on his heel, he brushed past the Gondorian and strode from the room.
Ahmose's head dropped to his chest, his black hair shadowing his face. Tilting his head, he could see the locked chest containing the splintered remains of the blade that had been his life's focus. The memory of the day he had given oath to Karif, third son of Gimilzôr, was ever clear in his mind though it had been more than five decades ago. Only a child then, his master had by some fate survived the passing of the Blade of Nuphar. By the blood of his brothers, spilt by the eldest in his initial madness, Karif had sworn to do whatever was required to free the Houses of Harad.
Terrible though the evil of the blade had been this day, there had been times of even greater horror in the past. Whatever the price demanded for its destruction, it was well spent, or so he had always believed.
When the trader discovered the full extent of the part he had played in the events of the afternoon, the man would return to exact appropriate retribution. It would not be denied. If truth be known, death would be a blessing for it would release him from the guilt he would carry always. Young Rolfe had said that there must be another way. Had he been neglectful in seeking other paths? Could one have been found in time to save the young Rohirrim?
"You are certain there is no hope?"
The Gondorian's question so coincided with his thoughts that Ahmose wondered if the man possessed the ability to read another's mind.
"In life there is ever hope." The Haradrim hesitated, and then shook his head in sorrow. "Yet this is less than a fool's hope. For those taken by the blade, death or descent into madness have been the only paths. The latter is not a fate I would wish upon the young one or those who care for him."
"A fool's hope was the salvation of us all, just three short years ago." The tutor's narrow face appeared carved of stone. "As you said yourself, there are forces in this world beyond our understanding, for both good and evil. Let us continue to hope."
"The wise say that one may judge a man's wisdom by his hopes," responded the Haradrim.
Indicating chairs at a small table where rested a tray bearing an earthen pitcher and several cups, Gemthir added, "It is also said that there is no wisdom in useless and hopeless sorrow."
Briefly touching his fingertips to his breast and then his forehead, Ahmose answered, "Then we will not mourn before we must."
The tutor filled a small cup with steaming liquid and passed it to the Southron, waving him into the seat opposite him. Dawn was approaching and who knew what the new day would bring.
Upon a narrow bed, Jesse lay stretched along his boy's side, staring unblinking at the still face. The only indication that the boy yet lived was the slow rise and fall of his chest. Early on, attempts had been made to remove the dog from his chosen position; each time he had returned, silent yet persistent in his devotion, until the large man had sternly insisted he be left in peace.
Beside the bed, his great head resting upon Rolfe's knee, Dog held his own vigil and remembered a tall man with golden hair and the dark night when he had gone where Dog could not follow. The man had left behind an emptiness that was not right; a dog should have a master. For days Dog had been confused, then for a brief moment his man had returned and let him know that he had a new job to do, a new master to care for. Gently he licked the fingers upon his boy's bandaged hand. If Jesse's boy did not awaken, he would offer to share his.
Rolfe stroked Dog's head with his right hand then carefully moved his left onto the arm of the chair. The fingers sticking out above the white bandages were swollen and tender to the touch. The healer would scold him for not keeping it elevated like he had been told and would probably try to force another noxious potion upon him as well. But he would not take it. Not until ... Rolfe could not finish the thought, fresh tears welled up. It was all his fault. He was older; it was his job to take care of Estev. He should have told someone. Made them listen and understand, even if it did make him seem foolish.
"Don't do that, son," Esiwmas' gruff voice broke the silence of the room. "You'll hurt yourself even more if you bang it about."
Startled from his thoughts, Rolfe realized that he had been pounding his arm against the chair. His voice thick with tears, he said harshly, "I should be hurt."
Strong arms lifted the boy from his chair and held him tightly. "No, son. You cannot take the blame for all the evil in the world."
"But what if he dies?" For the first time in that long night, Rolfe voiced his worst fear.
Esiwmas' chest expanded with a long shuddering breath, and a heavy hand was placed upon Rolfe's head as the man exhaled slowly. From the curtainless windows, the gray light before dawn revealed the glittering course of tears upon his face.
"Then my son, we will sing a song for his victory and mourn as we must."
Where he was or how he came to be there, he did not know. Nor was he concerned with such thoughts. All that was important was that he wandered within the most glorious garden he had ever seen. Flowers bloomed everywhere, scenting the air with a heady perfume. Roses, daisies, jonquils and countless others he recognized, though by their size and vibrant colors he knew them to be as unique as those he could not name. The hum of bees filled the air and mingled with the splashing song of the rivulet running alongside the path of white stone. Grass, greener and softer than any he had known before, added a rustling undertone that enticed him to seat himself beneath a towering tree with pale golden leaves.
Time passed, though he knew not how long, and he became aware of a soft rhythmic sound. Not wanting to leave the garden; but drawn to locate the source of the strangely familiar sound, he rose and walked slowly forward upon the path.
At the path's end, or perhaps it was the beginning, there stood a gazebo carved from pale gray stone. Through the latticed sides, he could see two women. One, dressed all in gray, sat upon a low stool sorting through a basket of brilliantly colored yarns. The other was seated before a tapestry loom, one hand tossing the shuttle while the other used a wooden beater to tap down the weft. Without pause she pulled the shed roll toward her and repeated the process.
Climbing the three steps to the gazebo, he hesitated until the woman at the loom turned her head.
"We have been waiting for you, little one."
For a moment he stood bedazzled, her voice was the music of the stream in the garden and her eyes the gray of mist upon the mountains. She smiled and returned her gaze to the strands she wove.
The image of another woman seated before a loom crept into his thoughts and he said, "My mother does that."
"All mothers weave, little one. Be it cloth or dreams." The weaver slowed the rhythm of her hands and motioned to him. "Come, tell me what you think."
Stepping to the loom, he looked upon the tapestry. At first, it appeared only a tangle of thread, but as he focused upon one section the images woven there became clear. A boy upon a horse raced across a meadow dotted with pale yellow flowers. Tilting his head, he looked upon another section. The same blond boy was seated before an open window; a slate on the table before him.
Backing away, he shook his head. "I don't want to see the rest. "
The woman in gray said quietly, "Why is that, little one?"
"Because." He closed his eyes and dropped his head. "Because it's me."
"Yes," the woman at the loom affirmed. "It is the tapestry of your life, thus far."
"I don't want to see it."
Setting aside the basket of yarns, the woman in gray stood and rested her hand upon the boy's cheek. Jerking away from the comfort that flowed from her touch, he dashed hot tears from his eyes.
"No, I don't deserve it. I was so stupid. I believed everything it told me."
"Yet in the end, you recognized the lies for what they were." The weaver pointed a slim, pale finger at a place near the edge of the tapestry. "See, here is the tale. There is no reason to deny yourself solace. You accomplished the task set before you."
Again the gray clad woman reached out to the boy. With his acceptance of her touch, shame and guilt were washed away, though memory of his actions remained for it is only through experience that wisdom is gained. Lifting his chin, she spoke again. No words did he hear, only the music of the wind dancing in the trees and rain upon the surface of a lake. Her gentle smile carried the warmth of spring sunshine and her eyes reflected the light of a child's happiness; the light that once again shone within the boy's.
"Go with the grace of the Valar, little one, for you have done well," the weaver said as the boy stepped back from the other's embrace.
"Go?" the boy asked in confusion. "Am I not..."
"Nay, child, look upon my weaving," chided the lady of the loom. "Can you not see it is far from complete? Many are the tales to be told before this tapestry reaches its end."
"But..." He looked longingly toward the entryway leading back to the garden.
"You shall return to the garden, little one, when your part of the telling is finished. Until that time you must learn to hear the Music of Life, it will fill you with the same peace that is in my lord's garden." Tracing a finger along his jaw, the gray clad lady touched his nose lightly. "But you must take care to heed what you hear."
"Yes, ma'am." The boy ducked his head in embarrassment. "I'll try."
"That is all that might be asked, even of the mighty." Pointing toward a second entryway, one he would have sworn had not been there before, she said, "Your path is there, little one."
As he descended the steps of the gazebo, the weaver changed her bobbin; this portion of the tale would require brighter colors.
Cool droplets of water flew as a shirtless Ferlan shook his head and dropped down beside Karston.
"When aren't you?" the baker boy muttered, slapping aside the hand reaching toward the large baskets set between the roots of an enormous oak.
"Just one slice of bread," Ferlan pleaded.
"Little man," laughed Curthan, draping a towel about his neck and dropping another upon the smaller boy's head, "those baskets were provided by Mistresses Tarmanil and Sarantha. There is not the slightest possibility you would eat one slice of bread and stop. So mind your manners and wait for the guests of honor to arrive."
A mere three days had passed since the shattering of the Blade of Nuphar, yet to the boys eagerly watching the road from the City it seemed an event of the distant past. The worst that could have happened had not, and though more than one nightmare would pull them from future dreams, during their waking moments their thoughts were ever filled with matters of the present.
First had been the long hours of explanation to fearful parents and guardians. Much of this, to the boys' relief, was dealt with by Master Gemthir and the Haradrim Ahmose. Next, there had been a carefully conducted search of the field where all of the artifacts had been found. Though the boys greatly enjoyed supervising the Haradrim servants as they scoured the field, nothing else of value had been discovered. Of course, one might consider the accumulation of seven barrows of broken weapons, a silver chain, four golden medallions, a jeweled armband and an enspelled dagger riches enough.
At the insistence of the other boys, it had been decided that no compensation would be accepted for the discovery of the dagger or the four badges of the House of Tharan. Ferlan's outrage at this decision had been tempered by the amount of ransom negotiated for the golden armband. Later, he had been disgusted to learn that his portion was to be carefully invested for his future with only a tiny allowance to be released quarterly, though Harlan's share, slightly reduced in percentage after strenuous negotiation with Master Gemthir and Trader Esiwmas, was to be distributed immediately.
From his perch in the boughs of the oak, Shaymur shouted, "They're coming."
Standing and shielding their eyes against the afternoon sun, the boys saw a cloud of dust that grew larger to become a small cart driven by Master Gemthir and pulled by a matched pair of bay ponies.
Swinging down from the tree and landing lightly beside Karston, Shaymur reached for his shirt and tossed Curthan's to him. A sharp whistle echoed across the distance and their eyes fastened upon the golden-haired boy standing and waving wildly from the rear of the cart. Attempting to pull him back into his seat, a task made impossible by the sling imprisoning one arm, was Rolfe. Opposite the two brothers sat Ahmose, his wide smile visible even from a distance. Suddenly, two figures threw themselves from the cart and raced toward the group of boys.
"No, no. Stop, Dog. Don't do that!" shouted Ferlan just before the black and tan animal leapt up and knocked him to the ground, then proceeded to lick him enthusiastically.
Jesse, having better manners, contented himself with turning happy circles and barking loudly whenever one of the boys gave him a pat.
"Whoa," called Master Gemthir drawing to a stop beneath the oak. With a flourish, he tossed the lines to Curthan and jumped lightly down from the cart. For the first time the boys noticed that in spite of his thinning hair and solemn features, the tutor was not an old man.
"No, young master, you will not leap over the side." Ahmose's patient voice was firm as he took Estev's elbow and directed him to the rear of the cart.
"Are you going to lift me down like you did Mistress Tarmanil this morning?" asked the boy with an impish grin.
"Not unless you are able to bake cinnamon cakes of the same quality," responded the Haradrim as he stepped from the cart and turned to offer Rolfe a steadying hand.
"Impossible," declared Estev. He waited until Rolfe was clear, then bounded from the cart to land in the midst of his friends.
While the boys, with the assistance of the two dogs, greeted each other with an enthusiasm that would have staggered a strong man, Ahmose exchanged amused looks with the Gondorian tutor.
When Curthan and Ferlan attempted to lift a protesting Rolfe to their shoulders, Master Gemthir remarked dryly, "Gentlemen, please be more careful with him. I do not wish to spend another hour listening to the healer complain that no one follows his orders."
"He should be used to it by now," stated Estev from the ground where he had landed after Karston sidestepped the attack the younger boy had launched.
"In your case he has given up trying." Rolfe gave Ferlan a one-handed shove and reached down to pull his brother to his feet.
Estev grinned, for that was indeed what the healer who examined him this morning had proclaimed. His father had laughed loudly at the man and asked if he honestly expected anything different from a Rider of the Riddermark. When the healer responded with a long suffering sigh and a heartfelt "No", Esiwmas had given the man a resounding clap on the back and sent him on his way.
"I hope so. It is so boring to answer the same questions over and over and over again. Even Master Gemthir doesn't do that."
"As consequence for that impudence, young man, we will resume our lessons this very moment." The tutor clapped his hands and waved the boys into a ragged line. Striding along before them, he gazed pointedly at Ferlan's half clad body, dappled now with leaves and mud. "Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that your education is sadly lacking. A situation I mean to begin correcting this very moment."
Ferlan groaned, only to be silenced by a jab in the ribs from Curthan and the stern eye of Master Gemthir.
"Master Ahmose, if you would." Gemthir waved toward the front of the cart.
The Haradrim, with a decidedly sober expression, bowed low and stepped over to pull a long bundle wrapped in oiled skins from beneath the seat. All eyes were fixed upon the Southron as he knelt before the tutor and unrolled the skins. The boys stood with open-mouthed disbelief as the contents were revealed.
Ignoring his pupils' astonishment, Gemthir paced back and forth before them waving his hands. "This afternoon we will test my hypothesis that river trout prefer crayfish to dragonflies or grasshoppers. I expect each and every one of you to give it your complete attention."
"Yes, sir," the boys exclaimed with pleasure.
The matter of how to test Master Gemthir's hypothesis in the most scientific method was then hotly debated until Karston declared that the tutor had forgotten to include worms in his list of bait. With the inclusion of this well-known piscine delicacy, it was decided that each type of bait would be tested by a pair of anglers. Having settled the parameters of their experiment, it was only minutes before the eight anglers took up positions along the shadowed shores of the Anduin.
Partnered with Master Gemthir, Estev listened eagerly to the tutor's instructions concerning the secrets of using crayfish as bait. After setting his line, the boy lay back upon the grassy bank and closed his eyes.
The buzz of insects and the murmur of the river as it slipped by on its journey to the far off sea combined to create a gentle harmony that wrapped them in peace.
After a time, Estev grinned and announced, "I hear it."
"What is that, lad?"
"The river. It's singing." The boy rolled over on his stomach and tipped his head back to meet the tutor's eyes.
The tutor smiled at the seriousness of the boy's tone, then nodded his agreement. "Long ago, when I was a lad, my grandsire use to say, `Listen to the sound of the river and you will get a trout.'"
"Did you listen?"
The tutor shook his head. "Not often enough, my boy, but from now on I mean to try."
Estev, his young face more serious than a bright spring afternoon required, nodded, then his voice dropped to a whisper. "That is all that might be asked, even of the mighty."
Regarding the boy with surprise, the tutor replied, "I suppose it is."
Setting his silver cup precisely upon the table before him, Karif Phazgân of the House of Tharan watched the play of shadows on the distant mountains. Beyond those heights was the shattered land where once had dwelt his great enemy, the spirit of evil that had laid waste to his House and land for generations. Now, after so many years of battle, it seemed there was hope of final victory.
Without taking his eyes from the Mountains of Shadow, he said, "The young one has recovered."
"So it does appear, my master. His father has arranged for the boy and his brother to travel to their home in Rohan within the week."
Ahmose knelt upon a red cushion to the left of the phazgân's low stool. His eyes too were turned eastward, though drawn to the silvery length of the Anduin.
"Has the Trader forgiven our use of his son?"
Head lowered in recognition of his failure in this respect, Ahmose replied, "No, my master." He had offered the Rohirrim his life, but the man had refused it, saying that there had been enough death. "He tolerates my presence at his sons' request, but anger burns still within his heart."
"As it should. Never fear, my friend, we will find a way to repay our debt to the boy and his family."
The servant touched his fingers to his forehead in acceptance of his master's wisdom, then waited motionless for Karif to speak again.
"The hilts of two other daggers were discovered yesterday near Cair Andros."
Ahmose dropped his head in momentary thanksgiving that their evil would no longer trouble the world. Then the dread that had been his companion for the long years of his service to the House of Tharan came once more to the surface, and he asked, "Know we now how many yet exist?"
With a slow shake of his head, Karif said, "Three of the Twenty Houses have refused to comply with the Kâthuphazgân's request. Whether they do so from fear or some other purpose has not yet been determined."
The twilight deepened and the first stars began to appear while the two men sat silent. Stars had always been a sign of hope, for surely no world which possessed such beauty could be completely evil. Tonight, however, they held little comfort.
With a deep sigh, the phazgân rose and signaled that the other man might rise as well. Walking to the stone wall running around the rooftop, he said quietly, "Have we become the very thing we have fought so long against?"
"The thought has troubled my mind as well, my master." Ahmose hesitated, then went on, "I do not know that I could again use another as we used the young Rohirrim."
"It is to be hoped that you will not be put to the test."
Bowing low, Ahmose responded softly, "As the wise have said, a man's wisdom may be judged by his hopes."
In silent agreement, the two men turned their study to the shadowed fields beyond the walls of the White City.
Author's note: The setting was borrowed from Tolkien, the inspiration for the events are based on the situations he set up and upon the African dagger pictured at bladegallery.com under Featured Knives.
Characters are a product of my imagination and that of other Burping Troll Adventurers (thanks to the Bearman for Rolfe and Dog) save for Jesse, who lives with his hobbit, Erin, and likes to herd sheep and convince two legs to throw his blue rubber ball for hours and hours.
Special thanks to Celebsul and ErinRua, who went above and beyond the call of duty to support me during the creation of this tale. And to all the Burping Troll Adventurers for reading this story and catching the really stupid mistakes.
Reviews are always appreciated.