The Serpent's Lure - Parts Thirteen and Fourteen
Bowing gracefully in solemn greeting, the red robed man respectfully hid his amusement as the boys stared in open-mouthed astonishment. Until this moment none, save Shaymur, had ever been this close to a living Haradrim and wide eyed they took in every detail. Taller than many men of the South, he was equal to Master Gemthir in height, and though nearly as slender as the master he possessed the wiry strength of a warrior. His shining black hair hung in plaits to his shoulders and soft leather boots, dyed red to match his robes, reached to his knees. Most noteworthy, to the boys, was the golden medallion gleaming upon his breast.
"How do you know?" asked Estev recovering his voice. "You haven't even looked at it up close."
Tilting his head, Ahmose replied gently, "But I have."
The boys regarded the man uncertainly. Taking advantage of their confused silence, Gemthir ushered them into the side room, and dismissed Mistress Tarmanil with the directive to bring suitable refreshments in half an hour.
Seating the boys upon three benches pulled to form a semicircle and ordering their canine companions into silence, Gemthir indicated the Southron. "Ahmose is a representative of Karif Phazgân of the House of Tharan."
Karston leaned toward Rolfe and whispered, "What's a phazgân?"
"It means, young sir, that my master is the leader of our House," replied Ahmose.
"What did you mean, sir," Rolfe asked, "that you've seen the armband before? Before it was lost in battle?"
"It is a treasure of the House of Tharan." Ahmose settled once more into his chair and turned to Master Gemthir. "One might presume these are your clients."
"One might," the tutor answered dryly.
After the boys had given their names, Gemthir added, "Rolfe and Estev are the sons of Esiwmas of Rohan and my students. They and their friends have been clearing a field of debris. I was engaged to represent them when they chanced upon some items of value."
Ferlan opened his mouth to speak, but snapped it shut when Curthan's elbow dug sharply into his ribs.
Shaymur rolled the armband thoughtfully between his fingers, then looked up to meet Ahmose's dark eyes. "It belongs to you."
"As an heirloom of my House, it belongs to all who are of my clan."
"But it was lost, right?" exclaimed Ferlan anxiously. He could guess the direction of Shaymur's thoughts. "And we found it!"
"Don't get so excited, little man," said Curthan soothingly. "Master Gemthir will sort it all out properly."
Six sets of eyes fastened on the tutor who said placidly, "If Master Ahmose will be kind enough to give us all the particulars, I will certainly attempt to negotiate a solution that will prove profitable to all involved."
The slow blinking of the Southron's dark eyes was the only discernible indication of uneasiness at being the new focus for the boys' intense gaze. A lifting of one eyebrow acknowledged the man's appreciation of Gemthir's subtle handling of the situation.
"My master, Karif Phazgân, has learned of your discoveries and has sent me to ascertain their credibility."
The boys shifted restlessly at this statement until Shaymur shook his head before saying, "We just found the armband, so you must mean the dagger."
"Yes, young master," agreed Ahmose.
"How will you," Shaymur paused, then repeated the man's phrasing, "determine its credibility?"
"In many ways. Primarily by the insignia inscribed upon the blade."
Before the boys could launch into a full description of the knife, Gemthir asked, "And what would that be?"
Ahmose bent his head in thought. His master had given him leave to use his own discretion. However, if the eventual outcome did not meet the phazgân's approval, the consequences would prove harsh. Raising his head, he studied those before him. Gemthir's reputation had already received the scrutiny of his master, and the name of Esiwmas of Rohan was not unknown. But who were these others? What clans did they hold allegiance too? Releasing a long held breath, the Southron cast his fate upon the winds.
"For many lives of men, the people of the South and those of the North have warred with each other. With the casting down of the Dark Lord, there is a breath of hope that our peoples might make lasting peace. To that goal, I will speak." Ahmose's voice slipped into the sing-song cadence of a gifted storyteller. "Long ago, before the time of my father's father's father, a messenger appeared before Nuphar Phazgân of the House of Tharan. Pleasing to the eye and gentle to the ear, he spoke of the might of his lord and how all who joined with him in battle against those of the North would be well rewarded with both riches and power."
"It was Sauron," whispered Ferlan, then squirmed as black eyes fixed upon him.
"Nay, little master, not the Dark One himself, but a man who chose to believe the lies of the Enemy and sought to tempt others along the same path." Ahmose sighed. "To the sorrow of my House, the ears of the phazgân were open to him. Vows were made that have been redeemed time and again over the long years with the blood of our warriors. Vows from which there was no hope of honorable release save death."
"Thus it was that tied by our ancient vows, spurred by a carefully nurtured hatred for the men of the North, and driven by fear of the Dark One and his lieutenants, great numbers marched to a battle from which they did not return. The men of Gondor and Rohan are fierce and victory was theirs that day."
Amongst the boys sidelong glances were exchanged. Here was one once numbered among the enemy. How should they react? Feelings of pride in their kith and kin who had fought in the battles warred with a desire to understand this man who clearly mourned for the warriors of his clan.
"But what about the dagger?" said Estev suddenly.
"And the armband?" added Karston.
A golden earring shimmered in the light as Ahmose leaned forward and held a hand out toward Shaymur. Only after receiving a nod from Master Gemthir did the boy release the bronze ornament.
"Here is the serpent of Harad," the dark man laid a slim finger on the center of the band. "The jeweled eyes show that it is the property of a lord of the Twenty Houses. Rubies, the stones of fire, are worn only by the leader of a House."
"And it's coiled to the right too!" exclaimed Ferlan.
White teeth flashed in a quick smile. "Ah, scholars you are."
"Not me," said the farm lad quickly. "Rolfe showed us that on one of the medall... ouch, would you stop that!"
Curthan frowned down at the smaller boy. "You talk too much, Ferlan."
Ferlan rubbed his ribs and glared, but closed his mouth tightly when his friend nudged him again.
Turning a blind eye to the exchange, Ahmose pointed to the rune on the serpent's right. "Here, the emblem of the House of Tharan." Moving to the left, the man pointed to another rune. "And here is the symbol of Hamzah to whom the armband was gifted."
Rolfe noted that the second was the very one they had determined was identical to that upon the dagger and that the first matched with those on the three medallions. Glancing at Master Gemthir, he raised one eyebrow inquiringly and received a slight nod in return.
"Who gave it to him?" asked Estev, relieved that the serpent on the bronze ring had not exhibited any tendency to move. "The Dark Lord?"
The Southron laughed softly. "Nay, young sir, it was a gift from the Kâthuphazgân to mark the day Hamzah became head of our clan many lifetimes ago. It has been passed on to each leader since that time."
"Until now," stated Shaymur bluntly.
"Until now," agreed Ahmose. "The eldest brother of my master wore it when he marched north to answer the command of the Dark Lord. His name will be sung no more in the roll of the phazgâns."
The opening notes of the "The Mounds of Mundburg" sounded in his mind as Estev asked, "Why not?"
Ahmose tilted his head inquiringly.
"Why won't his name be sung in the rolls?" the boy clarified.
"Ah, forgive me for not understanding." Dark fingers rubbed the smooth surface of the armband. "It is the way of my people that those whose death is not in victory are named no longer."
"That's stupid," Estev replied, drawing agreeing nods from his companions.
"Estev," chided Master Gemthir. "Calling potential buyers rude names is not the most profitable tacit."
"I'm sorry," the Rohirrim lad mumbled. "But they fought well, my father says. Why shouldn't their names be remembered by someone?"
Ahmose drew back, only honesty and curiosity shone in the strange blue eyes of the boy; but how did one begin to explain a custom that had always been? One that he had never questioned before.
"Since you won't name him, does that mean you don't want the armband back?" Ferlan broke the silence and slid to the edge of the bench to avoid Curthan's elbow.
Grasping the opportunity to avoid a response to Estev's question, Ahmose answered, "I cannot say as my master must first be consulted."
"Certainly," said Master Gemthir, quelling any further comments from the boys with a hard look. "After all, it was not the armband which brought you here."
The Southron said simply, "No." He held the jeweled band out to Shaymur, who accepted it and passed it on to the tutor.
After examining the marks Ahmose had pointed out, Gemthir said, "I believe you had requested to see the dagger and other artifacts the boys had retrieved from the fields."
Six intent gazes fastened again upon the Haradrim: three with pleased excitement, two with quiet regard, and one with dismay that was quickly hidden. Dread wrapped icy fingers about Ahmose's heart at the glimpse of such an emotion haunting the eyes of one so young. Had the fears of his master come to pass?
"I am ordered to place myself at your direction and assist you in the proper identification of the items the young ones have returned from the field."
A lift of his eyebrows indicated Gemthir's understanding of the subtle game of words they were playing. "Your assistance would be of great value. Why does Karif of the House of Tharan send such a gift?"
Mindful of the tutor's mention of paying for consultations with his colleagues, Rolfe and Shaymur exchanged glances. Gifts of significant worth always carried obligations.
"In the interest of allowing the newly planted peace between our peoples time to grow."
The six pairs of eyes watching this exchange blinked and six heads turned as one toward Gemthir. As he nodded, the boys relaxed, pleased with themselves for having the foresight to engage the tutor as their representative.
"If there is any special significance to any item the boys have discovered, I trust you will make it known."
The Southron's eyes flicked to the face of the younger Rohirrim. Such a revelation might prove already too late.
"As Karif Phazgân has ordered," Ahmose said touching his forehead and bowing his head.
Accepting that he would get no other response from the man, Gemthir tucked the armband into his robes, drew a key from his right sleeve and passed it to Rolfe. "The small chest on the third shelf."
Rolfe rose, stepped carefully around Dog's front paws and crossed the room to the indicated shelf. Inserting the key, he lifted the brass bound lid and asked, "Everything or just the dagger?"
"The dagger and one medallion should be sufficient for now," replied the tutor gathering the teacups and remaining cakes onto the tray. "Estev, if you would be so kind as to carry this to the sideboard."
The black and white herd dog lifted his head and whined as Estev stood, but remained in his place beside the boy's bench in obedience to a quiet, "Stay, Jesse."
Master Gemthir took a black velvet cloth from a shallow drawer and covered the battered top of the low table. Accepting the artifacts from Rolfe with a nod of thanks, he waited until the two boys had returned to their seats before placing the golden medallion upon the cloth. With eager anticipation the boys leaned forward barely breathing, their eyes moving from the shining badge to the unreadable dark face.
Pressed against Estev's leg, Jesse sniffed the air. He was hungry. After many months of scrounging for food, he had quickly become re-accustomed to regular meals. It was time for a meal now, but the possibility of being served one seemed slim. The last time he had been to this place, his boy had fed him a chewy treat. Somewhere in this room there were more treats. He could smell them. But how could he convince his boy to leave off this talking and focus on important things. Yawning toothily, he laid his head upon his paws and closed his eyes.
Nose twitching, he sniffed again. The new man had a scent very different from the others, one that called forth recollections of darkness, shouting and the hot smell of blood. The hairs along his spine began to rise and a growl grumbled in his throat.
"Easy, Jesse," his boy said.
Turning his head, the dog gave a quick lick to the hand that stroked his ears. He would obey as long as the man did not threaten his boy. Relaxing beneath the soothing fingers, Jesse lowered his head once more and thought longingly of the beef bone he had buried yesterday afternoon.
Slipping the fine gold chain over his head, Ahmose placed the medallion from his neck beside the one resting on the black velvet.
"They're the same," Rolfe said, then added. "You are a captain, sir?"
The man bowed his head. "It is my honor to be an Ulbar of the House of Tharan."
"You weren't ... I mean you didn't...." Ferlan stammered and fell silent beneath the weight of the appalled looks from the other boys.
The Southron sat silently until the boys' eyes returned to him, then in a toneless voice he said, "My fate did not call me north to battle with the Horse Lords and the men of the White City. None who fought before the gates of this city returned to our lands beyond the River Harnen."
"No one returned?" Curthan asked.
He and Shaymur had been among those boys allowed to stay and run errands for the Healing Hall during the siege and had seen first hand the carnage following the Battle of the Pelennor. All his life there had been empty houses in the City and certainly there were many yet. He could not think of a single family that had not lost some kin to the War; but his father once said that upwards of ten thousand Haradrim had come north to fight. Curthan shifted uncomfortably at the unexpected feeling of emptiness caused by the thought of not one of those men returning to their homes and families.
"The wrath of Gondor was great that day; but as the wise have said, `Such is the fortune of war to be killed by the enemy.'" Ahmose regarded the young Gondorian solemnly. "We of the Haradwaith were bound to the Dark Lord by vows made by the fathers of our fathers' fathers, but no more do we do His biding. The Lord of Mordor has been vanquished by the Men of the West and with them the Twenty Houses of Harad have made peace."
Lifting the medallion upon the fine chain so that it twisted in the sun, Ahmose concluded, "It is a future of peace between our peoples that my master, Karif Phazgân, seeks. What seek you?"
Startled into dumbness by the question, the boys frowned and lowered their eyes. What had they sought? To help a friend? To find a treasure? To become important? Examining their motives they were suddenly uncertain as to the honor of their actions.
The sound of Mistress Tarmanil's muffled voice directing the cleaning of the entryway released the boys from the maze of their thoughts. Exhaling pent up breaths, they lifted their heads.
"You have given us much to consider, sir." Master Gemthir said quietly.
"I have also heard much that will require careful thought," replied Ahmose returning his badge to its place about his neck. His eyes traveled from one young face to the next, lingering longest on the younger Rohirrim lad. "I beg that you will not take offense at my words, young sirs. You do no differently than many older than you have done. In your quest to clear away the remains of battle, you have discovered that for which others might pay." A slim dark hand indicated the medallion upon the cloth before them. "I ask only that you will not forget that these remnants are all that is now left of many who would have chosen a different course if one had been offered them."
"Yes, sir," answered Shaymur and Rolfe, while Karston nodded sharply.
Curthan met the gaze of the man's dark eyes for a long moment, then said, "My father is of the Guard. My brother was as well. He lies within the second mound outside the Gate." His voice dropped as he added, "My mother still cries for him."
The lines of his face deepened as in his own tongue, Ahmose murmured a response, then he translated, "Thus chant the women of Harad, `Alone must I sing o'er them. Alone must I array them. Alone must my hands deal with their departing.' "
Face stiff with the effort not to release the emotions he felt would shame him, Curthan replied, "I will think on what you have said."
"That is the first step to understanding between our peoples." Ahmose's fingers moved from his forehead to his breast in salute.
Ferlan fidgeted uncertainly beside Curthan. No one seemed to be making much sense. Was the man going to pay them for the medallions and the armband, or not?
As if anticipating the boy's unspoken question, Ahmose leaned back in his chair and said, "Though strange to your thinking, it is not the custom of my people to reclaim the objects of those who have fallen in defeat." As Ferlan's face crumpled, the Haradrim raised a finger, "However, ransom may be offered for the return of heirlooms of the House."
"Like the armband?" Ferlan's eagerness drew a look of rebuke from Rolfe and Karston and another elbow in the ribs from Curthan.
"Yes, but," again a cautionary finger was raised, "my master must make that decision and negotiate the exchange with your representative."
With a relieved sigh, the farm lad sat back and gave Master Gemthir a happy grin. Harlan was going to be very pleased with the way things were turning out.
"Is the dagger an heirloom of your House also?" asked Rolfe to draw attention away from Ferlan's obvious delight.
"There were many daggers carried into battle." Ahmose smiled slightly. "Thus I can not say until I have examined it. With your permission, of course."
All save Estev, who kept his head low and refused to respond, indicated their approval with either a nod or quick word. Master Gemthir frowned at the young Rohirrim twisting his fingers together. Something was bothering the lad; but any attempt to draw him out must be delayed until the departure of their guest.
Leaning forward, Gemthir removed the wrappings from the dagger. The rippled edges gleamed dully while the copper etched serpent captured the afternoon sun and caused the blade to gently glow. An infinitesimal flicker of recognition flashed in the Haradrim's black eyes.
"You have seen this blade before?"
Careful not to touch the metal of the weapon, a dark finger traced the line of Haradric following the serpent's coils. "Yes, many times in the hands of my master's eldest brother. It bears the name of Nuphar, son of Hamzah, who long ago was Phazgân of our House."
Estev's hands jerked in his lap, but none save Ahmose noted it for Ferlan's loud, "It's an heirloom then?"
"Yes, young sir, and one my master will be most pleased to see."
Shaymur, Rolfe and Karston exchanged glances while Curthan clapped Ferlan on the back and whispered, "That should bring up the price rather nicely."
"What of you, young sir?" the Southron asked suddenly.
Estev jerked as he realized the question was directed at him. Inexplicable anger surged through him at being made the focus of inquisition. Had the others noticed him staring at the knife?
Eyes now firmly focused on the tips of his muddy boots, he muttered, "I don't know what you mean."
"Did you find what you sought on the fields below?"
"Yes...No," Estev's loud exclamations caused Jesse to raise his head and whine anxiously. "I mean ...I don't know."
"What did you find, young one?" The Southron's whispery voice compelled Estev to lift his head. The anguish in the boy's eyes was clear. Gemthir leaned forward to intervene, but before he could a reply was given.
"The dagger. I found it." Estev swallowed visibly, then clenched his fists tightly upon his thighs. "It's meant to be mine. Not yours."
"Didn't I tell you? He's trying to take it for himself." cried Ferlan before Curthan could stop him.
"And why not? I found it."
His boy's distress growing, Jesse stood and put his head on the boy's knee. Unlike the other times during the past few days, Estev ignored the dog.
"An agreement was made that what was found would be shared equally amongst you," stated Master Gemthir in the same authoritative tone he used when lecturing about the geographical features of Lebennin. When Estev did not respond, he asked sharply, "Was it not?"
Jesse yipped in confusion. Why did this man speak harshly to his boy? They were friends. Or so Jesse had thought.
"Yes, but...I want it."
"Estev." Rolfe used in the calm, even voice that had worked before to draw his foster brother from this mood. "You will keep the bargain. You know you will."
"But I want it." Leaning forward, Estev reached his hand out to toward the table in a plea. "I only want to see it. I haven't seen it in two days. Give it to me, please."
"Nay, Master Gemthir, do not," said the Haradrim abruptly.
Laying his hand on his foster brother's arm, only to have it shaken off, Rolfe swiveled about to face the dark man and demanded, "What more do you know about that knife? Why does it have this hold on Estev?"
Eyes black as the Othram met and held Rolfe's in a stony gaze. "Have you not already guessed?"
"It matters not what the boys might have guessed," the steel in Gemthir's voice was no longer sheathed, "You will tell us everything."
Ahmose stiffened and his lips drew back in a faint sneer. A lowly scholar had no right to command him, an Ulbar to the House of Tharan, to reveal the secrets of his House. The black and white dog that had lain at the young Rohirrim's feet barked sharply as the boy dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands. The dark haired one, also named as a son of Esiwmas, knelt beside him speaking with the rolling language of the Horse Lords. As the son of the Guard set himself as a shield before the two boys, the Haradrim passed a weary hand across his face and slumped in his seat.
Shaking his head, he said, "I fear my information may be too late."
Gemthir stared from the man to the boys huddled on the floor in dismay, then he stood and stepped toward his students.
"Heed my words," cautioned Ahmose, "more than one has died at the hand of a friend wielding that blade. Do not allow it within his reach."
The tutor stared down his long nose at the dagger as if a living serpent was coiled upon the table, "Dare I allow it within yours?"
"A fair question, and one I am not assured of the answer."
"We must trust to hope and honor. First, I must aid Estev."
The tutor turned to the boys. Estev now sat with his face buried in Jesse's comforting fur with Rolfe and Dog on either side of him. The others, following Curthan's lead, had adopted protective positions around the small group.
"Well done, boys," Gemthir said with approval. "Now if you will retake your seats, we will see this matter to its conclusion." Laying a gentle hand on Estev's head, he added, "Come now, lad, you've done nothing wrong. Wishing is not at all the same as doing. I know you well enough to know that you would never break an agreement."
Estev shook his head, denying the tutor's good opinion.
Gemthir straightened. "Which of you will tell me exactly what has been going on?"
Shaymur and Rolfe shifted uneasily. They should have told someone how deeply attached Estev had grown to the knife, but they had not..
"The time for secrecy is over."
"Yes, sir," Shaymur said, to be echoed quickly by the others.
Beginning slowly and occasionally interrupting each other, the boys told the tale of Estev's finding of the knife and the way he had taken to carrying it with him all the time.
"He never showed it to us, but we all knew he had it." Shaymur frowned down at his feet. "We couldn't figure out a way to tell anyone what was wrong without sounding foolish."
"Is there anything else?"
From his place beside Estev, Rolfe nodded. "He was getting up every night to check on it. Sometimes two or three times. He would open the chest and stare at it, then go back to bed. I tried talking to him, but it was like he never heard me. Dog made sure he never left the room."
Gemthir lowered himself into his chair with a sigh. After all his years of dealing with the vagaries of boys, it never ceased to amaze him how the young accepted the most outrageous occurrences as normal. Closing his eyes, the tutor considered the situation. Should he notify the boys' guardians first or attempt to discover exactly what this dagger was?
A wavering voice intruded upon his thoughts. "Master, there's something else you need to know."
One hand wrapped tightly in the herd dog's ruff and the other clinging to Rolfe's, a pale faced Estev leaned against the bulk of the larger canine, Dog. Steadfastly keeping his eyes from the table, the boy said, "It moves."
Recalling the flicker of movement that he had attributed to the lamplight, Gemthir nodded. "Tell us, Estev. If you can."
Tightening his grasp on Rolfe, the younger boy trembled and hung his head. His words, directed at the floor, tumbled one over the other. "The first time, I thought it was just the light. Then it did it again. But no one else saw anything." Seeking confirmation Estev glanced up at the other boys.
Face twisted with apology, Shaymur swallowed. "I thought the eyes glowed, but it only happened once. I'm sorry, Estev. I should have said something."
Estev shook his head. "No, I should have. I don't know what I was thinking, I just wanted it. To hold it. But I couldn't break our bargain, my father would hate me. A man who cannot keep his word can never be trusted."
"You have kept your word, lad. You have broken no bargains." The tutor reassured the boy.
"But I still want it." The boy's wail echoed off the stone walls.
"What is that thing?" said Rolfe fiercely, wrapping an arm around Estev's shuddering shoulders.
All eyes flew to the Southron. His lined face stiff, unreadable. As were the black pits of his eyes. Only the hands gripping his thighs revealed an inner turmoil.
"I believe it is time for us to hear the whole tale," the Gondorian said firmly.
Ahmose grimaced ruefully. "None who live know the full tale, but I will do my best."