Dog knew the strange tasting object was the cause of the boys’ excitement, but not why. It certainly hadn’t tasted good enough to eat. With a shake of his head, he forgot such questions and concentrated on the joy of racing along with his boy. The sunshine was warm and a slight breeze carried with it the smells of spring. Dog bounded back to urge his boy to catch up. Truly it was too bad he had only two legs.
“I’m coming, Dog,” laughed Rolfe in response to the commanding bark of the dog.
Dog sneezed as the scent of spices wafted on the air. With a sharp yip he raced ahead of the pack of boys to investigate the intriguing odors coming from an open doorway.
Three years ago, the great engines of the enemy had hurled flaming missiles and reduced this circle of the city to little more than rubble. Many years were yet to pass before all traces of destruction were vanquished, but with the assistance of dwarvish stonemasons and elvish craftsmen, the people had begun the arduous task of rebuilding. In their wisdom, the Guildmasters and Council of Magistrates had determined that henceforth living quarters would be confined to the second circle and above. Thus the first circle was now reserved for businesses like that of the Rohirrim trader Esiwmas who had been among the first to recognize that the return of the king also meant the return of trade routes spanning the breadth of Gondor and Rohan.
`Luckily,’ Estev thought as the boys ran past a warehouse in its final stages of construction, `Father’s stables and storehouses are in the opposite direction. Where is Ferlan leading us anyway?”
Leaving the main corridor, Ferlan wove a path toward the Othram. Abruptly, the buildings ended and the boys came to a sliding halt at the sight before them. A series of ramps and hoists had been erected along both sides of the City’s outer wall and were now swarming with men engaged in the task of transferring mountains of cargo from one side of the wall to the other.
“Better hold onto Dog,” Ferlan tossed over his shoulder before joining the parade of workers winding their way up the nearest ramp.
Rolfe nodded and pulled a piece of thin grey cord from his pocket to loop around Dog’s neck. In response to Karston’s disbelieving expression, he said, “It’s stronger than it looks.”
Dog, knowing that the elven rope was indeed strong enough to hold him, gave a resigned shake and settled for sniffing the air eagerly.
Slowly, they climbed, taking care not to interfere with the work of the laborers. Reaching the top of the wall the boys were able to see the ships crowded against the docks of Harlond; for here, the city’s walls and the mighty Anduin were separated by less than a mile.
Catching up to Rolfe, Estev panted, “Where is that fool taking us?”
Rolfe shrugged, but Curthan turned to call back, “His brother’s got grazing rights on some land just beyond the base of the ramps.”
Rolfe and Estev exchanged knowing looks. This was the key to Harlan’s plot. The boys would do the work, which earned the farmer his pasture, as well as take a percentage of any important finds they made.
Rolfe pulled Dog up short and grabbing Estev by the arm to move him from the path of a group of men rolling barrels toward the ramps leading back into the City. “This deal is sounding more and more lopsided as we go.”
Estev chewed his bottom lip and watched as the other boys began the zigzagging slope downwards. “Can’t we check it out? If you still don’t feel right after we go look, we’ll tell Ferlan, `No’.”
Reluctantly, Rolfe nodded. “But if there’s no sign of anything today, I’m not coming back to scrounge around in the dirt for Harlan. You can if you want, but I won’t.”
Estev agreed eagerly and, weaving his way rapidly down the ramp, rejoined the other boys, leaving Rolfe to trail along behind.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Dog inched forward then froze. Every muscle quivering with suppressed excitement, he stared intently at the small knoll ahead. A flash of brown, and Dog darted forward, only to feel his teeth close on air and hear whistling laughter as the ground squirrel escaped once again.
“You’ll never catch one,” said Rolfe as Dog threw himself to the ground with a huff. “Why don’t you just give up?”
“Better yet,” came Estev’s voice from the direction of a nearby ditch. “Have him dig.”
Looking around at his adopted brother, Rolfe sighed. “Not for medals he won’t. Now if you were going after oliphaunt bones, he’d be the first in line.”
Grabbing the hand Estev held out and pulling the younger boy to his feet, Rolfe pointed at the sun overhead. “Karston went back half an hour ago. I agree there’s bound to be something out here, and I’ll come back with you tomorrow afternoon and search as long as you want. But, Estev, I’m starving, aren’t you?”
Rolfe made no mention of the fact that some form of punishment was certain to be awaiting them for failing to return on time.
Kicking at the ground, Estev nodded. He knew there was something out here. He could feel it, but where?
The scars laid across the Pelennor fields would, like the City’s, take many years to fade; but Estev had never seen the land as it had been before the war. To him, the crisscross pattern of half-filled trenches and the mounds raised over the dead were how it had always appeared. Born in the rolling grasslands near the Deeping Stream, Estev thought the fields dotted with newly constructed oasts and byres too settled. He preferred the area beyond the distant walls and the way it seemed to go on forever. Though he enjoyed these times with his father in Minas Tirith, Estev’s heart was given to the Deeping Vale and the mountain pastures of his family. Let Esdav take over this part of the family’s businesses, he would stay in Rohan and raise horses. If he didn’t join Éomer King’s éored, that is.
“All right, might as well. If we hurry, at least we’ll still get something to eat.”
Estev turned to begin the walk back to the wall when Ferlan’s voice hollered, “Hey, you bring that back here.”
Dog woofed loudly as a black and white form sped past.
Rolfe dove for the dangling bit of elven rope and held on tightly, shouting, “No, Dog!”
“Catch the blasted mutt,” cried Ferlan. “He’s got my lunch.”
Curthan pulled free the sling he wore on his belt and gathered up two smooth stones. “I’ll get him for you.”
“No, don’t!” called Estev running after the thief. “It’s only a dog. It’s probably just hungry.”
“So am I!” exclaimed Ferlan indignantly. “And I want my lunch back.”
“Too late for that,” said Shaymur trotting over from the hillock he had been examining. “He’s already swallowed it.”
Faces red and sweating under the spring sun, Ferlan and Curthan stared down at Rolfe, who had his arms clasped tightly around Dog’s neck.
“Why didn’t you let him go? He’d have caught the mangy thief,” Ferlan said with disgust.
Rolfe was prevented from having to justify his actions, when Estev, glancing continuously over his shoulder, returned holding a kerchief wrapped bundle.
“Your lunch,” he said tossing the package to Ferlan.
“And where’s the thief?” asked Shaymur.
“He’s just hungry, that’s all,” replied Estev, and patted his leg, whistling.
Slowly the grasses parted and a black and white herding dog crawled from the grass to lie with pleading eyes directed at the boys. The dog’s ribs could be seen through the coat of dense fur. As the dog sat up and waved an entreating paw at the boys, Ferlan looked down at the bundle in his hand. With a sigh, he pulled the knot and tossed the bread and cheese to the animal who, after an open mouthed grin of thanks, gulped the food in three large bites.
Shaymur patted Ferlan on the back and looked at Rolfe who simply shrugged. Estev reached out a slow hand and scratched the dog gently behind the ear.
“You’re going to take him?” Shaymur asked quietly. “I would, but there’s no room at my grandsire’s for a dog.”
Curthan rolled up his sling and said, “You saved its life, Estev. You’re responsible for it.”
“Just needs some feeding up and he’ll be fine,” said Estev almost to himself. In a worried tone, he asked, “Rolfe?”
“Up to you. But you’re the one who has to ask your father.”
Estev stroked the dog’s head once more and received a small lick of gratitude. “Guess it won’t hurt to try.”
“Dunno about that,” Rolfe replied with another glance toward the sun. “Considering how late we’re gonna be, it could hurt a lot.”
As Estev grinned ruefully, the others burst out laughing. Agreeing that they would meet tomorrow to begin a more strategic hunt for the treasures all sensed must be nearby, the boys trudged back across the fields to the city.