Leaning forward, the Haradrim motioned toward the window through which a narrow sliver of pale spring sky could be seen. “Beyond the walls of the City of Stone, the fields grow green and herders tend their flocks in safety. It is the same in my country, though the sun is warmer there. Wide plains that go to the distant mountains. Much I am told like your country of Rohan.”
Ahmose directed his gaze at Rolfe, inviting him to respond.
“Estev is Rohirrim, sir. I am Gondorian by birth. Esiwmas adopted me.”
“Ah,” exclaimed the man. “You act very much as brothers.”
“They are my family now,” the boy said simply. Giving Estev’s shoulders a slight squeeze, he added, “I get to practice being bossy.”
Rolfe had taken exactly the tone needed. Master Gemthir and the Haradrim gave matching nods of satisfaction when Estev sat up and rubbed his face with his sleeve.
“You don’t need to practice,” the boy muttered. “You’re already good at it.”
“Older brothers are the same everywhere. Are they not, young masters?” Ahmose tilted his head toward Curthan, then Ferlan, and waited.
“Yes, sir,” replied the two.
Having gathered his audience, the dark man sat back with a sigh. “As the nature of brothers does not change from place to place, neither does the nature of men. Some live always with honor as their guide and others forever shift with the wind of greed. Men who want what is best for the one, rather than for the many.
The boys nodded in agreement, but did not interrupt the rhythm of the story.
“Long ago, the lands of Middle-earth fell victim to the Great Plague. No country escaped its sword. Not Eriador, not Gondor, not Rhûn. Not Harad. Children were left orphaned and parents were left childless. Tribes were left leaderless, and leaders were left without people to follow them. Those few who survived in the lands beyond the River Harnen combined their numbers. Thus were born the Twenty Houses. To them, all tribes belong, and to the phazgân of each House is owed great loyalty. As is the nature of men, some are weak, others strong, some are born to lead and others too frightened to take command.”
Jesse squirmed as Estev clutched him tightly.
“A weak man,” the Southron continued, “if born in peaceful times may do his duty with no hardship, but sad is the House whose leader is unworthy when the enemy marches upon their door. This fate befell the House of Tharan in the times of our fathers’ fathers’ fathers.”
“In the midst of our woe, there appeared, from distant lands, an emissary. With honeyed voice he spoke of the power of his Lord. A Lord who would fight our enemies as his own and raise this weak phazgân to great heights so that all might do him honor. As proof of this great Lord’s respect a gift was made. A dagger etched with the Serpent of the Twenty Houses and bearing the name Nuphar.”
Ahmose fell silent and stared at his hands. Then with his voice barely more than a whisper he went on.
“Oaths were taken. Binding our House to the service of this distant Lord for so long as the dagger remained whole. Through the years, similar fates befell the other great Houses, until all were subject to the commands of Mordor.”
“I knew it,” breathed Ferlan.
“Evil directed the counsels of our leaders, young masters. Yet, not every man turned from honor. Those few who believed not in the evil ways of the Dark Lord and worked to free our people from this terrible alliance lived careful lives. To be discovered was the path to unpleasant death. My master is one such man. On the day the Dark Lord fell, we seized our chance. The West’s victory against Sauron was ours as well. Great was the price we paid upon the fields of the Pelennor, but more bitter was that claimed upon the banks of the Harnen for there brother drew blade against brother.”
The lines upon his face deepened. “Was our freedom truly won? Were we yet bound to Evil? Where was the dagger of Nuphar? It had gone to war with my master’s eldest brother. From that battle nothing and no one returned, save the rumors of Gondor’s wrath. Had it shattered like the Tower of Barad-dur? Or had it been found whole with our ancient oath intact? These thoughts troubled the minds of the wise. It is my belief that you have found the answers to many of their questions.”
“To our sorrow,” Master Gemthir said.
Disappointment evident in his voice, Ferlan eyed the knife and said, “I don’t see anything strange.”
The others echoed his findings, if not his emotion.
Master Gemthir studied the blade carefully, then shook his head. “I must say I am relieved, though confused.”
“As am I,” Ahmose said. “It appears much as I have seen it before. Its evil known only through its past. One wonders why it speaks to the young one, but to no other?”
“Estev was the first to touch it. Does that matter?” asked Shaymur. “And he’s been carrying it around every day.”
“Possibly,” Gemthir replied. “But I will now confess that when you delivered it into my keeping, it writhed and hissed for me as well. I discounted the incident, believing it my imaginings and the result of poorly strained lamp oil.”
“It talked to you, too?” A strange mixture of relief and jealousy shone in Estev’s eyes as he twisted around to face the tutor.
“Many have witnessed the blade’s hypnotizing dance.” Ahmose said. “Few have resisted the temptations of its fell voice. Perhaps, as your friend has said, you touched it first, and awoke it. Perhaps, too, it is as my master hopes, the blade’s powers have weakened. Though great is your desire to keep it within your sight, you have not forsaken your honor and claimed it as your own. Others have not withstood the evil of the blade so well.”
Master Gemthir interjected, “Estev possesses two strong shields against evil.”
“You have the love and respect of family and friends,” Master Gemthir pointed to the other boys, and then at the two dogs beside him, “but most of all, you know what is truth. Remember our discussion concerning Trail Master Liam?”
Estev nodded slowly. “Being able to tell the rumor from the news?”
“Precisely.” The tutor smiled gently, “My dear boy, you possess the same trait. From the tale told here, you have fought against the urgings of this evil thing from the beginning. You knew it was wrong, and you have not given in. If this was once a gift from the Dark Lord of Mordor, its history is far more foul than has yet been told. You have done very well indeed.”
Fastening his gaze upon the sky eyes of the young Rohirrim, Ahmose said, “As your master has guessed, the history of this blade is indeed fouler than I have told. But such stories are not for the ears of the young.”
“They may be young in years, sir,” Master Gemthir replied, “but each has lived through experiences that have left grown men shattered,”
At Gemthir’s proclamation, the boys straightened and exchanged proud looks. Estev, however, chewed his lower lip uncertainly. His eyes wandered to the dagger until Jesse nudged his chest and Dog woofed softly in his ear.
“What happens now? Will I always want it?”
“Forgive me, but I know not,” said the Haradrim as all heads turned to him for an answer. “Karif Phazgân has made careful study of the Blade of Nuphar. One may hope that he might answer.”
“One may always hope. Do not despair. We will find a solution.” Gemthir fixed the boy with a reassuring gaze to which Estev responded with a nod and a weak smile.
A sharp tap at the door heralded the entrance of Mistress Tarmanil bearing an enormous platter which she settled on the sideboard. At her heels was a kitchen boy balancing a large pitcher and several cups. Unlike the housekeeper, who continued to deny the Haradrim the honor of her recognition, the boy gawked openly at the red robed man seated in the chair opposite Master Gemthir. As the pitcher tipped dangerously in the boy’s hands, Tarmanil snapped her fingers to recall him to his task.
“Set it there, Borthond,” she said briskly, directing a frown at muddy boots and paws. Rolfe and Estev scrambled to their feet and the other boys shifted uncomfortably; but the housekeeper said only, “Will that be all, sir?’
“Yes, thank you,” responded Gemthir with a patient smile.
Tarmanil bobbed a curtsey and shoving the kitchen boy before her moved toward the still open door.
“On second thought…” The housekeeper paused mid step when the tutor spoke again. “Please send Borthond to inform the boys’ families that they are dining with me and will be home by the seventh bell?”
Gemthir hesitated, then rose and went to his desk. He scribbled a hasty note, then sealed it and held it out to the kitchen boy.
Speaking softly, he said, “Deliver this to Esiwmas of Rohan rather than the other message. Do you understand, Borthond?”
The boy smiled broadly and tucked the message into this belt. “Yes, sir. Trader Esiwmas receives the note and the others are told the boys dine with you.”
“Off you go then,” Master Gemthir said, then maneuvered the housekeeper through the door and closed it firmly.
Jesse and Dog, noses twitching, leaned against the legs of their boys and stared up beseechingly. Ferlan, his nose atwitch as well, strained to identify the contents of the platter and wondered if the others could hear the growling of his stomach.
As the tutor returned to his seat, Shaymur asked, “What happens now, sir?” He pointed to the medallion and the dagger.
The resilience of youth again astonished the tutor. Even presented with a tool of evil designed by the Dark Lord, the boy was capable of focusing on the practicalities.
“A question that will receive much thought, Shaymur, but one with which you boys need not trouble yourselves. If you are all in agreement, I will undertake to arrange matters with the phazgân. After all, that is my task as your representative.”
“And the other things too? The ransom for the armband, I mean,” said Ferlan, shifting to avoid another jab from Curthan.
“Most certainly. If the House of Tharan does not wish to redeem the medallions or the silver chain, there are alternate buyers available.”
Rolfe, dark eyes solemn, said, “We didn’t know what that knife was or we would not have kept it secret.”
“We didn’t want my brother to take it,” Ferlan explained. “But now that he knows about it,” an accusing glance was aimed at Master Gemthir, “he’ll expect a lot of money.”
“You shall be most richly compensated, young sirs, for the return of the Blade of Nuphar ,” Ahmose replied.
Reassured, Ferlan subsided and directed another longing gaze at the platter on the sideboard. It had been a long time since lunch.
“You don’t sell things like that,” Karston protested. “It just causes trouble.”
Curthan and Rolfe nodded in agreement. Ferlan sighed; he had known they would find a way to be noble and just give the stuff away. At least, they would still get something for the armband.
“What is to be done now that the blade has been recovered?” Shaymur asked as he watched Estev’s fists began to clench and unclench.
“My master, as is his right as Phazgân of the House of Tharan, means to destroy it.”
Estev bit down on his lip to hold back a loud “no”.
“Has anyone tried before?” asked Karston. “I mean …”
“Yes, young sir, many times.” Ahmose replied solemnly. “None have survived the attempt which is why my master has taken the task upon himself. Our hope is that with the defeat of the Dark One, the blade’s powers will be diminished and a less demanding means may be found to destroy it forever.”
Though the question of what would happen if this hope proved fruitless filled their minds, none spoke the words aloud. For a thought once spoken takes on a life of its own.
His gaze upon the dark dagger of Nuphar, Ahmose again felt the icy fingers of dread. What power did it still possess? Did its failure to claim the minds and hearts of the young Rohirrim and the Gondorian scholar mean that it was no longer a threat? No, that he did not believe. Too much evil had been done because of this blade for him to accept that.