Esiwmas stared down at the three pleading faces before him. `No, four,’ he thought aiming a hard look at the newest addition to this herd of mischief. Estev biting his lip as he often did whenever the request he was making was of the utmost importance to him, and Rolfe, stern faced, seemed to scarcely breathe as they awaited the trader’s answer. These two combined were capable of creating enough trouble without the addition of the other half of the quartet.
“You can’t just go around picking up strays.” Esiwmas frowned. “He must have a home.”
Rolfe said suddenly, “That’s how you got me. You just picked me up. He needs us.”
“Not the same thing at all, and you know it, Rolfe.” Esiwmas replied, reaching out with a massive hand to tousle the boy’s dark hair gently.
“Yes, it is,” Rolfe insisted stubbornly. “He’s got nobody, just like me. You took me in. Now we,” a thumb jerked from himself to Estev,” want to take him in.”
Grateful for the unexpected support, Estev said earnestly, “You’ll never know he’s here. Me and Rolfe will do everything.”
Esiwmas snorted his disbelief. “Where have I heard that before? Weren’t the two of you supposed to help with stable chores after lessons? Where were you then?”
Estev chewed his lip again and glanced at Rolfe. It was his own fault they hadn’t gotten back before lunch. Rolfe had warned him they would be in for it if they were late, but he had insisted on going with the other boys. That nmad blabber baby, Ferlan, with his honest to gosh Haradrim captain’s medallion. He had started all this trouble.
The sight of that shining golden serpent in Ferlan’s grubby paw had made Estev almost sick with envy. His father, while not forbidding him to search the Pelennor fields, had made it quite clear that he did not approve of the collecting of battle relics. Especially those of men.
Rolfe shrugged at Estev’s look, but refused to comment. It was up to Estev to tell or not. Rolfe had agreed to go along.
The trader’s blue eyes hardened as the boy squirmed. “If your actions are such that you must lie about them, perhaps you need to consider whether they are honorable.”
“Yea, Fæder,” said Estev slipping into his native Rohirric. When in the White City, his father encouraged the boys to speak the Common Tongue, but in his misery Estev could not find the words. Not for anything in all of Middle-earth did he want to disappoint his father, but truly, no one else saw anything wrong with scavenging for relics.
“I will ask you once more, where were you when you had promised to return and assist in the stables?” Esiwmas said sternly.
Head hanging and refusing to meet his father’s eyes, Estev replied in a low voice, “We went outside the wall to look for…” The boy’s voice trailed off.
Drawing a deep breath, Esiwmas ran his hand through his already disheveled blonde hair. It had been one of those mornings when anything that could go wrong did. Now, he was faced with the hardest task he knew: punishing his son.
“To look for battle relics,” finished Esiwmas when the silence lengthened. Glancing out the window to the courtyard, he saw almost the same chaos that had been there when he had first entered with the boys and their disreputable companions. He had no time for long lectures and any road, the boys must come to the understanding for themselves of the appropriateness of dishonoring the dead of any people.
“I will not repeat what I have told you concerning that. However,” he said and waited for Estev to raise his head. “You and Rolfe must both receive punishment for failing to report back when you had committed to being here. A man who can not keep his word is one that can never be trusted. You must learn this. Do you both understand me?”
Estev’s mumbled, “Yea, Fæder,” and Rolfe’s slightly louder, “Yes, sir,” earned them a grudging nod.
“Fair enough, you will report to the stable master each noon and evening for the next three days. He will assign you tasks in addition to your regular chores.” Clapping each boy on the shoulder and looking deeply into their eyes, Esiwmas exclaimed, “Now, I must try to unscramble the mess that idiotic wine merchant from the fifth circle has made in my courtyard. Nmad man, thinks he can show up with five extra crates and load them on the same number of animals.”
Estev started to speak then thought better and bit his lip again. Rolfe, after a slight hesitation, said, “Esiwmas? About the dog? Can we keep it?”
Esiwmas paused in the act of pulling open the door and directed another frown at the two animals crouched at the boys’ feet. Dog, as always, appeared to be following the conversation closely. Large and of an indiscriminate breed, Dog, according to Rolfe, possessed an intelligence equal to any man. Giving another glance out the window, Esiwmas was willing to concede the fact that Dog was certainly more intelligent than at least one wine merchant in the White City.
The second, smaller but equally furry, lifted his head as Esiwmas focused his attention on him. Sitting up, the black and white animal returned the man’s regard steadily. In a move designed to appeal, it waved a white paw and wagged its tail.
Esiwmas snorted and said derisively, “You don’t fool me for an instant. You’ve joined up with those three, I know what kind of creature you are. ” Turning back to shake a stern finger at the boys, he continued, “I expect that you will check for anyone missing a dog of his description. Furthermore, I expect that you will all be on your best behavior until we leave for the Mark at the end of the month. There you will have the entire countryside to roam.”
Estev and Rolfe were hard put to conceal their glee until Esiwmas was heard roaring in the courtyard. Extra chores from Martham, the stable master, was not as much punishment as Esiwmas supposed. Besides they had gotten what they wanted most.
“What do we call him?” Estev said, kneeling down to scratch the dog behind the ears.
“Can’t call him Dog. Already got one of those.” Rolfe laughed as Dog turned his head and gave him a slurping lick.
“We’ll call him Jesse,” stated Estev firmly after a moment’s thought.
“Why? What’s that mean?” asked Rolfe. Though becoming steadily more fluent in the rolling tongue of his adoptive family, Rolfe was constantly on watch for new words to add to his vocabulary.
“Nothin’,” said Estev with a shrug. “I just like the sound of it.”
“All right, Jesse, it is.”
The next morning found them once again toiling away under Master Gemthir’s sharp eye while another perfect spring day went to waste. Today, however, there would be no chance of a sudden dismissal. Their instructor was far too conscientious in his responsibilities for such an event to occur twice. The only option left was to work as diligently as possible to complete their assignments in the least amount of time. Thus dark head and light bent over their studies with a determination that resulted in a pleased nod from the unusually reddened face of their instructor.
“Well done, gentlemen. You have certainly applied yourselves to your work today.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Rolfe. Carefully, he rolled the map the boys had been copying and returned it to the master’s large cabinet.
After firmly stoppering his bottle of ink, Estev pointed an blue stained finger at the paper before him and traced the narrow line leading across the Ash Plains of Nurn to the tiny dot he had placed beside Lake Nurnen.
“And this is the path my cousins take with their pack trains?”
“So they have reported,” Master Gemthir replied. “Tomorrow you will fill in the areas along the Rivers Sirith and Gilrain.”
The boy’s nail moved down to the Bay of Belfalas. “Where exactly would Linhir be, sir?”
Gemthir’s thin finger tapped the spot. “Here. Trail master Liam has been most helpful in confirming the distances along that section of the road.”
Estev grinned up at the tutor. “My father says Liam’s a good trader and that he can…Rolfe, what was it?”
Brushing his dark hair back from his eyes, Rolfe said, “Esiwmas said that Liam could tell the rumors from the news.”
The tutor nodded solemnly. “Yes, that description would fit Trader Liam well. Do you understand what it means?”
His face wrinkled in concentration, Estev said, “What I think he meant was that Liam is good about knowing when people are telling the truth.”
“A skill much needed by an honest man in any occupation. One your father possesses as well.”
“Thank you, sir.” Estev beamed at the compliment to his father.
“You are quite welcome, Estev. Now if you will hand me that map, I will set it here on the table to dry thoroughly and you may be excused. It is nearly midday, and I am certain you are eager to get to your noon meal.”
At the mention of food, the boys became aware of the tantalizing aroma coming from the direction of their master’s kitchen. Sniffing the air, Rolfe nudged Estev sharply.
“If I might ask, sir, what did you use as bait?” the taller boy said with a grin as Estev stared with sudden understanding at the master’s sunburned face.
Running a hand through his thinning hair, the man’s dark eyes gleamed with amusement and said, “Grasshoppers proved adequate. Though I do believe I will return another day with the crayfish I suggested yesterday. I caught sight of the most enormous trout…”
“Was he hiding beneath those pilings to the south of the docks?” interrupted Estev.
“Yes, indeed he was,” replied the tutor. With the appearance of his housekeeper announcing the readiness of his meal, he waved the boys away saying, “Off with you now. I will see you on the morrow.”
The carnage of war had been cleared as swiftly as possible and mounds for the dead of Gondor and Rohan raised with great ceremony to either side of the causeway leading to the White City’s gate, yet the Pelennor farmlands, trampled by the armies of Mordor, continued to bear the scars of war. The foresight of Lord Denethor had seen the folk of the land and their beasts removed to safety in the vales of Tumladen and Lossarnach but nothing was able to save their homes or the land itself. Burnt out husks of homesteads and barns still stood as testimony to the losses of the people of Gondor and wide swaths of bare ground remained where the bodies of the men from the East and South who had fought in company with the orcs had been tossed into the very trenches they had slashed across the land.
The detritus of war remained as well. Hidden beneath the grass which grew up across the once carefully tilled fields, the mangled remains proved dangerous to unwary beasts and farmhands alike; so those, like Ferlan’s brother, who fought to reclaim the land spent endless hours clearing the fields. Much of what they found was useless. Yet, amid the shattered helms and spears, the fractured swords and shields, and the rusty remnants of the weapons and armor of the tens of thousands who had died upon this plain, occasionally there was found those things which fall from the hands and pockets of the dead as they are carried to their final resting places: buttons and badges, dice and coins, and the small items that men bear as talismans against fate. Objects for which those who, for whatever their reason, wish to remember the battles paid handsomely.
It was without true thought of the men who had carried those objects into a war from which they never returned that the boys completed the extra chores assigned by the stable master in less than an hour. They raced breathlessly out of the stable to climb once again up the loading ramps and over the outer wall of the city. Stopping on the other side only long enough to remove the sturdy cords from their canine companions, they continued at a trot toward their destination.
“About time, you showed up,” Ferlan said peevishly. He pointed to a nearby barrow. “We’ve already cleared the first section.”
Curthan nodded a greeting from a seat amidst the grass. His sling was coiled at his waist though two dead pheasants at his side gave the clue that he had used his time for endeavors other than searching out the broken remains of ironmongery which half filled the barrow. Speaking around a mouthful of bread, he said placidly, “You’ve had Karston and me hopping since midmorning, Ferlan. They told you they couldn’t be here until after noon.”
Dog, nose atwitch and tail wagging hopefully, hunched down and began to crawl toward Curthan. Jesse cocked his head and appeared to analyze the distance to be covered; then as if deciding the probability of success was too low, the dog sat on his haunches and whined up at Estev.
“Good dog, Jesse.” Estev reached down and patted the dog’s head before facing Ferlan. “We’ll work just as hard as you did this morning. Harder, cause it’s going to be hotter. But we can’t get here earlier.” He fixed the older boy with a hard stare. “If those terms are not acceptable to you, the bargain’s off.”
Rolfe grabbed the scruff of Dog’s neck firmly as Curthan picked up his catch by the loop of braided grass fastened around the legs of the birds.
Curthan laughed, “Not this time, Dog.” He waved a dismissive hand toward Ferlan. “Ignore him. He’s just upset `cause Karston went back at noon, and I told him I’d only stay until you two got here.”
“Where’s Shaymur?” Rolfe asked in puzzlement.
“He didn’t show up,” Ferlan said. He rubbed a grimy hand across his forehead. “He shouldn’t get a share of what we find if he doesn’t show up.”
Estev almost nodded, but stopped when Rolfe shook his head and said, “No, the agreement is that we six share what we get equally. If he’s not here right now, there’s a good reason. There’s still lots to do, and Shaymur will do his part.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling him all morning.” Curthan slung his pheasants over his shoulder. “I’ve got business to attend to in the City. Hope you have better luck than we did. All those bits and pieces,” he waved at the almost filled barrow, “won’t make much of a profit after Harlan takes his half.”
“That’s for sure,” said Estev with a frown.
“You all agreed to help me,” Ferlan exclaimed anxiously. The thought of his brother’s reaction gave his voice a slight whine. “You can’t back out now.”
“If you’re so all fired worried about us not quitting, then you better rethink the way you’re talking to us,” Estev said and folded his arms across his chest in the way he had seen his father do when delivering a warning to someone.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Curthan said soothingly and laid a heavy arm across Ferlan’s shoulders. “It’ll get done, don’t you fret about that.”
Curthan patted Ferlan firmly on the back, then walked away whistling merrily.
Ferlan swatted a tall clump of weeds. “Harlan’s not going to be happy if it takes too long.”
“It will take as long as it takes. If he wants it done faster, he can always pay someone else a fair wage to do it,” Rolfe responded and held a twisted piece of metal out for Estev to examine. “You picked all this up in the section we marked out yesterday?”
“Yes, that’s all we found.” Pulling the stopper from a water skin, Ferlan took a long swallow.
“Do you know exactly where you found this piece?” Rolfe held up another thin metal plate heavily crusted with mud.
“Over by that ditch, I think. Why? It’s junk. Not worth much. Only thing it’s good for is to be melted down to make something new.”
Privately, Estev agreed with this assessment; but suspecting that Rolfe thought otherwise, he turned the twisted piece over and over in his hands. Just a bit broken off some armor or maybe from a horse’s bridle, though it looked rather large. Holding the bit out at an angle, he tried to imagine it on a horse’s head. No, it was too large. What else could it have been?
An image from one of Master Gemthir’s maps popped into his head. Squinching his eyes tightly, Estev concentrated on recalling every detail from the illustration. This piece was connected to another that went over the ears of …an oliphaunt.
Opening his eyes wide, he met Rolfe’s small grin. Swiftly Estev schooled his features to the blandness appropriate for a trader. There was no need to let Ferlan know exactly what they had, he was certain to babble to Harlan and then the boys might lose the half of the treasures they had been promised. Tossing the piece back into the barrow as if it held no significance whatsoever, Estev accepted the dirt encrusted metal plate and began rubbing at it. A shoulder piece from some armor he was almost positive. Not of the Mark or Gondor, or he would have recognized it sooner. And not of the inferior metal used as armor for the orc troops. This must have belonged to some soldier of the south.
Careful to keep the excitement from his voice, Estev tossed the shoulder plate back into the barrow and faced Ferlan. “Yep, that’s about all it’s worth, but we might as well clear out the section right beside it than go hopping like a bunch of rabbits all over the field.”
From beneath the shaggy strands almost covering his eyes, Ferlan studied them with suspicion. There was never any knowing what Rolfe thought, he was as good as Shaymur at keeping things to himself, but Estev had put away his anger too quickly. Something was up. Stepping to the barrow, Ferlan picked up the metal plate and rubbed it. There was no decoration, no insignia of any kind. Nothing to indicate where it came from or even what it was. Just another piece of junk that needed to be cleared before the fields would be safe enough for the small flock his brother wished to run here. Scowling, he threw it back into the pile with unnecessary force.
“We’ve got to be back early for evening chores, to make up for yesterday,” Rolfe said and headed for the ditch Ferlan had indicated earlier. “We should get started. Come on, Dog.”
Dog bounced happily at Rolfe’s side, and Jesse, after giving Ferlan a puzzled look followed at Estev’s heels. As they reached the shallow ditch, the boys spread out an arm’s length apart and began moving through the grass. For a time, the dogs stayed close, thoroughly sniffing each bit of debris the boys pried from the ground. But the teasing chittering of the ground squirrels convinced Dog that today was the day he would catch one, and he slurped Rolfe’s face in farewell and bounded off across the fields. Jesse, sensing the impossibility of such an event, nevertheless gave Dog an encouraging woof and, after receiving permission from Estev, ran after him.
After working their way along the ditch to the low stone wall marking this edge of the field the three boys moved to new tracks and headed back toward the city. Estev and Rolfe in the lead, heads lowered, stooped over repeatedly to pry out anything that might be dangerous to livestock and tossed it behind them. Estev glanced over his shoulder to see Ferlan trundling the barrow over the uneven ground to collect what they had unearthed. Quietly, he said to Rolfe, “You think we’re on the right track?”
Straightening and tossing the battered remains of iron vambraces once worn by an orc archer in Ferlan’s direction, Rolfe nodded. “The problem,” he said in a low voice, “is figuring out exactly where to look. We can’t dig up the entire field. Harlan’s not interested in relics, though he’s more than willing to take his share. All he wants is the broken bits removed so he can earn his grazing rights.”
“You still think there’s something out here, don’t you? Even if they didn’t find anything this morning.” Estev stared out over the uneven surface of the Pelennor.
They were a fair distance from the gate to the city, but he could still make out the rounded shapes of the tall mounds where those who had fallen in battle lay. His older cousins, Sewold and Beregond, lay there. He wished he knew exactly how and where they had died. Everyone told the story of how Lady Èowyn and the halfling, Meriadoc, had killed the Lord of the Nazgul. That spot was plainly marked by the bare ground left from the burning of the Nazgul’s fell beast and a stone honoring Theoden King’s horse, Snowmane. He had often heard the minstrels sing “The Lay of the Mounds of Mundberg” listing the lords and nobles who had died, but no one ever told the stories of the common Riders.
Save to say that those who fought had done so with honor, his father would not speak of the battles. Neither would Curthan’s father, nor Karston’s uncles. Harlan, to Ferlan’s great disgust, had been happy to be sent to Tumladen to protect the herds. Shaymur’s grandsire would sometimes tell them of the fighting within the first circle of the city, but the old man knew nothing of what had occurred outside the walls.
“Yes, we’re close to something,” Rolfe answered. In his hands, he held the splintered end of a spear shaft and his head was tilted as if listening to a distant sound.
Estev shivered at the thought of standing on the very spot where someone had died.
He knew well the stories of the Stone of Erech and the path under the mountains. King Elessar had taken that route and called forth the Dead to fulfill their oaths. Did others of the dead yet linger, those who had not fought with honor, who had served the Dark Lord?
The rattle of the barrow broke their reverie. Rolfe gave a rueful grin and lobbed the spear shaft to land with a dull thump in the barrow’s path, eliciting a startled, “Watch what you’re doing!” from Ferlan.
Estev shook himself, then kicked at a tuft of grass. What looked like the handle of a knife appeared beneath the green. He dropped down and gently, to avoid the jagged remains of the blade, wiped away the dirt. What was revealed was not merely a shard, but a double edged dagger. Strangely, no rust speckled the blade, but more important to the boy was the coiling serpent etched along its length. A Southron blade!