Dog lifted his head and yawned, shaking until his ears flopped. The grey light of dawn was seeping into the room. Far too early to be up and about; but his boy had said to wake him, so he would. Briefly he wondered if that included waking the other one as well. No, that one would need to sleep for he had been awake during the night; standing over the wooden box at the end of the bed. There was nothing in the box that Dog thought worth leaving a warm bed to retrieve, and the boy must have decided the same for he had lowered the lid gently without removing anything. When he saw Dog sitting up staring at him curiously, the boy had whispered an admonition to `lie down.’ Dog had thought that strange, for the boy had been the one to get up first; but then, the two legs were often contradictory.
The early cooing of a dove sounded from the window and Dog hurried to his job. It would never do for his boy to think a bird could take his place. Setting his front paws on the bed, he nudged the blanketed form.
“Huh?” was the sleepy response.
Dog licked at an exposed ear. A hand batted him away and pulled the blanket up so that only a wild mop of dark hair was visible.
Taking the blanket gently between his teeth, Dog began to back away. The cloth resisted. Dog released the covering for an instant, then regained it and twisted his head quickly.
“Hey, no fair,” Rolfe exclaimed as the blanket slithered to the floor.
His tail wagging with satisfaction, Dog grinned at his boy and woofed quietly.
“All right, I’m up.” Swinging his legs around and sitting up, Rolfe rubbed his face briskly. “Estev, wake up!”
“What?” The other boy jerked up and looked about wildly.
Rolfe tossed his pillow at Estev who caught it one handed and stacked it atop his own. After turning bleary eyes to the window, the Rohirrim lad moaned, “No, I can’t do it.” Then slumped back onto the bed.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Rolfe rose and poured water from a tin ewer into the basin atop a narrow washstand. He splashed his own face, then dipped a cloth into the water. “Get up. You’re the one who wants to dig for relics.”
“No, I don’t. I just want to sl…” Estev’s last word ended with a splat as the wet cloth landed on his face. Spluttering, he whipped the cloth back toward Rolfe only to have Dog jump up and catch it before it found its target.
Rolfe laughed as Dog bounded onto the other boy’s bed and stood with the dripping cloth trailing from his mouth.
Jesse, who had watched quietly until now, could not let this infringement upon his place go unchallenged and jumped upon the bed as well. Soon, all three landed on the floor with a thump. Estev rubbed his elbow and pushed Dog off his stomach.
“Father’s right, you are a herd of mischief.”
“You were included in that herd,” Rolfe retorted and pulled a comb through his disheveled hair. “Get dressed. I’ll run down to the kitchen and catch Sarantha to ask for some food.” Waving an arm at the tangled bed linens and discarded clothing scattered across the floor, he added, “Be a good idea to straighten up in here and stay on her good side.”
“Get some of that apple bread she baked yesterday.” Estev stumbled on one of the boots he had discarded the night before and grimaced. “And some pickles. Curthan likes those.”
“I’ll get a banquet fit for King Elessar himself,” Rolfe assured his foster brother. “I’ll take the dogs with me and let them into the courtyard for a bit. Hurry down.”
Warning the dogs to silence, Rolfe held open the door. Dog slipped out and vanished down the dark stairwell. Jesse paused to look back uncertainly and whine. Should his boy be left alone?
“It’s all right, Jesse,” Rolfe said patting the dog reassuringly. “He’ll be along.”
When his master seconded the words, Jesse reluctantly followed Rolfe. As the door clicked shut, Estev grabbed a shirt from the floor to turn right side out and pull over his head. Socks were easily found, though one boot had managed to crawl all the way against the wall. Ignoring the comb, the boy sloshed more water into the basin, ducked his head to splash his neck and ears and ran a damp hand through his blond hair in a vain attempt to make it lie flat.
Gathering up an armload of clothing, Estev yanked up the lid of the chest. At the sight of the cloth wrapped blade, he froze and allowed the clothes to slide to his feet. Without thinking he reached down to lift out the knife. The weight of it felt familiar to his hands though he had only held it for a brief time the day before. Did the serpent writhe upon the blade with no eyes to see it, or did it await an audience? His fingers itched to reveal the shining metal to the morning light, but a sudden whistle outside the window recalled him to his duties.
Setting the knife on the washstand, he tossed clothing into the chest and slammed the lid. With more care than he had taken with his own appearance, Estev spread the bed coverings smoothly. The boys had long ago learned Sarantha’s foremost criteria for a clean room was a well made bed and that it was far easier to take the few moments to do the task properly than it was to endure her ranting.
Satisfied that he had done all that was necessary to avoid adult censure, Estev pulled on a stained tunic and buckled a braided horsehair belt about his middle. Chewing thoughtfully on his lip, he picked up the cloth bound knife and tucked it inside his shirt where it rested against the bare skin of his stomach. If anyone asked he would say he had brought it to show Curthan and Karston.
As a playful breeze set the grass to shimmering, Karston varied the melody flowing from his palm sized recorder to a bouncy tune that caused the other boys’ toes to begin tapping. When Curthan jumped up and started a jig, the baker boy watched with amused eyes and increased the tempo.
Curthan tipped his head in acknowledgement of the challenge. Tall for his nearly twelve years and sturdily built, he was nevertheless light footed and matched the rhythm of the music with ease. Faster and faster, they went, musician and dancer, until they echoed the very music of life itself: the wind and the sun and the dancing grass. With a trilling flourish, Karston brought the song to an end just as the guard’s son threw himself on the ground panting.
Karston ducked his head shyly and tucked his recorder into a pocket as his small audience clapped, cheered and barked enthusiastically.
“That was marvelous, Karston,” Shaymur exclaimed and thumped him soundly on the back.
“What about me?” panted the red-faced Curthan accepting a water skin from Rolfe.
“Good enough to become a dancing master for some noble family,” answered Rolfe with a grin.
As the other boys hooted with laughter, Curthan swept Rolfe’s legs out from under him and wrestled him to the ground. “If I do, you shall be my assistant,” Curthan said when he had secured a hold on Rolfe.
“Never,” proclaimed Rolfe through clenched teeth. He twisted in a vain attempt to free himself. Curthan was not only heavier with a longer reach, he had the advantage of a being trained by his father, a Guard of the Citadel.
“Careful there,” Curthan responded mildly. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Let me go, you big oaf,” Rolfe exclaimed, “and show me how you did it.”
Curthan grinned and released him. Bouncing to his feet, he said, “Watch carefully. Ferlan, come here.”
With a sigh, the farm lad brushed his hair from his eyes. “Why is it always me? Use Estev.”
“So that you’ll learn how to do it,” Curthan said patiently. “Rolfe, you and Karston pair up. Estev and Shaymur, too.”
Karston shook his head. “Not me. I’ve got to get back for the afternoon baking. Much thanks for the food. Sarantha’s chicken is better than anything my aunt ever makes.”
“That’s not saying much. I cook better than your aunt,” replied Estev with a grin.
“True,” responded the boy mournfully. He and his father had lived with his uncle’s family since his mother’s death several years ago. His aunt was kindness itself, but she seldom managed to prepare a meal without something being burnt beyond recognition. “I didn’t mean it that way though. It was good. You will tell her so?”
Since Karston’s departure left an uneven number, Shaymur paired up with Rolfe leaving Estev sitting alone while the others practiced. After a few minutes of watching Curthan demonstrate the toss and hold, his attention wandered to the barrow half filled with the oddments unearthed during the morning. Along with the usual assortment of broken spear shafts, leather straps with missing buckles and rust eaten bits of armor, they had found another medallion. This one with the serpent curled to the left. After careful comparison with the captain’s badge that Ferlan kept inside his shoe, the boys had determined that both medals bore the same Haradric rune to the right of the serpent’s head.
Pleased with their find, the other boys had been tolerate of Rolfe’s statement that he had forgotten to bring the knife because of getting up so early and rushing to get to the fields with lunch before Karston and Curthan left. Placing his hand over the lump hidden beneath the double layer of leather tunic and shirt, Estev glanced guiltily up at the wrestlers. He had missed his chance to tell them he had brought the knife with him, now it must remain hidden.
Slowly, he stood and went to rummage in the barrow, picking up an item and holding it up in an attempt to determine its former purpose. Pulling free a moldy leather strap, Estev could feel the indentations of some insignia. He rubbed the leather against his leg and held the strap up and tilted it. The WhiteTree of Gondor. This was from the equipage of some soldier of the City.
“Estev, come on. It’s your turn.” Ferlan’s breathless voice pleaded.
Lifting a hand in acknowledgement, Estev returned to the boys carrying the strap.
“What did you find?” Shaymur asked, wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. He and Rolfe were almost evenly matched in ability if not in size and age.
Estev did not answer but simply thrust the leather into Curthan’s hands.
“What?” Curthan asked. The grin slid from his face as he studied the strap carefully. He rubbed it with the sleeve of his shirt and the embossed image became clearer. Seven stars stood above the tree. Not just a soldier of the City, but a member of the Tower Guard.
The warmth disappeared from the sun, and the ghostly touch of a mournful wind sent a shiver through the grass. Shaymur reached out to put a hand on Curthan’s shoulder while Ferlan shifted anxiously.
“It’s not from my brother’s company,” Curthan said in a hollow voice, “but I’d like to take it back to my father anyway.” His fingers tightened imperceptibly on the leather. “He might be able to tell us more about it.”
“Of course,” said Shaymur, squeezing his friend’s shoulder.
In the distance the noon bell tolled. The boys looked automatically toward the black wall of the Othram, then upwards to where a flight of doves circled the White Tower. The king’s banner, stark against the pale blue of the spring sky, flew from the pinnacle.
With a solemn nod, as if answering an unspoken question, Curthan straightened, gave Shaymur a wink and punched Ferlan on the arm saying, “Don’t look so worried, little man.”
“Ow! That hurt, and who are you calling little?” exclaimed Ferlan.
“You, little man.” Curthan patted the smaller boy on the head. “Don’t get into any trouble this afternoon. Rolfe, don’t forget to bring that knife tomorrow.”
“I won’t,” Rolfe promised. “Come by this evening and see it if you want. Bring Karston, too.”
Estev clenched his fist to keep from feeling for the knife and said, “Sarantha will open a new crock of pickles just for you.”
“Tempting thought,” Curthan laughed. “I just might. Where’s my cap? Oh, thank you, Dog.” Accepting the cap and rubbing the dog’s head, he waved farewell and strode away rapidly.
Briskly, Shaymur said, “Our turn now. Let’s make sure we clear as much as they did this morning. We can have the whole field done in less than a week. Ferlan, you pack up what’s left from lunch while Estev pushes the barrow for a while. Then you can help him load. Rolfe and I will be in the lead. We’ll trade off in an hour or so.”
Their tasks set, the boys spread out and moved across the field. At first, their minds were filled with what had happened in this place and the men who would never again walk amongst them. But such thoughts have little hold on the young, thus a short time later when Jesse startled a rabbit and gave chase across the green fields, the boys paused in their labors to cheer and shout encouragement. Returning to their work, they began to sing. A silly song it was, of a goose that wanted to fly to the moon. Their feet and hands moved in time with the tune as back and forth across the field they went, clearing the rubbish of war from the land and the sadness from their hearts.
Sprawled upon the tiled floor of what the Gondorians called a side room, Estev narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the left. Then back to the right to look intently at Jesse laying curled asleep upon a small rug before a large cushioned chair.
“You’ve got his ears all wrong,” he said sliding the drawing back across the floor.
“Uh-huh,” replied Rolfe patiently. He studied the sketch, then made a short stroke with his charcoal to indicate the muscles of the animal’s forelegs.
Running a hand through his hair, Estev rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Tapping his fingers on his chest in time to the rain pattering on the windows, he asked, “I wonder when Father will be back. Sarantha said after dinner. That was an hour ago.”
“Hold still,” Rolfe said.
Estev sighed. He hated when Rolfe drew a picture of him. It always ended up with big ears or odd sized eyes, and being told `sit still’ made his nose itch. Carefully he slid the hand on the side away from Rolfe toward his face.
“I can’t,” Estev groaned.
“You just think you can’t.”
“I told you before to stop that.”
“I’m not being bossy,” insisted Rolfe.
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
Estev smirked, then repeated, “Yes, you are.”
“All right, I am. Now, sit still.”
Rolfe’s mouth twisted up in the corner as he concentrated, and Estev rolled his eyes and tried not to think about his nose. First, he counted to one hundred in Rohirric, then in the Common Tongue. For good measure he tried it in Elvish but got only as far as thirty-six because he couldn’t remember if he should count it as six sixes or three twelves. Given that it was Elvish, it was probably both.
“Are you done yet?”
Sighing, Estev flexed the muscles of his back. A stone floor got harder the longer you lay on it, but at least it was clean. Or it better be. He had already taken one bath today because Sarantha had refused to allow either boy to sit at the table until they bathed. She’d even checked their necks and ears afterward. Estev snorted. There was nothing wrong with a little dirt. Besides with this rain, he was bound to get all muddy tomorrow.
The rain, which had been falling in spits and spurts since late afternoon, might prove to be a blessing. It had driven them from the fields today, but perhaps it would reveal something of importance on the morrow. Little of worth had been found for the past three days though all six boys had worked steadily. Another medallion had been unearthed, several well preserved spear and arrow points, and a tarnished silver chain, but nothing approaching the magnificence of the knife. At the thought of the blade, Estev grimaced.
“Stop that,” chided Rolfe, and Estev muttered, “Sorry.”
The nmad knife. Almost, he wished he’d never found the thing. Careful to let only his eyeballs move, he flicked a glance at his foster brother. What would Rolfe say if it was discovered that every morning he took the blade from the chest where it was hidden and tucked it inside his shirt to carry with him all day long?
During the evenings after he had returned the knife to its hiding place, he often found his hand seeking for the solid reassurance of the lump beneath his shirt. He could not understand what was going on; but whenever he unwrapped the blade and held it up to see, the serpent writhed in the light. Once or twice he had even thought he heard it hissing.
No one else seemed to see or hear anything. When Karston and Curthan had been shown the blade, they commented on its rippled edges and the twisted copper and iron wires placed along the handle, but never upon the coiling and uncoiling serpent. It had to be just his imagination. And why did he find it so difficult to leave the knife in the chest? The others would think he was trying to take it for himself if they found out he carried it with him each day.
`And why shouldn’t I? I found it. It should be mine.’
Estev’s exclamation brought both dogs to their feet searching for the cause of alarm. Seeing nothing threatening their masters, they whined inquiringly and nudged the boys with their noses.
“No what?” Rolfe set aside his sketching to rub Dog’s ears soothingly. “If you didn’t want your picture done, all you had to do was say so.”
“It’s not that,” Estev stammered, his fingers clutched at Jesse until the dog whimpered. Apologizing to the animal, he clasped his hands together and frowned.
Rolfe’s mouth tightened with annoyance. `Nothing’ had been Estev’s response ever since he had found that knife, and trying to force him to talk only caused him to storm away. But what else could be done but attempt to find out what was bothering his friend?
“If it’s the rain, it won’t last the night.”
“It’s not the rain,” mumbled Estev picking at his thumbnail.
“What then? Two more days and we’ll be finished clearing that field. Harlan will have his grazing rights.”
Estev snorted with derision. “Not to mention a fine profit.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? That Harlan gets a share.”
Ferlan’s brother had been to the field twice to check on their progress. With blank faced innocence, and perfect honesty, the boys had pointed at the barrow loaded with odds and ends and voiced their own disappointment over not discovering anything of greater value that day.
“No,” Estev said firmly. “That was the bargain. And I will keep it.”
Rolfe’s eyes narrowed at the force behind those words. Was Estev trying to convince himself?
The mildness of the reply released much of the tightness within Estev’s chest. If Rolfe did not doubt him, perhaps there was no reason to doubt himself. He ruffled Jesse’s fur and said, “What plan have you and Shaymur come up with for selling the medallions?”
Leaning against Dog’s solid bulk, Rolfe frowned. “The perfect person to ask to help us would be Esiwmas.”
Estev shook his head slowly. His father had given his approval for their daily expeditions to the fields. After they had served their punishment for failing to appear when promised, he had gone so far as to release them from noon chores at the stable yard. He had even listened politely to their tales. But not once had the trader asked to see any of the objects. There was little chance that he would help them to sell any of the relics they had found.
Rolfe nodded his agreement. “But since that’s not possible, Shaymur and I decided we should ask Master Gemthir.”
“Why not? He knows lots of people, and he might even be able to read the runes on the medallions and on that dagger.”
Chewing his lip, Estev considered the suggestion. “You think so?”
“There’s no harm in asking. At the least, maybe he can tell us who else to talk to.”
“All right. When?”
“We were thinking about tomorrow evening, before dinner. There’s not that much left to do out here. We can stop early and go up to see him.”
“Good idea. Is everyone to go?”
Rolfe shrugged. “I’m not sure. I was planning on asking Master Gemthir tomorrow morning if he would meet with us, and then seeing who could go with me. Shaymur should be there.”
Estev nodded. Shaymur was the oldest and always took the lead, though lately he had deferred more than one decision to Rolfe. With a sigh, Estev wondered why everything had to always change. By the end of summer, both Shaymur and Karston would be old enough to sign as apprentices to some master. Curthan would follow soon after that. Thank goodness that was not to be his fate. He would learn to manage the holding in Rohan and raise horses. Esdav would take over the trading part of the family. Or maybe Rolfe could do that? But that was all in too far in the future to be worrying now.
Estev pushed Jesse’s head off his knee and stood. “I’ve got to finish that lesson Master Gemthir set me to copying.”
With Jesse at his heels, the boy hastened out of the room without another word. Rolfe gathered up his charcoal and papers and tucked them away into a thin leather satchel with the family’s crest imprinted on the strap. It had been a Yule gift from Esiwmas and housed all of his best drawings.
Studying the sketch he had made of Estev, he wondered if it were possible to show the changes in his foster brother’s behavior with a drawing. Maybe if he had more talent, he could; as it was, the boy in the picture looked the same as always. Snub nosed with ears that stuck out, a fact that Estev hotly denied. There was no evidence of the sudden shifts in mood or the distance the boy had put between himself and his friends during the past ten days. The others were worried too, but not one of them knew what to do. As soon as the field was cleared and all those relics sold, especially that knife, maybe Estev would return to normal. If not, Rolfe decided he would have to go to Esiwmas.
Fastening the buckle on the satchel and setting it on shelf near the door, he said, “Come on, Dog. Let’s go see if Sarantha has anything leftover from dinner.”