Jesse wiggled with impatience; the smell of meat pastries eroding his manners. He had tried beseeching looks and soft whimpers, but his boy made no move to fetch the treats from the high place where they had been set. There was not even the excuse that he was talking, for his boy had not spoken since the woman had brought in the tray.
As his boy continued to ignore his increasingly obvious pleas, the dog began to cast worried looks at the table. He did not like it when his boy sat looking at that strange metal object. It did not smell right. Jesse was certain it was a BAD thing, and always tried to stop his boy from touching it.
Dog’s boy did not like it either. Jesse could tell by the way the boy talked about it to Dog. Jesse whimpered again. His boy had talked to him about it when he first found it, telling Jesse how everyone would know that he had been the one to find it and what he would do with all the money he got for it. Jesse was not certain what money was, but he had liked the happy sound of his boy’s voice. His voice was not happy now. In fact, he did not speak much at all anymore.
Growling at the table, Jesse thought of taking the metal thing and burying it where his boy would never find it.
Estev stared miserably at his hands. He had disgraced himself in front of everyone. The sight of the dagger after three days of separation had been more than he could stand. He just wanted to hold it again. To trace the outline of the serpent with his fingertips and to experience again the slight chill that always seemed to linger on the metal. Rubbing his fingers together, he chided himself again for crying over something that was not his.
`But it should be.’ A sibilant voice in his head whispered. `And they mean to take it for themselves.’
His fists clenched and he pounded his thigh. How dare they take what was his.
“No!” shouted Estev. Pushing Jesse’s head off his knee, he stood. “I won’t let you take it.”
“Estev, sit down!” directed Gemthir, stepping between the boy and the table.
Rolfe and Shaymur moved to take Estev’s arms and pull him back to his seat, but he twisted away from them to protest, “But Master, he’s not going to destroy it. He just wants it. He’ll keep it for himself, and then he will have it for his own.” Estev’s voice dropped away, “You can’t let him do that.”
Uncertain eyes fastened on the dark man. Was that his plan? To take the blade for himself?
“I swear upon the honor of my House that such is not the truth,” Ahmose proclaimed and stood with hand on breast and head bowed. “Young one, you are deceived by the voice of the blade.”
“You can’t believe him.” Estev’s face twisted into a startling snarl. “He’s one of them. One of the Enemies of Gondor and the Mark. How can you think of giving him such a weapon?”
“Who then should I give it to?” asked Gemthir. The hand the tutor placed lightly on the boy’s shoulder was angrily shaken off.
“Give it to me. It’s mine.”
The dogs howled as Estev lunged with his hand outstretched to take possession of the dagger. Only Rolfe’s quick grasp prevented the boy from achieving his goal. Ferlan gasped and pointed at the table where the Blade of Nuphar no longer rested peacefully. The eyes of the serpent glowed, staining the blade red; and as they watched, it began to writhe. Coiling and uncoiling in a dance designed to entrap the eye. A hissing began and grew steadily louder, burrowing into the brain like maggots infesting living flesh.
“Close your eyes!” Shaymur ordered, pulling at Karston who had taken a step toward the knife, “Turn your back on it.”
Curthan grabbed Ferlan’s shoulders and spun him around. “Don’t listen, little man. Those are lies it’s telling.”
“No, no! It’s the truth,” Estev insisted, struggling to escape Rolfe’s hold on him.
“Nay, it is the voice of evil speaking. Making promises it can not fulfill.” Features twisted with pain, the dark man stretched a hand toward the table to draw it back with great effort. The desire to claim the blade for himself grew stronger with each moment.
“Don’t you touch it. It’s mine!”
In a frenzy, the young Rohirrim flung himself to the floor carrying Rolfe with him. Twisting and cursing, Estev rolled free only to find himself suddenly pinned by the combined weight of Dog and Jesse. Barking and growling, but careful not to bite the boy, they struggled to prevent him from throwing them aside.
Driven to his knees by the pain slicing into his head, Gemthir cried, “Keep it out of his reach!”
“Estev, it’s not yours. You can’t take it.” Rolfe panted, straining to regain his hold on his foster brother. “You gave your word. Share and share alike.”
Estev paused in his struggle to escape for barely a heartbeat. “I don’t care. It wants me.”
The dark man appeared on Estev’s other side and captured the boy’s chin between firm fingers and forced him to turn his gaze away from the glowing dagger. The hissing grew more demanding as Ahmose stared into the pale blue of the young boy’s eyes. They were no longer filled with honesty and curiosity, but with the light of madness the Southron recognized far too well. His fears had proven true. There was but one path left to take.
Briefly touching the medallion upon his breast in silent plea for the forgiveness of his master, the Haradrim demanded, “Will you cast aside your family and friends and give yourself over to its will? Is this what you want?”
“Yes.” Estev strained once more toward the table. “It’s mine. Give it to me!”
“No!” shouted Rolfe as the stone walls again rang with howls and the younger boy suddenly sagged against him.
The dancing of the serpent ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Silence, blessed silence, filled the room.
Then Karston passed a grimy sleeve across his forehead and shook his head as if to remove the high-pitched hissing from his ears. Curthan pushed a visibly shaken Ferlan onto a bench and assisted Master Gemthir as he climbed awkwardly to his feet. Finding that he was unable to move his head without a sharp shooting pain, the man turned his whole body to survey the room.
Assuring himself that the boys appeared unharmed and controlling the desire to moan, the Gondorian shuffled around to face the Haradrim slumped with his back against one of the benches. A trickle of blood ran from the man’s lip and from his posture Gemthir was convinced that the drums pounding in his head were beating in the Southron’s as well.
“Are you injured, sir?”
Ahmose began to shake his head, then winced and said faintly. “Save for my head, which a mûmak has stepped on, I am in the best of health.”
“Then you feel better than I do.” Mindful of his throbbing head, Gemthir lowered himself into his chair and fixed the other man with a steely glare. “Why did you ask him if he wanted the blade?”
“The boy had twice claimed the blade as his own,” Ahmose paused, dark eyes unfathomable.
“He didn’t mean it. He’d never keep that thing,” Rolfe interjected and looked down at Estev who lay, eyes closed and head tilted, as if listening to words that none but himself could hear. Rolfe turned angry eyes on the Haradrim. “You tricked him.”
“Your brother withstood the temptations far longer than many would believe possible,” said Ahmose, dabbing at the trickle of blood that continued to seep from his lip.
Though deserving of the truth, how much could the young ones accept? He did not believe they realized the path the young Rohirrim had set upon by claiming the blade for his own.
Rolfe frowned. Was it more important that Estev had held off for a day or for ten days; or that in the end he had given in?
“You said he had shields against evil.” Rolfe turned accusing eyes on the gaunt-faced tutor. “That we were his shields. Did we fail him?”
“Never think that. We all, especially Estev, did the best we could against a force greater than any of us.”
“So what now?” Shaymur said, kneeling beside Rolfe.
When the Haradrim hesitated, Rolfe hissed, “The truth, blast you. Don’t you think Estev has paid enough for it?”
“Such a payment should never have been asked from one so young.” Ahmose met the boy’s anger, but could not find the heart to say that the payment was not yet complete.
“What hope is there of destroying it?” Gemthir pointed a finger at the dagger.
“Three other such gifts have been reclaimed and returned to their Houses. They have been destroyed.” Ahmose saw that the scholar had begun to suspect the truth of the situation. With careful words he sought a way to guide the young ones to the unpleasant knowledge. “The blades seek ever to sow evil thoughts. Some men are fertile soil, others are stony ground. Over time, the honor of even the strongest is worn away, but in the beginning it is possible for some to turn their backs.”
“In the past, rejection of the blade’s claim resulted in a meaningless death. For a new owner would soon be found. Only with the destruction of the blade itself would the oath be broken and no force or spell that we possessed had any effect.” Ahmose paused. When he continued, those who heard could not tell if his words were spoken with hope or grief. “Until the defeat of the Dark Lord. Since his passing, if the one who claimed the weapon can find the strength to renounce the power offered, the blade will shatter. It is to be hoped that the young one possesses the strength to reject its call.”
“The owners die?” asked Rolfe, the shadow of understanding darkened his eyes.
“Yes, young master,” Ahmose bowed his head in weariness, “Vast is my sorrow at telling you this for great has been your service to the House of Tharan.”
Desperately Rolfe turned to his teacher, but found no solace in the pain filled eyes of the Gondorian. Rejecting the tutor’s placating words, the boy shook his head in disbelief and surged to his feet.
“No! There must be some other way. I’ll not let you have him.”
Slowly the dark man rose to his full height and lay a hand upon the shoulder of the boy challenging him. “There is no turning from this path now. Your brother claimed the blade for his own. If he finds the strength to renounce it, he will rid the world of its evil forever.”
With a slashing motion of his hand, Rolfe rejected the Southron’s statement. “And if he can’t, will you kill him and find someone else to try?” The truth of this was in the sad eyes that stared down upon him. “And if he succeeds, he’s dead anyway?”
“I fear that is so. No other means has been found to destroy the blades.”
Rolfe brushed the gentle hand from his shoulder and backed away. He allowed himself only a moment to wish that this evil had never been found before he folded his arms across his chest and said stubbornly, “You’ll have to look again. You will not get my brother.”
If one had been of a mind to delight in absurdities, the tableau within the narrow room would have afforded much humor. An ulbar of the House of Tharan held at bay by a ragtag group of boys, a thin stick of a scholar and two canines of indeterminate breeding. The unpardonable desire to howl with laughter was held in check by the proximity of the ancient blade with its evil history and by the quiet figure who now held all of their futures in his young hands.
“Your brother is already taken. By his own lips, he thrice claimed the Blade of Nuphar for his own, and it answered his call. None who stand within this room can say differently.” A slim brown hand gestured toward Master Gemthir and the other boys. “Speak to your brother, young one. See if it is not as I have said.”
Dog offered Rolfe a comforting lick as he knelt beside Estev’s quiet figure, while Jesse lifted his head and pleaded for his boy. Though Rolfe gave the dogs murmured reassurances, for all his stubborn defiance, he had little confidence that Estev would emerge unharmed. The pale blue eyes remained closed, though one could see his lips move and hear the soft cadence of Rohirrim words. Rolfe strained to understand, but could make out only a word or two. And no word that he spoke received a reply.
Sitting back on his heels, Rolfe sighed, “He’s calling for his mother and father.”
“Your brother is strong. He fights the blade even yet,” Ahmose replied softly from the chair he had retaken.
“His father should be here soon.” Master Gemthir gestured toward the window where the afternoon light was fading. “The note Borthond took requested Trader Esiwmas to come as quickly as possible.”
“There is no time to lose.” The Southron’s voice was firm. “Even now the voice of the knife works upon him as water washes away sand. If we are to call upon the young one’s honor, we must do so before it is overwhelmed.”
“You know little of the Rohirrim, sir, if you believe their honor can be overwhelmed,” the tutor responded as the boys glared at this insult.
Ahmose tipped his head. “I cast no slur and speak only from my knowledge of the blade. If time were not so precious, I would ask that we send for my master as he has the greater knowledge; but I fear delay.”
At Estev’s side, Rolfe watched with sinking heart as the younger boy moaned and twisted in an effort to escape the voices only he now heard. How much longer could he hold out? The Haradrim had not told the full story of this blade, yet Rolfe had witnessed enough atrocities during and after the War to know that he had no desire to watch as his brother became a tool for this remnant of evil. Better to be dead, than to accept such a fate. To fight to the end, that was the Rohirrim way.
Rolfe tipped his head upward. His young face had hardened and revealed the man he would someday become. “What must we do?”
The Haradrim pressed his fingers to his forehead in salute, then murmured softly in his own tongue before saying, “Speak to him. Remind him as you did before of the agreement made amongst you.” Ahmose indicated the four boys standing guard about their friend. “Of the dishonor if he forsakes that pledge.”
“No, Rolfe,” Master Gemthir interrupted. “Speak not only about the bargain you boys made, but also of those things that helped him to withstand this evil thus far. His family and his friends. He has been deceived. Your job is to help him look beneath the lies and see the truth.”
Rolfe settled beside Estev and began to speak, first in Westron, then gradually switching to an occasionally stumbling Rohirric. He talked for what seemed ages, speaking first of the hunt for the dagger and the other objects they had found and what would be done with them. Later he began to tell of the family in Rohan. Simple tales of everyday events. It was not until Rolfe was speaking of their older brother, Esdav, and the trip they had taken to the spring in the hills that Estev gave any indication that he was listening.
“I remember,” the younger boy whispered, eyes still closed. “Esdav ate all the food, and we went hungry. Sort of like taking Ferlan on a picnic.” He opened one eye and waved in the farm lad’s direction, then winced. “It hurts.”
Concern tightened Rolfe’s voice. “What does?”
“My head.” Estev lifted a hand and pressed it against his forehead. “When I try to think of something good, it buzzes like hornets.”
“You’ve got to keep trying though.” Rolfe sought desperately for a new topic. “Remember the hornets in the tree by the river?”
A shadow of a smile flitted across the younger boy’s face. “Mud. Mother put mud on all the stings. We looked like speckled lizards.”
The description drew a nervous laugh from the boys shifting uncertainly around them.
“Like that one sunning on the rock the other day. Dog tried to catch it,” reminded Curthan, reaching down to pat the canine’s head. “But he only chased it up Ferlan’s trouser leg.”
“Had to take them off to get the blasted thing out,” muttered Ferlan as the others grinned at the memory.
“Dog caught the tail.” Estev paled and grimaced, but went on talking. “Jesse doesn’t try to catch them. He likes better odds.”
Hearing his name, Jesse nudged Estev’s hand and received a lethargic pat. “Good dog. He tried to stop me, you know? So did Dog. But I wouldn’t listen to them.”
Master Gemthir leaned forward in his chair. Would the animals’ devotion to the boy prove to be a factor in the battle Estev now fought?
“Tried to stop what?”
“Me. From touching it. Every time I went to look at it, they tried to keep me away.”
“It whispered to me sometimes. Usually when I touched it. It didn’t talk so loud then.” Squeezing his eyes shut, his face tight with pain, Estev pleaded. “I wish it would stop. How do I make it stop?”
Unable to answer, Rolfe appealed to Ahmose who replied, “To silence the voice of evil, you must thrice reject its claim over you.”
Eyes still closed, Estev raised his eyebrows and attempted a grin. “That doesn’t sound difficult, so it probably is. But I do want it to stop, I can’t hear the music any more.”
“Music?” Rolfe asked.
“That day when Curthan danced,” Estev swallowed and dug his fingers into Jesse’s fur. “After that, I kept hearing that music. It made the voice stop sometimes.”
Shaymur patted the younger boy’s arm. “Maybe Karston can play it now.”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t something memorized,” the baker boy protested. “It just happened. Listening to the wind in the grass.”
“Try,” urged Curthan.
“Yes, lad, do,” encouraged Gemthir.
As he drew his recorder from his pocket, Karston licked his lips and rubbed his forehead with his sleeve again. He blew a series of notes, shook his head and frowned.
“No, that wasn’t it.”
Closing his eyes, Karston tapped out a rhythm with his foot before lifting the recorder again. At first the melody stumbled and stuttered, providing only momentary glimpses of water flowing or leaves floating. Then, the music gathered the thin breeze fluttering the curtains at the open window and began to weave a tapestry of spring: dew drops sparkling in the early morning, yellow daisies dancing in the meadow, and through it all a strand of bright sunshine.
As the tune swirled to an end, Estev sighed deeply and sank back against Dog’s solid form. “Better. I can think now.”
Grasping Rolfe’s hand with his right hand and threading the left through the fur at Jesse’s neck, the boy opened his eyes. “Sarantha likes to say, `Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.’ I really should have listened to her.” Putting aside his humor, Estev said quietly, “Rolfe, you will tell Father that I listened to him? Make certain that he knows I kept my word.”
The glint of tears shone until Rolfe brushed them aside with a sleeve to say firmly, “You will tell him yourself, Estev. He’ll be here soon. Just hold on until then.”
“I don’t dare wait.” Shrugging his shoulders, he fixed the blade with a narrow eyed gaze and inhaled deeply.
In a clear voice that echoed from the corners of the stone room, he said, “I, Estev son of Esiwmas of the Deeping Stream, renounce my claim to the Blade of Nuphar.”
An ear-piercing whine filled the room; and all, save Estev and Rolfe, clapped their hands over their ears. Dog moaned and shivered, pressing his bulk against Rolfe’s side.
Sweat beaded on his forehead and swallowing convulsively to maintain control of his roiling stomach, the young Rohirrim forced out the words, “I renounce my claim.”
Rolfe’s face contorted with pain as the bones in his hand fractured under the strength of Estev’s white knuckled grip while Jesse yipped and cowered. Upon the low table, the serpent’s dance began once more as the dagger darkened to the shade of long dried blood. Ferlan and Karston dropped to their knees as the blade’s whining hiss wound up to a crescendo of agonizing sound.
“Once more, young master.” The golden medallion upon his neck swung in a hypnotizing arc as the man leaned forward.
Bright blood dripped from Estev’s lip and sinews stood out along his neck as he struggled to utter the final words. Harsh and guttural, spoken from between teeth clenched against the pain that drove into his brain like a spear, the words came out in tortured gasps.
“No. No. I don’t want it.”
The words spoken, the boy’s body arched bowlike, then collapsed motionless between his two supports.
Slit eyed against the pain, Gemthir watched tiny cracks form upon the Blade of Nuphar. The dogs lifted their heads and howled as the cracks lengthened. The serpent writhed futilely beneath a haze of crisscrossing lines as with the sharp snap of breaking ice the blade shattered while the copper and iron bands bound upon the hilt twisted as if held to the smith’s fire.
Silence echoed from the stone walls, and all gazed in numb disbelief at the splintered remains.
From somewhere outside the window came the sound of a robin insistently chirping, and those within the room considered how bizarre was the contrast between such ordinary birdsong and the events which had just occurred.
“Is it over?” Ferlan jerked at the loudness of his voice.
“Aye, little master.” The Southron bowed his head solemnly and touched the medallion upon his breast. “Your friend has triumphed over the ancient evil. My House will be forever in your debt.”
All eyes turned then to the group huddled upon the floor. The two dogs pressed against their masters. Shaymur sat supporting Rolfe who, with tears staining his cheeks, brushed a blond strand from Estev’s forehead.