Very Rain of Sparrows, A
3. The Weather On the Water
—"Resolutions Concerning the Guildhalls", Trade Laws of Pelargir, 1442 of the Third Age
"Hey, Aetho, what's this, then?" Meithel asked, when Aethrin returned. Perched upon the lowest branch that overhung the river, the other lad cocked his head at him, and gestured to the shoes that Aethrin still carried, fingers hooked into the heels. "Tha's got 't'a marriage to beg?" he asked, grinning slyly.
"I'm to go with Fardhan over the river," Aethrin replied, glancing around a moment before he found his darning needle loops, and, setting his shoes down, grasped the rope and began pulling his trap in.
"To Pelargir?" Meithel sat up straight at that.
"Aye. Mam says 'tis time I looked for a master who'd want me."
"Eh. Hard t' find, those."
Aethrin shrugged. "Mayhap."
"No 'mayhap' about it," Meithel replied, as he began crawling back along the branch towards the shore. And when he'd gone far enough to miss the reeds, he slid off of it, cursing a bit when he stubbed a toe on a rock. But he limped over to Aethrin, who by now had reeled in the trap, and was examining its contents.
"Not many snaplegs today. Too cold and bright," he said, and then continued, "Been a long time since any lad of ours got himself 'prenticed in Pelargir."
"Take lads all the time, they do, for the navy or logging on the king's lands."
"I mean in crafthalls, not king's ships or wood camps. Got 't'enough lads in the city that ‘t’ent bound to their land, so the masters there don't need the likes of us."
"Eh, an' neither do they that 't'are here, for we lads ent much for making pay on Charter Tax," Aethrin replied, hoisting the trap in one hand and scooping up his shoes once more. To which, Meithel could make no rejoinder, and the other boy merely grunted.
"So, then... tha'll be back this evening?"
"I think so," Aethrin said. "We ent got the coin, to stay over there. Mal and Fardho, they'll sell what they can an' turn right 't'about, likely."
"Wish we didn't have to sell to the Westshore. Lord Vorondur likes it right well we come begging to Pelargir, likely," Meithel grumbled, and spat in his lordship's honor. "Good thing we're all King's Men now, not Pelargir's. I ent 't'ever going west ‘t’of Anduin. Wouldn't 't'even if I could," he declared staunchly, sounding for all the world like one of Eastshore's greybeards. Aethrin snorted, but said only:
"Well, I've got t' go, and now or Fardhan'll be angry, else. Go tha good, Meitho!"
"Keep tha good over there, eh?" Meithel called, and Aethrin raised his arm—the one not encumbered with the trap—in acknowledgment ere he scurried off to where the boats lay.
Malgath and Fardhan had got the baskets of fish carefully balanced on either end of the boat, and scales gleamed silver in the sunlight. Malgath it was who noticed him first, and waved—his brother's friend had a sunny way with folk. Aethrin liked him well, though it made Fardhan's mood seem that much more black by comparison.
"What's tha there, eh, Aetho?" Malgath asked.
"Not much," Aethrin said as he approached, holding up the trap as evidence. The half dozen snaplegs within waved their pincers, and Fardhan grunted in disgust as he poked at one.
"Can't be helped. Not the season for them, truly. But into the boat with tha. The middle, there," Fardhan ordered after a moment, and Aethrin made haste to obey. Malgath and Fardhan each took a side of the boat and began shoving it out of the shallows, before quickly stepping over the siding. Aethrin clutched the snaplegs close as the little craft wobbled a bit, but then it slid smoothly into the deeper waters, drifting southerly with the current as the older lads turned the prow towards Pelargir, taking up the oars to speed their journey.
"So, lad, fancy to be a ship's boy?" Malgath asked after awhile.
"Mam said find work in the harbor," Aethrin replied. His brother's friend clicked his tongue at him, and Aethrin yelped suddenly. "Mal!" he complained, rubbing his arm where Malgath had pinched him. "Should sell tha with the snaplegs!"
Mal chuckled. "Might turn a crown off me, then—only way t' do it, eh Fardho?"
At that, Fardhan shook his head and retorted, "Wouldn't pay a brass tack for tha!"
"Be more than naught 't'at 't'all," Mal replied with what Aethrin thought unwonted mirth. But then Malgath let it drop, and returning to the matter at hand, continued: "Carting and lading's hard work, lad. Tha's not grown enough for it. Tha wants t' work 'tis the ships or naught, 't'and tha so young, it's ship's boy or naught. So, think tha's got t'a want to be ship's boy?"
"Dunno. I'd not thought 't'on it before," Aethrin confessed, with a shrug. "What's there to it?"
"This and that—cook, courier, captain's lad to keep things neat like, whatever's needed," Malgath replied. "Four years on the water for the king, and then tha'd be a seaman."
Aethrin grunted and shrugged, and though he did not say it, four years seemed a long while to be away... "Was Da a ship's boy, then, Fardhan?" he asked suddenly, struck by a thought.
"Ne," his brother replied. "Da was a woodsman that went north with the army when the king called, when he'd promised us aid against Pelargir."
"Oh," he said, deflating a bit.
"Eh, what is it, 't'Aetho?"
"Naught. Only being ship's boy seemed better, when I thought he was one," Aethrin answered, and Malgath chuckled, though not unkindly.
"Work is work, eh? Better or worse, it's coin," said he. "An' tha's to find a ship to take tha first!"
"What if I can't?" Aethrin asked.
"Then tha's got luck much as the rest of us," Fardhan replied. "They ent got 't'a want for much from us but gold and timber, and them we ent got! Curse that tart 't'of a lass the king took t' wife—nothing good comes out ‘t’of Pelargir!"
"Save the king," Malgath amended, but to Aethrin's surprise, Fardhan snorted and shook his head. At that, Malgath's voice grew mildly reproving, as he drawled, "Fardhan..."
"Eh, what, man? Tha knows he's wed to that chick the Bird-keeper hatched. What good's that?"
"No worse than could've been—"
"No worse? Tha hears tha's self, Mal?" Fardhan asked, shooting an incredulous glance over his shoulder, and Aethrin, recognizing that tone, sighed inwardly, tucked his hands under himself, and laid his chin atop the snapleg trap, making himself as small as he could, wishing he could disappear. He had long since learned to keep out of such arguments about the wisdom of a man who'd take Lady Sorrían of Pelargir to wife, for such inevitably ended badly, with one man reminding the other of Eastshore's debt to Castamir, for freeing them from Vorondur, and the other claiming the king himself was shackled to all that greedy house in marriage.
Fardhan, though, heedless of Aethrin's discomfort, continued: "Hadn't she got the throne, she'd not have done her Da a service, and we'd be home and 'prenticed to our own folk in our own craft in our own land. The king wants ships—well, we've trees aplenty for them, always have, after all, but she'll claim her due by Erendis, t' save what trees she likes. An' so she likes ours, of course, for we like our freedom from her Da an' his graspers. Sly she is—king her husband bound us to him and to Eastshore, and she's made misery of blessing!"
"Eldacar's queen might've done worse—driven us out ‘t’of our land t’ give place t’ the outlanders. Tha knows how they came t' Pelargir, had folk leavin' before the king turned 'em back to their lands," Malgath argued in turn. But he leaned forward then, reaching past Aethrin to lay a hand on his friend's shoulder, and he gave Fardhan a shake. "Eh, let it go, Fardho. Let tha's tongue too loose, an' it'll carry tha to trouble straight."
"On the water there's none to hear but tha and Aetho. And if you'll say naught, ‘t’I'll watch my tongue come landfall," Fardhan replied. Reaching back with one hand, he patted Aethrin's leg and said, "Hear that, 't'Aetho?"
"Aye, I do."
"Good. Say tha naught, then, about the Eastshore's troubles. Not one word, lad. Pelargir's acrawl with Vorondur's greencoats, an' plenty of King's Men. So just like home, tha's got t' keep things quiet, like. Hear?"
"I'll say naught, Fardhan, I promise," Aethrin replied, fervently, only too glad to leave that matter well alone.
"Good. And mind tha, too, don't pay any heed to what folks there say of Eastshorefolk."
"I won't," Aethrin assured him. But then, struck by curiosity, he asked, "What would they say?"
"That we're filthy rebels, for one," Mal replied. "They ent forgot we stood up t' old Vorondur three years, us an' all the old vale folk down round Dor-en-Ernil, too. Took the king to settle it—us with him in the fight, an' he'd give us our release from old Vorondur's clutches. That's how Eastshore came to be crown land."
"I know that," Aethrin replied, eleven year-old pride offended by this lecture in common Eastshore lore. "I do know how we were made King's Men."
"Eh. And so do they," Fardhan grunted. "An' they don't much like it. So keep tha's tongue in, for they don't remember us kindly."
"Aye, Fardho," Aethrin replied. But then, after a moment, he asked, hesitantly, "But if they hate 't'us, why do they trade with us?"
"They don't trade much—tha knows it in the belly, they don't trade much," Fardhan replied darkly.
"Ne, they don't trade much with us. But men always want to save a penny, what with the Ship Tax in Pelargir being so high," Malgath intervened, speaking a bit less vehemently.
"An' we sell cheap," Fardhan finished, bitterly.
"Way things are, Fardho. Naught the likes of us can do t' change it." Fardhan merely grunted, and Aethrin heard Malgath sigh softly.
After that, an awkward silence settled, broken only by the rush of the river, and the waters' swirling about the oars. Aethrin reached out to trail his fingers in the river, staring at the eddies, and he wondered if the fish below were curious about the bubbles.
Likely sleeping, he thought, and bit his lip as his stomach growled. Wish I was, too! He closed his eyes, wishing he could will away hunger, will away anxiety about Pelargir and 'prenticeships, and the sour mood between his brother and Mal. Ent we got troubles enough 'thout fighting between us? Aethrin complained silently to whatever powers might hear him. He'd never heard Fardhan carry on so, save where Calandil was concerned, though he knew his brother chafed to say more on that score.
How long he sat there, trying to doze, he did not know. But eventually, a hand touched his shoulder, as Mal said: "Up with tha, lad, and look. Pelargir."
Obediently, Aethrin opened his eyes and lifted his chin... and he gasped to see a warship before him, seemingly having sprung up from the very river. Indeed, it was not the only one: there were several of them afloat on the river, and more at dock, all of them flying different colors. Aethrin knew the king's ships out of Osgiliath, for the White Tree was known to all, and he knew Pelargir's ships by their green, and all the vale folk knew Dor-en-Ernil's blue-backed silver swan after the war. But the profusion of other banners—checkered black and white, red striped black and gold, yellow beneath a light blue, to speak of but the most numerous of them—were unknown to him. He had noted them sometimes when ships had passed Eastshore, but he had never learned their home ports, having never paid overmuch attention to such strangers upon the river. The wind tugged at those bright flags, and carried also voices—seamen's rough voices as they went about their business aboard the great ship, seeming heedless of their own tiny boat.
"Seen ‘em on the river. Look bigger up close," Aethrin managed at last. "And so many!"
"Aye, that’s our Ship Tax, right there. Forts on water, they are," Malgath replied, then pointed. "See there? That's the main harbor. We're for the low docks, away yonder. Best get tha's shoes on."
The low docks, it seemed, held all manner of small craft—tiny boats such as Eastshore folk used to catch their supper, and a few larger skiffs, but all of them able to be manned by one or two men. There were quite a lot of them, although Aethrin thought there were not nearly as many people about as he had expected there to be. A dockworker threw them a rope as Fardhan and Malgath steered the boat into a snug berth, and then secured the line. And the man helped them move the baskets, and even took Aethrin's trap from him when it was his turn to scramble out.
"Two pence," the man said curtly, and held out his hand, and Fardhan dutifully handed over the sum. With a nod of his head, the fellow moved off, with a careless, "Good day to you."
And so they came to Pelargir, and Aethrin stared, his gaze drifting up the hillside to the city perched atop it. "Well," Mal said after a moment, "off with us, if we're t' be home this day, eh?"
"Right," Fardhan replied, and hefted one of the baskets. But before Aethrin could take even one step, his brother turned to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Listen, lad. We're for the Row's market square—we'll start there, then go back to the docks. Watch tha that none come too close. There's thieves aplenty down in the Row. And keep out 't'of any quarrels—it's not 't'any business of ours, an' old business at that, likely."
"Be tha sweet 't'as tha can, and mind tha's manners."
"And stay out ‘t’of trouble—"
"I will, I promise," Aethrin interrupted, beginning to weary of this ceaseless warning. Fardhan sighed.
"I promised Da I'd look after tha, when he left ten years ago. Don't tha make a liar of me!" With that final admonition, Fardhan turned and made his way down the docks, towards the lower gates of the city.
The fashion of Pelargir was thus: about the base of the hill ran a wall, to protect the docks, and those of Pelargir were apt to remark with a sniff that the Rammas Echor at Minas Anor would not have come to be but for Pelargir's wall. A little ways up from those docks upon the river, there were a number of great crafthalls where the shipwrights held court, and then behind them, a stair that led up the tiered levels of the hill—which themselves were like steps carved into the hill for giants and the hillside held in place by steep, stone walls atop which stood archers at intervals—up to the cavernous dockside gates of the city. From that high point over the river, the sentinels of the Lord of Pelargir's keep could see all traffic in ships, and also the plain to shoreside with its farmsteads.
Within the city, roads ran in nested rings, with streets running outward from the main keep—like a great many wheels, folk said. And thus by "spokes" and "rims" were formed the "rows" of Pelargir—enclaves of houses, crafthalls, barracks, and the like.
But to the denizens of the city and all regular traders, the Row meant only the Mariner's Row, which nestled closest to the eastern wall, between I-Belrath and the Street of Blacksmiths. Taverns, guesthouses, pleasure houses, and the great smithies and their guildmasters drew men in, though a large part of it was home to fisherfolk and dockmen, minor crafters and the decrepit. And it was there, of course, that all the rougher sorts of guests went—sailors and merchants, Umbarrim and men off the King's Ships in need of landed entertainment—which meant the Row was always lively.
Or at least it would be lively to one accustomed to such diverse bustle. To Aethrin, trailing along in the wake of his brother and Malgath, it was all a confusion as he tried to weave his way through the press of men and women. Brown and black, green and grey, and the occasional flash of red or blue or yellow were all he could see, in truth, as folk moved by in a hurried blur through air thick with sound and scent: the watery smell of fresh fish and the tantalizing aromas of tavern-fare were heavy, as was the sour smell of sweat, the sharpness of new-tanned leather, all overlaid with the scent of hot metal from the smithies. Dogs barked, cats squawled in alleyways, children wept or shouted, and petty merchants cried out their wares, thrusting themselves into the paths of passers-by, trying to entice them to a purchase.
"Thank tha, no," Aethrin mumbled, as he tried to dodge them, only barely able to grasp what was even being offered half the time.
"Hey, Aetho, keep up!" Fardhan called, and paused a moment to resettle the basket on his shoulder.
"Coming!" Aethrin replied, ducking under a gesticulating merchant as he made haste to rejoin his brother.
"Stay tha close, for we're hard by it," Fardhan warned, as he began walking again.
"Hard by what?" Aethrin asked.
"This ent it?" he asked, incredulously.
"Ne, this is but 't'a street—Rath Limdir. This is the market square," Fardhan replied, with a sweeping wave of his hand as he stepped safely to one side, where a cart offered some shelter from the press. For the three of them had emerged from the street into a broad, crowded yard. There, before the gates of the great guildhalls, folk gathered to trade. A very fair it was, and Aethrin gaped, staring wide-eyed at the tableau before him, for he had never seen so many people, nor imagined them to exist—for all that he knew, the whole world was in Pelargir, and never had it seemed larger to him.
"Tha looks a fish," Mal said gently, and Aethrin, after a moment, shut his mouth.
"We'll to Dame Belith's first, an' then circle round. Listen, Aetho—best to keep close, but go tha to the shipwright's gate do we lose each other," Fardhan said, and Aethrin nodded.
With that, Malgath and Fardhan left their vantage point and plunged into the crowd, and Aethrin bravely followed. As before, he found himself immediately overwhelmed by the noise, although he discovered that if he strained his ears and tried to think of Calandil's manner of speech, he could understand snippets of conversations as he went:
"—promised me ten crowns for this, and I don' mean—"
"—saying, love? Would I do—?"
"—buy that it's needed, but it's not right, I say—"
"—worth more than half a crown—"
"—my words, there's no one else in this, unless it's Umbar, the bastards—"
"—eggs for sale here, not the chicken—"
"—think Amrazar of Dor-en-Ernil would come? He's like the tides, runs both ways, even in the war years—"
"—talk me sweet with that tongue, and I'll—"
"—believe it when his feathered lordship docks in the harbor, not a moment sooner—"
"—cursed guards're like lice, and the Umbarrim—"
"—en-Ernil's a traitor—"
"—saying is, 'twas ill done in Osgiliath!"
"Quiet, man, that's the king you're talking about!"
"That's enough, lads!" That last was delivered in an oppressive tone by the leader of a squad of green-liveried guards. Instantly, men drifted apart, one of them holding up his hands, shaking his head, as if to deny there were a problem. Or else to deny that he had said aught wrong, as the guards seemed to converge on him...
"Aethrin!" Fardhan's voice snapped and a hand clamped tightly about his arm as his brother drew him quickly forward.
"What's that 't'about, eh?" Aethrin asked in a worried undertone, glancing back over his shoulder.
"Someone forgot t' mind his tongue. Hey!" Fardhan replied, and Aethrin tore his gaze away from the unhappy confrontation behind him to find his brother staring reprovingly down at him, though he thought that Fardhan seemed troubled, too. "Remember, lad, 'tis not our business."
"Sorry," Aethrin murmured.
"Right then. This way."
At length, they came to a little stall before which lay boxes in which several kinds of fish were laid out: trout mostly, and chub. The grey-haired woman watching over them brightened when she saw Fardhan and Malgath, and gave them a nod. "So my lads, back again so soon?" she asked, by way of greeting.
"Dame Belith," Malgath replied, respectfully. Fardhan merely nodded, as he set his basket down.
"And who is this with you?" Belith asked, looking past them to Aethrin.
"My brother, goodwife," Fardhan replied.
"Oh? Come, let me look at you, lad, you're a bit far for old eyes," she said, and Aethrin, after a moment's hesitation, stepped forward, ducking his head politely, feeling awkward and uncertain. "What is your name?"
"Aethrin, goodwife," he replied.
"Aethrin," she repeated, squinting at him with shrewd black eyes, and Aethrin fought the urge to squirm. Something flickered in those eyes, but then she smiled again, and looked to Fardhan. "So this is your brother that you've spoken of. He's a fine thing, isn't he? Well, then, what have you today? As you can see, lads, I've much already. But are those snaplegs, dear? I can certainly find room for those, yes..."
And so began the haggling. Belith pointed out that she had already much to sell, and that she hadn't much need for more. Malgath replied that she'd plenty of trout, but few barbel, and no wonder, given the many ships about Pelargir.
"Scare them t' Eastshore, straight 't'away," he said. Belith countered that trout were more asked after, and Malgath reminded her that everyone needed a change once in awhile, and besides, she'd be selling to inlanders eventually who'd not know the difference.
And so it went on, and on, and when at last, the sale was made, and coins had changed hands, Belith smiled as she took both baskets and the snaplegs, and said, "Come again, lads. And Fardhan, bring your brother more often—he seems a sweet child."
"Beg tha's pardon, Dame Belith, but 't'Aethrin ent 't'a child—we're all of us wanting work this day," Fardhan replied, which drew a look of blinking surprise from Aethrin both for his unexpected elevation to adulthood and for the rather starchy dignity with which it was proclaimed.
But Dame Belith apparently did not notice his amazement. "Ah, of course," the fishmonger corrected herself quickly. "Good luck to you, then. King's peace upon you!"
The three of them murmured their farewells and then made off again. As soon as they were out of sight of Dame Belith, Fardhan shook his head. "Thirty pennies for the lot," he muttered.
"She bought the snaplegs higher than's her wont," Malgath pointed out.
"Quiet for her conscience—she'll sell 'em for thrice what's she's paid," Fardhan replied, contemptuously.
Aethrin, hearing this, frowned, wondering what Fardhan meant by 'Quiet for her conscience.' Somehow, though, he had a feeling he'd not get an answer, and so he asked instead: "Why did tha not sell as high, then, Mal?"
"Pelargir taverners and outbound traders that'll pay her fee don't buy from us, lad," Malgath replied. "It's the petty merchants or naught 't'at 't'all."
"Why don't they, though?" Aethrin demanded, confused. "Thought tha said they like their coins."
"It's the law. Tha's got to have a merchanters' mark from the guildhouses to sell to out of market in Pelargir," Malgath answered, sounding for once unhappy.
"Why don't we have one?"
Fardhan sighed. "Because, Aetho, we ent Dúnedain, an' there's plenty of vale folk like us in Pelargir that stood with Castamir straight 't'away in the war. Besides, Dame Belith an' all that lot with boats on the low docks like their coins, too, and they've the guildmasters' ears. Not to mention the fleet keepers' pockets!"
"Oh," he said. And then after a moment, burst out, "But that ‘t’ent fair!"
"Market 't'ent fair, lad," Malgath sighed, ere he said, seeming determined to find some good in the deal, "But she did pay more for the snaplegs."
At that, Fardhan merely huffed something unintelligible before he changed the subject: "Now that's done, let's go round Rath Cirdain an' the docks. If we're quick like, we'll be home by nightfall."
And so it was back across the great square, for though their guildhall bordered the market, the shipwrights themselves of course worked and dealt beyond the lower gate, hard by the docks. Aethrin trudged dutifully after his brother, though in truth, he wanted nothing so much as to be back in the Eastshore, or failing that, curled up asleep in the boat. He didn't know why he felt so tired of a sudden, for it was early yet in the day, but for some reason the prospect of facing a lot of scowling sailors filled him with a cringing weariness.
But there was no avoiding the task, and so when they at last had descended back down to the level of the docks and shipwrights, Aethrin pinched his own cheeks and lifted his head, trying to seem alert and eager. The three of them stood at the northern head of a long, curving streetfront, some of which edged the water. Further down, new keels, seeming as the skeletons of the great whales the songs told of, sat dry-docked while tiny, faceless figures of men worked on them, slowly transforming them into warships. Malgath and Fardhan exchanged a look.
"I'll start 't'at Rath Cirdain?" Malgath suggested.
"Aye, an' we'll take the docks. See tha on the lower side by sunset," Fardhan replied, and Mal nodded before he moved off. "Come, Aetho, let's see if there's any to take us."
"What should I do?" Aethrin asked, as he trotted alongside him.
"Just go round to the dockworkers and carters an' see if they've a want for help."
"But they'll not have me, Mal said. An' Meithel an' me, we were talking, and it's true what Meithel said—they ent taken many of us, 'less it's the King's Ships. Shouldn't 't'I ask at them, then, Fardho?"
To Aethrin's surprise, Fardhan hesitated, and when Aethrin looked up in confusion, he found his brother's brow knit, and him biting his lip, as if he wrestled with some grave decision. Aethrin watched anxiously, one eye on his brother, the other on the docks that drew nearer with every step, until at last, he pressed again: "Fardhan?"
At last, Fardhan shook himself, and he glanced over his shoulder once, before he drew Aethrin to a halt and knelt before him. "What's wrong?" Aethrin asked.
"Tha ent begging work on any warship, Aetho," his brother said in a low, urgent voice.
"But Meithel's right, 't'and if I'm no good for naught but 't'a ship's boy, like Mal said—"
"Mal ent tha's brother, nor Meithel, I am. An' I'm saying tha ent 't'asking," Fardhan cut him off. "Ask the merchants and dockhands and carters, but keep tha from the warships."
"Because they ent got 't'a need for tha—plenty of others for that work. An' I told tha I promised Da I'd see tha safe, an' King's Ships ent that, that's why," Fardhan replied firmly. Aethrin swallowed hard, glancing nervously at the busy docks. There were, it seemed, far more warships than merchants berthed there, and many figures in green or the king's black and silver. Which was why he said softly:
"But we've a need for coin. Mam said so—can't be much a man if tha's not coin for duties."
At that, Fardhan sighed in frustration, even as he gripped Aethrin by the shoulders and shook him gently. "Tha'll let me worry on that—since Da's gone, it's my place t' think on that. Tha's just to say tha found naught, if all those others haven't 't'a need for tha, an' let me speak to Mam." And then seeing Aethrin still uncertain, said sharply (and to Aethrin's ears, a bit desperately) at last: "Aetho, tha promised to mind me!"
Which was true enough, Aethrin thought and sighed. But nonetheless, he nodded. "Aye, Fardhan."
"Then tha'll not go to the King's Ships?"
"Ne, I'll not go."
"Right, then," Fardhan replied, sounding relieved. He rose, and gave Aethrin a nod and a bit of a smile, as he said, "When tha's finished, come tha back here an' wait for me." Aethrin murmured that he would, and then Fardhan was away, leaving him to his own devices, and to wonder at his sudden unhappiness, for surely he had no desire to be a ship's boy in the king's navy. But as no answer came to him, he left wondering aside and lifted his chin as he made for the nearest merchant ship.
Thus began an hour of the sheerest misery for Aethrin. Knowing well that no request of his was likely to be granted made it an embarrassment even to ask, though at least he knew to steel himself against the inevitable "No" ahead of time. But even beyond that, Aethrin soon discovered more precisely what Fardhan had meant when he had said that Pelargir was no kind place.
With great temerity he approached the first man, a sailor who was directing several others as they moved supplies off of a barge—a timber hauler out of Lebennin, Aethrin noticed, and felt a stab of resentment over the injustice that Pelargir should import from Lebennin when Eastshore could not cull its own trees. But remembering Fardhan's warning to keep all thought of trouble from his tongue and face, he set that aside and screwed up his courage to beg the man's pardon and work. Alas, neither courage nor manners seemed to have much effect on the sailor.
"Eastshoreman, are you? And what under Varda's blighted stars would I want you for? You Eastshore lot say you'll stand with a man through the thick of matters, and the next day you're asking for release. So now when his majesty needs you, you'll treat the crown like you treated Pelargir and still you'll ask us to pay for you." He shook his head.
"I've a full crew, and though a mule would cost me more than even you land-bonded lads, you couldn't help pull this ship upstream either—milk-mouthed scrawny lad like you," the man told him in a rather irritated, distracted tone. "You, there, watch that!" he called to one of the dockhands, before glancing down at Aethrin with a dismissive wave. "And you, lad, off with you—you've no business here. Ho, there, watch it, I said! Eh, you, lad! You're still here? Begone, I said, there's nothing for you here!"
At that, Aethrin, who had been standing there staring up at him, both stung and stunned by this speech, shook himself and scurried away. And he found a place behind a set of tarred posts where he sank down and clasped his knees and breathed for awhile, feeling all aflutter and not much inclined to continue after that encounter.
But Mam said I've t' learn my duty. An' duty means dinner, too, he reminded himself. So after a bit, he got up again and determinedly made for the next ship.
Where again, he was told there was no work, although he found the first mate a milder man, who at least troubled to wish him luck after dismissing Aethrin's request as impossible to fill. And so around the docks he went, only to find himself answered with some variation on that first refusal, until he reached the Dor-en-Ernil ships, which seemed clustered to one end of the docks.
Lord Amrazar's men were out in force, it seemed, and none of them seemed welcoming of any stranger's gaze. As he stood there, trying to work up the nerve to approach the rather frightening lot of sailors who were standing about, cutlasses openly upon their hips, guarding several crates of goods that apparently had yet to be moved, a hand landed upon his shoulder.
Startled, Aethrin very nearly leapt out of his skin, but his initial fright swiftly gave way to a near panic at the sight of the green-liveried Pelargir guardsman, who eyed him suspiciously. One of Lord Vorondur's greencoats, he thought, feeling his heart speed.
"You've business here, lad?" the guard demanded tersely, scowling at him, and Aethrin swallowed hard.
"Was just going t' ask if there's work, sir..." Barely had Aethrin said it than the guard replied gruffly:
"There's no work to be had with these lads. On your way, boy."
With a stammered and rather hollow "Thank tha," Aethrin obeyed, and since there were no other merchant ships in the harbor, he made his way back to the north end of docks, there to await Fardhan's return and consider his one piece of good fortune: that the guard had done no more than send him away.
Someone had, in the time he had been away, stacked a number of crates there, and after a moment, he climbed atop a pair of them. Seated on high, so that he could look out over the men bustling about, he finally succumbed to the demands of his growling stomach and pulled the little bag out of his shirt. The remains of breakfast were but a few bites, and he made short work of them, staring mournfully into the empty pouch when he had finished before tucking it away again.
And since Fardhan was nowhere to be seen, and might not finish his business for awhile still, Aethrin lay down and curled up on his perch. The afternoon sun shone brightly, and lulled by its warmth and a long, bewildering day, he fell asleep.
He was not sure how much later it was that he woke to the sound of a familiar voice.
"Hey, Aetho," a voice hailed him some time later. From atop his stack of crates, Aethrin glanced up to see Malgath approaching. "Done already, eh?"
"Aye," Aethrin replied. "And tha? Found tha aught?"
"No luck. Where's Fardhan, then?"
"Away there," Aethrin said, waving vaguely towards the far end of the docks.
"Well, he'll come round soon enough, then," Malgath replied, leaning against the crates. And he looked up at Aethrin with a frown. "Tha's got 't'a long face, lad," he chided gently.
Aethrin shrugged, pursing his lips slightly before he said, "Just that 't'I'm wanting t' be home now, Mal."
"Give it 't'a bit longer, an' we'll be off—tha needs patience only," Mal assured him.
To that, Aethrin but nodded, and let his head droop, resting his elbows on his knees. Patience might be a virtue, but in his mind, he silently urged his brother to hurry, for he was well and truly anxious to leave the city to its teeming and noise and return home, where he would not feel as though every man on the docks were laughing at him behind his back.
At length, Fardhan did return, looking rather grim. "Eh, let's get 't'ourselves home," he said, tersely. Mal and Aethrin glanced at each other, and Mal gave him a one-shouldered shrug, then reached up and helped Aethrin climb down, whispering in his ear as he did so:
"Face like curdled milk!" That made Aethrin smile just a little, as he and Mal followed Fardhan back down to the lower docks.
In silence, they returned to their boat, and put out upon the river, Mal and Fardhan taking up the oars. There was little to say—none of them had found anyone willing to take them on, and thirty pennies would not go far towards Charter Tax, and supper would be meager as ever it was. Aethrin's stomach growled audibly at the very thought, and he bit his lip, gazing anxiously ahead at Fardhan's back. But his brother said nothing, and it was work to pull against the current, and so Aethrin decided it was best not to trouble him.
The sun was setting by the time they neared the Eastshore, and Aethrin gazed out into the gathering gloom of Ithilien's forested banks. Here and there, lights shone forth upon the water: fishermen's boats, as men and boys glided out onto the water with their lanterns, to tempt the unwary fish to the surface and into their nets.
"Pull t' port, we'll go round," Fardhan said suddenly, and Mal grunted in agreement. A courtesy, not to cut through the paths of the other boats, and perhaps frighten away their finned quarry.
When at last they reached the shallows, and they could all scramble out to tug their boat up onto the shore, it was full dark. Carefully, they made their way back to the village, where for once Aethrin was grateful for the presence of the guards, for their lanterns shone forth, lighting their way home. And indeed, Mal and Fardhan paused by one, and Mal pulled the little purse from his pocket, opening it.
"Here, then," he said, and counted out ten of the thirty pennies into Fardhan's open palm. "Aetho, give tha's hand here, quick like."
Obediently, Aethrin held his hand out, and Malgath dropped the remaining five into it. "For the snaplegs," he said, and smiled at him. "Good lad. Give you good night, both!"
"Go tha good, Mal," Fardhan replied, and Aethrin waved. Mal waved back, then hurried off toward his own home.
"Eh, let's go then, Aetho," his brother said, pocketing the coins.
"Will Mam be pleased, think tha?" Aethrin asked, and got a shrug for an answer.
"We'd less this morn," Fardhan said after a moment. Which did not truly answer the question, but he still seemed rather touchy, so Aethrin did not press him.
As the day had begun, so it ended: Alweth had supper waiting for them: more porridge and flatbread, though no fish. "Any luck?" she asked, when they had seated themselves after the Silence.
"Thirty pennies between us, naught 't'else," Fardhan replied.
"Well, mayhap next week," she said.
"Ent likely," her elder son muttered. Alweth grunted, but strangely enough, did not take him to task for his tone.
"'Twill be better tomorrow," was all she said. It was Fardhan's turn to grunt at that, and the meal finished in silence. Aethrin rose and cleared the table, while Fardhan excused himself to wash up and go to bed, for he was needed early to help break the ground on the narrow farmland strips. And while Alweth cleaned the dishes, Aethrin obligingly swept up.
He had just finished and set the broom in its corner, when he felt his mother's hands upon his shoulders, and then Alweth's lips upon his cheek. "Tha's a good lad, my Aetho," she murmured fondly, and gave him a squeeze. "'Twill be better, I promise."
"Dunno, Mam," Aethrin dared after a moment, speaking softly. "Fardho's right worried."
Alweth sighed. "Fardho's like his Da—holds for what he thinks right, 't'an' naught 't'else. He takes it hard, he does, when things fall out different, like. Growing up knowing his Da was gone an' he'd to do his duty by us, stand in his Da's shoes—'tis hard for him."
"Mam," Aethrin said, turning to face her then. Alweth cocked her head at him, and he bit his lip a moment, ere he asked, "Tha said I'd've been t' the woods with Da and Fardho, if Da were here still. But tha ent said naught 't'about me going north with Fardho and the others this year yet. Shouldn't 't'I be going, if there's such work to be done, an' we're behind in the Charter Tax?"
His mother was silent a short while, before she smiled a little and brushed a lock of hair from his eyes, then used a corner of her apron to wipe a bit at one cheek ere she replied: "Not this year, Aetho. Tha's not yet grown enough for it, 't'and with the pretender's men on the loose away north, 't'ent safe."
But if it 't'ent safe, how if Fardho doesn't come back? Aethrin wanted to know, but knew better than to ask. Instead, he simply nodded, and was rewarded with an approving smile. "Go tha now and rest, for there's work tomorrow for us all in the fields."
"Aye, Mam," Aethrin replied, and scampered up the ladder to the dark room above. There, he quietly undressed and, groping in the dark to find the blankets, crept into bed beside his brother, who grunted and shifted a bit to make room for him. Aethrin sighed softly and curled up against cold and hunger yet unsated.
But he did not sleep. He could not, for he had all of Pelargir, it seemed, running about in his head, and a lump of worry in his belly, for plainly it seemed things were not well anywhere in the world. And though he knew he ought to let Fardhan rest, at length he whispered in the darkness: "Fardho?"
A sigh sounded at his back. "Mmm?" came his brother's reply.
"Tha's got to leave soon, eh? T' go north with all t' others?"
"Soon's the Rangers from up north come?"
"Think tha the pretender's men'll be back again?"
Another sigh. "Lad, they'll be back 'til this thing's done an' Eldacar's won or Castamir has. War ent 't'over 'til one of 'em's dead. Now," Fardhan said, a bit more oppressively, "get tha t' sleep, eh?"
"Yes, Fardhan." Fardhan grunted and settled again, seeming content to leave it at that. But Aethrin lay awake still, and after a moment, he whispered again:
This time, it was a decidedly cross "What?" that answered him.
"We going t' be able t' pay the Charter Tax this year?"
"I'll manage it, 't'Aetho," came the reply. "Sleep tha now—I've t' rise early."
"Sorry," Aethrin murmured contritely. But ere his brother could turn over and go to bed, he added quickly: "I'll help this year, Fardho. I'll find someone t' take me on in Pelagir. This week coming, I'll find someone. Be a ship's boy if I have to."
The silence at his back was profound, and then, rather to his surprise, an arm slipped about him and Fardhan pulled him close, tucking him under his chin.
"Tha's got 't'a lot 't'of rubbish 'twixt the ears tonight," his brother grumbled. But then his arm tightened about Aethrin, and he murmured into his ear: "Eastshoremen belong in Ithilien; ent 't'a king can change that. Tha won't 't'ever need t' be ship's boy—I'll see to it."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.