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1
The Carter's Stepson

September, 3019, Pelargir

By lantern-light in the pre-dawn darkness, the family of Jacyn the carter prepared to start their day. Nellith, her former beauty faded by seven children, five of them living, bustled about the small kitchen, bearing dishes to the table. The carter, a squat brown bull of a man, sat at the head, already wolfing his food down, for his was the place of precedence in this household. The children clamored loudly in their places for their breakfast, save for the oldest, who moved quietly to his mother’s side and took the bowl of porridge from her. He began swiftly dishing it into the children’s’ bowls, giving the youngest child, just now walking and seated in a high chair, a separate small bowl that had been set aside earlier to cool.

“Thank you, Brand,” his mother murmured gratefully, and he nodded, continuing to work without speaking, for it was never good to draw his step-father’s attention to himself. And it would have been hard not to notice him in this house of brown-haired people--tall for his age, and pale-skinned, with a shock of raven hair that contrasted sharply with the grey eyes he’d gotten from his unknown father.

“Honey, Brand! And butter!” his half-brothers and sisters caroled, and he hastened to season their porridge appropriately.

“See that you don’t give them more than a pat and a spoon apiece, boy,” the carter rumbled. “Butter and honey come dear, and it doesn’t take much to put the flavor in.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy replied, and made an obvious show of giving the children just the amount Jacyn had dictated. The children pouted a bit, but young as they were did not protest, for their father had a heavy hand and besides, they knew that if they were still at table when he left, their mother would slip them a little more of the sweet stuff. Brand then set the dishes back upon the side table, and sat down to his own bowl, his eyes cast down.

“Morlan asked me to work late at the stables today, sir,” he ventured quietly after a few bites. “The inn will be full up--someone has booked the whole thing.”

“He paying extra?” Jacyn growled.

“Yessir. And a little bit beyond that, he said, because there would be no tips. ‘Tis the Swan Knights, a company of them coming through on the way to Dol Amroth.” Nellith looked up at her son then and smiled, for she knew how much the boy liked to watch soldiers--it had been a cause of friction in the family more than once, when Brand had slipped off to watch Pelargir’s guard maneuvering, or other defenders of Gondor as they moved through the city en route to their postings.

“Hmmmmmph. I imagine you’ll enjoy that,” the carter grumbled. There was an ominously satisfied gleam in his eye. “And you may as well, because it will be the last time for that sort of foolishness. I’ve ‘prenticed you to Farluk, the tanner on the south side of the city. He paid me the fee last night, and we signed the papers. Signed, sealed and witnessed. Seven years, he’ll have you for, and I wish him the joy of it. You’re to start tomorrow.”

Nellith gasped, and the boy’s pale face grew paler still. He shot to his feet, for once heedless of peril.

“You did WHAT? I do not wish to be a tanner! I want to be a soldier!”

Swiftly for a man of his bulk, Jacyn gained his feet as well, reaching out a thickly muscled arm to seize Brand by the shoulder and yank him up and away from the bench upon which his younger siblings sat. Then a hand the size of a ham crashed into the side of his face, knocking him backwards onto his rump on the floor.

“Well, I don’t want you to be a soldier! Why should I? I’ve already had the care and feeding of you for ten years now--it’s four more until you can enlist, and Gondor will pay me nothing for the privilege of taking you off of my hands. This way, at least I’ll get a little back for what I’ve put into you. Farluk was generous--gave me enough that with what I’ve saved already, I can buy that new team I’ve been needing.”

“You’ve not got much in me that you’ve not gained back through my labor--you’ve had me out to work since I was younger than Gabby there!” the boy snarled, pointing at his oldest half-sister. The carter stomped over, reached down and seized him by the front of his shirt, hauling him up one-handed with ease. He then shook him till the boy’s teeth were clashing together. Nellith’s faint cry of protest could be heard in the background, but she did not intervene, nor would Brand have wished her to, lest she run afoul of Jacyn’s anger herself.

And what if I have?” Jacyn shouted, punctuating his sentences with shakes. “You think life is ever going to be easy for you, you little bastard? Best get used to the idea now! This is a good place for you, if you were half so smart as you think you are--Farluk is getting old, and his only legitimate son is a drunken sot! That worthless worm could very well drink himself to death and leave you to inherit the whole business, if you keep your nose clean! I’ve done you a favor here, only you’re too full of stupid dreams about soldiering to see it! The war is over! No need for soldiers now, but there’s always plenty of need for leather!” He ran down at last, and let go Brand’s shirt, giving his staggering step-son a scornful glare.

“You just go on and moon after those Swan Knights today! D’you honestly think they’d ever have the like of you? Not them--they’re all nobles’ sons! There’s never been a whoreson to fork a Dol Amroth warhorse, and you’re not goin’ to be the first! So get on out of here and get to work! I’ll take you to Farluk’s first thing tomorrow.”

Brand looked at his barely started breakfast, and decided that hunger out of Jacyn’s proximity would be better than a full stomach in it. He shot his mother an apologetic look, then left the kitchen, climbing the narrow stairway to the attic dormer room where he and his ever-increasing number of half-siblings slept. Little enough privacy and not very much space--though the sheer number of bodies did serve to keep them almost warm in the winter.

Beneath the mattress of his small bed was the one possession his mother said she had had from one of the men who might have been his father--a handkerchief of very fine linen. There was a White Tree embroidered upon it, much like the White Tree on the tabards of the Gondorian soldiers. And an initial of some sort, but Brand had just begun learning his letters, and this was fancier writing than what he was used to. Another, tinier letter in the same sort of writing but a different initial graced another corner--he thought it might be for the name of the person who had made the handkerchief. He had kept the piece of needlework carefully, not letting his half-brothers and sisters see it, and now he pulled it from its hiding place, stroked it gently for a moment and tucked it away gently into his small belt pouch. Jacyn’s news had inspired in him a desire for desperate action, but he was a bright boy, and knew that care had to be taken.

An apprenticeship was a binding, legal contract, and were he to run away, he would be in violation of the law. His new master, were he apprehended and returned to the man, could legally have him flogged. Brand had seen public floggings, and had no desire to experience one himself. Leaving the city and seeking his fortunes elsewhere would be difficult enough--he also needed to find work that would allow him to pay off the tanner’s contract. Until he did so, he would not be a free man.

The few coins he would receive for working the stables today would come in handy--he could not simply bolt off down the road with no money and no food, he knew that much. And he did have a window of opportunity--Jacyn would not expect him back until well after dark. The best thing to do would be to bide his time, work the day at the inn, and start out when it was time to go home. Get over the Sirith bridge and out of town entirely, and travel all night as far down the road as he could before daybreak. Hole up somewhere off the road, and keep traveling at night for a time, until he’d put enough distance between himself and any possible pursuit.

The thought of leaving his mother and brothers and sisters grieved him greatly, but he knew that as Farluk’s apprentice, he’d not have been seeing them but on the rare holiday granted him by his master in any event. And he could not abide the thought of working at a tannery--he’d gone down the river with Jacyn on deliveries to that district upon more than one occasion. The reek, particularly in the summer, was indescribable. The carter claimed that he was just looking out for Brand’s welfare in apprenticing him to such a place, and the situation may in fact have been what he said it was, but Brand suspected there was also an element of vengeance for past trouble the boy had caused him in the carter’s choice.

With a sigh, he combed his fingers through his hair, tightened his belt, and started cautiously back downstairs. When he entered the kitchen, he found Jacyn had gone out back to harness the team, and his mother was still busily dealing with feeding his brothers and sisters. Nellith smiled when he first came in, then looked at his face and the smile vanished. Gesturing him over, she ran gentle fingers over his swelling cheek and frowned.

“Looks like you’ll have a black eye out of that, Brand. Why do you prod him so?”

“Doesn’t take much to prod him, Mother--as you well know.” He gave her an imploring look, a rare thing for him, for he was a prideful boy. “Please, don’t let him do this to me! I’ll work two jobs if I have to! But I don’t want to go to the tannery and work around vats of piss all day! You have no idea what the smell is like!”

Nellith’s lips thinned, though her face was troubled. “Do you not remember what the docks smelled like after the battle earlier this year, Brand? How the bodies of the Corsairs stank? And all the flies? And the gulls doing raven duty, and plucking at their dead eyes? And the bodies they were still fishing out of the bay a week later? Soldiering is not so clean a trade as you think it is--not all fancy parades on fine horses. Jacyn is right--you could end by inheriting that whole business, and it’s a big one, the biggest on the river. Or at the very least, you’d be running it for Farluk’s worthless son, and making yourself a bunch of coin. And I can tell you son, that enough coin will perfume even a tanner up right nicely, and you‘re a handsome lad. You could end by marrying a good girl, and be on the Guild Council, with no one ever knowing or even minding you were base-born!” She sighed and twined her fingers through his hair gently. “I’ve taken your part against Jacyn before, but this time I think he’s right, and that he’s done very well by you. So, go enjoy your soldiers today, and get yourself to Farluk tomorrow. I’ll hold some dinner over for you tonight.”

He nodded glumly. Nellith turned away to pick up a sack from the table and hand it to him, the top open.

“Your lunch. I gave you a bit extra, since you hadn’t had your breakfast yet.” He looked inside and found a couple of hard rolls, a largish piece of cheese, some dates (a rare luxury in their house), and a corked bottle of ale. About twice what he usually got, and he glanced up at her with a shy smile.

“Thank you, Mother.” There was no way he could tell her what he intended, and there was always the chance that he would change his mind, too frightened to go through with it. So he simply hugged her more tightly and for longer than usual, and kissed her cheek. She embraced him in turn, and dropped a kiss onto his shaggy black head.

“Off with you now, Brand! And be a good lad, for a change!”

He went out the front door, so as to avoid Jacyn, and threw her a last smile over his shoulder.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

“All right, you lot, listen up and listen close,” Morlan, chief hostler of the Vine and Sheaf Inn said, skewering his usually rowdy crew of stable lads with a menacing glare. He’d given Brand’s battered face only a cursory stare and shake of the head--it was hardly the first time the lad had shown up for work in such a state. “In case some of you hadn’t hear, the inn has been let completely this night to the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth. A company of them are expected by sundown.” An excited murmur arose, and he waited a moment for it to subside. “Now some of you have done this before, and some of you are new lads, so I‘ll explain a bit about what will happen. We are one of the few establishments in Pelargir up to the Prince’s high standards, and with enough stabling for a company of horses, and he pays very well so that his men may have a night of comfort while upon the road.”

“Is that why Master Thurfyn’s been clearing the rooms this morning?” one of the smarter lads, Serl, asked. His older sister worked inside as a chambermaid. Morlan nodded.

“That’s right. And he’ll let no rooms this day, and take no customers in the taproom after the lunch trade ends. The chambermaids are already bustling, and we must as well. Now, what we have to do is make sure that every stall is absolutely clean and well-bedded. So we’ll start with those that are empty now, and as last night’s customers leave, we’ll clean theirs as they go. We also need to take the inn’s horses down the road to the Grey Foal, clean the cow byre out, put the cows back in the far corner and bed it as well. It will serve for their wagon teams.” Groans followed this pronouncement.

“A hunnerd horse? How are we goin’ to take care of ‘em all?” whined Dinas, another of the newer lads, who appeared at the age of eighteen to have already reached the pinnacle of his possible upward mobility. Morlan frowned.

“’Tis not so hard as you might think--our task is mostly the getting ready for, and the cleaning up after. The Swan Knights ride war stallions, and care for them themselves. Which is as it should be--they’re many of them foul tempered. The stallions, not the Swan Knights!” he added swiftly when a couple of the boys started snickering. “Your jobs are to see that there’s a full bucket and manger in every stall, and to show the knights the grain or anything else they need. You stay away from those horses, unless a knight asks you to hold one and says that it’s all right. If they want their gear cleaned, then you do that, and see you do it right! But I doubt there will be much of that--they tend to their own harness as well.” He looked about the circle. “No begging for tips--they’re doing their own work for the most part.” More groans at this. Morlan shook a chiding finger. “You’ll be getting a little extra to make up for it. Now set to work on the empty stalls!”

Brand immediately paired up with Serl, who was one of the few boys who didn’t care that he was baseborn, and they set to work. Serl was wiry and quick, but as small for his age as Brand was tall, and much time spent at the job had enabled the two boys to work out a division of labor that was swift and efficient. Serl did most of the actual raking and mucking, while Brand, who was the stronger of the two, did some mucking as well, but mostly carried the baskets Serl filled to the muck wagon, and scrubbed water buckets, and refilled them from the well. Both shared the task of forking fresh straw into the cleaned stalls. They were the fastest of the stable boys, and the most thorough, and by the noon hour had finished their allotted stalls, as well as several belonging to other stable boys. Morlan came by to inspect and was very pleased.

“You can bed these a little deeper than we normally do when you come back from lunch--Thurfyn’s orders. The Knights are paying very well, and he wants to keep their custom. So put a few more forkfuls in each one. Other than that--well done, lads. Skip on into the kitchen and tell Rosbel I said you could have lunch on me.” Brand and Serl looked at each other, and grinned. Hot food from the inn kitchen was a vast improvement on what they’d brought for their lunches, and Brand was particularly pleased--it meant that he could save all of what his mother had given him for his planned escape.

Of course, they couldn’t exactly ‘skip into’ Rosbel’s kitchen. There was no way the big-hipped, vociferous chief cook would let two muck-stained stable boys into her clean domain. But she did give each of them a chunk of hot, crusty bread, a bowl of stew and a cup of milk at the door, while at the same time threatening them with bodily harm should anything befall the dishes she’d lent them. So they settled themselves upon the covered back porch, off to the side so as to not get in the kitchen help’s way, and fell upon their food with the voracious appetites of the healthy young. After the edge had been taken off their hunger, Brand told Serl of the carter’s announcement that morning, in between bites. Serl was not pleased.

“I’ll have to find a new partner if you are gone! Can’t you persuade him to let you stay here? It’s not as if you don’t bring money home! And you‘re good with the horses--you could have Morlan‘s place one day.”

“He’s already taken the tanner’s money. And spent it, if I know Jacyn. He’s probably at the horse market right now, picking a new team,” Brand replied glumly. “I am doomed, it seems, to spend my life lugging stinking hides from one vat to another.”

“I’m sorry, Brand,” Serl said earnestly. “I know that’s not what you want to do. Though there’s times I don’t think you belong here either.”

“Thanks ever so much! What do you mean by that?” The smaller boy quickly explained.

“Nothing bad! It’s just that….sometimes you seem different from the rest of us.” The stable boy’s brow furrowed as he sought to find the words to express what he felt. “Fancier, somehow.”

“’Fancier‘, is it? Well, my mother used to be a fancy woman, maybe that explains things!” Brand grinned, his good humor restored, but Serl remained serious.

“I mean it, Brand. Your mother was a fancy woman in a very fancy house. Your father could have been someone important, maybe even a lord!”

“Oh, there’s no doubt my father could have been any one of ten or twelve men, all of them rich enough to afford mother when she was there,” the taller boy said wryly. “And some of them may have even been lords. But what does it matter? They don’t know I‘m alive, and even if they did, and one of them knew I was his, he’s hardly likely to come charging in here on a white stallion now to take me away from all of this.”

“That’s true, I suppose,” Serl agreed, taking another bit of stew. “I’m sorry-- it must be uncommon hard for you at times.”

“It got uncommon hard this morning, I can tell you that!” He looked over at his friend and smiled. “But having you to talk to does help, Serl. I‘ll miss you when I‘m gone.” Whether it’s to the tanner or out of the city, he added to himself silently. Serl nodded his understanding, and after a few more bites, offered Brand the rest of his stew, rubbing his stomach as he did so.

“Rosbel gave us each the same, and you’re half again as big as I am. I’m full--you want the rest of this?

Brand looked at him for a moment, wondering if he were really full, or just being nice, but Serl insisted again, so he nodded, and made short work of the rest of Serl’s bowl, mopping up the last of the stew juice with the last of his bread. He then collected their bowls and cups and went to the back door.

“Oh sweet lady Rosbel!” he called. “We come, bringing your dishes back, with nary a scratch or chip upon them!” The cook soon appeared, wiping flour off her arms with a towel. After a grim-faced inspection of the dishes, she smiled at the two boys.

“You were indeed careful as you could be! Run along--you’d best get back to work. Don’t want to make Morlan sorry he fed you now, do you?” The boys agreed that they did not wish for that to happen, and trotted back off towards the stable once more. As they went, Serl threw a questioning glance at his friend.

“’Sweet lady Rosbel’?” he asked. Brand managed to shrug while trotting.

“Women like that sort of stuff.”

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