“Open the gates!” the bleary-eyed customs inspector of Harnannest called out as he gulped the dregs of his morning tea and emerged from the tollhouse. A score of city guards on the day watch moved quickly to put their shoulders to the huge wooden doors. The inspector adjusted a stack of fresh customs forms on his clipboard as the gates ponderously swung on their hinges with a dull, creaking sound. Another day at Rammas Echor’s southern portal had begun.
The men briefly took in the view to the south. There was light frost on the grass to either side of the highway, yet the air carried the scent of newly emerging plant life. Indeed, the first buds could be seen opening on the trees and bushes of Lossarnach. The sky was deep blue and cloudless. It was the first day of Lothron (May). The sun had just begun peeking over the distant Mountains of Shadow, sending its rejuvenating rays across the land. Despite the morning’s chill, it promised to be a warm, pleasant day.
The guards exchanged a few pleasantries among themselves as they walked off in little groups, some to breakfast, others to their posts.
“Someone’s up early,” the inspector noted, squinting into the distance to the south. Traffic was usually sparse along the South Road that early in the morning; yet barely visible in the early morning light was a one-horse cart, about half a mile from the gates.
“Travelers coming up to the booth already?” the assistant inspector asked from the tollhouse doorway before biting into a scrambled egg sandwich.
“Yes,” his superior replied, still scrutinizing the oncoming vehicle. “Two fellows on a cart. They must have camped in the woods last night. Well, let’s get to work.”
The officials stamped their feet against the cold a few times as they patiently awaited the cart’s arrival. The assistant hastily gobbled his sandwich and wiped his fingers on the front of his dusty woolen tunic.
“It’s a couple of teenage boys,” the inspector muttered as the travelers entered the gates. He clutched his clipboard to his side as held up a hand for the cart to stop.
“Whoa!” the driver called gently, reining up before the tollhouse.
“What are your names, lads,” the inspector asked good-naturedly, giving their grey spotted mare a few gentle pats “and what business brings you to Minas Tirith so early in the morning? Do you have anything to sell?”
The assistant inspector absent-mindedly picked his teeth while scrutinizing the cart’s meager contents. “Hmmm,” he muttered to himself as he thumped its wooden floor with his knuckles to detect any hidden compartments.
“I’m Tauron Lunt,” replied the driver. He appeared to be about eighteen. “And this is my friend Malbethmir.” Both boys were wrapped in dark grey cloaks against the morning’s chill. Shapeless woolen caps had been pulled over their collar-length hair and their youthful beards had been closely cropped.
“We’re here to find employment, sir,” Malbethmir said eagerly. He was already gazing upon the New City Quarter and the soaring heights of Minas Tirith in wide-eyed wonderment.
“My father is distantly related to the man in charge of the Pelennor Shipping and Manufacturing Company,” Tauron said. “That’s where we’re headed. We have letters of recommendation from our parents, if you want to see them.” He fumbled beneath the seat of the cart for a battered leather briefcase.
“Not necessary, lad,” the inspector said as he scribbled on his notepad. “You have an honest face.”
“Nothing in the cart of any value,” the assistant inspector stated as he stood back from the vehicle. “Just a bit of food and camping equipment.”
“One cart, a horse and two occupants,” the inspector intoned officially as he filled out and tore off a chit. “That’ll be six farthings.”
“Can you give us some directions, sir?” Tauron asked as he counted out the toll into the inspector’s outstretched hand. “We’ve never been to the capital before.”
“That’s easy, lad! Just stay on the South Road for about four miles. The business is in four large buildings on your right immediately after you cross Rath Celeb. You can’t miss it.”
“If memory serves me correctly,” the assistant inspector added, “the building you want will be the first one you come to. That’s where the main office is.”
“I can see that you lads are eager to get there,” the inspector grinned, “but mind the speed limit──nothing over a fast trot. And remember, if you want to drive your cart into Minas Tirith proper, you have to wait until seven o’clock in the evening before you can drive through the Great Gates. Traffic regulations prohibit the use of horse-drawn vehicles within the city walls during the daytime.” He gave an informal salute as the boys nodded their thanks and rode off. Scratching his graying beard, he favored his assistant with a knowing wink. “Ah! It’s great to be young, isn’t it?”
* * *
The intersection of the South Road and Rath Celeb was much busier than two teens had anticipated. A constable directing traffic blew his whistle and held up his hand, signaling for the cart to halt. Wagons and carts promptly began to move in either direction along the latter street as the lads looked on in wonder. A steady stream of pedestrians moved with determined steps along either side of the street.
“I didn’t expect there to be this much activity so early in the morning,” Tauron remarked as he held the reins at the ready.
“Everyone must be on their way to work,” Malbethmir remarked eagerly. “It looks as if there’s no shortage of jobs here. If there’s no place for us at the Pelennor company, then there’s bound to be plenty of opportunities close by. Look!” he exclaimed, pointing to a series of large, squat buildings across the street. “That must be the place we’re looking for.”
“Yes, Mal,” Tauron agreed just as eagerly, “and right where the toll man said it would be.
The constable blew his whistle again. Traffic along Rath Celeb halted as he waved to Tauron to proceed along the South Road.
“There’s a sign to the right side of the building,” Tauron said, reining the mare into the first driveway after the intersection. The entrance road was wide. I huge wagon pulled by six muscular draft horses rumbled in the opposite direction as Tauron guided his cart toward their destination. Its cargo box was covered by a sheet of canvass secured by ropes.
“There must be hundreds of workers employed here,” Malbethmir said in wonder. Three large buildings, about a hundred feet apart, stood in a row along the highway. A fourth was under construction at the far end. Tauron steered their cart into what was clearly a parking area to the right side of the building. A number of similar carts were lined up along a row of hitching posts.
Tauron secured the horse to one of the hitching posts while his companion fumbled about in their leather case for their letters of introduction. “It’s apparent,” he commented, “that the business has just opened its doors for the day.” Indeed, scores of workers, in groups of twos and threes were converging on the building from Rath Celeb and the South Road.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get in past that crowd, Taur,” Malbethmir said in consternation. “There are lines forming at the entrances and I’m not so sure that we’re allowed to walk in through the loading docks.”
Several huge bay doors were located on that side of the building, although only one stood open at that hour. On the dock, several men were busily loading large wooden crates onto a huge wagon, similar to the one the boys had seen leaving the complex. A stern-looking manager scrutinized each crate on the dock while filling out bills of lading on a clipboard. Other workers were leading a team of six draft horses from stables at the rear of the building.
The manager soon took notice of the bewildered boys as he checked off the last of the crates. Tucking the clipboard beneath his arm, he nimbly descended from the loading dock and crossed the parking lot in their direction.
“He’s a right, mean-looking bugger,” Tauron whispered to his companion. “I hope he’s not going to tell us to shove off.”
“What’s your business here, lads?” the manager asked in a cheery tone which completely belied his stern expression. “Are you picking up merchandise or making a delivery?”
“Neither, sir,” Tauron replied. “We’re here to apply for work.”
“We’ve got letters of introduction from our parents,” Malbethmir added eagerly, displaying two neatly folded notes.
“Well, you’ll want to talk to the boss then,” the manager said. “Follow me!”
The teenagers exchanged grins of surprise and delight as they fell in behind the manager. He led them up a short staircase alongside the dock and through an open bay door. The boys wordlessly cast curious glances at the rows of labeled wooden crates lined up on the dock and just inside the building.
“I’ll tell you one of the first and most important rules of this place,” the manager said over his shoulder. “Hand carts, whether they’re loaded or not, have the right-of-way. Stay to one side of the aisle if you see one coming toward you.”
They passed an open area near the loading dock where several workers were constructing shipping crates. Both lads inhaled the pleasant aroma of freshly cut pine. The sounds of hammering and sawing added to the cacophony of sounds echoing though the large building where row upon row of work benches stretched in every direction.
Light streamed in through large windows along all sides of the huge structure, but supplementary light came from numerous oil lamps hanging from overhead beams.
“There certainly appears to be a lot of manufacturing going on,” Malbethmir remarked. “It’s hard to see exactly what they’re making, though. Every worker seems to be engaged in a different task.”
“You’re right,” Tauron replied. “The workers at the last bench we passed seemed to be assembling small wooden toys. Those people over there,” he said pointing to a group in the next row, “seem to be tinsmiths.”
They fell into single file behind the manager as he moved to the right of the aisle. A large cart loaded with labeled wooden boxes rumbled past them in the opposite direction. The boys stared in wonder at the burly worker pushing it, for he had oddly shaped iron hooks in place of hands.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Mal,” Tauron muttered in a low voice, “but some of these workers are missing limbs. Those two men sitting on stools that we just passed don’t have any legs.” His companion had no chance to reply.
“Here we are, boys,” the manager announced as they arrived at a slightly raised platform set against the building’s wall. Within its outer railing were three desks, so arranged as to give their occupants a clear view of the activities taking place on the factory floor. “I’ll leave you to it now,” he said, turning on his heel and quickly retracing his steps.
Tauron and Malbethmir exchanged nervous glances as they doffed their shapeless caps and climbed the stage’s three steps. Only the first desk to the right was occupied. A clerk wearing the distinctive tunic of a professional scribe muttered to himself while poring over a thick ledger book and an even thicker stack of wrinkled receipts. A placard at the front of the desk read ACCOUNTANT.
“What do you want?” the accountant asked sternly without looking up from his work.
Both boys started in surprise.
“We’re here to see the owner,” the older youth replied meekly. “I’m Tauron Lunt and this is my friend Malbethmir. Our parents have exchanged letters with Master Butterbur and he said that there’d be openings for us here. We have letters of introduction.”
“Humph!” the accountant muttered, looking up at last. “Come closer, lads,” he said in a gentler tone. “Let’s have a look at you.” For several seconds he scrutinized their much-patched cloaks. “Come from the country, eh?”
“Yes, sir,” Tauron replied. “We’re from Calembel in Lamedon.”
“Well, you’ll want to be talking to the boss.” The accountant cast off his scribal tunic as he abruptly rose from his seat, donned a leather vest, and seated himself behind the central desk on which a placard read WHEATMAN BUTTERBUR, OWNER & GENERAL MANAGER. “Wheatman Butterbur, at your service,” he announced with a straight face.
The boys hesitated a moment, nonplussed by their tentative employer’s odd behavior, then brought forth their letters of introduction.
“Take off those cloaks, boys,” Wheatman said as he accepted the letters. Again he scrutinized their much-patched clothing. “Those clothes won’t do if you work here. Not to worry, though. This company prides itself on a well-dressed work force. You’ll have new shirts and trousers shortly, the cost of which will be deducted from your wages.”
Wheatman took a well worn megaphone from behind the desk and strode to the railing. “Iorthon!” he bellowed across the shop. “Bring your tape measure to the office!”
“Coming, boss!” a voice rang out from somewhere in the sea of workbenches. Moments later, a breathless middle-aged fellow mounted the steps of the platform, a tape measure draped about his neck.
“This is Iorthon,” Butterbur said to the boys. He’s a leatherworker and tent maker, but he also makes our work uniforms. Measure these boys for new work clothes,” he said to the part-time tailor. “They’ll each need three pairs of shirts and trousers, to start. Warm weather is almost here, so one jacket apiece should do, for now.”
Mal and Tauron could only exchange looks of astonishment as Iorthon hastily darted about them, taking their measurements. Butterbur had apparently hired them on the spot without giving their letters of recommendation so much as a cursory glance.
“You’ll be working with Trahald at one of those benches in the middle of the shop,” Wheatman told them. Again, he leaned against the railing and raised the megaphone to his lips. “Trahald! Report to the office!”
“That’s got it, boss,” Iorthon said, placing the measuring tape about his neck again. “I’ve got six shirts and pants in stock already that need just a few alterations to fit these boys. They’ll be ready tomorrow morning.”
“Can you start work right now, lads?” Butterbur asked, returning to his desk.
“We haven’t got lodgings yet, sir,” Tauron said, “and our horse needs to be stabled. She’s right outside with our cart.”
“I’ll have one of the errand boys take care of that,” Butterbur replied as he hastily scribbled a note on a scrap of paper. “Your horse and cart will be taken care of in the company stables, for now. The company has workers’ lodgings down the street. I’ll also arrange for a room to be prepared for both you. The first week’s rent will be free. You can arrange for other accommodations if you don’t like it there, but we make it a point to provide our employees with the best lodgings on the Pelennor.”
“And at the best affordable prices,” Iorthon added, with an emphatic nod of agreement. “Happy workers are the best workers.” He said no more as he turned on his heel and headed down the steps.
The youths stared in surprise as a strange figure appeared at the top of the steps, standing slightly to one side to let the tailor pass. His grey hair was sparse and his eyes were abnormally large. He obviously suffered from a forward curvature of the spine, which exaggerated his already short stature. The skin of his right cheek was marred by an ugly burn scar which extended down his neck and beneath the collar of his shirt. He wordlessly looked the youths over with an expression of sternness and suspicion.
“Boys, this is Trahald,” Butterbur said by way of introduction. “You’ll be assisting him until further notice.”
Trahald brightened immediately. “What’s this, boss?” he rasped in a gravelly voice. “Helpers?”
“Yes,” Butterbur replied. “This is Tauron Lunt,” he said, indicating the older teen, “and his friend Malbethmir. They’ve just arrived from Calembel.”
“Indeed!” Trahald said, shuffling forward for a better look at his charges. “That’s a little village in Lamedon,” he said to the boss over his shoulder. “We’ve never been there, but we knows many here who haves.”
“I’ll leave you lads to it then,” Butterbur said as he returned to his books. “Trahald will explain the rules to you. You’ll find your horse and cart in the stables behind the boarding house when you’re finished for the day.”
“Come, my loves,” Trahald said to the teens as he scuttled nimbly down the stairs. “This way!” Despite his curved spine and shuffling gait, he seemed nimble on his feet. “Do you knows how to use woodworking tools?” he asked over his shoulder as they followed closely on his heels.
“Neither of us worked as carpenters before,” Tauron replied, “but there were a few woodworking shops in Calembel. We sometimes ran errands for the masters or did chores around the shops for pocket money. We at least watched the men at work many times.”
“That will do,” Trahald said, turning sharply down one of the aisles between two rows of workbenches. “The tools we uses are simple and you’ll get used to them quickly.”
The teens had but a few seconds to glance at the work being performed at each workbench, for Trahald led them along at a rapid pace. Most of the workers remained intent on their work, scarcely giving the trio even so much as a passing glance. All about them rose a murmur of low voices and a cacophony of mechanical sounds. An odd mixture of odors permeated the air──leather, glue, freshly cut wood and lacquer.
“Here we are, loves,” Trahald said at last as they arrived at a long workbench. “Put your cloaks and caps on one of the shelves below the bench. The air’s still a bit cool in here, but you’ll find that it warms quickly. Spring is already upon us!”
The boys quickly doffed their cloaks, stuffing them between whatever spaces were available between dusty boxes and an assortment of crudely wrapped parcels. The back of the bench was situated against one of the low plank fences separating each aisle from the next. Partitions at the ends of each bench separated one work area from another. Malbethmir noticed that the fence was just high enough to cut off the view into the adjacent aisle. The fence behind him formed an unbroken wall the length of the aisle. More than a dozen newly made brooms leaned in a neat row against the wall, indicating the progress of Trahald’s work.
“It would appear that we’re to be broom makers,” Tauron remarked. Atop the bench rested a cylinder of hemp twine and a large pile of thin ash wood poles, each just over an inch in diameter. Beside the bench was a dump cart filled with bunches of stiff twigs and straw.
“You’ll be broom makers until the merchant’s order for brooms is filled,” Trahald said matter-of-factly. “After that, you might be put to work making ink or cutting leather. Don’t be surprised if you end up as someone else’s helpers in a few weeks. You will be apprentices in many trades here.”
Malbethmir scrutinized the tools on the bench, which consisted of several metal scrapers and chisels of various shapes, as well as two small hand saws. A scattering of saw dust, bark and wood chips indicated that Trahald had already been at work for a short time before being summoned to the office.
“There’s a stool for each of you at the ends of the bench,” Trahald said. “It’s best to sit down at this job. The hours are long and the stone floor is cold and hard. Your feets will aches if you stand in one place for too long.” He hoisted himself atop his own stool and selected a sheaf of the straw and twigs which he deftly began tying and nailing to the end of a previously prepared length of pole.
“Now, loves,” he said as he trimmed the straw at the end of the newly made broom with a large pair of shears, “start cutting the handles to length. Smooth off the rough spots and round off one end.”
The boys quickly got to work. A red-enameled stick for gauging the length of each broom handle lay among the tools. They soon got the hang of using the scrapers, knives and chisels to dress the poles and remove any excess bark. A coarse, flat stone was used for imparting the wood with a smooth finish. In a very short time, the bench and floor became littered with shavings, chips and straw fragments.
As the work progressed, Trahald flipped a cheap hourglass at the end of the bench and placed a small brass token beside it. “It’s to keep track of time,” he said with a wry grin in reply to the teen’s curious glances. “The hours can pass at a crawl when doing such tedious tasks as this.”
“Why are there walls between the benches?” Malbethmir asked as he put the finishing touches on a handle.
Trahald chuckled. “That’s to protect us from those that pound on things. The men on the bench in back of us are making parts for helmets.” Indeed, the boys had wondered about the metallic clatter going on in the next aisle. “Every once in a while, a rivet gets away from them. You can hears it hit the wall, then one of them swears.” He chuckled again. “Believe me, loves, you don’t wants to get hit in the head with a shard of metal.” He leaned toward them in a conspiratorial manner as his grin became a leer. “The biggest reason for the walls and partitions, though,” he grated, “is to keeps us from jabbering with the neighbours. Talking while working is against the rules, so keeps your voices down.”
Tauron wondered how anyone could possibly gossip with fellow employees even in one’s own work area. The steady din reverberating through the building made normal conversation all but impossible. Indeed, the loud hammering coming from the sheet metal workers behind him was rapidly making him want to stuff cotton in his ears.
And so it went. Time crept by as the boys became familiar with their tasks. How long had it been since Trahald flipped the hourglass and placed the fourth brass token beside it? The tedium was briefly interrupted as a worker arrived with a flatbed cart to take away the finished brooms. Several minutes later, he returned with a fresh supply of poles and straw.
Tauron gasped in shock, for the worker bore a deep scar on the right side of his neck. Just above the old wound, a leather mask concealed that side of his face. Clearly, the unfortunate man was an army veteran who had been horribly disfigured in battle. The lad was visibly shaken and breathed a sigh of relief when the former soldier had gone.
“Lots of broken men work here,” Trahald rasped without looking up from his work, “old soldiers and victims of the war. About a dozen Orcses work here too. You’ll get used to them in time. Until then, it’s not polite to stare at them.”
The boys nodded and went on with their work.
“Were you in the war too, Master Trahald?” Tauron asked after a time.
The little man sighed as he regarded the lad pensively. “We don’t really knows,” he replied earnestly. “We don’t know what we did before the war happened. We sometimes tries to remember, but it does no good. After the war, we lived in an alley inside a wooden box. The constables tried to catch us many times, but we always outwitted them. The owners of the shops there could have evicted us, but they tooks pity on us and gave us old blankets and scraps of food. Life was furtive and wretched, but the alley had many crunchable rats for the eating. The shop owners hates the rats,” he added with a crooked grin.
Tauron had no insight into human psychology and could not help but feel a haunting sense of unease when Trahald referred to himself in the plural. “His wounds run deeper in his mind than in his body,” he thought, and didn’t press the matter when his co-worker fell silent.
Time dragged on. Malbethmir put down his scraper and used the abrasive stone to smooth off a small branch stub from the handle he was working on. He had lost count of how many handles he and Tauron had made. Trahald easily kept up with the boys, expertly binding the twigs and straw into uniformly sized broom heads, then fastening them to the handles with precut strips of sheet metal and stubby brads.
“Almost lunch time, my loves!” he happily announced at last. “Time to clean up!” Indeed, barely a pinch of sand remained in the upper part of the hourglass. “Tauron, take the wastebasket from in back of the bench. Gather up the bits of string and twigs.”
Trahald took a short hand broom from beneath the bench and busily swept the work area. To the boys’ surprise, he had an odd knack for creeping beneath the bench and into the aisle on all fours as he wielded the brush is short rapid strokes. “Very dusty!” he remarked, sweeping a pile of wood chips and sawdust into a dustpan and dumping it into the wastebasket. “Gollum!” he coughed. “Gollum! Gollum!”
As if on cue, a loud bell clattered from the direction of the office. “Lunch break!” Butterbur’s voice shot through the hubbub. “First shift! Lunch break!”
“Have you brought food with you, loves?” Trahald asked, retrieving his jacket from beneath the bench.
The boys shook their heads.
“I thought not,” Trahald said. “Come with me to The Blue Frog. We have an hour off for lunch. Today is Monday, so it’ll be pork pies.”
“I hadn’t thought about what we’d do for lunch, Mal,” Tauron said as they threw on their cloaks and followed their mentor toward the nearest exit. “I just hope our money holds out until we get paid.”
The trio fell in with a stream of workers leaving the building. The air was still a bit cool, but the sky was sunny and glorious. At the South Road, the men began to form into small groups as they headed off toward their favorite eateries. The boys drew abreast of Trahald as he guided them toward the intersection of the main highway and Rath Celeb.
“It’s just up the street a bit,” Trahald said, setting an eager pace. “We always sits at the same table with our usual gang of cronies. The talk is good, as well as the ale. Verily, you lads will fit right in.”
“I hope your friends won’t pick on us because we’re new,” Malbethmir said anxiously. “I couldn’t help but notice that most of the men at the shop were older than us.”
“Not to worry, my love,” Trahald replied with a crooked grin. “Some are from the south country like you and have not been home for some time. They’ll be keen on hearing whatever news and gossip you can gives them. Surely, you’ll both be the center of attention and treated with respect.”
Within ten minutes the boys spotted a large wooden sign hanging from a metal spar in front of a three-story inn and tavern. It featured a blue frog sitting on a green lily pad. Still half a block from the tavern’s open door, they caught the delicious aroma of freshly-baked pork pies drifting down the sidewalk. The morning’s tedium was promptly forgotten as their spirits rose.
* * * * *
Disclaimer: This story is based upon the world and characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is written solely for the enjoyment of my readers and I make no profit from it of any kind.