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Keeper of the Jewels  by Cuthalion

Chapter 2
Thieves in the Night

He broke through the surface of his unruly sleep like a drowning swimmer frantically searching for a gasp of air. At least this time he lay still until his breath had calmed down and his heartbeat had found its silent, regular rhythm again. On earlier nights, he had rocketed up in bed, finding himself, to his great dismay, surrounded by tired faces with troubled eyes.

They were all fast asleep – Merry and Pippin, whose united snores he could hear even through the closed door. They shared a big room on the opposite side of the corridor. Sam slept, too… though not in the chamber beside Frodo’s, but here in his bed. He could feel the gardener’s presence close beside him, healthy warmth radiating from his sturdy body like from freshly baked bread.

Frodo sighed.

All he could see of his friend and companion was a mop of sun-bleached, tousled hair, shimmering in the faint rays of moonlight that came through an opening in the dark red velvet curtains, and the clean bandage that covered his right hand, snow white in the near darkness. Poor Sam! He’d received more than his share of jests about Gamgee-clumsiness and the dramatic dangers of gardening, but he had taken them with good humor. After a whole day of merciless mockery, especially from Merry, Frodo had tried to interfere, but Sam only laughed and shook his head. It’s all my fault, he’d said with a somewhat wistful smile, I should’ve known better. It’s high time that I was using my own shears again… though, and then the smile grew sadder, I fear they’ve got pretty rusty meanwhile. Mr. Lotho is not the hobbit to use them well. I’ll have to buy new ones for the garden in Crickhollow. Frodo had patted his back and they had had a luxurious dinner with spicy, deep red, gondorean wine in the garden before they went to bed.

And at some time during this stifling warm night, Sam must have decided that he preferred sleeping closer to his master, in case Frodo had bad dreams again… or perhaps only because he was so used to guarding his master’s slumber. Frodo bore him no grudge for it. Quite to the contrary, he found Sam’s devoted, selfless attitude moving and comforting at the same time. And still – they were so careful, so gentle, so… overly protective of him, all of them. He knew they meant well. He knew they were uneasy and anxious. He felt their gaze on his back wherever he went, listened to their soft voices, offering their company, never leaving him alone. Suddenly that vivid warmth beside him seemed to embody everything that had changed and now added to his misery… All those little details, turning the independent, self-confident master of Bag End into a fragile, haunted creature, not allowed a single step on his own, to prevent him from hurting himself.

He was thankful for their concern, grateful for their care. But there were moments when he could not bear it any longer… though stomping his feet like a petulant fauntling and screaming: Leave me alone, for pity’s sake, all of you! would certainly not improve his situation.

And it was too warm. For nearly two weeks now, the marble walls of the White City had stored the untimely heat of the sun and then radiated it back long after dusk had fallen. It was only the last few days of May, June was drawing near. Summers in Gondor were apparently very different to those in the Shire.

At home there had been warm weeks, too – of course – but they would be interspersed with cloudy days and the reassuring drum of heavy drops on the grassy roof of Bag End… The sweet scent of damp honeysuckle, the splashing of bare feet in the silvery puddles along the way to Bywater after a refreshing shower… lush, green hills and daffodils with gently nodding heads… He lay in the stifling darkness, his eyes wide open, and the images washed over him with bittersweet, breathtaking power and closed ghostly fingers around his heart.

Home.

He had been blind and deaf for so long… blind and deaf to everything but that murderous golden band, dangling from his neck and that whirling wheel of fire in his head and mind. Now, older memories slowly came back, colorful and lively like a precious tapestry, and the warm brown and green, the luscious yellow and blue were the shades of the Shire, engraved in his soul. He wanted to go back, and soon… the reverence and barely hidden awe of all the strange people here unnerved him. He was cranky and homesick. And now he lay in his luxurious room, Sam in blissful oblivion beside him, and he knew with merciless clarity that after only two hours of unruly rest, yet another sleepless night loomed ahead of him.

Perhaps a little stroll in the garden would help… a breath of fresh air and the sight of the stars. Suddenly he thought of the hammock.

Faramir had brought it along a few weeks ago, a bulky bundle under his arm. He carried it over the lawn, stopped before two oaks beside the wall to the Seneschal’s garden and unrolled it on the grass. The hobbits stared curiously at what that looked like a huge net, plaited of fine rope; Frodo vaguely remembered them from Buckland where Esmeralda sometimes brought perch and bream to the festive table.

“What is that?” Merry asked.

“It’s a hammock,” Faramir replied. He was already busy fastening the strange net between the oaks. “Gondorean sailors use them on the merchant’s ships and my uncle, the Prince of Dol Amroth, had some of them in the gardens of the Swan Palace. When I visited him as a child, I refused to sleep in my bed and spent the nights in a hammock instead – to the delight of my mother and the dismay of my nurse.” He smiled. “I thought you might enjoy a new experience.”

Sam eyed the hammock with the same hearty distrust he had shown the delicate elven boats in Lórien. He couldn’t be talked into trying it, and when Peregrin returned from his service in the watch and was informed about this strange, new item, he kept a safe distance and watched how the Knight of Gondor cautiously lowered his weight into it. Pippin was a lot more venturous than the gardener, but even he only used the hammock like a kind of great swing, and it became a sport for him and Merry to sit in it side by side, stretching and bending their legs until they rocked back and forth through the warm summer air… and they turned within minutes from hardy heroes to jaunty children again while their united laughter rang through the garden.

In the end, the only one who appreciated Faramir’s gift as it was intended to be used was Frodo himself. One day he waited until Merry and Pippin had gone to their various duties and Sam was beleaguering the warden of the royal gardens with questions, before slipping outside with a blanket and a pillow to make his first attempt. It took some courage to climb into the large, ductile braiding, but once he had managed it, and had carefully stretched out his legs, it turned out to be astonishingly comfortable. He stuffed the pillow under his head, wrapped himself into the blanket and delighted in the feel of the soft, swinging movement of the hammock beneath his body. No thick, heavy mattress, no high stone walls to close him in… instead, a gentle breeze ruffling his hair and the clear sky above; brilliant blue filtered through a veil of green-golden oak leaves.

“Not bad,” he murmured, “not bad at all.”

He dozed off only minutes later and when the other hobbits returned late in the afternoon, they found him in the garden after nearly half an hour of searching. He woke up to Merry and Pippin’s laughter and to Sam’s horrified exclamation: “How on earth does he manage not to tumble out of this…thing… and break his neck?!” ---

He slipped out of the giant bed carefully to avoid waking Sam. Leaving the pillow behind, he took a folded blanket from the lid of a trunk and sneaked out of the room. As soon as he had reached the door and opened it, he felt the night air like a caress on his face and took a deep, involuntary breath of relief. He stepped outside, left the graveled path and walked over the dew-damp grass, every step a silent delight, cool and invigorating. Then he dove into the shadows under the trees and swung himself into the hammock. Just as he had the very first time, he felt peaceful and strangely secure giving in to the gentle movements of this fragile, oversized cradle. And slowly the hammock worked its spell, cheating his notorious insomnia and rocking him to a deep slumber, miraculously undisturbed by nightmares.

*****

He opened his eyes to the first, sleepy notes of a blackbird above his head. The sky was still gray, but rosy fingers reached out from the east, gentle harbingers of the sunrise. His face and hair felt slightly damp, but the blanket had kept him perfectly warm, and he decided to stay a little bit longer. Perhaps he could climb out of the hammock a little later and watch the sun appear over Ephel Dúath.

“Are you mad? What will you do next - drop him on the street like a rotten apple?”

The high, whistling tenor sounded sharp and loud in the dreamy silence of the dawning day. Frodo sat up with a start, gazing around.

“We got to get him to the cart as fast as possible and leave the city before they wake up and find out about it!”

“Be silent, you fool. The cart is waiting right around the next corner with a big cask. Nothing will happen, as long as you don’t lose your nerve.”

The second was a deeper voice, hoarse and with a hint of grim laughter. Steps moved away and then everything was quiet again. Frodo nestled one arm out of the blanket and wiped his eyes, trying to clear his head enough to understand what had just happened.

Who ever spoke there had not been in the garden but outside, beyond the wall. Suddenly he remembered something Aragorn had told him during their journey in the elven boats, in one of those endless hours spent in nervous unease, the rushing, cold water directly beneath them. “Voices carry far on water,” Aragorn had said, “same as in the night or in the dawn, when all living creatures are asleep. If you have to talk and don’t want to be overheard, you should not whisper. Just lower your voice a little and speak in a quiet tone; no one will understand what you are saying, and you will be able to keep your secrets.” The man with the shrill voice had obviously not been aware of that fact.

He was still trying to figure out what the short exchange had been about. Who did they want to carry away? Where did they go? Had he been the witness to a crime or only to a harmless discussion between two friends helping a beer-soaked friend? And what was the cask for?

He climbed out of the hammock and walked to the eastern wall. From there he had a clear view of the lower circles of Aragorn’s White City. The sky was brightening; a broad seam of shining gold split the horizon. He scanned the serpentine streets leading down to the big gates. There were quite a few carts on their way and more than one of them loaded with casks; he had been told that every glass of wine and every single mug of ale had to be brought from the southern regions of Gondor to Minas Tirith. The City gates were closed during the night; the merchants could only leave with first daylight.

Frodo shook his head and decided to go back inside; the dew and the cool morning air made him shiver and the prospect of a good cup of tea, a pan of scrambled eggs and some toast became increasingly appetizing. He could, for a turn, prepare everything himself – even if he would have to climb on a stool to reach the grate – and surprise his companions with a hearty breakfast.

He walked back along the path and stepped into the house, then went down the corridor and peered into Sam’s room. The cover was neatly folded, the pillow fluffed up, but no one lay in the bed. Sam had obviously not noticed his trip into the garden and was still fast asleep in his master’s bed.

Frodo smiled and went to his own chamber. He opened the door; it was dark and stifling hot inside. Only a narrow ray of light fell on the mattress, but no one lay upon it. When he frowned and moved closer, something crunched beneath his right foot and a sudden pain made him stumble. He limped hastily over to the window and ripped the curtain aside. Now he had a clear sight, and he stared with great dismay at the scenery.

The pillow lay on the floor and the cover hung half out of the bed. The carafe with water and the glass from the nightstand had obviously been swept down; shards glittered on the white marble tiles and when he gazed at his throbbing foot, he saw a long splinter, protruding from his big toe. He bowed down with a grimace and removed it, barely noticing the blood that stained his fingers. For suddenly he discovered a dark print on the blanket: someone had stepped on it… someone wearing boots.

He took a deep breath, clenching his teeth against the icy panic that threatened to overwhelm him.

We got to get him to the cart as fast as possible and leave the city before they wake up and find out about it!

Now the remark made terrible sense… Two men, secretly carrying a bundle out of the house, trying to get it out of sight before anyone noticed what they were doing.

And I stood there like a witless fool and watched them escape – without doing anything! he thought, numb and frozen with horror. Sweet Eru, they have taken Sam!





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