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His head hurt. The entire right half of his face was numb, and he moaned into the utter darkness. It was a frightened, muffled sound, stifled by the filthy lump of cloth between his teeth.
What… and why…?
He had been sleeping beside Mr. Frodo, and a pleasant dream had carried him back to Hobbiton… the Hobbiton of his childhood, when the Gaffer wasn’t weighed down by age and Mam Bell still ruled over the Gamgee-household, a trustworthy haven of laughter and unerring love, constantly surrounded by the mouthwatering scent of good cooking. He remembered running over a dew-damp meadow, the glittering loop of the Water before him between the stems of half a dozen spring-green trees. The sound of his own voice –the voice of a small boy, high and shrill – still echoed in his mind: Ham! Ham, where are you? Not so fast!
He retched and finally managed to spit out the wet fabric, fighting a sudden wave of nausea. He was still desperately trying to get the course of events into a meaningful order – which was getting increasingly difficult while his entire skull throbbed like a giant, rotten grinder.
Something had startled him out of his peaceful slumber and nostalgic dream… perhaps the instinctive knowledge that Frodo was gone. For almost a year nearly every single thought in his mind had been focused on protecting his master, and now the mere loss of his presence was enough to put his sharpened senses on alert. He had opened his eyes to the empty pillow beside him and was instantly widely awake. Then came a shuffle of feet behind him and the hot huff of breath on his neck, and a big hand clasped rudely over his mouth. He bolted up in Mr. Frodo’s bed, with flailing arms and kicking legs, and without thinking, buried his teeth into the sweaty palm. A shrill voice hissed an ugly curse, and then something crashed against his temple and tossed him into black unconsciousness.
Where was he? Where had they brought him?
Sam felt around; there was solid rock beneath his searching fingers, cold and slightly damp. He closed his eyes, listening for any sign that might help him to orient; it was almost completely silent. The only sound he could hear was the regular dripping of water. Was it day or night? He was completely unable to fathom. He shook his head in miserable frustration, tried to sit up, and was surprised and shocked by the sudden rattling of chains. Someone had closed thick iron cuffs around his left wrist and ankle! He followed the chain links with his free hand until he found the wall. It was too uneven to be brick-built, but he could feel rough plaster beneath his palm. No cave… a cellar, perhaps?
He felt a sudden onrush of thankfulness that the Gaffer had no idea of his predicament… he couldn’t even begin to figure out what his Da would have to say to such a completely strange, disastrous situation.
Perhaps he would be speechless, for once, he mused, his face relaxing to a small grin, Samwise Gamgee, hauled from a bed twice his size in the house of a king, and now sitting in the middle of nowhere, chained against the wall like Farmer Cotton’s breeding boar. He wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of the whole thing. His grin faded. Nor can I.
He had the distinct feeling that screaming for help or banging against the wall would not help… and might damage his wounded hand even more. He felt for the bandage with his good left and frowned when he found that the cloth, once neatly wound around his fingers, was now damp and torn. The last thing I need now is a nasty infection, he thought with a grimace. Out of the pan and into the fire, again. You’d better think of something useful, Samwise Gamgee, and fast.
The sound of approaching steps from somewhere to his left brought the thought of a plan to a sudden halt. He heard the unmistakable clangor of keys, and then a door opened in the darkness, revealing two huge – obviously human – figures and the bright, red-golden flickering of two torches. There was no time left to sink back on the ground and pretend that he was still unconscious so he sat there, blinking like an owl and trying to take in as much as possible while he was still able. Now he could see a regular row of stanchions, separating the room he was imprisoned from another bigger one. The door led obviously to another room; he caught a short glimpse of a desk, a chair and a half a dozen hooks, too big to be meant for cloaks. They reminded him of something, but before he could figure out what it was, one of the two men stepped close to the stanchions and stared down at him, a slightly scornful expression on his bearded face.
“Let’ s have a closer look at what comes out when you empty the potato sack.” He snorted. “So this is the Ringbearer whose noble deeds saved Middle Earth, as they claim. Such a half pint! Not very impressive, to say the least.”
“Be careful if you come too close,” the other one retorted with a sour grimace; Sam recognized the shrill voice at once and saw with deep satisfaction that he was not the only one with a wounded hand in this room. “He bites.”
Sam suppressed a weak grin of triumph… and then the remark of the first man hit him with full impact. He gazed up at his abductors, laboriously trying to bring his face under control.
So this is the Ringbearer…
He closed his eyes, his thoughts a whirl of utter bafflement, and for a short, breathless moment he felt neither his throbbing head nor the faint pain in his injured fingers.
Goodness gracious – he is talking about me!
When Aragorn reached the guesthouse half an hour after sunrise, the hobbits were assembled in the large kitchen. Frodo stood at the window, seemingly lost in thoughts; Pippin sat beside the table, idly turning an apple between his fingers, and Merry paced back and forth between hearth and door. No tea had been brewed, no bread roasted, and the King didn’t take this evidence lightly; a hobbit losing his appetite was a very bad sign.
As he walked into the room, Frodo turned on his heels and their eyes met. The Ringbearer’s face was pale, his lips a thin, firm line. Anxiety and a barely suppressed consternation radiated from him in palpable waves, but he kept his composure and was perfectly able to describe everything that had happened during that hot, fateful night – as far as he knew, anyway. As often as asked, he repeated the short exchange he had overheard.
“I want to examine your bedchamber.” Aragorn said.
“Of course,” Frodo replied, his face blank and his body tense as a bowstring. “We left everything as it was. I hope that was helpful.”
“It certainly was.” Aragorn reached out to give Frodo’ shoulder a reassuring squeeze, but the hobbit sidestepped the touch with a nearly imperceptible movement. The King raised one eyebrow, but said nothing. Instead he asked Merry and Pippin to stay behind.
“There may be traces,” he explained, “stains of dirt, grass, anything. Too many feet will destroy what I hope to find.”
He walked down the corridor, bending low and scanning every inch of the floor. It was as he had feared; there was not much to find, only some crumbs of dirt here and there and a few tiny pebbles. He turned around at the doorstep and gazed at the hobbit waiting behind him.
“There has been a lot of running this morning, I suppose?”
Frodo gave a somewhat lopsided grin. “We wasted some time searching for Sam under several beds,” he said. “Merry and Pippin did, at least. Merry first even suggested that Sam was sleepwalking and could possibly be found between the roses in the royal garden, tenderly embracing a thorn bush.” The humorous light in his eyes vanished quickly. “But that footprint, and the broken glass… and that conversation behind the wall…”
"Yes,” Aragorn agreed softly, "yes, of course.”
The bedroom lay in full daylight now. Aragorn bent over the blanket hanging off of the bed. He examined the dried footprint and judged the distance between the nightstand and the shards on the floor to find out who might have swept the carafe down. When he pulled at the blanket, he suddenly discovered that someone had ripped a broad strip of cloth out of the pillowcase.
“Interesting…” he murmured. “What did they need that piece of fabric for?”
“As a… as a gag, perhaps?” Frodo’s voice had a strained, brittle tone, but otherwise he still kept himself under perfect control. Aragorn shot him a sharp gaze.
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied carefully. "If they needed a gag – and yes, I think, there were at least two of them - they would certainly have brought it with them from the beginning… probably together with ropes and a sack. No, I don’t think that this was used for a gag. I fear they knocked our poor Sam unconscious – but he might have been able to fight them for a while. I guess he wounded one of his abductors…” he gave Frodo a flash of a smile. "Can't you see him taking a bite of an attacker?”
“Hopefully.” Frodo grimly returned the smile. “What will we do now?”
“Nothing,” he said, "or, to be precise, you, my dear friend, are the one who will do nothing. You will come with me to the palace, at once. We must proceed on the assumption that there are spies in the city, probably even at the court. We will confine you to my private rooms; the servants there were chosen among the Dúnedain, and I trust them blindly.”
He caught himself involuntarily staring at Frodo’s bandaged hand with the gap where once a finger had been.
“Because our mysterious foe might find out that his minions brought him the wrong hobbit?” the Ringbearer asked quietly, following his gaze before Aragorn could turn his eyes away.
The King opened his mouth and then closed it again. A long silence followed.
“How long have you realized this?” he finally asked.
“A little longer than you, I think,” Frodo retorted dryly. “I saw this room first this morning. And the fact that there are two halflings with a bandaged right hand may well be the cause of a fateful mistake, don’t you think?” He sighed and shook his head. "Though they actually didn’t make any mistake. Sam was a Ringbearer, too, and a much worthier one, if you ask me.”
He straightened his back.
“I will trust and obey you in this, Aragorn,” he said, "but not for long. I have been confined to a sickroom because I was too weak to move. Then confined to this house because you told me to recover and to take care of myself. But with Sam being in danger, I won’t stay behind and wait for you to save the day. You know that, do you?”
“Yes,” Aragorn replied, eyeing the hobbit with deep concern, “Only too well.”
An hour after sunrise, a pigeon rose into the clear summer air, fluttering in swift, searching loops and then shooting over the glittering surface of the river towards the shadowy silhouette of the Mindolluin and the White City.
It was one of five birds stolen from the royal pigeonry a week before, well trained and fast, and it carried a message in the small tube tied to its foot.
The Ringbearer is alive. We will exchange him for a certain ransom, and tomorrow we will name the one who has to come and deliver it… alone.
The pigeon hurried westward, a white flash of wings that caught the eyes of a hawk, drawing lazy circles high above the Pelennor Fields. Sharp golden eyes followed the freshly discovered, highly welcome prey, and then the hunter plunged down.
The pigeon noticed the danger the fraction of a second too late to dodge away from the deadly beak. One moment later it hung lifeless and limp in the grip of the hawk’s sharp claws; a shrill, victorious cry rang over the road leading to the big gates of the City, and the small carcass was carried away to the aerie to feed a hungry brood.
Soon, all that was left of the pigeon was a handful of bloody feathers and fragile bones. The little tube lay buried beneath the remnants… unnoticed and useless.
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