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“What do you mean: the house is empty?”
Lady Artanis sat in the small, shadowed breakfast room; every single shutter was closed against the blazing midday heat. She had just been served a small meal of freshly baked bread, cheese and pale Muscat grapes from Lebennin. But the Lady didn’t eat. She looked up at her nurse Eilinel; the gaze of her pearl-gray eyes had lost all it’s delusive composure and was sharp as a bared blade.
“Just what I’m saying, my lamb,” the nurse replied patiently. “This morning when I went to the gate to bring the nice little gardener my recipe – for the strawberry cake, if you remember – no one was at home. Even more… suddenly one of the royal guards stepped out of the door, came over and asked me in a very distrustful tone what kind of business I had with the King’s guests! I have no idea why he did that - they are such friendly little folk, and I never meant any harm!”
“Of course you didn’t.” The Lady patted Eilinel’s arm reassuringly. Her piercing, agitated gaze was now carefully hidden beneath heavy lids. “You told me that the Ringbearer was still wounded; perhaps his injuries have got worse again.”
“But… but he looked so good yesterday!” the nurse protested. “I can’t imagine that…”
“We know nothing for sure,” Artanis said and finally ate the first grape. “But I will try to find out more when I go to the palace this afternoon, if you want. And I would like to have something to drink with the fruits. Would you be so kind as to fetch a mug of chilled wine for me?”
The nurse hurried downstairs towards the kitchen. Artanis plucked another grape, put it into her mouth and felt the sweet, spicy juice on her tongue. She was thankful for the short reprieve… it gave her a chance to sort her thoughts and to ponder the next step. The fact that all the hobbits had left the guesthouse and the presence of the guard could only mean one thing – the abduction had been successful and the King had obviously decided to whisk the rest of the hobbits to safety. Now she had to find out if the stolen dove with the first message to Aragorn had reached the royal pigeonry… which should be no problem at all.
The pigeonry was one of her most treasured childhood memories. From her sixth to her eleventh year of life, the family had lived mainly in Minas Tirith, and when her mother suddenly fell ill one summer and couldn’t leave the Houses of Healing for weeks, Eilinel had to run the household (which was much more elaborate in those days) alone. Maedhron was busy learning the art of the sword with the elder son of the Steward, and his little sister was mostly left to her own devices. One morning she got lost in the fifth circle, and before she could panic, an elderly man with graying, brown hair, friendly eyes and a gentle voice crouched down before her.
“Lost your way, my Lady?” he asked. She suppressed her anxious sniffle, collected all the dignity of her eight years and managed to tell him her name and the location of her house. He laughed, gave her a piece of candied apple from the pocket of his leather waistcoat and explained that he was Ecthelion, the warden of the pigeonry. Then he took her by the hand and led her to his realm, where she was introduced to the Steward’s finest messenger birds. It was love at first sight; Artanis was spellbound by the downy soft feathers and gentle voices of those graceful creatures and positively thrilled by their mysterious ability to always find their way home.
From that day on she was a frequent and highly welcome guest in the pigeonry, and even now, as her duties at the court made their own claim on her time, she still visited the birds and the warden. Artanis felt a sudden pang of guilt when she remembered how easy it had been to deceive him a week ago; she had brought him a small dinner of cold beef and beer late one evening, sat a while with him and then snuck behind his back into the dim room with the cages to steal five of his best pigeons. They knew and trusted her – as Ecthelion did – and made no noise as she hid them in her huge basket; half an hour later she was home again, his innocent, unsuspecting “Good Night, my Lady, and thank you for your kindness towards an old man!” ringing in her ears like a gentle, persistent accusation.
She stared down at her plate, the last grape bitter and sharp in her mouth; then she straightened her back and once more closed her mind to the voice of conscience.
Simple people cling to small details like children. We have the duty to be different… to make decisions and to hazard the consequences. Pity is a luxury we cannot afford.
Her father’s words; she winced at the memory. Sometimes Ardhenon of Lebennin seemed to her like a rock, unmoving and undisturbed by the elements. Her dreams and feelings, her yearnings and sorrows had been shattered against that rock nearly her entire life. She was well aware of the fact that the only thing that caused him to notice his daughter was the loss of Maedhron. During the first weeks after her brother’s death, the burden of her frozen loneliness and grief had nearly been more than she could bear. When her father suddenly started to seek her presence, all her buried hopes awakened to new life.
Perhaps they still had a chance, after all those years. Perhaps the day would come when he would learn to love her… even though he only needed her as a substitute for his son right now.
But would Maedhron have agreed to be used as a willing tool in this?
One hand flew up, hastily pressed against her mouth… as if to keep the quiet, insistent whispering from being heard. Artanis rose from the chair, her face white. It was dangerous to think and to doubt, and much too dangerous to question her father’s plans.
When the nurse returned with a mug of wine a few minutes later, the breakfast room was empty.
It was ridiculously simple to get access to Ecthelion’s flight-book. Artanis had watched him again and again over the years and knew how he wrote down the names of the pigeons returning with messages, every letter carefully painted with a neatly sharpened quill. She knew that he patrolled the cages twice a day, at midday and in the late hours of evening, before he returned home and went to bed, and the reliability of his habit was an important part of her plan. She had told her father’s men exactly which bird to send first – Snowbreast – so that she would know exactly when the King got the first note. Following the course of that first note would be easy. But Artanis was aware that things would become increasingly difficult as soon as Aragorn realized that the abductors of the Ringbearer used pigeons to send their messages.
But the daily digest was an unpleasant surprise: Snowbreast’s name was nowhere to be found, and beside the number of her cage she was still listed as “missing”. Artanis could well imagine Ecthelion’s consternation thinking that anyone might tamper with his beloved birds; he probably preferred to believe that he had made some inexplicable mistake.
And now Artanis wondered if the guardians of the Ringbearer had made the mistake instead. After some thought, she decided that this was impossible. Her father’s servants were much too afraid of being a target of his rage. They didn’t dare follow his orders in any other way but literally… and in this case she was the long arm of his iron will. The only remaining possibility was that something had happened to the bird. Ecthelion rarely lost one his pigeons to the hunger of falcons or hawks, but it happened from time to time anyway.
The Lady closed the book and put it back into the drawer. Voices approached from outside and with a few, soundless steps she left the pigeonry through the back door. While she slowly returned to the sixth circle, thoughts were milling in her head; was the missing bird an additional risk to her father’s plans? Probably not – the King would simply learn one day later what price he was to pay for the freedom of his friend.
Artanis had reached the peace and shadow of her house again. She wished her father had told her more of his intentions; all she knew was that he wanted something from the new ruler of Gondor, something rare and special. She had no idea what it was, and Ardhenon hadn’t bothered to reveal his secret to her. Perhaps he never would.
She pushed the unwelcome thought aside and went to her bedroom. How could she find out more about the hobbits? She was certain that Ardhenon expected her to deliver as many details as possible, but she was also certain that the King would carefully hide his remaining guests to protect them from harm, now that the most precious of them had been lost through a mysterious crime.
Her gaze fell on the chest where she had stored away the gray pearls for the Queen’s necklace, and her face brightened notably. The King was still expecting her to tell him of the progress she had made with his special order, and it gave her the perfect excuse to see him. She opened the chest and pulled out the velvet bags. There was something she had to show him… and perhaps he would unknowingly show her something in return.
Artanis reached the royal palace just in time for the afternoon audience. This habit of the new King had raised quite a few eyebrows at the court. After working through the morning hours – sometimes from dawn – and seeking the advice of his newly formed council, Aragorn would retire for a short luncheon with his queen and then receive envoys from abroad. This was not unusual; Lord Denethor’s methods had been fairly similar, but twice a week there had been established a completely new form of audience; people from Minas Tirith had the right to address their King and to tell him about their problems and wishes.
A cheap way to make himself popular. The last Stewart would never have vulgarized the noble heritage of his duty that way.
The voice of her father again, a cold whisper inside her head. Artanis had listened to him many times, feeling his contempt and barely hidden rage like a sickening fog that tightened her throat. “The usurper” her father called the King, and she had got used to imitating him; things were much easier and less painful that way. But her desperate eagerness to please him had kept her from conceiving her own opinion about her new Lord. The tall, dark-haired man was not much more than the image her father painted of him… a ranger from the north, who’d spent most of his years in the wilderness and now abrogated the power from the true Rulers of Gondor. The Prince of Lebennin had never accepted Aragorn’s right to be King though no one outside his family had any idea of his stubborn reluctance. Officially, he had simply retired after Lord Denethor’s death, deeply shaken by the horrible circumstances and stricken with grief for a Steward he had been faithfully serving his entire life. But now he sat like a spider in an intricately woven web, silently searching for a way to punish “the usurper” for his shocking insolence. ---
Artanis made her way through cool marble corridors towards the public audience room. The King didn’t use the giant hall with the long row of his ancestors’ statues because he thought that the too impressive surroundings might overawe those subjects who weren’t used to such a kind of glory. The room he had chosen instead was sunny and bright, with big windows and a simple, beautifully carved chair where he sat and listened to his visitors.
The door to the audience room was closed, but she could hear voices raised, even through the massive oak wood. She gazed around and noticed the lucky coincidence that she was alone; the corridor was completely empty, and no servants could be seen. Without further hesitation, she pressed her ear against the door.
“… are you doing here, for Eru’s sake?”
That was the King. The dark, slightly hoarse voice was unmistakable.
“I am sorry, Aragorn.” A warm, bright baritone with barely suppressed, nervous undertones. “But I can’t stand staying in those rooms without knowing anything about how he fares!” A short pause. “He might be hurt – they might even have killed him meanwhile! Did they send you a letter… a note…a message… anything?”
“Not yet.” The King sighed. “There is nothing new I could tell you… no more than I could tell you one hour ago. Or two hours ago. And…”
“Thank you. I get the message.” Now the tone of the baritone voice was a mixture of embarrassment, weak humor and petulance. Another much longer pause followed. Finally the King’s unknown visitor – undoubtedly one of the hobbits – spoke again. “The thought that he might lose his life after all we have been through to reach this haven of security and peace – only to discover that an unexpected evil has followed us even here! It would be the darkest irony that he should be murdered after a Dark Lord, nine Nazgûl and a giant army of orcs couldn’t manage to destroy him!”
“I am as concerned as you are, my friend.” The voice of the King once more, the coarse edges softened by a loving kindness that suddenly – to her utter amazement - touched Artanis heart. How deeply he felt for those halflings!
“I will do whatever I can to save him and to punish those who dared to dishonor me by misusing my hospitality and kidnapping one of my most cherished friends,” the King said. The words, simple as they were, had the definite sound of a sober vow. “He will return safe and sound, and you will go home to the Shire, together.”
The other one laughed… surprisingly harsh and bitter.
“If I have learned anything on the way to the mountain and back,” he said, “I have learned this: even the most honorable man – even the King of Gondor! - can’t keep all his promises. Better to promise to keep me informed rather than pampering me like an unreasoning child and packing me into soft towels. I have been manipulated and misused for too long… by something that took over my mind, blinded my eyes and twisted my soul until I barely remembered my name any more. I won’t suffer that indignity from anyone again… not even from you.”
With a sudden shock Artanis realized that the voice came closer; Aragorn’s visitor was obviously leaving. She stepped back just in time to avoid being hit as the door flew open and a small figure stormed out of the room hurriedly. The sharp call of the King followed him outside.
“Stop! Frodo, wait!”
The halfling, after the dimness of the obscured room obviously blinded by the light in the marble corridor, crashed into the woman standing in front of him. Artanis stumbled backwards; the velvet bag with the pearls was ripped from her shoulder, flew in a high arch though the air and fell to the ground. The cord holding it together ripped as well and the smaller bags with the pearls slipped out and slithered across the polished tiles. Her small assailant gave a muffled sound of dismay, knelt down and started to collect the bags.
Artanis stood without moving. She watched the dark, curly head, bowed over his self-imposed, humble task. Then he rose, and for the first time she saw his face: pale and tired and full of trouble, with eyes of a rare, almost purple blue she had only seen once before; when her father got a delivery of the most exquisite sapphires, smuggled out of a mine in the deep south of Harad.
He handed her the bag and their hands met. Cloth brushed against her palm. She gazed down and saw his bandaged fingers… and the gap where once the third finger had been.
Frodo. The King had called him Frodo.
The message she had sent to her father three days ago came back to her mind, mocking her stupidity. The blood left her face and she felt her knees grow weak when she realized the magnitude of her mistake. For here stood the hobbit her father really had wanted to take as a hostage while one who should never have been abducted had been dragged away to an uncertain fate.
And all of this was her fault, and her fault alone.
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