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Keeper of the Jewels  by Cuthalion

Chapter 5
Friends and Foes

The King stood on the threshold of the audience room, his brows knitted together in a deep frown. Then he let out his breath.

“Lady Artanis, I would very much like to introduce you properly to my friend, but we should move to a more… private place first.” He shot a piercing gaze at the halfling, and even in her panic Artanis noticed how the Ringbearer’s face flushed with embarrassment.

“Follow me,” Aragorn growled, “ and be quick, if you please.”

He set himself in motion, leading the way with rapid strides. The lady and the hobbit hurried after him until they had reached the eastern wing of the palace, unnoticed by anyone. Two tall guards flanked the door to the King’s private rooms and it wasn't until they had passed them and entered the inner sanctuary that Artanis had the first chance to pause for a moment and sort her thoughts.

She liked what she saw; fine carpets in warm colors covered the marble floor. The furniture was simple but beautiful, and the King seemed to share her taste for stained glass; a huge window looking east showed a masterfully crafted image of the White Tree in full bloom. Silent, she thought, strangely appeased and strengthened by her surroundings; I have to be as silent as possible. I have to wait and hear what he says, this ranger from the North. This is like a dangerous game of chess, and it is my duty to come to a checkmate against the black King.

“Estel?” A voice from the adjoining room, warm and clear. “Estel, melethron, is that you?”

A woman appeared on the doorstep, clad in simple gray and – as Artanis' trained eye registered at once – wearing hardly any jewelry. A single emerald lay on her breast, set in a delicate wreath of silver leaves and shimmering on the creamy white skin with a cool, green fire. But the most outstanding adornment of this female epiphany was her hair – a fall of deepest night, cascading down over her shoulders and back like an exquisite, living cloak.

For a fraction of a second Aragorn’s face lit with a love that was almost blinding in its intensity. He gestured in Artanis’ direction.

“Meleth-nin, may I introduce my Keeper of the Jewels to you? This is Lady Artanis of Lebennin” he said, the steel-and-velvet-voice voice again warmed by the depth of his feelings. "And this, my Lady, is Arwen Undómiel, my Queen.”

Artanis stood and stared, dazed and spellbound like a child at the sudden sight of a faerie, but then their eyes met, and something deep in her heart froze with frantic fear. The gaze of the elven princess was filled with nothing but gentle curiosity and friendly interest, but Artanis felt as if two sharp, steely lances were directed at her, piercing even the most secret part of her mind. I am lost, she thought, shivering from head to toe, she will see through me the moment I open my mouth. This was a woman who had seen ages grow, wither and die, who had witnessed the rise and fall of human and elvish nations, standing within the current of time like a willow tree with an ever-blooming crown. And the fact that she had sacrificed her birthright didn’t diminish her awe-inspiring resplendence.

“Artanis?” The Queen laughed, a sound like the first birdsong on a spring morning after a long, hard winter. “Then you have something in common with my grandmother, Galadriel of Lothlórien. When she was born, the last child of Finarfin, her father gave her that name.”

Artanis bowed deeply, willing her features once again to the quiet mask of dull courtesy she had worn as a shield for years…against the merciless mockery of those who saw nothing more than her lackluster appearance, against the loveless sneer and cold indifference of her father.

“I had the chance to see Lady Galadriel when the King was crowned, and I feel deeply honored that I at least share a name with such a lovely, powerful woman,” she said. “Your noble grandmother is visiting Ithilien now, isn’t she?”

“Indeed,” Arwen replied, “after hearing so many miraculous things about a landscape that is about to grow new life and an abundance of plants and flowers again – while Laurelindórenan is bound to fade.” The smile on the Queen’s face was fading, too, but even her sadness had a piercing beauty. “I hope you will find the opportunity to meet her in person.”

“I would be delighted.” Artanis bowed again, carefully hiding the lie behind lowered lids and a blank face.

The King cleared his throat.

“Would you be so kind and leave us alone, meleth-nin?” he said to his wife. “I will be with you in a moment.” Arwen shot him a slightly surprised glance, but then there seemed a silent exchange of thoughts between them, and without further hesitation the Queen nodded and left, oddly taking some of the light with her out of the room. For a while everything was silent, but then the Ringbearer – who had remained in the background – suddenly spoke.

“I am sorry, Aragorn,” he said slowly, “I had no intention of burdening you with more worries than you already have.”

The King sighed.

“Never mind, Frodo.” He walked over to a chair beside the stained glass window and sat down, rubbing his brow as if trying to get rid of a painful headache. “I am very certain that we can rely on Lady Artanis’ loyalty – and her discretion.”

Artanis bowed once more. Thoughts were milling fiercely in her mind. This was exactly the chance she had been waiting for… the information she was seeking, the knowledge she urgently needed to satisfy her father and to help him fulfill his mysterious plans.

“Of course, your Majesty,” she said aloud, relieved that the greatest part of the King’s attention lay on the halfling. “And I would be very glad if you could explain the situation to me.”

The King turned to her.

“Two nights ago somebody sneaked into the guesthouse where the Ringbearer, his cousins and his friend are residing during their stay in Minas Tirith,” he said, his tone slightly brusque. “I – we – think“ a sharp side glance to the halfling, “that Frodo was their initially chosen victim.”

“I guess that the kidnappers knew something about this,” the Ringbearer added, raising his bandaged hand. “And my friend Sam Gamgee hurt his hand the day before yesterday. It had to be sewed in the Houses of Healing… and it was bandaged, too.”

Artanis nodded slowly. “And so they mistook the gardener for you.” Her eyes found the hobbit's, and she saw the flickering chaos of feelings beneath the calm, deep blue surface – fear, angry restlessness and a bitter, agonizing sense of guilt. She was overwhelmed by the strange feeling that something in that small, unusual being reached out to her, touching a spot within her heart she kept hidden from any but herself. Involuntarily she shook her head and bit her lip, struggling for composure. “You… erh… where were you that night?”

“In the garden.” The Ringbearer gave her a lopsided smile. “This is truly the first time that my chronic insomnia kept me from getting into trouble.”

“There has been no letter or message since,” Aragorn continued. “We have no idea why those men came to abduct our friend. They probably have no idea that they didn’t catch the prey they were hunting for – at least we hope so. You understand that you must not repeat what I have told you to anyone, my Lady?”

“I understand perfectly well, your Majesty.”

I guess I should praise my luck, she thought, the burden of her knowledge an icy knot in her stomach, but I’ve never felt less fortunate. And I’ve never been more afraid.


The sun sank slowly behind Mount Mindolluin as Artanis reached her house in the sixth circle. The nurse awaited her with a bath. Artanis sank into the huge marble tub, heaving an exhausted sigh of relief. She gave in to the gentle massage of Eilinel’s hands, trying to forget the growing tension that stiffened her neck and hardened her muscles to aching knots. She noticed the elder woman's chatter only as a reassuring, soft noise in the background and nearly dozed off in the lukewarm, rose-scented water.

“… sent a messenger two hours ago to announce his arrival. I have prepared one of your finest evening gowns, there is cold roast, salad and fruitcake waiting in the kitchen downstairs, and a jar of white wine is already cooled in the well. I am sure you will enjoy the dinner with your father.”

“My father?” Artanis sat up in the tub, feeling the peaceful, cozy relaxation flee her tired body at once. “He will be here this evening?”

“Yes, my lamb.” The nurse rose with a sigh and turned to the door. “And I still have half a dozen things to do. I’ll be right back and help you with your dress.”

Artanis smiled mirthlessly. Of course he will come here, the silent voice in the back of her mind told her with a hint of irony. He wants to control his men… and he wants to control you.

She climbed out of the tub and wrapped herself in a big linen towel. The high mirror showed her the familiar sight; an angular body, lacking the soft curves and swellings men usually considered beautiful, long, tousled hair of a dull ash blond, and eyes she thought too big for her austere face with its firm chin and high cheekbones. The Queen's remark came back to her, and with it the reason she had been named Artanis: her grandmother had been a famous lady at the Minas Tirith court when Ecthelion II was Stewart of Gondor. Both her beauty and elegance had been legendary, and she had noted with stunned dismay the difference between her granddaughter and her own brilliant self. With an involuntary wince, the young woman remembered her grandmother words, spoken once when she had no idea that Artanis was in the room:

I am deeply sorry to admit it, my son, but this girl is a complete disappointment. You will have great difficulties finding her a husband who will be willing to resign himself to such an uncomely, morbidly shy creature, her noble parentage notwithstanding. She has spinster clearly written across her brow.

Artanis took a deep breath, shaking off the memory. She slipped the thin gown over her head. It was of a deep garnet red with a simple, square neckline and long, loose sleeves. Through a wealth of precious gems went through her hands every day, she only wore a small assortment of jewels herself. This evening she chose a necklace she had once inherited from her mother… a long garland of roses made of thin, delicately wrought gold and set with garnet petals and moonstone pearls in a soft apricot shade. She caressed the gems with a tender fingertip, silently blessing her gentle mother who had always given love openly. You left us too soon, she thought, and now Maedhron has followed you into the darkness and my father’s heart has hardened to stone.

The nurse stood on the doorstep.

“Sir Ardhenon has just arrived, my Lady,” she said. “He has retired to refresh himself and to take a short rest; he expects dinner in half an hour. Let me braid your hair, my lamb.” ----

Artanis entered the dining room when the sky in the east held no more than a hint of pink. Dozens of candles were shimmering in silver holders, and the nurse had laid the table with silver plates and precious crystal goblets. But the Lady’s attention was fixed on the tall, dark figure standing at the big window. Long hair, bleached to pure white by age and time, fell over his shoulders. Acknowledging the smoldering heat, the Prince of Lebennin had changed his usual velvet vesture to robes of silk in a deep, mossy green. When he turned around, Artanis saw the familiar, gaunt features, the long, eagle-like nose and the dark sharp eyes; under Ardhenon’s gaze she always felt as if caught beneath a burning glass.

He reached out and Artanis dropped into a deep curtsey and kissed his hand.

“Welcome, father,” she said formally, “it is good to see you here. Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“A short journey, to my relief” her father retorted, “this continuing heat is an imposition. I can only hope we will have rain soon.” He walked slowly over to the table and poured himself some pale yellow wine. It had been excellently chilled indeed; the glass fogged up immediately. “Let us eat and afterwards I want to know how well our plans have turned out so far.”

They ate in silence, and Artanis finished her meal much sooner than Ardhenon. She watched her father help himself to a second portion of salad and roast, his long, white fingers cutting a rosy peach into neat slices. She wanted to stretch the moment of unexpected peace between them, but too soon he laid down the knife and wiped his hands with the napkin, turning his full attention back to her.

“Now, daughter, tell me what progress we have made.” he said, propping his chin on one hand. “Did the Usurper receive the first message?”

Artanis felt a nervous twinge in her stomach, but she managed to remain calm.

“No, father,” she replied, “no, he didn’t. I visited the royal pigeonry this midday, and the pigeon in question hasn’t returned. Did you order your men to send it this morning?”

The Prince’s face froze to a rigid mask of sheer astonishment. “Of course,” he said haughtily, “and of course they obeyed. They wouldn’t dare to do anything else.”

“Then it must have been killed on the way.” Artanis lowered her eyes. “The distance is short, there is no other explanation for the lost note.” She paused, searching for words. “Does this disrupt your… your plan?”

“Not really.” Her father shook his head. “It might even turn to our advantage. Soon as his worry for that miserable, little creature will make him audacious, the Usurper will hopefully take risks to save him.”

That miserable little creature.

Suddenly Artanis saw the tall man her father called Usurper in her mind's eye – and the Ringbearer. She remembered the deep friendship that had been so very palpable between them and the strange moment when she felt an unexpected bond between herself and the halfling. She opened her mouth and closed it again.

The miserable creature you hold captive is not the Ringbearer, she thought, studying the merciless face before her. It is his gardener, and the King cherishes the servant as much as he cherishes the master, even if you won’t be able to imagine such a foolish behavior. And if I tell you who I met this afternoon, what will you do to your hostage? Will you try to use him as you intended to use Frodo Baggins… or will you throw him away like a piece of garbage?

She pushed her chair back and rose.

“I would like to retire, with your permission,” she said, her voice colorless and tired. “Tomorrow I will return to the palace, and do my best to find out whatever I can. Will you stay here or return to Lebennin in the morning?”

“I will send the next message myself.” her father replied. “We shouldn’t give that so-called King too much time to develop his own plans. He might have arrogated the throne, but he is still a dangerous foe.”

He reached out and she bowed once more over his hand to kiss it.

“I will probably have no opportunity to contact you until my plans have been fulfilled,” Ardhenon said. “Is there anything more I should know?”

Their eyes met, the delusive, silvery shimmer of pearls against brilliant onyx black.

“No, father,” Artanis said quietly. “Nothing at all.”


For a moment Sam really thought he’d seen Saruman. Which was a silly idea; the only thing he knew about the legendary, fallen wizard was what Merry had told him. “A tall fellow, with eyes as piercing and black as that Morgul blade we saw that night at Weathertop. And a voice as soft as warmed honey, but somehow… venomous, if you understand what I mean.” The description matched, somehow, but he couldn’t be sure… not yet.

The first day things had gone well, more or less. He had taken scrupulous care not to say too much, aside from a murmured Could I have some water, please? and Thank you as he was terribly afraid that his watchdogs might notice the clear difference between the way a gentlehobbit would speak and his more… rustic tongue. He also hid his bandaged hand as best he could, but they apparently didn’t pay much attention to him anyway. Most of the time he sat in the dim light of a flickering candle, still chained against the wall and listening to their soft voices behind the closed door. They had brought him musty bread and flavorless, chewy strips of roasted meat, and after a few hours one of them opened the lattice door and pushed a wooden bucket in his direction; he used it immediately with shameful relief. Inwardly he called them The Whistler and The Grinner; their voices where nearly the only way to tell one from the other.

He dozed off now and again, and bit by bit his dreams grew more vivid and strangely bizarre. Childhood memories mingled with younger, more frightening remembrances that left a foul taste in his mouth, bitter like the ashes of Mount Doom. When he woke, his head felt light and dizzy. The bruise on his temple didn’t hurt anymore, but his injured fingers started throbbing, a threatening reminder of the wounds that no one had cared for since he’d been kidnapped that fateful night. But he couldn’t ask for ointment, brandy or a fresh bandage without revealing that none of his fingers was missing.

Then he heard the muffled sound of steps outside, and the door opened, washing a rivulet of light into his lonely dungeon. A man appeared on the doorstep. He was slender like a spear, holding himself very upright, and the torches behind him surrounded his head with a strange corona. This was neither the Whistler nor the Grinner. White hair, Sam thought, he has white hair.

The man stared down at him, the expression on his face not discernable. Then he turned back, and for a moment Sam saw a sharp, regular profile, and a dark, heavy-lidded eye.

“Give him something to eat,” he said, “and to drink, if he needs it. He should stay presentable for at least two more days… I doubt that we will need him any longer than that.”

The door slammed closed again, and Sam felt a sudden trickling of cold sweat on his brow and the back of his neck.

“Good grief,” he murmured under his breath, “that doesn’t sound good, not at all. I thought they were after some juicy ransom, but whatever it is they really want, they'll get rid of me as soon they have it in their greedy, little hands, and no mistake. This darn cut – I wish I’d never touched those blasted clippers!”

He sank back against the wall, fever clouding his head and will, and a sneaky, paralyzing fear closing icy hands around his throat.


Early next morning, a coal gray bird returned to the pigeonry, carrying a tightly rolled note in the little metal tube. Only ten minutes later Ecthelion stood in the King’s study, handing him the small piece of parchment. Aragorn read it, gave a sharp whistle and leaned into his chair, slowly shaking his head.

Tomorrow we expect Aragorn from the North to come and bring the ransom we wish to receive. He is to come alone; he will be closely observed to grant that he is not accompanied by any warriors. Should he try and fool us, the Ringbearer will be killed immediately.

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