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Keeper of the Jewels  by Cuthalion

Chapter 7
The weapon of truth

After a bit of careful consideration, Frodo sent a beautifully written (and worded) message to the Royal Treasury with one of the guards, inviting the Lady Artanis to the private rooms of the King. Frodo knew it would be much easier for her to come to him rather than the other way around. Anything would be easier than trying to find his way through this glorious but unfamiliar labyrinth of marble, gold, glass and tapestries, while trying desperately not to be seen.

He had drunk no more wine after supper; he needed his wits sharp and head clear so that he would understand what would not be spoken and read the truths the mysterious woman would most certainly try to hide from him. If she had decided to accept his strange invitation. He waited impatiently, his restlessness growing with every passing minute.

A soft knock at the door and the guard stepped inside, bowing deeply… an elderly man, clad in the black and silver garb of the Royal Watch, but Frodo had the distinct impression that he had worn the leather and linen of the northern rangers not long ago. Many of the people in Minas Tirith had inherited the dark hair and gray eyes of the Númenorean nobility, but this one was certainly of Aragorn’s closer kin. He remembered what the King had told him that morning after the kidnapping: The servants in my private rooms were chosen from among the Dúnedain. I trust them blindly.

“The Lady Artanis is here,” the guard said. “Shall I escort her in?”

“Yes, please,” Frodo replied, taking a deep breath of relief and straightening. "And thank you very much.”

The Lady entered. Frodo watched her, trying to take in as much detail as he could as quickly as possible. She wore a black dress – she still grieves for her brother, he thought - the fabric thin and flowing in deference to the ongoing heat. Her hair was combed back tightly above a high forehead and pinned in a simple knot at the back of her neck. She had prominent cheekbones and full lips – or they could have been full, even lovely, had they not been pressed together in such a narrow, tense line. As the last time he had met her, her hands, neck and hair were completely unadorned, and she wore no color of any kind on her eyelids, her cheeks or lips. He had seen many a noble Gondorean woman who made good use of cosmetics, and he even remembered some hobbit lasses back home sporting some additional blue or pink hues, but this lady seemed never to have thought to make herself prettier or more feminine. It was as if she did not even care about her looks and that fact told him a lot about her self-esteem. Her eyes surprised him, though. They were unusually large and almond-shaped, a bright, almost silvery gray beneath delicately arching brows and heavy lids, surrounded by a wreath of thick, dark lashes. She was also deadly pale and had an air of loneliness and exhaustion that set him aback and made him – despite his distrust - instinctively feel for her.

He said the first thing that came into his mind.

“Why does the Keeper of the Jewels wear no jewels?”

She frowned, staring at him with those unusual, shimmering eyes, but then her narrow, tired face relaxed in an unexpected smile, and for a startling moment he saw a glimpse of beauty and liveliness behind the rigid mask.

“I am not a pirate’s bride, Master Baggins,” she said. “And the Royal Treasury is not a glittering cave with overflowing trunks, guarded by the skeletons of dead brigands. I fear you would find my business rather disappointing if you knew more about it.”

“But if you don’t care for gems, why did you take over your father’s position, then?”

“I didn’t say that I don’t care for them,” the Lady replied, her frown returning. “I cherish their beauty and purity. I can easily tell if a gem can rightly be called precious – or if it has a flaw that diminishes both its loveliness and its value. --- May I show you something?”

“Of course you may, Milady” Frodo replied, “and please sit down.” He waved her to a seat before the desk. “Please try to excuse my unpolished manners. I’m still not used to consorting with Gondorean courtiers. Things are far more 'unceremonious' in the Shire… and I must admit I feel rather… erh… crude at the moment.”

“I don’t mind.” Artanis of Lebennin sat down in a chair opposite to him, rummaging in the dark velvet bag he remembered from their last encounter. “You will soon find out that I’m not as the other ladies of the court.” She produced a smaller bag from the bigger one. “Close your eyes, Master Baggins, and open your hand.”

He did as he was told and felt something cool slip into his palm.

“You may look again.” The voice carried a hint of a smile, and Frodo thought that it had a strange quality for a woman… warm and rather dark, with scraping undertones, from time to time even hoarse and fading. He opened his eyes and saw three pearls, smooth, perfectly round and of a gentle, deep gray luster.

“They… they are beautiful.” he said slowly.

“Yes, they are,” the Lady replied, “and very precious. Pearls can be many different shades, but this one can only be found at the far end of the southern sea. Women dive there between corals and shoals of fishes of every color of the rainbow and collect them from the bottom of the ocean. The air is always warm and there are islands, beaded in the turquoise water like gems on a necklace.”

The longing in her tone was unmistakable; Frodo looked up from the priceless fortune in his hand, noting the chink in her armor.

“Have you ever been there?” he asked. “You describe it so passionately.”

“No.” The Lady straightened and the light he had seen in her eyes faded and went out. “I have never seen the sea… not even the ocean beyond Dol Amroth.”

“Then we have something in common.” Frodo said gently; he could feel an old, long-buried pain radiating from her and – much to his surprise – found an answering ache within himself. “We hobbits live not far from the sea – only a few days travel - but we rarely go there. Those few among us who actually dare set foot on a boat or ship and sail away are labeled as reckless – or crazy.” He gave her a small smile. “We tend to avoid boating even on a mill pond. And considering my family history, I guess I should heartily agree with the more… erh… chickenhearted among my race.”

The Lady took the pearls from his hand and slipped them back into the velvet sack. “How so?”

He felt her gaze trying to hold his. Be honest, a small voice in the back of his head whispered urgently, you want her to reveal a dangerous mystery, don’t you? If only for the purpose of saving Sam’s life, you must give her whatever you have in return … even if it causes you pain. She is in pain, too, terrible pain, and you can feel it.

Their eyes met. “My parents died when I was twelve,” he said, his voice deceptively calm. “They rowed in a boat out onto the river, late at night, and somehow it keeled over and sank. They drowned… both of them.”

“Oh. I am… I am sorry.” A long pause. The Lady sat up very straight, hands folded in her lap. Then she took a deep breath. “My mother died when I was fourteen.” Another pause. “The throat disease came to Minas Tirith, 2994, six years after Lord Denethor lost his wife. Those were dark days, and many people fell ill, especially small children and the aged of the White City. My mother went to help in the Houses of Healing until… until I caught it, too. She cared for me, two long weeks, and then I could breathe freely again and the fever eased, on a rainy evening in May.” She was silent.

Frodo studied the face of the young woman in front of him and suddenly he perceived the young girl she once had been, a pale shadow behind the Lady’s adult features… a young girl, lying in one of those huge, luxurious beds, struggling against darkness and laboriously gasping for air. Pain and deep pity clenched like a fist around his heart, but he grimly fought the gallant impulse to spare her and spoke nonetheless. “What happened then?”

“My mother collapsed that night as I lay in healing slumber,” the Lady replied in a very soft tone. “She passed away only a few hours later. When I awoke the next morning, my brother sat beside my bed, holding my hand, silently crying. And I had not only lost her but also my voice… it took me months to regain the ability to speak.”

Frodo saw the knuckles of the hands in her lap grow white, but he followed his newly found, deep insight and asked the question that small, insistent voice in his mind told him to ask: “Where was your father while all this was happening?”

“In the Citadel, with Lord Denethor,” Artanis whispered. “He came back when my mother was laid out in our house. He locked the room for the rest of the day and sat beside her deathbed. In the evening, he came out again to embrace and comfort his son and to give orders for a formal funeral. Then he returned to his duties.”

“He didn’t come to see how his daughter fared?” A well-aimed arrow, and it hit the bull’s eye.

“N-no.” He could barely hear her. “He… he had to… he…”

He had lost his wife and now wished that the disease had taken his daughter instead. His worthless, superfluous daughter.

She didn’t say it aloud, but Frodo could hear it, a silent scream from the bottom of her heart, desperately echoing in his ears. He walked swiftly over to the table where the servants had removed the remnants of dinner and replaced them with sweet pastries and a crystal carafe. He poured some wine in a goblet and closed Artanis’ hand around the cool glass. She was trembling so violently that he had to stay her fingers and help her raise the goblet until the rim touched her lips before she was able to drink.

He stood before her, carefully considering his next words.

“Do you know what really helped me after my parents’ death?” he finally said. “It was my cousin Bilbo who adopted me, who gave me love and a home. And there were Bilbo’s servants – Hamfast Gamgee and his wife Bell, and their children – first and foremost Sam, of course. He became my gardener when Bilbo left and Hamfast grew too old… and he came with me when I had to leave, too – because of the ring. He has since saved my life on more occasions than I even dare count, and it was he who carried me up that mountain on his very back.”

She raised her head, still holding the goblet with both hands.

“And now I fear I will lose this most precious of friends, he who is closer to me than a brother,” he continued. “None of us knows what will happen next. I am afraid that the King will try something desperate to save Sam, and might bring himself into danger. We have come a long way together, this man and I, since our first meeting… when he was nothing more to me than a glowing pipe, a giant hood and a stubby-bearded chin. I had no idea who he was, but he has become very dear to me. We have fought a long, bitter battle to defeat evil, and now that hard-won peace may be demolished before we even have time to get used to it.”

He turned away and went to the window again. The sun had sunk behind the mountain and the sky in the east was a deep gray. A handful of lights glittered on the Pelennor; rebuilt farmsteads and, framed by the river, half a dozen watch fires where the restoration of the ruined Osgiliath had just begun. Frodo sighed and leaned his forehead against the cool windowpane. He felt infinitely tired. Sam, where are you? Are you still alive?

“Without word from those who have taken him, the King can’t set out to free your little gardener,” the hoarse voice of Artanis came from behind him. “Were… were there any messages at all?”

“Yes, one… it came early this morning.” Frodo replied. “It said that Aragorn has to come alone and deliver something in exchange for Sam, but it didn’t specify what it was… and it didn’t tell him where to go.”

“When is he expected to meet them?”

“This evening.” Frodo said, still staring out of the window.

“Then there must be another message,” Artanis stated. “or the demand in the last one makes no sense at all."

In that moment the door opened and Pippin burst into the room.

“Frodo, what for the Lady’s sake are you doing here, all alone?” he said. “I just met Faramir in the King’s study, and when I asked him where Aragorn had got to he made a face that reminded me of the threefold locked door to the main pantry in the Great Smials. There’s something brewing, I tell you. --- Why is it so dark in here?” He reached for a tinderbox on the table.

“Just a moment, Pip,” Frodo shot him a warning gaze. “First: I am not alone. May I introduce to you Artanis, the Lady of Lebennin?” He took the tinderbox from Pippin’s hand and lit the candles in the big silver candelabra. Pippin whirled around and gave a startled gasp when the pale face and the slender figure of the woman appeared out of the shadows. He managed to regain his composure and bowed.

“Peregrin Took, to your service.”

“My pleasure, Master Took. --- Did you say that the King has vanished and Lord Faramir isn’t willing to tell you where he has gone?”

Pippin looked at Frodo who nodded imperceptibly.

“Yes,” he replied, “and none of the men from the guard are missing. I know them pretty well by now; if he has taken anyone with him, it can’t be one of them.”

Lady Artanis straightened her back; the silvery eyes had a strange, agitated shimmer.

“Master Baggins,” she said slowly, “do you think it is possible that there was a message in the last two hours, and that the King has secretly left to rescue your kidnapped gardener on his own?”

Frodo felt a shiver run down his back. He opened his mouth and closed it again. The Lady obviously understood his sudden hesitation. She made an impatient gesture and got up from her chair.

“Is it possible to find out the exact words of the ominous last message – if one should have arrived?”

Pippin rubbed his chin.

“Lord Faramir will probably know what it says; in the absence of the King he has to take up the duties of a Steward again. And I’m sure the Queen is informed as well. Aragorn would never leave without telling her what he is about to do.”

The Lady frowned. She studied the small figure in the garb of the guard, as if trying to judge his reliability.

“Do you know the King that well?” she asked.

Pippin turned to her.

“He has not always been King,” he simply said, “though he has always had a kingly heart and soul, so to speak. But I’ve seen them together, and they are something special, both of them. I’d bet she would want to know if he was putting himself in danger, and he wouldn’t keep it from her. She’s not a lady that needs to be pampered or protected like that.”

Frodo felt his face relax into a smile at this sober yet wholehearted appraisal. The young woman nodded slowly. She stood very still for a long moment, then she gave a heavy sigh, and both hobbits could see that her hands were shaking slightly when she smoothed the skirts of her black dress.

“Frodo Baggins, would you accompany me to Lord Faramir?” The almond eyes showed an expression Frodo did not completely understand – a strange mixture of bottomless fear and at the same time a fierce, almost desperate determination. “I have to tell him something very important… and I must find out what the last message said. --- And I would ask you, Master Peregrin, to bring your cousin Meriadoc to the King’s study. He should hear what I have to say, too.”

Pippin hesitated for a second or two, then turned around and hurried out of the room.

*****

Frodo never forgot their silent walk that night - through endless, dark corridors, around many corners, turning left and right and climbing up three or four long stairs. All the time Lady Artanis kept grimly silent, and though it would have been easy for her to lead him astray, he didn’t question whether she might have been a danger to him. She had stepped over a certain threshold, they both knew it, and there was no way back, for either of them.

When they had reached their destination, Lady Artanis addressed the guard standing in front of the study door.

“I need to have a word with the Steward,” she said, her voice suddenly calm and full of a quiet authority. “Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, has come with me, and there are important things we must discuss with the steward, at once. It is a matter of life and death. Would you please announce us?”

The guard bowed without any objection and vanished in the room. Barely a minute later, he came out again and guided them inside.

Faramir sat behind the King’s desk. He was clad in dark leather breeches, soft boots and a simple linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and his face was troubled and very serious. Merry and Pippin stood side by side in front of the desk, slightly to the right. Pippin was very fast indeed.

“Artanis!” Faramir rose from his chair. “I didn’t expect to meet you here. Your father and I didn’t part peacefully when I last saw him yesterday evening.”

Frodo felt the how the young woman froze beside him and heard her sharp intake of breath.

“You spoke to my father – yesterday?” It was only a strained whisper. “What… what did he want?”

Faramir lowered his gaze; a strange air of unease and anger surrounded him. “Perhaps it would be better that I don’t tell you, Artanis. You might find the subject of our discussion –our argument, actually – rather painful and shocking.”

The Lady gave a barking laugh. It was the most miserable sound Frodo had heard for a very long time.

“You can’t burden me with more shame and dishonor than I already carry on my shoulders, Faramir, believe me,” she said. “Please be honest, and don’t think you must spare me.”

Faramir sighed.

“Lord Ardhenon came to me very late in the evening,” he said. “He was very agitated. I must tell you that I had the growing impression that he was confused. He told me that he still saw the long line of the Stewards as the righteous – and only – rulers of Gondor. He spoke badly and in a very… disrespectful way of the King, openly doubting his noble line of ancestors, calling him ‘that ranger from the north’ and…” He paused, closing his lips to a narrow line.

“Let me help you.” The voice of the Lady was a painful, rasping croak. “The usurper?”

“You knew about his… his attitude towards the King?”

“Yes.” The Lady stood very upright, hands clenched to fists at both sides.

Faramir’s clear, plangent gaze didn’t leave her face. “I declined his treacherous ideas – of course! - and told him that only my respect for his long friendship with my father and more than five centuries of his family’s faithful service kept me from arresting him at once. Your father was frantic with rage when he left.”

“His treachery is even greater than you think,” Artanis said. “Please, would you give me the last message the kidnappers sent – the one that arrived this afternoon?”

Faramir’s eyes narrowed. Frodo’s gaze strayed to Merry and Pippin. They were rather pale, and he could see the truth Faramir seemingly still refused to accept dawn in their faces, but the young steward opened a drawer in the desk, took out a small piece of parchment and handed it to Artanis.

Frodo touched her sleeve.

“Milady, may I ask you to read it aloud?” he said softly. “I have been waiting for this message the whole day, and my cousins certainly also wish to know what it says.”

Artanis scanned the parchment and every single drop of blood seemed to leave her face. She cleared her throat.

“Aragorn from the North is expected to come to Osgiliath at midnight. He will bring with him twenty emeralds, flawless gems without any inclusions, and he will wait at the place where the entrance to the Tower of the Stars once was, before the enemy’s army bricked up the door. Again – he has to come alone.”

Osgiliath, Frodo thought. So very close… right in front of our eyes.

“Twenty emeralds?” Merry blurted out with all signs of anger and confusion. “”You mean those greedy dastards want to exchange poor Sam for a handful of colored glass?!?”

“You don’t understand, Merry,” Faramir gently corrected, “they are very precious gems.”

“Indeed.” The voice of Lady Artanis had a sharp, desperate undertone. “Shortly before the little gardener was abducted, an envoy from Harad paid us a visit. He wanted to negotiate peace, trying to create the most auspicious conditions, and he brought a small chest full of emeralds with him. They had the most astonishing quality… clear like seawater, shining and strikingly beautiful, and with no inclusions at all. You would be able to pay a whole kingdom with one of them. --- The King had only to scan my books to find out where they were stored.”

“Which he obviously did,” Faramir said. “He showed them to me before he left. They were truly remarkable… though by no means equivalent to the life of a faithful, amazing creature like Samwise Gamgee.”

Merry stepped closer, his eyes ablaze with a sudden realization.

“It is still a strange coincidence,” he said, “that the kidnappers knew what to ask for. They didn’t give Aragorn very much time to provide this ransom; I am pretty sure they must have known that those gems were here – just as he did.”

“You speak truthfully, Master Meriadoc,” the Lady said. “You must know that I keep my accounts twice – one in the Royal Treasury, the other one in my house above the sixth circle. And the kidnappers knew about those precious gems because my father obviously took a look at my books while I slept… before he went to Osgiliath early this morning.”

A deadly silence fell over the room. Artanis stood without moving, eye to eye with the young steward.

“Artanis.” Faramir’s warm tenor had darkened to a nearly unrecognizable growl. “Do you tell me that your father, the Prince of Lebennin, is the head of this ruthless conspiracy that threatens the life of one of the King’s friends?”

“Yes, sire,” the Lady, replied very softly. “And after you told me that my father is completely aware of the fact that you have no intention to replace the King as a ruler of Gondor, I fear that this is no longer a question of exchanging a ransom for a hostage.”

She straightened her back, lifting her chin… but Frodo could see that she was shaking from head to toe. He reached out instinctively, but before he was able to touch her, she fell to her knees, lowering her head in a timeless gesture of shame and submission.

“The name and history of our house is besmirched for eternity,” she said with a clear, thin voice. “All I have to offer is my repentance – for I played my own part in this evil game - and my humble attempt to help. I will guide you to the place where once the most precious treasures of the steward were hidden, and where my father and his men now hide the gardener.”

She raised her gaze, and the steward and the three hobbits could see that her eyes were full of tears.

“We should hurry,” she said, “we should hurry indeed, for my father has clearly crossed the thin line between sanity and madness, and I am terribly afraid that his only aim now is to murder the King.”





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