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Keeper of the Jewels  by Cuthalion

Chapter 9
Dolorous treachery

The young steward, the hobbits and Lady Artanis left Minas Tirith shortly after sunset, a silent company, wrapped in dark cloaks, riding on horses and ponies. Their way led them through a narrow side gate of the city and down the street across the Pelennor. They passed wide orchards, the trees heavy with the first fruits of an early summer, and sleeping farms, followed by the barking of startled dogs.

Faramir – who had in fact never intended to include the hobbits in his rescue party – met with fierce resistance. The Ringbearer narrowed his eyes, crossed his arms and gave him an icy glare of complete refusal. Pippin found rather resolute and very eloquent words about his duties as Knight of Gondor and Meriadoc simply declared that the matter didn’t need “more heavy boots than necessary”, and that the Stewart would have to bind and to gag them anyway to leave them behind. After a heated argument Faramir gave in; but he tried until the very last minute to keep Artanis from guiding them to the place of Sam's imprisonment. The young woman, however, was as adamant as the hobbits.

“How well do you know the ancient tunnel system of Osgiliath?” she finally asked.

“I know the part on the western bank of the Anduin,” he said slowly. “Boromir and I went down there often while my father’s troops still held the ruins.”

“I thought so,” she retorted. "The part of the tunnels that lies beyond the eastern bank is almost forgotten but the entrance can be found a stone’s throw from where the Great Bridge and the Tower of the Stars once stood. However, you must know it very well to see it and in the dark of night it is even more difficult. The tunnels wind underground for over a mile; there are blind alleys and a handful of unexpected traps that you might get caught in if you don’t know exactly where to go.”

She stared at the young steward, her bright almond eyes burning in an unwavering fire.

“I will not stay behind.” She clenched her hand into fists. “If the King dies, you will have to take up your duty as the next steward of Gondor, willingly or not - and my father will have succeeded in his aim at last. I will not let that happen, and I will not stay behind.”---

And so they made their way secretly to Osgiliath, the ancient city that had been lost, re-conquered and destroyed again and again until nothing remained of what had once been the jewel in the Southern Kingdom's crown. They reached the first ruins around midnight. A tall man with a torch was waiting for them, his face hidden under the shadow of a big hood.

“My Lord Faramir,” he said, bowing deeply. “We have kept watch on the eastern shore, but nothing has stirred for the last three hours. Are you sure that the King is here?”

“I am, Damrod,” Faramir retorted grimly. “And I fear even an experienced, sharp-eyed man like yourself would not have seen Aragorn if he had not wanted you to see him.” He gestured over to Artanis. “This lady will lead us to the place where the kidnappers hide the gardener, and I will take care to leave signs you and your men will be able to find. If we don’t come back within the hour, you have my official order to follow us.”

Damrod bowed again.

“As you wish, Milord,” he said. “But I beg you to be careful. It would be a heavy blow for Gondor if any of you were lost.”

“It would be a much heavier blow if we lost our newly found King this day.” Faramir replied, and both his tone and face were deadly serious.

They turned away from the cobbled road, carefully searching their way between half standing walls and assailed buildings until they reached the river. A boat was waiting on the pebble-strewn bank. Meriadoc groaned aloud and shook his head.

“We’ll never get Sam in there,” he said with a lopsided grin. “He’ll make a fuss as soon as he sees that he has to cross the water by such 'unnatural' means.”

“He might not be in any condition to protest,” the Ringbearer offered, speaking for the first time since they had left the City. Artanis gazed at the halfling's tired face … it was pale and as translucent as a seashell against the black, rushing water of the Anduin. She came slowly to his side.

“He will be safe,” she said, willing herself to believe the words she was going to say. “My father has no army with him, only two or three servants. I don’t think that they will be a real danger to the King.”

“Do you really believe they are still alive?” She met the gaze of darkened eyes, hollowed by too much endured pain and a terrible fear. Hesitantly, she reached out to touch his arm, but drew her hand back again, overwhelmed by the bottomless disgrace that had brought her to this place.

"They must be alive, Master Baggins," she said, her voice hoarse and tense. “For if Master Gamgee and the King are killed tonight, it would add the burden of your sorrow and the angry grief of my people to the shame I already bear. And I do not think I could endure such a burden. I hold fiercely to that belief so that I may have the strength to walk beside you into darkness.”

A sharp glance – and a small hand laid on her arm where she had not dared to touch him.

“Then we’ll have to find him and bring him back into daylight,” Frodo Baggins said, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “My friend Samwise is a gardener, used to warm soil on his hands and the sun on his face. With a little luck, all of us may walk under the sun tomorrow.”

“I pray that you are right,” Artanis said.

The boat was bigger than they had first thought. Artanis waited in the bow while Faramir helped the hobbits settle safely on the seats. He took the oars and dipped them into the dark water. The bow turned away from the bank and slipped into the current where once the Great Bridge and Tower stood. Artanis had once seen a marvelous painting of them both in a richly illustrated book. She tried cling to that memory, but her thoughts and the image fluttered away. She felt as if she were standing at the rim of a black abyss.

You are betraying your father, a frantic voice hissed in the back of her mind, for once he trusted you, and you have let him down in the most evil way possible. She stared down into the stream. Over her head, the moon reappeared from behind a cloud and was mirrored in the rippling waves. Even this late at night, it was still warm, but Artanis shivered violently, drawing the cloak closer about her. You betray your father, the voice repeated mercilessly, and if he hasn't felt love for you before, he will surely hate you now. Why don’t you throw yourself into the river and end your misery before you can do any more harm? She dug her fingers into the wale, shivering again… and then her mind sought the one refuge in which it had always found peace.

She recalled the soft shimmer of pearls, the cool, green light of emeralds and tourmalines and the warm glow of rubies. She concentrated on the rich blue of turquoises from Khand and the sparkling depths of the rare sapphires from Harad. She thought of the Ringbearer’s eyes and wondered what kind of jewel could match them. No, he was no sapphire… she could sense layer upon shimmering layer beneath the surface of that calm, mysterious face. It shone with an inner light that was not entirely of this world. Faramir, however, did remind her of a sapphire– clarity and the strength of sorrow overcome, as well as the purity of a truly noble character.

Artanis wondered what kind of gem Sam Gamgee, that fourth, unknown hobbit might be. A devoted servant, true friend and brother at heart to his master. Perhaps the intense shade of Lapis, shot with golden sparks… the classical blue of honesty and faithfulness. Sweet Eru, let him be alive, she prayed silently, let us be in time. Then the bottom of the boat hissed into the stones of the eastern bank of the river.

They climbed out and this time Artanis took the lead. She guided the group to the remnants of a building opposite the only pillar that was left from the Great Bridge. There was little left of the house but a single wall with a beautifully chiseled but empty window frame that had probably once held precious, stained glass. She stopped in front of the window and bent to the floor. It was covered with dust, smashed stones and shattered bricks, but she wiped the dirt aside with a steady hand, and closed her fingers around an iron ring that was attached to a sturdy, wooden trapdoor. Peregrin whistled through his teeth.

“Canny idea” he said. “But what if your enemies are chasing you? Wouldn’t they see the trap door after you have cleared the space around it?”

“They certainly would, Master Peregrin.” Artanis replied, lifting the door. “But if you bang against the ceiling of the tunnel after you have climbed inside, enough fresh debris will come down from the decrepit wall to hide it again.”

“I suspect you wouldn’t want to bang too hard,” Pippin mused, shooting a distrustful glance at the old pile, “or the whole thing might come down and you’d never get out again.”

Artanis smiled a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Only if you didn’t know the other ways to escape the tunnel system… which I do. Don’t worry. Master Peregrin.”

“But I don’t worry at a---“ Peregrin protested, interrupted by Meriadoc who poked him impatiently in the ribs.

“Of course you do, you ninny” he said, “as do I. And I will personally make certain that you don’t drop anything in that tunnel. The last time you did that we ended up with a Balrog on our heels.”*

Artanis climbed down into the tunnel, followed by Faramir and the hobbits. The young woman didn’t light the torch she carried under her cloak; she knew the way well enough without it and the hobbits’ sharp eyes were keen underground. They walked slowly, linked together by their hands, Artanis’ voice the only sound in the utter darkness: “Straight ahead… slowly… attention now, there’s a small gap in the floor… three steps more and the tunnel turns sharply to the left… slowly… duck your head, sire!” A suppressed curse came from the end of the row, followed by the slightly nervous chuckles of Meriadoc and Peregrin.

After walking for a half an hour, Artanis stopped.

“I will light my torch now, sire,” she said very softly. “About twenty steps ahead you will find a door. It leads to a room that in earlier years was used as a cell and a resting place for the guards, before the plans got lost and this part of the tunnel system was forgotten. I am sure that the gardener is there… and my father, too.” Again she felt overwhelmed by the danger and insanity of the whole situation, but with a strong effort of will, she pulled herself together. “Your eyes need to be used to the light again, or you will be at a severe disadvantage when you enter and face the men inside.” She swallowed laboriously. “You must be careful, Milord.”

“We will be, all of us,” Faramir replied. “Though I hope we find that the King is already master of the situation and that the greatest danger is past.”

Artanis wondered if he had said that only to reassure her, but she never found out, for at the next moment, there was a muffled scream from the far end of the tunnel. An angry shout followed and then came the clanging of metal on metal. Faramir rushed forward, the hobbits on his heels, and with a bang the door to the abandoned guardroom flew open.

*****

Sam blinked through the haze of fever and exhaustion. The chamber that had been deadly quiet only seconds before was suddenly filled with voices and the shuffling of feet. Aragorn still knelt before of him, one arm raised in a gesture of defiance. Andúril was a blazing tongue of fire in the light of the torches. The Whistler moved to follow his master’s order of, but then froze. His mouth opened wide and the knife he held in a white-knuckled grip clattered tip-first to the ground. He sank very slowly to his knees and then fell forward flat on his face to reveal a small figure as tense as a bowstring behind him. Mr. Merry! How on earth has he got here? Sam thought in confusion. Then he saw that Mr. Pippin was there, too. The Grinner grabbed up his companion’s abandoned knife, got to his feet. and turned to defend himself with his good arm. His weapon cut through the empty air and suddenly a short blade was pressed against his throat. He gazed down into the eyes of another small and entirely unexpected warrior.

“You should choose your foes more carefully,” Peregrin Took said in a cold voice, his hand unwavering. “Less height doesn’t mean less danger, you silly fool.”

Sam’s fevered gaze looked past his friends and – wonder of wonders! – Captain Faramir stood behind them, one arm tightly around the neck of the Prince of Lebennin. The old man’s face was white as chalk, a mixture of rage and surprise.

“Give me any reason to kill you,” Faramir hissed close to Ardhenon’s ear, “and I will joyfully rid Gondor of a filthy traitor.”

Sam blinked again, trying to focus on the dramatic change of events through the increasing confusion in his head. Suddenly, the fog was pierced by a sharp cry of dismay. He knew the voice and instinctively turned toward it, and then he was drawn into a gentle embrace, and his brow sank against the shoulder of his master.

“Mr. Frodo… you shouldn’t be here!” he managed, at the same time gratefully yielding to the comfort of that familiar touch. “It’s much too dangerous for you. Strider promised me…” And then he remembered that Strider had been a little too preoccupied with saving his life to take care of Frodo’s, too. He gave a weak little chuckle. “Beg your pardon, sir… I guess I was talking nonsense.”

“Indeed,” Frodo’s answering laugh was strained with worry. “Now rest your poor head, my dear Sam, I will care for you. I promise.”

Sam felt warm lips brushing over his brow and closed his eyes in blessed, happy relief.

*****

When Artanis reached the room, the battle was over. She hesitated in the doorway, taking in the scene as if it were a strange painting. At the far end of the room she could see the Ringbearer, sitting on the floor, holding the gardener in his lap like a child that had been lost and finally found. One of her father’s men lay on the ground, obviously dead, the other stood by the wall to her left, one arming hanging by his side and his back pressed against the rough stones while Meriadoc Brandybuck was busy binding his legs. Peregrin Took knelt beside Frodo Baggins and Samwise, and Faramir crouched in front of the King, his dark head bowed over an ugly wound just under Aragorn’s knee.

Where was her father?

Then she found him, a tall, shadowed figure to the right, She could only see his profile, a white, unmoving mask of stone. Suddenly, she wanted to speak, to make a feeble attempt to explain what must seem the darkest treason to this proud man whose plans now lay shattered around him. But before she could even open her mouth, she saw him move.

Ropes… there were pieces of it on the ground, neatly cut, and while she watched, trying to understand what she saw, Ardhenon managed to free his hands. When she caught the short flash of firelight on metal, her whole world jolted to a halt.

A knife. He had a knife.

She saw him rise to his feet and make a long, soundless stride toward the King. Of course – it had always been his plan to murder the king, and he was still desperately intent on achieving that last, most vicious objective. Artanis heard a deep, hoarse snarl and realized that it was her own voice. Then she flung herself forward, grabbing for her father’s arm with both hands.

Ardhenon came to a stumbling halt, gazing down at the unexpected obstacle in furious confusion. She saw understanding dawn in his eyes – recognition that his last tool had completely turned against him – and she froze under the icy blast of his utter condemnation. The mountain that had shadowed all her life towered above her and there was neither mercy nor forgiveness in it. Her knees grew weak and for a second she lost her grip on her father’s wrist.

The arm with the dagger swung down in a blazing arch and cold metal met warm flesh. Artanis felt a piercing pain in her side. She wanted to scream, but no sound came out. Instead the world started to move again, gently tilting to the side as she fell, one hand pressed against the hot wetness that soaked her dress. She felt the raw stone of the floor against her cheek and saw with crystalline clarity that her father had moved on once again without even a glance back, his lips drawn back from his teeth in a wolfish grimace, his eyes glassy windows to a swirling darkness. But before he could complete the deed he had been planning for so long, one of the small figures crowded around Samwise rose from the floor in one swift, fluid motion. Peregrin, Knight of Gondor, stretched out his sword arm to smoothly and unerringly bury his blade in the old man’s chest.

Artanis, hovering on the edge of consciousness, tried to prop herself up on her hands. She gazed at the scene around her and gave a soft gasp; she never knew for sure later if what she saw in those last few moments of awareness had been real or a result of the sudden blood loss and shock.

There was the Ringbearer… and yes, she had been right: a silky light shimmered round him like a halo, shot through with sparks of red, orange and turquoise. But the silent figure in his arms was red, not blue, the red of jasper, radiating the warmth of living blood and dark, fruitful earth. Peregrin beside her glowed with fervent heat like burning amber, almost swallowing the cool shimmer of emerald in the background where the hobbit Meriadoc stood. And directly in front of her she could see the soothing, blue shimmer of a perfect sapphire; Faramir had turned his head in her direction, gazing at her with concern and deep pity.

Artanis blinked.

The King… the King’s color was clear as adamant, translucent, but not the quiet coldness of a stone or jewel… he was filled with breathtaking life. The aureole around him shimmered in crimson, blue and a deep, mossy green, like a precious tourmaline. She realized that actually there was no gem she could use to describe Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Elessar, king of Gondor. In a sudden epiphany she understood that what she saw was the essence of the ancient kingdom, burning in his flesh with a fierce, golden flame.

“Forgive me, my lord…” she whispered, the salty iron taste of blood rising in her throat, “I didn’t know.”

And then the darkness enfolded her and the world lost all its colors.

_____________________________________________________________________________

*This cheeky remark refers to the movie version of the FOTR-scene in Moria – of course. Like Peter Jackson I always found it difficult to believe that a single pebble falling into an ancient well would cause such a riot. But I guess the infernal noise Pippin caused by dropping that skull, helmet, weapons and chain in the movie scene would be enough to raise even a Balrog from his sleep!





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