When First We Practice To Deceive

by jan-u-wine

Frodo Baggins, son of Drogo and Primula,  cousin (and erstwhile nephew) of the departed Bilbo, and present Master of Bag End, was playing knuckle-bones with his gardener and best friend, Samwise Gamgee.

Contrary to his reputation for cheerful and unflagging honesty, Frodo was cheating.    Outrageously.  And Samwise was beating him.  Decisively. 

That Frodo would find it appealing.....nay, compelling to resort to trickery in order to best him caused Sam no small amount of consternation.  

Oh, yes.  Sam knew the master was cheating.  He simply could not fathom why.

The tri-legged rough earth bowl that Sam himself had made and gifted to Frodo upon his own last birthday held two four-sided 'knuckle' bones from a sheep that Sam knew well indeed.   In honour of his Master's birth-place, the two "lucky stones" nestled next to them were taken from sheepheads pulled from the Brandywine by hobbits far more water-worthy than Samwise.  And the Jack....
Ah, the Jack was of blackest agate, dark as a night without stars, so depthless it seemed as to pull light to itself....

And in the heart of it, so small and faint that one would scarce think it was naught but a trick of light, or only the eye's fancy, the merest fleck, an almost-imagined tongue of garnetted flame.....

Like the remnant of a fire that had burned low in the grate, only to be sparked to sudden life, it was....like the errant glow of a wick when the candle's flame has died......

Like a dragon's dreams........

It had been Sam's favourite, this benighted agate.  Near impossible for him to give it up, which, to Sam's mind, was reason enough why he should. He had decided long ago that naught but the earth and that which drew life from it would have a heart's hold upon him. 

He came back to himself quite suddenly.   Cheating or no, Frodo had successfully passed the first five challenges.  At least, Sam thought he had.  He was a bit mystified by the odd look on Frodo's face as he called the next challenge:  Cats in the Well.
 Perhaps the sixth form is played differently in the other three corners of the Shire, but in West Farthing, it is no mere children's game, though still accommodating to those who are quick of hand and sure of eye.**   And Sam was quite certain that his Master's skill was a match for the round before him.  

If it were only just a matter of skill.  

Sam looked to where Frodo's hand lay, the black Jack gleaming like night next to its mates against the paleness of his palm.  The slight flush that had animated Frodo's face as the game progressed had vanished as if it had never been, and his left hand, the hand that must be the well that would hold the "bodies" of the drowned cats....

Sam did not imagine that his Master could finish the round, did not imagine he could still the shaking of his hand enough to speed the Jack and his brothers upon their way.

"Sam....I.....can't...."  Just those three words, no more, and the Jack and dies scattered upon the ground, and Frodo bending towards them, face hidden, as though he would be ill.

"No more you could, Mr. Frodo.  Dishonesty ain't in you." (though Samwise knew full well that it was not the sudden penchant for cheating that Frodo meant).  

Frodo seemed better, even smiled half-heartedly when Sam gave him his hand and helped him up.

 Still and all, there was a forfeit.  Frodo had cheated, and he hadn't finished his round, cheating or no. 

The black agate lay where it had fallen, for all the world like a bit of night-star fallen to earth.

Stooping, Sam picked it up, rolled it in his hand.  

"This here," he said, noticing that Frodo could still not quite meet his eye, "this here I'll keep, Master.  And....." (here, Sam dug in his pocket for the soft-muslin bag)......."and this will be yours."

Much later, after tea and seed-cake, after washing up and 'good-nights', the not-so-contrite Master of Bag End sank deep into the cushions of Bilbo's favorite old armchair and put his feet to the fender. His fingers worked the drawstring of the worn muslin.
There.  oh.  there.

The colour of the sky, it was, the sky just after the Sun had gone, the sky just before the Moon took the Eastern road.  Blue like the Sea he'd never seen, blue like the waves laced with caps stirred by the wind.

He'd never liked that black agate that Sam set so much store by.  Like the eye of some great creature of the forest it looked.....one of the wolves, perhaps, that had crossed the River in the Fell Winter.    He'd never liked it, never liked the sheer, cold darkness of it.  But knowing how dear it was to Sam, he could not, in good conscience, ask Sam to trade, or (worse yet) seem to have 'lost' it.      
And thus his journey from desire to deceit.

The fire had died to fragile hisses in the grate, shadows diminishing from walls to mere spills upon the floor.  He could just make out the soft points of the stars upon the rug.......

his hand closed about the cool blueness of the agate, holding the blue-white much the same as he imagined the World itself was balanced in the nest of the sky.    Sleep, like the drifting smoke of a snuffed candle, pulled at the corners of his mind.
Odd, the thoughts that come to one on the edges of waking, on the edges of dreaming.  Like a whisper, like a shout, like sun-light and starlight the single word, clear as the unclouded sky:


And then he slept, happily, deeply, though he knew not why, the hand that held the agate held tight across the slow beat of his heart.  

**in the game of knuckle-bones (knuckle-bones being a sort of a dice game, and yet a form of the game we call "jacks") , the "form" called "Cats In the well" is played thus:  the Jacks are rolled from the hand onto the ground....these are the "cats".  Then left hand of the player is placed near them, the fist closed, thumb and first finger forming the opening of the "well".  Jack is thrown up, and, while he is in the air, one of the four "cats" on the ground is picked up and put in the well.  The same operation is repeated for the rest of the "cats", until all have been "drowned" in the well.  The left hand is then taken away to reveal the dead cats lying in a bunch.  Jack is tossed up and all of the "cats" must be picked up before Jack comes down**.