Prologue: A Birthday Surprise - Be careful what you wish for...

The sky was still dark, just as it had been the last dozen times he had checked. Why does the sun stay hidden so long on those days when something special is happening? You see, it was his birthday, or would be when the sky began to grow bright, and he was anxious for it to begin. He would be getting something special this day. He knew that for certain. Not by any hints laid by his family, they were as grouchy and closed mouthed towards him as always. No, he was certain that this birthday would be beyond any other because the voice had told him so. It had piped up three days ago, while he was down by the river fetching water for cooking. When it first spoke to him, he thought one of his family had followed him and was calling from behind a tree just to watch and laugh. So, he ignored it. The whisper came again, out across the water and, even though he had no desire to give his watching relative anymore reason to tease him, he paused in his task and listened. The voice was soft, almost inaudible, yet compelling in its strength. He listened as the voice foretold of a magnificant present, one without equal, a present just for him. Without knowing, he dropped the buckets not yet full of his mother's cooking water and waded into the river. And all the time that voice beckoned to him. He was nearly waist deep when he was struck by a rock that bounced off his head and into the water, splashing him, blurring his eyes.
"Hey, stupid!" someone shouted from the shore, "You left the buckets back here." They were lifted up with beefy hands. "What, you forgot how to use one of these?" The rock thrower was laughing at him now, obnoxiously, as the buckets were filled. "wait 'til everyone hears abou this one." The intruder traipsed back up the hill towards home, the buckets now full.
The voice was forgotten as he scrambled back to the shore. He was horrified by what he had done; he had been caught dreaming and he had not done as his mother had asked. It would be a dismal evening, for sure. Dejectedly, he stood on the shore, water dripping into his eyes. He couldn't even remember why he had gone into the water in the first place. Feeling as stupid as everyone said he was, he began the trek up the hill, sopping wet and without his buckets. He heard it again, just then. The voice talked of surprises, birthday presents and getting even. He looked back across the river. All was peaceful, only a fish jumping to the surface in the quest for a meal, disturbed the water. Yet, underneath, he could feel something pulling on him, urging him back into the water.
"Come on, stupid. You're going to be late for supper."
The mention of food brought him around, (they were having fish!), and he scrambled up the hill. The bigger of the two buckets was thrust into his hands and, as he walked back, more water splashed out and on to his pants then stayed in. He wasn't paying much attention, though. His thoughts were back at the river, back with the voice and its promise of presents. All his past birthdays had been less than enjoyable, but this one would be different. The voice had told him so. This birthday Smeagol would be getting a birthday surprise.
Starting back to wakefulness, he realized he had been having one of the dreams, the kind where you feel like you're falling and you can't catch yourself, and right before you hit bottom, you wake up with a jump. Those dreams came quite often to Smeagol, but this one had been different. Instead of the usual smoke and mist, he had been falling into a bright red and burning yellow, almost as if he had been falling into the sun.
The Sun!
Jerking his head to the right, Smeagol saw the barest hint of gold touch against the pre-dawn's blackness. The sunrise. And he had nearly missed it by sleeping. He jumped out of bed fully clothed, (he had dressed the night before just to save time), and ran to the cook fire, for he knew his mother would be there beginning the day's first meal. No one else was yet up, so he would have his mother all to himself. He stole up behind her, taking great pains not to rustle the grasses strewn on the floor. She was kneeling over the fire, cracking eggs into a pot of boiling water. Bread, freshly made, was at the side cooling in the crisp morning air. The smell made Smeagol's mouth water. He had been too excited about his birthday surprise to eat muchl ast night and now he was ravenous. Slowly he moved his arm towards the bread, a move honed over years of sneaking food behind his mother's back. His fingertips had just brushed his goal when a hand reached over and smacked his away.
"Don't touch that!" she scolded. She never missed a beat, just kept right on with her preparations. "And tell me, my Smeagol, why are we ups do early?"
As if she didn't know. Smeagol sat on the floor by the fire and watched as she added her secret spices to the pot. "Maybe because it's a special day."
"A special day? What special day?" she asked with mock ignorance. She knew very well what day it was. Not only had she bore him, but he would never let anyone forget that his birthday would be today. "I know, its special because its wash day. You always likes to tote the clean wash to the line."
Smeagol made a face. He most certainly did not enjoy hanging out the mound of wet clothes and such. He would always get tangled in that mass with the result of his having to do the wash again. He did enjoy, however, taking the dry things down. Sitting there as the lines filled with billows of white he could almost see the sails of those ships his uncle had talked about when he had had a little too much of the spirits. He had followed the river down, his uncle did, when he was young, followed it all the way down to the end. And that was where he had seen those ships with their white sails full of the wind. Smeagol's mother always thought the old man was cracked, (he was her mate's brother, after all), and would discourage her son in listening to his nonsense. But, Smeagol would listen and devour each tale that spoke of the sea, ships and the far reaching wind. "No, its not wash day!"
"Then it must be the day when I cleans the floors. Out with the old, in with the new."
He knew his mother was toying with him, and had this been an ordinary day, he would have played along. But, this was his birthday, the day the voice told him about and he was anxious to receive his special present. "No, no! Not cleaning, not wash, not stable, not anything!" he said in an angrier tone than he usually used when speaking to his mother. "This is a special day because of me, my special day. And I wants it!"
She just stared. Smeagol had grown irritable lately, shouting back, refusing her requests. Like that incident at the river three days ago. She was willing to overlook quite a lot from her son, willing to forgive him and his normally odd behavior, but his demanding tone towards her was not acceptable. "You listen here, son, I am the one that bore you, who cooks and cleans for you and I'll not be talked to like that. Just because its your..."
"Happy Birthday, Smeagol!" a bright, cheery voice called from the outside.
Smeagol's whole demeanor changed. "Deagol!" he shouted back as he ran to greet his cousin. He loved Deagol better than anyone else in his family, except his mother, of course. Of all his relatives, Deagol was the only one who did not taunt him, or make fun of him, or throw clumps of wet dung so hard that they would cling to his hair and have to be cut out. Grabbing him in a big hug, Smeagol lifted his cousin off the ground, swinging him in the air.
"Put me down, you crazy," Deagol sputtered out. The arms held him tightly and he was fighting to breath.
Smeagol deposited him on the ground, then proceeded to rummage through his cousin's pockets. "Where is it? I wants it," he whispered as he searched. His mother did not have it, so it must be with Deagol. The voice had promised.
Pushing those grasping hands away, Deagol said, "Stop it! You'll get your surprise when we're fishing."
There, it was said. The voice had been right! "Let's go! Let's go!" Smeagol repeated as he pulled his cousin towards the river. "Now, let's go now!"
"We're going fishing," Deagol said to his mother's sister as he was dragged off to the river.
She stood in the doorway watching her son run frantically back and forth like the idiot everyone claimed him to be. This fishing with his cousin, she hoped it would be the end of it, all his talk about surprises and presents would end and he would return to being her sweet, but slightly addled brained son. "Mind you, Smeagol," she called after the duo, "Don't you falls in now!"
Smeagol reached the shore in record time. He paced, waiting impatiently for his cousin. The tiny boat sat just out of the water, packed with poles and a small bucket of wriggling dirt. He wondered if his present was in there. Finally Deagol arrived, sauntering in his own sweet time. "Hurry, Deagol, hurry," he called, hard pressed to wait anymore.
"Hear the big one calling to you, eh? " his cousin teased as he pushed the small boat into the water. He looked at Smeagol fidgeting on the shore, his eyes darting everywhere. He had never seen Smeagol like this before. His cousin had been excited before, that was for sure, but in an innocent sort of way. Nothing like the almost animal thing he saw now.
Without a word, Smeagol jumped into the boat with Deagol behind. They rowed out into the middle of the river to a spot where the current was swift, but deep.
"I feel like this is going to be my lucky day, Smeagol," Deagol said with a broad smile. This was his favorite occupation: to sit quietly in his boat, the sun on his neck, nature speaking in the background and a fishing pole in his grasp. Plunging his hand into the bucket, he pulled out a glob of moist dirt. "Pick one, Smeagol."
He just stared. This was it? This was his special present? Worms? Smeagol shoved the hand away. "I wants it. My surprise."
Deagol's smile slipped a little. "We have all day, cousin. I'm doing a little fishing first." Choosing a big, juicy one, he dropped the rest back into the bucket. Skewering the worm with relish, Deagol dropped his line into the calm water, and sat back, ready to wait.
Smeagol heard the voice again, tickling at the edges of his mind. He couldn't quite understand it, but he didn't have to. He had heard it once and would never forget its promise. He looked at his cousin, lazing in the sun, his head nodding. Smeagol was suddenly taken with the idea that this was all a game, a trick that Deagol had worked out to make him squirm. Just like those worms at his feet. Well, if he had to fish in order to get his surprise, than that's what he would do. Whatever it took to get his present.
With the hook in one hand, the worm in the other, he poured all his concentration on putting one on the other. Usually it took 3 to 4 tries before he succeeded in baiting his hook. But, today it only took 2. Of course, he thought as he proudly dropped his line in the water, today's my birthday, why shouldn't I be lucky one?
The water gently rocked the boat and Deagol to sleep. Smeagol, on the other hand, was ready to jump out of his skin. His mind itched. This waiting was unbearable. Where was his surpise?
The line twitched. It did it again, and Deagol was fully awake in an instant. "Smeagol!" he cried, wrestling with his pole, "Smeagol! I've got one!"
Excitment for his beloved cousin drowned out the call of his surprise briefly. "Pull it in! Pull it in!"
He struggled with the line, first with the fish winning, then Deagol. One final huge jerk and Deagol went over the side and was gone.
Smeagol looked out over the river. It told no clues as to Deagol and his fish. Panic began to rise. "Deagol!" But, there was no answer. Tossing his pole aside, Smeagol grabbed the one oar and began to row furiously back to shore. He would go for help. He pulled the boat out of the water and had turned to run up the hill, when the voice broke into his mind with its full force. It told him not to run away from the river, to stay by the shore. The surprise was coming.
Deagol burst out of the water and clawed himself on to dry ground, coughing and sputtering.
Overjoyed at his cousin's return, Smeagol ran to him, calling, "Deagol!" But, Deagol did not answer. His gaze was transfixed by what he held in his outstretched hand. Looking over his cousin's shoulder, Smeagol first beheld perfection. Shiny gold against the mud was a ring, a simple gold ring.
This is it, the voice said clearly in his mind, this is your present.
My present, Smeagol repeated, his eyes never leaving the Ring, my precious.
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