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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 23. Through the Wastelands
One Note. One Note that breached the Void, piercing the Silence. Still, it was alone, Monotone, and without Chord or companion, it could but diffuse itself throughout the Void to touch upon the broken ends of Song, and wait for the guidance of another....
"A hand, Sam! Give me a hand, if you can."
Sam hastened forward, reaching up with both arms to steady his master as Frodo dangled from the last handhold to be found. "I'm right here, Master Frodo! You can let go, it's just a little drop. And you know if I'm saying it, it ain't more than a Shire yard to the ground," he declared firmly. Which was not to say that Sam had much enjoyed making that drop himself, Shire yard or no, but there was no need to say so. If you can't say any good of it, then why open your mouth at all? he'd always been told. Good advice, and Sam was guiltily aware that he had not been very diligent in applying it for quite some time. In fairness, most of his complaints were voiced with an eye to protecting his master. But this grey and menacing land stood the hair on his head straight up, it seemed, and drew forth fears that might've been better left unspoken. Hours they would scramble and to Sam's suspicious eyes, the dull, somber heights seemed unchanged: at the end of the day, however hard and long they toiled, it seemed they returned ever to the same view of those aloof, threatening crags.
And though it's likely a mad notion, I could swear that they watch us, those peaks! Hills, they call them—mountains to me, and they don't much like us, I think. Just then, however, Frodo released his hold on the rock face they had been climbing, and Sam grunted as he tried to steady the other, who landed rather heavily. He earned himself a stubbed toe for his trouble, but Frodo, after a few moments spent panting, straightened up again and sighed as he glanced round.
"Well, that was a bit of a fright. I'm sorry, Sam, I don't know what came over me just then," Frodo said, frowning slightly as he glanced out from their shelf to the east, whence came darkness descending with the failure of day.
"It weren't nothing, Mr. Frodo," Sam replied quickly, surreptitiously wiggling his abused toes. "After all, we hobbits were never made for climbing, that's certain! Look at that, will you?" Sam gestured at the sheer drop on the southern side of their rocky perch. Down it plunged, thrice, possibly even four times, the height of a Man, 'til it reached a spur of rock that led out into a valley of tumbled boulders. "Maybe Strider and Boromir could manage that, and I'm sure Legolas could, but you and me, not a chance."
"Well, not without help. And that side leads back west in any case, or so it seems from the way it bends. This side seems a bit more manageable," Frodo replied. "If we take this—I hesitate to say 'path' but I don't know what else I might call it—if we take it, there looks to be a cranny or a bit of an outcropping there that we can sleep in or behind for a time." He sighed softly, glancing east once more, as night wafted in past the Ephel Dúath. "Tomorrow, we can try the rest of the climb and see whither that gully leads. I do wish we had a map or some notion of how these hills lie."
"I don't know as it'd do us any good, begging your pardon, sir," Sam replied, taking the lead down the 'path.' It was more of a ledge, and Sam felt his heart pounding at the sight of the broken earth below. Determinedly, he pressed on, talking for the sake of sound and strained nerves. "You need a hand free to read a map, and nothing to disturb you. Maybe an Elf could read one without trouble—they walk ropes and run along tree branches like they're proper roads, so maybe they wouldn't see no trouble here. Now me, I need both my eyes and hands to keep on the track."
"I don't suppose even the Men of Gondor would have a reason to come so far, either," Frodo admitted reluctantly. "Who knows if anyone has ever charted these hills?" Which only brought home again how very isolated they were, how far from friends and the bustle of daily life. Following in Sam's wake, therefore, Frodo let the other's chatter wash over him, hoping to hold at bay with it that chill paralysis that threatened at times to overwhelm him, to root him to his spot, unthinking and helpless. Not that he hadn't cause for such fits of panic, given the heights that they had scaled in the past three days, but they worried him. It was as if he would sink suddenly into darkness in those moments, and afterwards, at night, his dreams were plagued with memories of Weathertop and the long dark of Moria.
And they are but a foreshadowing, as it were, of the darkness that hangs over us, Frodo thought grimly, as he reached their shallow scoop of a campsite and sat down at Sam's side. Settling back again, he put his back against the wall and bowed his head. The eastern wind whistled in the passes, and as Frodo nodded off into an uneasy sleep, his mind made of it a lamentation to the lost ones of Middle-earth.
All through the night, the hobbits tossed and turned, shivering in their sleep and waking ever and anon for no discernible reason. It was nearly a relief to wake to a glimmer in the east, though it meant another day of toil, for it had seemed wrong to call 'night' so sleepless a period. Breakfast was a hurried affair beneath a murky sky, and the reek from the bogs below was oppressive, lending a faint flavor of decay even to the lembas. Nevertheless, they made the most of their rations, for Frodo was determined that today they should find a way into the rift that bypassed the bogs. "We have already wandered too long," he said, standing at the edge of the ledge, staring down at the slope. "Four days it has been since we left the Fellowship."
"Do you think they're all right, sir?" Sam asked, in an unusually hesitant voice, and winced slightly when Frodo's face grew very still and almost hard in the dawn-light.
"We cannot think of them now, Sam," Frodo replied, his voice flat. Adjusting the weight of his pack, he pointed at the pocked rock face. "There are plenty of hand holds here, and the slope is not so steep as it is elsewhere. We should be able to work our way north-east. Come, let us go!" Sam only nodded, watching as Frodo began scrambling down as fast as a hobbit could manage.
I shouldn't have asked him that, he thought, as he, too, began to climb, though much more slowly and carefully. I shouldn't remind him. If they weren't my friends, I'd not want to think of them either, alone back there... with the orcs, seemingly. The orcs we left them to. And no way across the river, if they needed to get across. And with Boromir. Boromir! Sam did not precisely fear what the others might say to him—it was plain as day on Rose Cotton's face that he knew he'd been wrong. Worse than been wrong, he'd done wrong. The others might have forgiven him, but Boromir promised to be poor company after that, and Sam could scarcely fathom what the Man must feel now. Enough o' that, my lad! he berated himself, clutching tightly at the rough slope, panting hard as a few pebbles slipped out from underfoot. This is not the place for wool-gathering, no matter what sort of wool it may be.
After that, Sam took good care to concentrate on his climbing, until at length he heard Frodo's voice call up from below. "You're nearly there, Sam! Another ten feet, I'd say."
"Shire or Bree?" demanded Sam through clenched teeth, hoping against hope for Shire.
"Well, Bree, to be honest."
"Meaning no offense to any of the Big Folk, but did they have to be so tall? I was happy with Shire measures and miles with more feet in 'em." But though Sam listened carefully, he heard no laughter from below. Perhaps the wind covered it, but he suspected not. It had been too long since Frodo had laughed easily at anything. Eventually, however, he stood at Frodo's side again, and if his master seemed a bit preoccupied, he also managed a fleeting smile for Sam before they began once more to work their way down through the piled rocks, outbound to the east. All that morning they scrambled, 'til Sam's fingers were scraped, all ten of them, and his feet were sore. Around mid-afternoon, a storm broke out overhead, nearly washing them away, and although they were able to descend a bit further afterwards, they were slowed by the slick pathways that they walked.
And if we're any closer to the end of these hills, I couldn't tell! Sam thought, dispiritedly. They had come a few times to steep precipices that overlooked the plains, but none of them had proved scaleable, even with Sam's rope. "Not unless you figure we could drop off at the end," Sam had once said.
"No, I think not. There must be another way down." And so they had continued on at Frodo's insistence, though it seemed that every turn led them to a dead-end. Towards evening, as the light began to fade in earnest, however, Frodo beckoned to Sam with an urgent note in his voice. "Look! I think we may have found a way. See?" Frodo pointed, and Sam sighed softly, as he stared unhappily down at the too-distant ground.
"Well, if you say so. But not without a rope am I going down that. And you neither," Sam replied, setting his pack down to search for Haldir's rope. Pulling it out from among his other belongings, he found a useful rock and tied it securely before throwing the free end over the edge. So still was the air that the hobbits could hear it slither against the rocks as it uncoiled. Frodo made as if to go first, but Sam stopped him with an out-flung arm. "Let me go, Mr. Frodo. Not that we haven't spent an unnatural long time dangling on cliff edges the past few days, but this is the furthest we've had to climb in one go. May as well be me who slips first. And if I do, I don't want you underneath me."
"No. You stay here and follow me in a bit," Sam replied, cutting him off as, before Frodo could object, he dropped to his knees, took firm hold of the rope, and slid over the edge. Frodo sighed inwardly, resigning himself to humoring Sam. He had wanted to tell him that it hardly mattered who went first—it was a doomed effort, after all. But mayhap it is better he didn't let me, he thought, striving against the temptation to let himself slip once more into the bleak pit of hopelessness. It was so easy a fall! It ought not to be so easy, yet the path he trod between despair and defiant hope was thinner than the slender ropes of the Elves, and sharper than the rocks that awaited the unwary traveler below.
Frodo closed his eyes, clutching the Ring hard through his clothes and felt it heavy around his neck. I know the worst, he reminded himself, gritting his teeth. I know it, but what of it? Why should Sam have to suffer this burden of mine? There are forces in the world—good and evil. And though it seems that the Darkness must come, we have our small triumphs in spite of it. Or because of it, perhaps, I do not know. Maybe it is enough right now that Sam has a little hope, in spite of what happened at Parth Galen. That caused Frodo to wince, for he had not meant to be so very cold to Sam earlier. In truth, he, too, worried about their friends, and a part of him cringed at the thought that even if he were to reach Mt. Doom, he might well find that his efforts and Sam's had not saved them, who so deserved to know peace.
But another part, which he knew to be right, yet which he despised nonetheless, knew very well that it was their place to die on that greensward, if it meant that he and Sam could continue onward. And they know it, Frodo thought, determinedly refusing to use the past tense as he prepared to scale the cliff face. They know it—Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn and Boromir. I think even Pippin and Merry know but... but let us not think about this!
"Are you coming now, Mr. Frodo?" Sam's voice drifted upward from below.
"Yes, Sam," he replied, and swung over the edge into darkness.
The next day was much the same, although at least it seemed that Sam and Frodo had at last found the proper track. About the feet of the Emyn Muil they climbed, picking their way down a long, gentle slope that northwards between two great ridges of rock ran. The slope became a good-sized gully, and a shallow stream trickled through it, dodging the rocks on its way out to the mires. Stony as the land was, it was at least relatively flat, and they made good progress, particularly once they left the boulders behind for a flat sort of rocky shelf. Its surface was riddled with eroded waterways, though only one seemed now to carry any, as their stream fell away to the left. The gully's walls were still higher than a hobbit's head, but even to Sam and Frodo, they did not seem unmanageable. Nevertheless, it seemed to go on a very long time. All that day and into the early hours of the night, they walked and tried not to trip over the shallow grooves in the stone. When they could go no further, they huddled against one of the walls and slept for a time. Dawn saw them wandering steadily forward, as the rock gave way to earth, eventually, until at long last, the gully emptied out onto the rotted plains.
"Well, I can't say but that that's a relief," Sam sighed, wiping sweat from his brow and stretching in the sunlight. Casting a final glance back at the sad, silent heights of the mountains, he shook his head. "Marshes we've done before, at least."
"True enough, although I dare say they shall be just as unpleasant as Midgewater, if not worse. East of the river Mordor's power lies heavy on the land," murmured Frodo, staring out at the fume-enshrouded peaks of the Ephel Dúath. Sam gave him a sharp look, not liking that pronouncement at all, nor the queer note in his master's voice. "So heavy.... Everything is silent, bowed beneath that withering gaze. So heavy... so very heavy...." At this point, Sam frowned, worried. So heavy, Frodo said, and seemed to mean the Enemy's shadow on the plains, and yet.... And yet, I don't know. What else could he mean? The Ring, perhaps? Troubled, Sam laid a hand on Frodo's shoulder and, when his master did not move, assumed his most matter-of-fact tone and said:
"Well, standing here looking at it won't make it no easier. Nothing ever got done just staring at it, my Gaffer always told me, and I expect he's right."
Frodo blinked at that, and shook his head, seeming to come out of his reflections. "Hm? Oh. Yes, well then, let's go, Sam. I suppose we are lucky after a fashion. We could've spent another two days in those hills, if we had not stumbled onto the right path."
"I suppose so, though I don't remember any path, sir," Sam replied, and proffered one of his best scowls in imitation of old Ham Gamgee. That usually got a chuckle out of Frodo, who complained that Sam would never master the art of glaring. But as before, Frodo said nothing, seemed not to notice, and strode onwards with a vigor and determination that might have made him seem intimidating, had he had Strider's height. As it was, 'forlorn' and 'pitiful' were probably closer to the truth, and Sam hurried after him. Hours passed. For a time, it was a pleasant relief to feel living earth and grass underfoot, rather than sharp, hard rock or dead soil. But as the day waned, the ground began to grow muddier, and reedy tussocks or the occasional scraggly bush dotted the landscape, springing up from the stagnant pools of water.
"Phew! What a stink! To think, we'll smell like this place for days," Sam muttered, waving a hand before his nose. It was a futile gesture—the fens were vast and there was no escaping the scent of putrefaction and decomposition. "Where are we headed, Mr. Frodo? Do you know?" he asked after a moment.
"I should know—I suppose that in one sense, I do, but... not truly. I studied the maps that Elrond kept, but Rivendell seems so very dim to me," Frodo sighed, pausing a moment to look round. "I remember that both Gandalf and Aragorn agreed that the Dagorlad was to be avoided, and that that lies north of here. I cannot say how wide these fens are, but it seems we must cross them, and make as straight a line east as we can for the Black Gate."
"Well, I can't say as I remember anything about maps, so I'm no help at all. But you seem to remember an awful lot, sir," Sam said, encouragingly.
"No," Frodo replied sadly, shaking his head. "I remember the words. I remember hearing Gandalf and Aragorn speaking of the southern lands. But I cannot see the map in my mind. I can barely see Strider and Gandalf in the library. Where Rivendell ought to be, there are only words, and a few sparse memories of light and faces. Let's go on."
By nightfall, the hobbits had come perhaps two leagues, weary as they were. Thus far, they had managed to navigate their way through the marsh with only minor mishaps. Sam had fallen into one of the deeper pools when a low, reed-covered rise had suddenly ended, and Frodo had had to pull him out. Later, Frodo had discovered a quagmire. After that incident, Sam had insisted that he take the lead. "Clumsy I may be, but better me than you, Mr. Frodo," he had said firmly. "I'd give a lot, though, for a walking stick. You remember that Strider picked one up in Chetwood when he knew we'd be going into the marshes. Kept us out of most sorts of trouble with it."
"I do remember that. But I don't see much that would serve, even for a hobbit. These bushes are too thin and starved."
"Well," Sam had replied, stooping and hefting a small, slime-covered rock, "I'm not a bad one with stones, and stones'll reach further than sticks anyway."
As the hobbits crept now under the meager cover of one of the scrawny bushes, seeking shelter for the night, Sam's pockets bulged. He now had several such mire-stones (as he called them) in them, their numbers replenished at every opportunity, for Sam used them quite a lot. They did make for some discomfort, though, and he set about piling them on the ground at his side. Frodo, in the mean time, had fallen asleep almost immediately, curled up tightly under his cloak. He seemed so weary that Sam did not wake him, not even for supper. "Such as it is," he muttered under his breath, nibbling on waybread and wishing for apples. Or taters. Or anything, so long as it wasn't lembas. Not that he was truly tired of it, but he foresaw a long walk with naught but elven wafers for sustenance.
Having finished his dinner, Sam sat with his arms about his knees, keeping uneasy watch. A heavy mist had settled over the land, as if the fens' daily noisome exhalations had taken form, and Sam wrinkled his nose as he sipped moodily at his water. Squinting through the night, he thought he could make out a few stars, if he looked nearly straight up. All the rest was fog-obscured darkness, yet though he could not see them, Sam was uncomfortably aware of the jagged mountains to the east. They brooded over all the land, malicious and impenetrable, and if he stared long enough towards where he knew them to stand, he began to believe that in fact, he could see them: looming sentinels on Mordor's borders.
And if that isn't my imagining things, then I don't want to know what it is! Sam shivered, and for once it had nothing to do with the clammy cold. Glancing down once more at Frodo, he felt a stab of fear lance through his heart. All the long way from Hobbiton, he had watched his master grow quiet and grave, and seen a deeper anguish work its way into Frodo's eyes. Ever since Moria, Sam thought. Once, he might not have known what to call that which looked out through Frodo's eyes, or which showed itself in that fist that gripped ever at the Ring through cloth and mithril, or in that hardness of voice that wanted to break under its own strain. But Sam could not be rid of the memory of Galadriel's mirror, and Frodo, it seemed, could not leave Moria behind. Parth Galen had been the bridge of Khazad-dûm all over again.
Except that there was no Strider to lead us, or to tell us where to go. There was no Gandalf telling us to run, just me and Mr. Frodo. What it all added up to, he wasn't quite certain, but he thought he understood a little better now the anguish in his master's unguarded looks.
The next day was spent trudging along, floundering through the watery maze, and after awhile, Sam gave up tossing stones at suspicious patches of ground. There was no point: not only was there not a square foot of soil as seemed secure in his eyes, but he couldn't see anything anyway. For the mist did not lift, and seemed only to grow thicker as they pressed further into the marshes. They had slept the night before facing east, which had at least set them off in the proper direction. But as the day had worn on, they had had to go far round about to avoid the deep and often quite broad meres, or to escape tracts of mires. So bad was the vapor that the hobbits had to grope forward, hand in hand, to avoid losing each other, trusting to touch and blind luck to guide them in this space, where sight and sound failed utterly.
"What I wouldn't give for a breeze to clear out this murk," Sam sighed once, wincing at how loud his own voice seemed. "But there's not a breath of it, not even a bird's whistle to break through this."
"No. Nothing lives here now," Frodo answered, his reply falling flat and dead into the still air, as if the mists had strangled it. "It's like a dream... or a nightmare that never ended. Something happened here—something terrible, for the malaise to linger so long on this land." Sam shivered at that, and it seemed to him afterwards that the silence was worse than ever before. By mid-afternoon, the drenched, slime-coated hobbits came to a sudden stop. They had come to a patch of ground that seemed dry enough for this miserable land, and without speaking, the two sank down onto the moist earth.
"It's not that I want to stay here any longer than I have to, Mr. Frodo, but I've got to stop," Sam panted, shivering with cold, and shook his head as he huddled in his wet cloak. "I'm dead tired right now, and I hate this stench, and... and I don't know! Something about this place and this mist just strikes me to the core, and I can't hardly move."
"It's the air," Frodo replied.
"It's more than the air, beggin' your pardon, sir," Sam answered. "It's everything. It's the mud, and the water, and the smell, and the air, and these blasted, sharp-edged reeds and wretched bushes—it's all the world, as far as I can tell right now!" There came a silence, and Sam felt his cheeks heating in embarrassment. Now what happened just then? Where'd all that come from? he wondered, shocked by his own sudden vehemence.
"I'm sorry, Sam." Frodo's voice was soft, subdued, and ordinarily, Sam would've hastened to apologize himself, for he had not meant to drag Frodo's spirits down with his own. But there was something in the other's tone—something relentless, yet resigned... implacable, maybe, if implacable knew how to suffer at the same time. Such things passed beneath or else beyond Sam's ability to voice, yet he knew them, and before them, he remained silent. For long they sat, turned a little away from each other, and Sam felt his eyes drifting shut of their own accord. Just for a little while, whispered the voice of sleep. Only a little while... surely a few minutes are not so very many....
Stop that! Sam jerked straight, rubbing at his eyes with grimy hands, and he blinked at the pale light. Light? Light! "Mr. Frodo! Look!" Before them, some fifteen feet away, it seemed, hovered a bright spot in the mists—a pale luminosity that flickered a bit as its rays stole through the drifting haze.
"I see it! There are more, I think," Frodo replied, sounding tense with wary curiosity.
"What do you think it is, sir?"
"I don't know. I've never seen such a thing."
"You don't suppose," Sam paused, lowering his voice further still and gripping his sword pensively, "you don't suppose that there's someone out there in that muck?"
"It isn't moving... they just... appear and then... then disappear. Look there! Like that, just as if they were snuffed."
"And then relit," Sam murmured, watching one of them blink into existence just as another went dark. "What do you think, Mr. Frodo?"
"I think," Frodo said slowly, rising, "that we should leave. We have sat here long enough."
"But which way do we go?" Sam asked, glancing about and seeing naught but grey mist and occasional dim radiance.
"This way," replied Frodo in a strangely hush tone, and Sam felt him fumble for his hand. Clutching at it, Sam found himself led along he knew not whither. Great tendrils and clouds of mist swirled before his eyes, coming between Frodo and himself, and the odd, sullen lights drifted by about him. The ground was wet and cold beneath his feet, and rather slimy, and the mud sucked at every step, but Frodo kept moving. I don't like this, Sam thought, watching uneasily as another light blinked out suddenly. He wasn't half this sure of himself when we could see our path... if you can call it a path that we've been walking. And now this. How does he know? Or is he only guessing?
Just then, the terrain changed suddenly, and Sam let out a yelp of alarm as he went to his knees. He felt Frodo's hand slip from his grasp, and chill water greeted his outstretched hands with a soft splash. "Are you all right? Sam?" Frodo called back to him, though he could not have been more than a foot or two distant. A shadow knelt beside him, and as Frodo leaned close to peer anxiously at him, Sam sighed softly.
"I tripped," said he unnecessarily. "Something uneven here about the ground, and I... bless me, but look at that!" For just as he had been speaking, one of the lights had appeared before them, low-lying as some of them were, although it still hovered over Sam and Frodo. Greenish it appeared up close, or perhaps a pale blue, and Sam reached out to wave a hand beneath it, only to feel cool air against his palm. "Nothin' there," he muttered, bowing his head an instant, anxious and perplexed... and that was when he saw it. With a cry, he scrambled back on all fours.
"What is it?"
"There's a Man in there!"
"In the water! Look in the water!" Frodo, frowning, did so, peering cautiously over the edge of the ill-lit pool. And for all that it was murky, he saw with great clarity the water's treasure. A young man he beheld, eyes wide and darkly staring, clad in mail, and his hair streamed out to mingle with the fallen reeds. A long lost soldier, waxy and bloodless now, though Frodo could see the tears and rents in the armor where swords had done their vicious work.
Perfectly preserved, he seemed, and yet decay lay heavy upon him—stir the water but a little, and he would disappear as flesh and fragile bone dissolved in the mere's reeking bosom. Touch his hair, and it would drift to the surface; touch his face, and fingers would sink into his skull; the white tree upon his tabard seemed wilted. And to Frodo's horror, those dead eyes seemed to stare at him accusingly, and a dead hand seemed to point, as if this long-forgotten son of Gondor knew where lay the Doom that had brought him and so many of his brethren to an untimely end. At just that moment, the light over the pool flickered and died, and suddenly, the water was dark again.
Slowly, Frodo backed away, heart hammering in his chest, and the Ring seemed to hang heavy on its chain, dragging him down. Work of my Hand, and work of yours, Ring-bearer! mocked an insidious little voice in his mind.
"Mr. Frodo?" Sam's worried voice murmured, and he felt the other's hands upon his shoulders.
"We must keep moving... keep moving, and... and not look into the pools. Never look into the pools," Frodo managed, clambering to his feet. He grabbed one of Sam's hands, clutching hard, and began once more to walk, as swift as he could, skirting the pool by as wide a berth as he dared. "Come, Sam, let's—did you hear that?"
"If by 'that' you mean—that," Sam whispered hoarsely, just as noises issued from somewhere to his left... and far too close at hand. It took him a moment to realize what it was, but then he felt his blood run cold. Someone wading through the waters... a lot of someones, he thought. Who would come here? It seemed far too much to hope that a company of Boromir's people had strayed into this swamp, for surely they would prefer to hunt their enemies elsewhere. Which left the hobbits with the unpleasant conclusion that perhaps their enemies might prefer to use the marshes as a byway....
Orcs! Sam swallowed. Breathless, the hobbits stood still, waiting to see how events would turn. The strangers who filed through the marsh were now clearly orcish, for a few low-muttered curses could be heard amid the splashing. A fair-sized company, it seemed, that walked the fens, passing like misshapen ghosts in the mists. Sam stuck his knuckles in his mouth and hoped that orcs had worse hearing than Elves. His other hand, though, crept down to the grip of his Barrow-blade, and he waited, tense, wishing he had, say, Boromir's height and strength. Although I suppose it'd be a lot harder for a Man to hide, even with this fog. Which was why Sam decided that perhaps it would be better to have Strider's skills—at least then, he'd have a chance if it came to either fight or flight.
Of a sudden, he felt Frodo leaning against him, shaking like a leaf. What's wrong... oh blast, the Ring! It had happened before, at Weathertop, and Sam had known intuitively that his master had been in trouble of the worst and most helpless sort. And now it had struck again. Hastily, Sam reached across himself to grasp at Frodo's hands, hoping that if the other had something else to hold onto, the Ring's allure would not be unbearable. Frodo's grip was painful, as if the other sought to anchor himself to Sam's solid support.
Yet the tremors did not cease, and Sam felt fear congeal in his stomach, as he tried desperately to think of what to do. If they moved, they would surely be heard and pursued unless they were extremely careful, but they had already made quite a bit of ruckus over that poor lad in the mere. What if we just stayed still? In this mist, they could pass two feet in front of us and never know we were here! And there's enough water in this ground that surely the scent won't stick! We both just smell like swamp anyway. It was not, he realized, as if they had a choice. Until the fit had passed, Frodo could not move, not with any stealth at least. Best to stay here, then. Hold on, Mr. Frodo, just hold on a bit longer—
"Hai!" Just then, a shadow loomed up right over them, stepping out of the fog as if by magic. A scout! Sam didn't think, he simply reacted. Jerking a hand free, he grabbed his sword, swept it out, and struck. The orc shrieked... and it continued to shriek as Sam and Frodo abandoned all caution and ran. Sam had surprised his foe, but the blow, though fatal, had not pieced either heart or lungs, and so his enemy continued to scream and writhe after it had fallen. Harsh cries went up behind them as the orcs bounded forward in pursuit.
For his part, Sam did his best to avoid the bushes and reeds, and if he fell, he scrambled up again as fast as he could. But between the orcs behind him and the mist all about him, he soon lost sight of Frodo. Panic struck deep in that instant, and Sam opened his mouth to shout... and then the cry died ere ever it could leave his lips. Don't give him away, Sam Gamgee! a voice in his head cried. And hard on that thought came the realization that perhaps... perhaps it was better if he did lose Frodo. Because maybe that means the orcs will, too. They can't know how many we are, can they?
And so it was that Sam found his steps slowing, found himself turning back round to face the orcs. He couldn't possibly win in any fight, but Sam did his best, trying to recall any and all advice that Strider or Boromir had ever given him on sword-work. Keep moving, chiefly, and Don't hesitate came to mind, and when the orcs appeared before him, he didn't. With a snarl as fierce as he could make it, Sam flung himself at his pursuers. The first orc dropped, surprised like the other, and the second one was caught trying to turn. Curses rang out all around him—So much for keep moving!—and the circle closed. Sam got a few—in such close quarters, it was inevitable. And so was the flat of the blade that slammed into the back of his head, sending consciousness fleeing in an explosion of stars....
... and a burst of Sound.
Welcome to Book IV. Long ago, I decided I would follow JRRT's original division of labor (Sam and Frodo/ the remainder of the Company), so anyone interested in charting the course of this tale can make a check mark next to "Taming of Sméagol" and "The Passage of the Marshes." I apologize for the rather dull bits—I'm afraid I find swamps and being lost in hills rather monotonous, yet I couldn't quite bypass them. After this, it gets better, I swear!—Dwimordene
Author's additional note: I never noticed the hobbits using different measures from Aragorn or the rest of the world. But you'd think they would have a local measurement more appropriate to their size, though they'd be conversant with measurements out of Bree, which match our own. And since Sam was needing to cheer Frodo up a bit, I thought I'd let him have his Shire standard, for all the good it did him.
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