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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 27. Price of Passage
Frodo slept much the next day. He even slept through breakfast, which would have worried Sam, but that the circles under Frodo's eyes seemed still so dark against his skin. I reckon this is the first real sleep he's had since we were caught, he thought. Bless me, but it's one of the first I've had for I can't remember how long! Despite his fright the night before, when Faramir had looked in on them, after awhile, he had found his eyes closing once the captain had disappeared, and though he had fought against it, sleep had claimed him. It had felt so good to have a mattress and blankets, though after the orcs, even that night in the rocky hollow in the Emyn Muil hadn't seemed so terrible. Sam could not imagine what it must have been like for Frodo, and his eyes went as always to his master's bandaged left arm.
The healer, Orothar, had said yesterday that Frodo had been fortunate. "Wounds treated by orcs often fester, for they do not clean them properly, and sometimes leave dirt or other objects lodged in the flesh. Men have lost limbs thus. Cauteries also often end badly, even when done properly by healers. The shock is too great, and it often serves only to cause further injury," he had said, as he had carefully cleaned and poulticed the injury. "Your master was fortunate indeed."
Orothar had come again earlier in the morning to see how his patients had fared, and Sam had stood anxiously by as the Man had carefully applied fresh dressings to Frodo's arm, and then enlisted Sam's aid in turning Frodo onto his side so that he could check the marks on his neck and back. "I think he may fear less if he wakes to you rather than to me," Orothar had said, which sensible remark and the smile that had accompanied it had moved him up a notch in Sam's estimation. But Frodo had not woken, and Sam had been anxious.
"Shouldn't he be coming around? He's not that heavy a sleeper," he had asked.
"I will confess I added a sedative to your drinks. It acts more strongly on those who are weakened," Orothar had replied.
"How much of it should he have taken?" Sam had asked, then, alarmed.
"There was not enough to harm either of you."
"Maybe not in one cup, but I gave Frodo mine," Sam replied, and had found himself blushing under the healer's look. "Habit, you know, sir," he had mumbled, and after a moment, Orothar had chuckled softly.
"A loyal servant. Nay, he is in no danger, but certainly, he shall sleep for a time. And perhaps it is best, for he needs rest. If he has not awakened by the afternoon, then I shall worry," Orothar had replied, and then gone to see to other charges. That had left Sam to his own devices, and he had taken advantage of the basin and water left for them to wash up for the day, a habit he was delighted to take up again. He had only just finished when another man had arrived to remove the tray with the dishes, though at Sam's request, Frodo's breakfast had been left behind, in case he might want it later. After that, Sam had spent some time sitting on the bed, watching Frodo, or else staring at the curtain and wondering what passed beyond it. Soft-voiced conversations occasionally could be heard clearly as men drifted near, and then they would trail off as they moved further. From the bits that he overheard, Sam learned that a patrol had been sent out that morning, that black squirrels were native to Mirkwood, that Haradric sounded like wheezing, and that there was a company wager that the mumâk continued to roam Ithilien.
"And what's a mumâk?" he wondered aloud then, wishing that the speakers had paused a moment. For if it were something that he and Mr. Frodo would have to face when eventually they left this place–and Sam held steadfastly that they would leave it–then best he know all about it. "For I am tired of being surprised again and again. Caradhras and crows and wolves and the Watcher, and orcs so many I'm right well sick of them. Not that it takes much to be sick of orcs. And now I'm talking to myself again, confound it! 'Don't natter on like a ninny, Sam lad, you can't put two words together that nervous!' Well, I'm puttin' 'em together now," he muttered, and wondered if that meant he really were nervous, or whether it were proof that he wasn't really worried about Faramir's decision. A moment he mulled over that, then grunted. "Whether I am or not, that's not the main point. There's plenty else to worry about first!"
For a glance at Frodo, seeming so weary even in sleep, and too thin for a hobbit, brought all his fears to mind in a heartbeat, and despite the bed and chair and stand–signs of civilization long missed–still, the little scoop of a cavern, with its bare rock walls, seemed far too like a cell. For although he'd no proof that there was anyone guarding the door, Sam did not dare to pass beyond it, and not simply because he did not know whether he would be welcomed by those outside. I can't leave him alone. I can't. What if there is more of Boromir in his brother than Faramir says? If there were more, then all those men beyond the curtain would certainly come in handy for the Captain, who did not seem very likely to be caught by surprise, as Sam had caught his orcish attackers by surprise. But that, too, was no matter–Sam had said he would stand by Frodo, and so he would, the Captain of Ithilien be hanged!
Just then, there came a muffled groan from the bed, and Sam turned anxiously to see that Frodo was waking at last. "Mr. Frodo?"
"Mm... is it morning, Sam?" Frodo asked sleepily as he rubbed at his eyes, and then sat up.
"Closer to afternoon, I should think, not that I can tell from here," Sam replied.
"Afternoon?" Frodo frowned. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"Well, Orothar said you needed the rest, and not to worry if the sedative didn't wear off until now. Not to worry, sir," Sam said, deciding in that moment that there was no need to mention that Frodo had been given a double dose by accident, "I've been awake since breakfast."
"And is that the remainder of it?" Frodo asked with sudden interest, noticing the tray, and Sam found himself suddenly and inexplicably close to tears to hear it. After days and days of lembas and then orc fare and feeling as though last night's supper had been the condemned's last meal (which had quite killed any relish for their dinner), something as ordinary as a hobbit's natural interest in food–something utterly untouched by the Ring or the darkness of war–seemed priceless. Then let's not ruin it, eh Gamgee? Get a hold of yourself, lad! he chided himself, swallowing once, and drawing a deep breath ere he replied, in a voice very close to normal:
"Aye, I had them leave it. Thought you might want it, seeing as it's something other than lembas."
"And more of it than lembas. It's been a long time since we've had a proper meal," Frodo said, as he set to. Swallowing quickly, he shot Sam a look, then, and asked, "Has Faramir come to see us yet?"
"Not yet. I suppose Orothar told him you'd not be awake for awhile. Or else he might be out. I heard some of them–" and Sam hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the curtain "–talking about a patrol. I suppose he might have gone with it."
"Perhaps, but I don't think so, Sam," Frodo said, chewing thoughtfully on the bread provided. "Not when all the answers lie with us. He'd send someone else. But come, sit." Frodo gestured to the chair that Faramir had used the night before, and Sam (quite literally) climbed into it. "Have you been outside?"
"No. I couldn't very well leave you here, not after last night." At Frodo's puzzled look, Sam explained, "He was in here last night, Mr. Frodo."
"Aye. Not for very long, but I didn't like it. It just... it felt too much like Lórien, and after, if you take my meaning, sir." At that, Frodo's expression darkened noticeably, and he looked anxiously at that curtained doorway. Something flickered in his eyes, and Sam frowned, as one of Frodo's hands thrust into a pocket. He knew his master's habits, to play with whatever might be in them when nervous, but he didn't miss the fact that it was the pocket that held the Ring. "Mr. Frodo?"
Frodo blinked, shook himself, jerking his hand back, and glanced at Sam. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Nothing... yet. Are you all right, sir?"
"Yes. Yes, it's just, well, you mentioned Lothlórien, and it touched... a memory," Frodo said, and Sam raised a brow at that brief hesitation. But before he could remark on it, the other said quickly, "But go on. Faramir came. Did he do anything?"
"Naught more than watch us for a bit. As I said, he left quickly. I'm not saying he meant any harm–I don't want to think he meant any, but what if I'm wrong? I'm not taking any chances," he declared.
"Nor am I," Frodo replied heavily, and then fell silent again as he returned his attention to breakfast. Once he had finished, he slid out of the bed, and Sam tensed, ready to stage a quick rescue in the event that the strain of the past days proved too much. But after a momentary wobble, Frodo drew a deep breath and walked quite steadily, if somewhat slowly, over to the wash basin, where he, too, availed himself of the wash water thoroughly. Well, how do you like that? Sam thought, marveling. Weary Frodo might look, still, but it seemed that he might be all right after all. With that hopeful thought in mind, and having naught else to do, Sam set about pulling the sheets back into place with more than his usual care. When he had done with that task, he dragged the chair back to its place in the corner, pushed the tray a bit further back on the bedside stand, and then found himself wishing there were something more to do.
"I could do with a bit of greenery in here, especially if we are to be cooped awhile," he muttered, scowling at the bare walls.
"It is a sad place," Frodo said, which earned him another worried look. He seemed not to notice, however, as he made his way over to their packs, which Faramir's men had found on the battlefield, and searched through his until he found a shirt. Carefully, Frodo put it on, wincing only a bit as he did so. The buttons presented a bit more of a problem, as he fumbled the first two. His arm clearly still gave him pain, and his left hand shook noticeably. After a moment, Sam stalked over and matter of factly began doing them up for him.
"There we go, Mr. Frodo," he said after a minute.
"Thank you," Frodo replied, and grimaced, rubbing gently at his injured arm.
"It's no trouble. You'll be doing them yourself in no time, I'm sure," Sam replied, and Frodo shook his head.
"If only it were just buttons," Frodo sighed, and Sam scowled.
"Now see here, Mr. Frodo, there's nothing wrong with you that time won't cure. You've been sick since the orcs picked us up and no wonder! I don't mind buttoning buttons while you're still a bit shaky–better be shaky now than shaky then," Sam replied. "Might've lost an arm then, if you take my meaning."
"Better an arm than the whole," Frodo replied, but then quickly shook his head, dismissing the matter. "Never mind, Sam. I'm sure you're right, and I'm not quite myself yet."
"Maybe you should rest some more, sir," Sam suggested, but Frodo shook his head again.
"I can't, Sam. If it hadn't been for the sedative, I'd not have slept so long, I think. I've lost the habit, I fear," he replied, and sighed as he turned away.
"Well, so long as you don't go wearing yourself out," Sam said at length. "Faramir said he'd have another word with us, but I'm thinking he means mostly you, not me. Wish I'd not said that now, about you bein' the only one who could tell him anything, but I couldn't think of much else to say that he'd believe or that mightn't do worse harm than that. Not on the spot like that."
"You did well, Sam, and rightly," Frodo replied, firmly, without turning back to him. Indeed, he seemed at the moment more interested in the floor, as he stared down at it, scuffing a heel against it absently. Sam was about to reply when Frodo continued of a sudden, in a voice almost too soft to hear, "It is only right. It's my burden to carry. It's only right that I answer for it." At that, Sam looked sharply at Frodo's right hand, which hung at his side in plain sight, but he was touching something through the cloth...
"Sir, I really think–"
But he stopped of his own accord, as a familiar voice sounded without, saying, "Come speak with me later, and we shall discuss our deployment, Mablung." Sam froze, while Frodo turned slowly, just as footsteps came to a halt just outside. "Master Baggins, Master Gamgee, may I enter?" Sam was half of a mind to say 'no', given that he wasn't sure whether some fit was about to come over his master, but Frodo answered then, sounding quite well enough in that moment:
"You may, Captain." The curtain was pushed aside, and Faramir stood there in the entryway, backed by daylight.
"Good afternoon to you both," Faramir said, giving each of them a quick, searching regard. "It seems a night's rest has done you both good. I am glad to see it."
"Does that mean you're letting us go?" Sam demanded, raising a brow skeptically, and Faramir gave a little snort of amusement as he shook his head.
"No, Master Gamgee, it means that whatever my decision, there is no reason for you to suffer particularly in the mean time. War disfigures, but the Men of Gondor are not yet ogres." To which, Sam could say nothing, though he did have to blush a bit. He had not meant it to sound like that, and he supposed he ought to be glad that Faramir seemed to take no offense. But before he could manage an apology, Faramir had turned his attention to Frodo. "I would speak further with you on those matters we let lie last night, Master Baggins. Are you well enough for a climb, or should we remain here?"
"How long of a climb?"
"'Tis steeper than it is long, but we may pause along the way at need. And it is less likely that we shall be interrupted or overheard there, since secrecy is plainly at issue." Sam shook his head at that, and shot a worried look at his master, who did not at all seem well enough to him to make such an ascent, never mind that they'd be doing harder things the moment they got free–for they would be set free, he reminded himself.
But Frodo only nodded, and said, "Then I will attempt the climb. Sam, I am better, I promise. You needn't hover."
"I have an hour, Master Gamgee. You shall see him again then, just as you see him now. You have my word that it shall be so, and we of Gondor swear no oaths lightly," Faramir replied, catching Sam's eyes with his own and holding him under his gaze until Sam reluctantly nodded. "Very good. Then in the mean time, you may, if you wish, wander Henneth Annûn, so long as you make no attempt to leave the main cavern."
"Henneth Annûn?" Sam asked, as he followed Faramir and Frodo out of their stony recess and into the light of day. Blinking, Sam glanced over his shoulder at the cave mouth... and stopped dead. Bless me! he thought, squinting as he reached up a hand to shield his eyes from the glare. Ever since he had been brought to this place, he had been aware of the rush of water, and had guessed that there must be a stream or river that emptied into a fall nearby. But he would never have guessed, for all that it had sounded quite near, that the cave itself would open out onto a such a dazzling display. Bright afternoon sunlight played off the stream of water that plunged past the cave mouth, throwing an intricate weave of light and shadow on the opposite wall, and the water itself seemed as a curtain of glittering jewels, or so much falling glass. But against that brilliance, silhouettes stood dark and straight–guards girt with swords, and with bow staves to hand.
"The Window on the West," Faramir said then, and when Sam tore his eyes away from the sight to look up at him, he found the Captain, too, staring at the falls as one entranced. "So we call this place–our final refuge in Ithilien, unknown yet to the enemy. And we would keep it hidden still awhile," he said, voice sharpening slightly, as he looked down at his unusual guests. To Sam, he said, "Stay and watch, if you like, or go whither you will within this place, only do not give the guards reason to question you. We shall return in an hour. Come, Master Baggins." Frodo nodded, and began following Faramir towards the back of the cavern, towards a narrow, dark doorway. But he shot Sam a reassuring look over his shoulder before turning away. Sam watched him go, waiting until he saw the mismatched pair of hobbit and Man disappear through the door before he turned back to the falls. A pretty sight they were, indeed, and he was happy to call it one of the lovelier things he'd seen on this journey, outside of Rivendell and Lórien.
And yet, he found himself thinking of old Mr. Bilbo and his rhyming that'd helped them on their way. 'All that is gold does not glitter.' Well, and who's to say that all that shines is gold, either? He chewed his lower lip for a time, arguing this way and that in his mind against trying to sneak after his master. There's nothing for it, I suppose, but to trust Mr. Frodo knows what he's doing. One hour, Captain Faramir says? Watched pots or no, I'll be counting! But what if in spite of Faramir's words, the hour passed and Frodo did not return? What if Faramir was counting upon privacy as well, so no one would see what he did? What if...? Sam turned away from the falls and stared across a cavern full of grave men in green and brown at that doorway.
An hour's a long time, he thought, and made his choice.
Frodo climbed slowly up the dimly lit stairs, feeling Faramir's eyes on him. The Captain had waved him ahead courteously, saying, "There is but one choice of ways, and that not difficult. Only watch your step in the darkness." Frodo had nodded, though in truth, he had not needed that last warning; since that night in the dell beneath Weathertop, his senses had grown the keener for things unseen. They walked in silence, and Frodo found, to his surprise, that though he was weary, he felt no need to stop so long as he kept to his pace. He would not have expected that, and wondered what Faramir made of him, for he did not doubt that there was more than courtesy in his insistence that Frodo precede him. It might allow him to pause easily whenever Frodo did, but it also let him watch his 'guest', the better to judge him, while preventing Frodo from doing the same.
They reached a landing, upon which shone the bright light of day through a hewn shaft. There, the way split, and Faramir touched his left shoulder. "This way," he murmured, indicating the winding stair. Long they climbed until at last the stair let out onto a broad, flat shelf of rock. A sentry stood there, but when Faramir approached and spoke to him in a low voice, the man nodded, slung his bow over his shoulder, and disappeared down the stairs. Whether he returned to the main cavern or waited just out of easy earshot for his captain to recall him, Frodo did not know.
"Come and look a moment," Faramir invited, beckoning Frodo to join him at the brink, and Frodo obeyed, though not without a certain trepidation. The waters of the stream ran below them, falling eventually to the left before the Window and thence down into the pool. Beyond that, the forest lay, 'til the broad ribbon of Anduin broke through it, gleaming in the gold light of the afternoon. Yet the western shore of the great river seemed to Frodo dim... mute... as if a haze obscured it. "Behold the heart of Gondor," Faramir said beside him, indicating the white-tipped mountains that rose up from that seeming mist. "At the feet of the White Mountains lies Minas Tirith, where I hope I shall hear Boromir's tale in time. If time is given us, that is," he added. "It may be a running retreat to her walls, and if so, then there shall be little time for tales told in full, even one so weighty as he might bring."
"Why do you show me this?" Frodo asked after a moment.
"So that you may perhaps understand our plight here. This is but the vulnerable heart of the kingdom–here will the first and hardest blow be struck. But south along the river as far as Belfalas Bay, still there is Gondor. That is much to defend, and the Enemy knows well that fortune does not favor us. Hence we take no chances in these dark times, and he who is not our ally we deem foe of necessity, for there are no judges any more who do not render decision with the edge of a sword. We are become a people of war."
"I see," Frodo replied, and he did. All too clearly, as if Faramir's speaking had conjured them, he saw the lines and lines of Gondor's youth marching ever onward and eastward... and beyond them, the miles of furrowed earth that was their final bed. White, bloodless faces and empty eyes that he could almost touch...
"Frodo?" Faramir's sharp inquiry made him blink, and he started slightly, remembering then to breathe. Looking up quickly, he saw the Captain's puzzled frown. "Perhaps you took the stairs too quickly."
"Ah... perhaps, yes," Frodo replied, grasping at the proffered excuse, though his heart was still all aflutter and his knees felt weak, unable to bear his own weight. What was that? he wondered. "I think I will sit, if I may."
"Please do so," Faramir replied, and laid a hand on his shoulder, solicitously guiding him back away from the edge to the shadow of a rocky tower that rose above them some three times the height of a man. There Frodo sank down heavily, putting his back to it, drawing his knees up and resting his forehead against them. It used to be dizzy spells and terror, and the world would darken. Is it now to be visions? Visions of what? From where? Or is it simply my mind wandering? The answers to such questions were not forthcoming, unless he counted that intuition that had led him so readily to the Ring. So real they seemed, for just that moment... "Should I send for Orothar?"
"No, no, that is not necessary," Frodo replied, raising his head then to find Faramir gazing down at him with a certain concern. "Thank you, but I am well."
"Very well then. Let us turn more fully to our purpose. You would have me release you and your servant. I still await a reason for such charity that would satisfy me."
"And what would satisfy you?" Frodo asked.
"Honesty in full. Tell me whither you are bound and what your errand is, and mayhap I shall find a reason to release you to Minas Tirith, there to gain my father's permission to wander this land, or go whither you will."
"I cannot tell you all–" Frodo began, and was cut off.
"Then I cannot release you. Frodo," Faramir said, surprising Frodo as he knelt down before him, resting his chin on his upraised knee so that they were as close to eye level as was possible between a hobbit and Man, "you must tell me something of your task, else I can do nothing else but let fall a sentence I do not wish to deal out, though I will do so. I have done so before and for less reason than I would have in this case. For you have a purpose in being here; that is clear, despite your careful words. I do not blame you for your caution; indeed, as I have said, I understand a part of it. Believe me when I say that I understand all too well that family complicates matters. And I tell you now, and so give you far more than perhaps I ought: given my choice, I would escort you north or west, and leave you on the borders of this land. But I have not the time nor the men to do so, and such authority as I have to do so ought properly to bow before the law which leaves me with no such choice. Can you tell me anything that would merit impropriety on my part?"
Frodo stared at Faramir, at a face so like Boromir's and yet so different as well, and there was no doubting his earnestness. And yet... it was so short a step towards a fall! After a moment, Frodo asked, "Would you save Gondor, Faramir?"
"Need you ask?" Faramir replied, blinking in surprise. "But wh–?"
"At any cost?"
There followed a short silence, as Faramir seemed to consider not his answer but Frodo himself. Finally, "There are some deeds the doing of which undoes all good that comes of them. I would not make Gondor into Mordor only to match Mordor's strength. But such words may be of little worth, for there is no testing of them. And I wait still to learn why I should send you to my father rather than to the earth of Ithilien."
"What if there were a test?"
"Frodo," Faramir shook his head, and his expression hardened slightly, "this leads no where. Shall I tell you all I have against you? Shall I ask how you came by that cut on your arm? 'Tis an odd place for such a mark–the inside of your arm, and it goes the wrong way for a thrust that caught flesh with the edge. Orothar says 'tis well nigh surgical, and not so deep as one would expect. What am I to make of that? What am I to make of the fact that the orcs did you so little damage? What am I to make of your refusal to speak and your suspicion of Boromir, who is Captain-General of the army and heir to the Stewardship of this realm? Shall I think that such speaks well of you and your intentions towards my people and all who oppose the Dark Lord?"
Frodo gazed at him. He had not taken his eyes from Faramir's face, nor blinked as the other had spoken. And it seemed to him then that if he could not possibly know every corner of Faramir's heart, he knew the larger part of it. And so he replied, "Lord Elrond laid it upon me to accomplish this task of mine, and to entrust it to no other. Nor should I let any other touch my burden, or speak of it beyond the Fellowship except at gravest need. It seems that the need is grave, for if I do not speak, I shan't take a step further." Faramir sat back a bit, back straightening as Frodo, nervous despite his decision, rose then and shoved his hands into his pockets, as was his wont before an audience, even so small an audience as this. "'Tis something of a long tale, Captain."
"I have an hour," Faramir replied. "Speak!" And so Frodo did, as briefly as he could: of the tale of the Ring, as much as he could remember it from that long ago day in Bag End; of the flight to Rivendell and the Council there; of the decision to destroy it, and the Fellowship's journey through Moria, Lothlórien, and down to Parth Galen. There, he carefully avoided mention of Boromir's part in convincing him to depart, saying simply that he had chosen Sam to accompany him of the others, and then left. Of the cheerless days in the Emyn Muil he said but little, deeming them less important than the capture by Grishnákh, and his desperate bid to hide the Ring.
"I cannot remember much after that, I'm afraid," Frodo said then, biting his lip briefly as his hands clenched involuntarily into fists at the thought of those nightmare days, and the gold of the Ring bit into the palm of his hand. "I remember a little of the battle, and I think I do remember you, and then I awoke here." Drawing a deep breath, he looked over at Faramir, who had taken Frodo's place–now he sat against the spire of rock and stared, hands hanging limply between his knees, and his face was unreadable. "There is my tale, Captain. What will you do with it?"
Faramir did not answer at once, though he did, after a moment, rise and move to stand before him, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at the Ered Nimrais as he did so. "So the Ring of Power has been found at last," he said softly, and as he turned from that view to stare down at Frodo, a strange light was in them. "And so I believe, now, that I know what drove you to cry out as you did when first we met. You have not said it, but tell me now: did he fall to It?"
There was no way to refuse to answer that question, for to refuse was also to answer, and so Frodo replied simply, "Boromir repented." Faramir nodded slowly, and raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, then pressed it over his eyes briefly as he murmured something under his breath that sounded elvish, though it was too quick for Frodo to catch.
"You are certain?"
"Then that is some small comfort. At least he shall return to us in truth, and not in seeming only. That would be... unbearable," Faramir replied, lowering his hand, though tension remained, plainly, and Frodo sensed that he would not be at ease until he had seen Boromir for himself. Which inspired a stab of guilt in Frodo for having neglected to mention the likelihood that orcs had claimed at least a few of the Fellowship upon Parth Galen, but there was nothing to be done about that now. He could spare no regrets for the Company when his own fate and thereby that of the Ring was still uncertain.
And so he asked, "I am sorry to bear bad news, Captain Faramir, but I must ask you now: having heard our tale, what is your decision?"
Faramir gave him a queer look, then, ere at length he sighed and said, "What indeed! What shall I do, now that this thing that could claim even my brother is now here? It cannot remain here, clearly, for I would not trust it not to betray us all, and yet... Almost I wish I heard some lie in your voice, some quaver or betrayal, or seen just a hint of shadow about your eyes. It would be simpler thus, to trust myself to handle this matter rather than two such strangers." Which words ought to have given Frodo cause for fear, yet he felt none, waiting for the rest. Faramir shook his head, "But as I said, I am not my brother, and so I shall neither trust myself, nor leave all to fate. You purpose to destroy what should never have been wrought. So be it–I cannot refuse my aid." At which, Frodo breathed out a sigh of relief.
"But Frodo," said Faramir, then, raising his hands in a cautionary gesture, "I must tell you that I do not see a chance of success if you must reach Orodruin. Until two weeks ago, I had scouts watching the Black Gates. Six days ago, one of them wandered into Cair Andros–a fortress upon the river–with the news that none were left. He had barely survived, and his comrades were slain. The Gate is heavily guarded, and not only by orcs. Nazgûl have been seen along the towers, and they fly over the lands now upon their steeds. Whatever guise you took, you would not pass such guardians. There is no hope there."
"Then what do you suggest? There must be a way," Frodo pressed, but Faramir shook his head.
"There is no way." Certainty there was aplenty in his voice, and a sort of dread was in Faramir's eyes as he gazed down at Frodo.
"None." The hope that had blossomed at Faramir's promise of aid collapsed, crushed in an instant, and Frodo bowed his head... just as a yelp sounded from the doorway. Both Frodo and Faramir whirled, Faramir's hand going instantly to his sword as he stepped forward, moving automatically to shield Frodo.
Another cry sounded–a frustrated one this time, and there came the sound of someone dashing up a flight of steps as out onto the shelf ran Samwise Gamgee with an indignant guard in hot pursuit. "Sam!" Frodo cried, even as the guard lunged. He caught Sam's collar, dragging him back.
"I am sorry, my lord, I do not know how he managed–" the Ranger began, but was waved to silence.
"Did I not say to give the guards no trouble and to remain in the cavern?" Faramir inquired in a mild tone that nonetheless made Frodo shiver slightly, as he wondered what this display might do to Faramir's fledgling trust in his and Sam's good intentions.
"Urk!" was Sam's reply as he tugged, red-faced, at his collar. Faramir signed for the Ranger to release him, and Sam sagged, rubbing at his throat as he panted a minute. Then, swallowing hard, he straightened up, squaring his shoulders as he said, "Beggin' your pardon, sir, but it weren't right of me not to–not when I'd promised to stand by him 'til all this bad business is done." Faramir raised a brow, but Frodo, only sighed.
"Dropping eaves again, Sam?" he asked. Sam blushed red at that, but there was no contrition in his voice when he spoke.
"I had to, sir. And I'd've stayed right where I was and gave no one no trouble at all, but I heard him say 'no way in.' But there is one–there has to be one. There has to be! And I bet he knows it."
"What do you mean?" Frodo asked, confused.
"Don't you see, sir? We were all heading to the Black Gate–Grishnákh told us so. But what the Captain said just now about there being too many companies on the prowl there–that's why Grishnákh turned aside. You weren't awake for much of it, but they had some quarrels over us, I tell you. Those orcs were runnin'–running away from trouble and a missed meeting with a Nazgûl after they came out of Horse Country with nothing. But Grishnákh wasn't one to be satisfied with nothing. So there has to be a back way into Mordor. Otherwise, where was he going?" It all came out in a rush, and Frodo frankly stared. It was not that he had never appreciated Sam's good sense before, but he would not have thought he would have come up with any such explanation. And yet it makes sense. Too much sense. He glanced up at Faramir, suddenly skeptical.
"Is he right, Captain?"
Faramir frowned, but after a moment he replied, "There is Minas Morgul, but that, too, is guarded, and a Nazgûl is lieutenant of that tower. Orcs might pass within, but you would not, and even orcs would not pass unnoticed."
"But there must be some way. Grishnákh wouldn't have turned this way, otherwise," Sam insisted.
"There is another way, isn't there?" Frodo said, staring up at Faramir. There is one. He won't say it–he's afraid to say it. But I see it in his eyes; I feel it. He does know. "Isn't there?" he pressed again, and was somewhat surprised by the sudden steel in his voice.
Faramir gave him a startled look as well, but after a moment, he motioned for the Ranger to leave. The other man hesitated, but then, apparently thinking it must be ridiculous to believe his captain in any danger from a pair of Halflings, he turned and went. Once he was out of sight, Faramir replied, with obvious reluctance, "Cirith Ungol is the third way past the mountains, but it casts a black shadow on the hearts of all the men of lore in Minas Tirith, and even among orcs, its name is unloved. I would not go that way."
"But there is no Nazgûl? No guards?"
"Mayhap not a Nazgûl, but I know nothing of guards. There may be. There must be something there that makes both Men and orcs mortally afraid. If this Grishnákh would dare that pass, then he was desperate indeed."
"And so are we," Frodo muttered. "That's it then. We shall have to go that way."
"Frodo, hear me, it would be better to wait–"
"We cannot! It calls, Captain. Even now, it calls, and I can see–" Frodo paused, biting back the rest of that harsh reply. I can see the Dawnlessness that awaits, but they cannot. They cannot, and I dare not speak of it. There's pity for you!
"Time is nearly out, there is no question of that," Faramir replied, arguing intently in a low voice, "but you would likely break the glass entire were you to go the way of Cirith Ungol. Certainly you would if you tried Minas Morgul or the Black Gate."
"And it is equally certain that to wait is to perish," Frodo argued back. "No, we cannot wait. We shall not, Sam and I. War is not our business but yours, and as I said, we would have no part in it. Leave us to do our part and do not hinder us."
"I would not hinder–"
"Then tell me where this Cirith Ungol is."
"Tell me!" Frodo barked.
"'Tis by Minas Morgul, some three days' quick march south of here." Faramir blinked then, and his jaw dropped slightly, as if in puzzled astonishment at his own words, but Frodo did not pause.
"How shall we pass Minas Morgul, then?"
"I do not... there is a pass north of the tower, past the crossroads, where the road divides again. So the maps make it."
"And will you show us the way there?"
"I–what is this?" Faramir shook his head sharply, as if trying to clear his mind or still his tongue or both. Bewildered, he stared at Frodo, who stared right back, and Sam, watching in that moment, found that the hair on the back of his neck stood up. No particular reason for it but a shiver in the bones that felt as a note on high that rang of metal... As Frodo sucked in a breath of sudden, jerking his hands from his pockets with a soft cry of dismay. At the same moment, his knees seemed to unlock, as if that moment's realization had leeched him of all strength, and Faramir reached out swiftly to steady him even as Sam hurried forward.
"Mr. Frodo?" he asked, feeling a knot of dread in the pit of his stomach.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I never meant–or did I? It's always there, now. It's always there at the back of my mind and sometimes I can't tell..." Frodo whispered, shutting his eyes tightly, and his hands were ice-cold and shaking as Sam took them in his own, chafing at them gently to warm them.
"We've got to get you out of here," Sam murmured, and turned a pleading look up at Faramir. "You see it now, don't you, sir? Why we can't just wait here? We've got to find our way to that mountain and soon!"
Faramir's grey eyes were dark with some unidentifiable emotion, and when he spoke, there was a painful little twist to his tone, as he replied, "And this the hope from which we hang. Alas, Boromir, I do understand." Shaking himself then, he continued grimly, "Remain here and do not speak with Anborn. I shall return shortly. You will leave before sunset, with such aid as I can spare."
With that, he rose, leaving Frodo to Sam's care and strode swiftly towards the stair. Just at the threshold of the hewn door, however, he paused and looked back; Sam, watching, felt his heart skip an anxious beat, wondering if it was already too late and that one taste of the Ring's power had been enough to turn him. But the hesitation was brief, and then Faramir disappeared below. A few moments later, the guard–Anborn, Sam supposed–appeared, but he did not join them on the shelf, remaining rather upon the final steps, a shadow in the shadows.
Well, it looks as if we've convinced Captain Faramir at any rate, Sam thought, trying to draw something good out of all of it. He'll see us off, get us on the right road again. It's not so bad, is it? We missed the Black Gate, had a bit of time to heal, and we've a guide to the back door that doesn't want to eat us himself. It's not so bad. Mr. Frodo will get better, and then this won't happen as often, surely. But Frodo's hands were clenched tight in his, and his face was drawn with a weariness that made his heart sink.
How're we going to get to Mt. Doom like this? he wondered. To that, he had no answer.
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