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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 28. Crossroads
Faramir was as good as his word. By sunset, the hobbits found themselves passing blindfolded through Ithilien, for as Faramir had explained ere they had left, strangers were not permitted to know the way to Henneth Annûn. Hearing that, Frodo had said nothing but felt the cold, hard knot of dread in his stomach tighten. In the midst of his horror, weakness and revulsion upon the high shelf above the hidden refuge, he had thought the world had gone grey, but now, as the Rangers led him along hidden paths, it seemed he saw too clearly, as if the barrier of cloth were nothing at all. All seemed bathed in a golden light that left no shadows within which to hide. From Ithilien to Minas Tirith, he fancied there was naught he could not see–Rangers tucked like foxes in their various lairs, birds and beasts, orcs, the occasional moth. Everything stood revealed. Everything. But Faramir need not know his exposure, there being nothing he could do about it in any case if it were true. Hence they walked in silence, he and Sam, and Faramir and his guards, all of them bound Frodo knew not whither.
At length, however, the Ranger guiding him squeezed his shoulders and brought him to a halt. Fingers tugged at the blindfold, and then Frodo found himself blinking in the twilight. Beside him, Sam rubbed at his eyes, scratched behind an ear, and glanced warily about. At this hour, the forest was so much shadow beneath a grey sky, and for a moment, Frodo felt disoriented, as if that gold-cast world had bled away into a fog. But after a few moments, his vision began to adjust, and he glanced up questioningly at Faramir.
"This way," Faramir murmured then. The hobbits followed him, and the two guards silently fell back a step, flanking them protectively. The night breezes were cool with winter still, but it was not an unpleasant evening in truth. A few months ago, Frodo might have appreciated it. Before Gandalf fell. Before Boromir was taken. Before Grishnákh. Frodo shuddered a bit at the thought of the orc captain, and firmly thrust his hideous image from mind. If he were lucky, then perhaps ere the end, memory of his tormentor might fade just as surely as memories of friends.
Faramir led them on for another hour, or perhaps a little longer, until finally, he came to a halt. Dark as it was, still, he turned and knelt before the hobbits once more, beckoning them closer. When Sam and Frodo had approached, he said in a low voice, "We have brought you across the road in safety. The patrol that I sent out this morning reported that no enemy was upon it for many miles, and it may be that our battles have bought you some time. Still, as you follow the forest eaves south, have a care, and be prepared to hide at need, for the Dark Lord is mustering his forces and the road will turn away from the trees after a time. Take these, therefore."
And here, Faramir motioned to one of the guards, who presented the hobbits with a pair of daggers. Well if plainly worked they were, sturdy and heavier than Sting or Sam's barrow-blade, but they were well-balanced, fit the hand easily, and would serve the hobbits well as swords.
"Belts you have for such as these," Faramir continued, as the guard knelt and armed the hobbits, "but we found no weapons to match them upon the field, nor among what we salvaged from the orcs. These we issue to new Rangers and they have served many well. Now, as to your course, the road is near, and when the forest ends, you shall see it before you. Follow it until you come to the crossroads, where the old king waits, and then continue until you stand within sight of Minas Morgul. Once there, continue east as swiftly as you may and follow the road up into the mountains; there lies Cirith Ungol. Beyond that, I can tell you no more of the path, for I know no more. But should you pass the tower and that dreadful way, you shall enter into a land of thirst. We have given you such water and food as you can carry. Drink therefore while in Ithilien where water is plentiful and refill the skins ere you reach the vale, for to drink of any stream that flows out of Imlad Morgul is perilous."
He paused, and in the new-birthed starlight, Frodo caught the gleam of his eyes, as he said, "I will not hide from you that my heart forebodes no good to come, nor do I hope that I shall see you again. Though," he added, and Frodo felt a certain surprise to hear a note of wry humor in his voice, "I hope that Sam shall not take that to mean that I am glad to be rid of you." Beside him, Sam muttered something inaudible, and Frodo was certain his friend was blushing furiously. "But if I would not have you bear this burden, glad am I that It shall be no longer near me, Frodo. It is not given to Men, it seems, to withstand such a trial, and of hobbits I know too little to judge. Therefore ere I go, I shall ask you for one favor."
"What is that, my lord?" Frodo asked warily, and he had the impression that Faramir smiled, though his voice was solemn when he spoke:
"When the way hardens, remember my brother."
Frodo felt his breath catch at that, as Faramir laid hands upon his shoulders and kissed his brow, then did the same to Sam, who bowed awkwardly in response. Then the Captain of Ithilien rose, as Frodo replied, "I shall try."
"Do so. And if it spurs you, then think of us who labor here. Fare you well, Frodo Baggins, Master Gamgee, unto the end." So saying, he bowed once and low. Then, with a soft-spoken word to his Rangers, he stepped past the hobbits and, moving like shades themselves, the trio disappeared amid the trees.
For a time, the hobbits stood still, gazing into the darkness after them, until at last, Sam said softly, "Well, then, how do you like that? Not much for cheer, but he's a wise one after all."
"Perhaps so," Frodo replied, still staring into the shadows. But at length, he turned away. Settling his pack more firmly on his back, he said in a low voice, "Come, Sam. We should go."
It was very near dawn before they stopped, after having groped and clambered along the edge of the forest for hours, with but few pauses. They crawled beneath a clump of gorse, where Frodo promptly fell asleep. Sam, who had been digging about in his backpack after a bag of dried apples, looked over his shoulder to find that his master had nodded off between one moment and the next. Well, Orothar said he would need a bit more time before he could go so long as before. I know I'm still a bit sore in the legs, myself. And it'll take longer before Mr. Frodo's arm heals, he thought, shining an apple on his sleeve out of habit before biting into it. Wrapping his arms about his knees, he settled in to keep watch as the day dawned. No bird announced it, however: whether they slept still or had fled, Sam did not know. Nor did he in fact know what the precise hour was, for a strange reek clouded the sky, such as Sam had never seen before, blotting out the sun. Sam squirmed a bit, uneasy, but as the hours passed, naught threatening showed itself, not even the mysterious mumâk, about which he still knew nothing but the name.
Some hours later, Frodo woke again and suddenly, sitting up quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly, as Sam reached out a hand to steady him. "Easy, Mr. Frodo. There's none but us here. And watch your head or you'll be caught in this infernal bush."
In the gloom, Frodo rubbed his eyes, then stared about at the darkened land, frowning. "What hour is it?"
"I don't rightly know," Sam admitted, shaking his head. "Sometime past dawn but before noon, I should say. With all this reek, it's hard to know if the sun's even up."
"She's up," Frodo replied softly. "And so should we be." So he said, as he accepted an apple and some bread from Sam with a nod of thanks. It was a frugal lunch, and Sam would have lingered over it longer, for he worried about his master's health. But Frodo was insistent: "The day is old already, and I would see the crossroads as soon as we can. Reek or no, we are exposed here; we must hurry."
"I'll not argue that, sir. These woods're too quiet for my liking," Sam agreed, hoisting his pack, and helping Frodo clamber out from beneath the gorse. "But," he continued, "don't forget you need to keep your strength up, and that may mean making haste a little more slowly."
"I know, Sam," Frodo replied. "But for the moment, I feel well enough, all things considered, so let us make the most of it!"
And so they did. All that day they kept a southward course as the sun, unseen, swept towards the west, and the shade lay heavy beneath the trees. The hobbits strained their ears as they walked, seeking the least sound that might herald the presence of another living being. But all the woodland creatures lay silent, or else, beasts being perhaps wiser than Men thought, they had abandoned the deadly woods of eastern Ithilien and sought harbor elsewhere. Only occasionally would they hear a rumbling, as of some distant thunder, but else, there was naught to be heard. Twice, Sam insisted that they stop to rest, and both times, he made certain that Frodo ate. Not that there seemed any real reason for concern in that regard: Frodo wolfed down their rations, and Sam took the opportunity to press as much as he dared on him. As much as prudence dictated that they be sparing with their food, Sam was not about to be so careful as to endanger Frodo's health. Wonder enough that he's on his feet so long as it is, he thought. No need to make it more of one.
Evening came, and the hobbits marked it with joy for the first time in many a long month, for it was then only that the sun escaped the miasma, winking bright upon the western horizon ere it set. A brief and precious reprieve it seemed to them, ere they returned to their blind labor. As they had the night before, they pressed on, though they moved less quickly in the pitch dark, walking hand in hand and feeling their way forward 'til at length, spirits flagging and feet faltering, they sank down beneath one of the trees. "Tomorrow," Frodo panted softly, "tomorrow we must move more quickly." Sam said nothing. He had not slept since the night before last, and he was nodding where he sat. Weary as Frodo was, he hesitated. So close to Mordor, and under such unfriendly skies, who knew what evil might befall a pair of sleeping travelers? But Frodo could feel his eyes closing; his arm ached fiercely, practically itching with pain, and it hung heavy like a leaden weight. And so, after a moment, he surrendered caution and laid him down at Sam's back. Trusting to fortune, he thrust his hand deep into his pocket and closed his fist firmly about the Ring. After only a little while, he fell asleep.
And it seemed that fortune was with them, for they woke to a brown, sullen morning to find themselves undisturbed. In silence they broke their fast, and Sam took Faramir's advice and made certain they both drank liberally. Then they rose and continued on their way. As they walked, the quiet waxed, grew to be as a third presence in their company, one that stalked and haunted them. As the forest thinned, it grew the worse, and Sam found himself glancing over his shoulder more often than not. What he sought, he did not know, yet some part of his heart whispered that he missed more than sound.
Well of course I do, he told himself, each time he dragged his eyes back to the dim-lit land before them. Starting with Rose and my Gaffer, and all the others, and pillows and my own mattress, and proper meals, the Green Dragon's beer, my poor daffodils at home... For some reason, that last caught in his mind and he found himself worrying about them. Not but that the Gaffer's right good with greens and roots, but he isn't one for flowers so much. I wonder how he's getting on without me about? Who'll rub his joints when they get stiff or help him with the planting? He did not know, and the matter troubled him. Yet despite his worrying which quite occupied his mind, still he found himself glancing back furtively, staring into the gloom, seeking that missing he knew not what.
It was late when they came at last to the end of the forest. It opened out onto a tumble of a slope, onto which clung an old oak, its twisting maze of roots seeming to claw at the crumbling hillside, as if trying to hold it up. "I don't know," Sam said doubtfully, staring down. "Those hills in the Emyn Muil were bad enough, and I'm plain worn out right now. That Grishnákh ran the legs off of me and thinking of climbing down that's fit to make a body cry. Shouldn't we wait 'til tomorrow, sir?" This, as he glanced at Frodo, who was staring not at the unhappily steep descent but out towards the valley. Draped by a thick fog, it lay dark before them, as a shadow in the night, and below, along the hither bank of the stream that bled out of that dreadful valley, ran the road. Sam shivered slightly. "Sir?"
"I do not wish to wait," Frodo said slowly and then paused, never taking his eyes from the misty vale. Sam bit his tongue against the urge to speak immediately. Frodo seemed to be considering something, weighing some decision in his mind, and so he waited, trying to school himself to patience. The sun was fast setting, slipping beneath the reek to cast a red, baleful light over the world that nevertheless failed to penetrate the pall that lay before them. The whole valley seemed to shimmer and writhe as the light mingled uneasily with the vapors, and then vanished as if swallowed. It was a rather queasy sight, and Sam quickly looked away. Beside him, Frodo sighed softly. "I think, Sam, that we should not waste the light. Who knows how long it may last, or whether we shall get any better tomorrow?"
To that, there could be no answer, and so, after a long moment spent glaring at the slope, Sam sighed. "Well then, let's be about it. The sooner we're done, the sooner we rest."
As it happened, the slope was less difficult than it looked, for though it was steep, the footing was most treacherous in the initial third of the descent. But there the tree helped them, for they could hold onto its roots and let themselves carefully down and with better speed than they would have thought possible. Even one-handed, Frodo had less trouble than Sam might have expected, though he kept a hand free himself in case his master should need it. The rest of the slope was loose rock and earth, and with each step, they sank into it, sometimes up to their knees as they half slid down the last of the incline. Nevertheless, despite their speed, it was dark indeed by the time they reached the bottom. Weary as they were, they did not seek far for shelter, but swiftly found a pair of boulders at the base of the slope. Huddled in the narrow space between the incline and the stones, they cast their cloaks over themselves and fell asleep, seeming as stones themselves.
And again fortune favored them, it seemed: dusty as they were, smelling of the earth of that accursed place and hidden from sight beneath their cloaks, the scouts that preceded the army out of the valley passed them by; and when later that night the sound of iron-shod orcs and armored Men woke the hobbits from their rest, when the horsemen who rode in the van clattered by, and the hobbits lay stiff with terror, still, none remarked them. Red eye and ghastly moon, and company from the high tower, they came marching in the gloom. How long that column took to pass, the hobbits knew not, but when at last the rearguard had disappeared, and the echoes of their passage sounded no longer in the gully, a curly-haired head peered cautiously about the rocks and took stock of the setting.
"I don't see anything," Sam whispered, squinting into the night as he craned his neck up the road and then glanced back down it after the army once more. "And I don't hear nothin' neither." With a soft sigh of relief, he settled with his back against the boulders and glanced over at Frodo. "They've gone!"
"For now," Frodo replied, rubbing his eyes as his hand in his pocket clenched tightly. For a time they sat in silence there and Sam hugged himself, rubbing at his arms to ease the gooseflesh raised by thought of how close they had come to capture. Not another orc march! he thought, and shuddered.
"Are they going to Gondor, do you think?" he asked after a moment.
"All their roads lead west," Frodo replied softly, and glanced up then at the shrouded sky. It seemed to Sam that he listened for something, for he cocked his head slightly and let his eyes close. Only for a short while, and then Frodo shook his head sharply and rose. "As ours lead east. We have had our rest. Let us go."
"Mr. Frodo, it's only been a few hou–"
"We have no hours," Frodo replied, voice tight. And without a further word, he began walking, even as Sam scrambled up, wincing at the protests of tired legs and feet.
"It's the middle of the night!" Sam groaned, but staggered after him. For he's right, you know, he told himself, as he hefted his pack and quickened his stride. But as he fell in behind Frodo, he paused and looked back a last time down that road, and he thought of the woods that they had left standing silently behind. All their roads lead west–west to Gondor. "Good luck, Faramir," he muttered, then turned and hurried after his master.
Dawn came again and was marked only by a slight lightening of the sky to a murky brown. The hobbits followed the line of the cliff, which grew higher as they went onward. The earth was hard and rocky, and though they avoided the road, which had by now crossed the stream, the going proved easier than they would have expected. The land had been cleared, save for a scattering of boulders here and there, and the creeping, stunted brambles that plagued the land. They sought shelter at noon beneath a tangle of them and sipped their water carefully. Exhausted from their night's work, the hobbits fell asleep there, and it was not until the late afternoon that they woke again. Struggling free of the clinging, grasping branches, they trudged doggedly onward for another hour or so, backs bent and eyes fixed on the ground before them.
Thus, Sam was surprised when he chanced to look up, for it seemed to him that the trees had appeared from nowhere. A little copse of them stood before them, but the trees themselves were immense. How they had escaped the merciless axes of the orcs, Sam did not know, though certainly they were not free of the horror of the valley. Twisted, barren branches opened onto the sky, as arms lifted in futile supplication, and passing amongst the trunks, he was reminded of the great pillars of Moria. But no kingly hall did they uplift, though indeed, a king sat there in their midst. In the center of the circle of trees, he sat in judgment of the ways that lay at his feet, it seemed–four roads that ran towards their separate destinies. As the trees, the king, too, sat in torment: headless, marred by hateful hands and time, and the signposts he bore now spoke of Mordor's malice: orc-scrawl and symbols of Mordor had been scratched into the stone and drawn as high as a Man could reach all on his robes and throne.
"Well, here we are," Sam murmured, glancing about. "This must be the crossroads Faramir told us about. Gloomy place." He paused then, staring up at the king as a shiver ran down his spine. "I don't much like it. There's something here that creeps my flesh." Sam paused again, waiting expectantly for Frodo to speak. But no response came, and Sam, grown sensitive to his master's moods, felt alarm rise immediately as he glanced over his shoulder. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked sharply. For Frodo stood by him, clutching at his arm as if in pain, and Sam frowned anxiously. "Mr. Frodo?"
"Run!" Frodo ordered tautly, stumbling towards the statue. Beneath the great, stony sweep of the king's mantle as it fell to one side of his knees, there was a small, sheltered space, and Frodo flung himself down beneath it, there to cower in the shadows. Sam, hard on his heels, had to slither on his belly to join him.
"What is it?" Sam demanded, tucking his cloak about his feet as he drew his knees up to his chest, making himself as small as possible.
"He is near," Frodo whispered, baring his teeth in a grimace. "Very near..."
"Hush!" But even as he said it, a shrill cry broke the stillness of the air, and Sam blanched. Frodo's breath hissed loudly in his ear as the two of them huddled against each other, panting in their terror. Frodo raised his left hand to his mouth and bit down on the knuckles as if to keep from crying out while his right hand clutched Sam's shirt, twisting the cloth desperately. His whole frame was quaking–whether in pain or whether from the workings of the Ring, Sam did not know. But the winged menace did not pause, having other business, and before long, the terror faded. Frodo went limp, releasing him. "It is past," he murmured faintly as he lowered his hand. "He is gone. It is past."
"Are you sure?"
"The Eye looks to Gondor now, and so there he goes," Frodo replied wearily. "He shall not return 'til the battle is over."
"Well there's luck, then. At least for us," Sam replied, thinking worriedly of friends, old and new, now far behind them to the west. After a few moments, though, he unfolded and crawled from beneath their shelter, dusting himself off as he stood. Warily, he looked about but it seemed that Frodo was correct: although he strained his hearing, no sound reached him. With a sigh then, he reached back and extended a hand to Frodo, helping to pull him from their hiding place and to his feet. Frodo was wincing, rubbing his arm, and Sam bit his lip. His master looked now entirely too pale and wan for his liking. We need a bit of time 'til we get back on our feet, he thought. So he slipped his pack off and reached into one of its pockets to fish out a lembas wafer. "Might as well eat a bit, since we are staying here a moment."
"Sam, we must–"
"Now, Mr. Frodo, it'll do us both good. We'll walk the farther for it and after that fright, we need it. Besides, if you're right, then we're safe enough, for our flying friend is off to join that lot we saw last night. Who else would be coming this way? Here," he said, carefully unwrapping a leaf. Then, taking the waybread carefully in hand, he broke it and offered a half to Frodo. "Eat. At least we've good company, it seems," he added, gesturing to the mournful old statue. "A right proper job of guarding the road he's done for us, wouldn't you say? Only right to say thank you, and where there's two, there's enough for three at table, as my Gaffer always says. Even if the third don't eat."
Frodo shook his head, but he held out his hand nonetheless, and even smiled a bit, as he said, "Long may he live, your Gaffer." In silence, then, they ate and shared again a little water from one of their water skins, and it was a marvel to Sam that so little was needed to sate the hunger that had begun to gnaw at his belly. And it seemed to him, also, that he felt a new measure of strength return to him. I wish I was back in Lórien, he thought as he chewed slowly. But I suppose since I can't be, this'll have to do, thank the Lady for her kindness. If only it hadn't been for that mirror... But Sam shook his head and swallowed, then broke off another morsel for himself, determined to remember the by far more pleasant parts of their stay in Lórien.
When they had finished, Frodo reached for his pack, but Sam stayed him. "Before we go farther, I want to see that arm, Mr. Frodo. I know Orothar thought you would be well enough, and he's done his best, but we should be taking care of it better, I think. I'm not Strider to know much about such things, but we've done an awful lot for having run with orcs, and what if you're bleeding again after all of it?"
Frodo grimaced, but after a moment's consideration, he nodded. "You're right, of course. I should be glad that I've not had more trouble. I would have thought that after the orcs..." he trailed off and shuddered slightly.
"Me, too," Sam replied quickly, and began unwinding the bandage. "I suppose Orothar's a better surgeon than we'll ever know. I expect you'd have to be better than most to be in Ithilien. Still, I–bless me!" Sam had fully intended to use a little of their precious water to wash his hands if it were necessary to treat the cut in any way. But now he reached out and ran a grimy finger along the edge of a pale, puckered scar. Frodo flinched, ticklish, but he, too, stared in astonishment. There was no blood, and if the scar seemed new, it was certainly not pink.
"But... that isn't possible!" Sam exclaimed softly. "I've had skinned knees that took longer to heal!" After a moment of dumbfounded silence, he settled back on his heels and shook his head, glancing concernedly at Frodo, who was staring at his arm still. "Not to say that I'm not glad to see you mended, sir, but this ain't natural!"
"No, it's quite unnatural, I fear," Frodo replied softly, lowering his arm. Sam's eyes flicked downward, watching as that hand thrust immediately into Frodo's pocket. "Not natural at all, just as they always used to say back home, when Bilbo was there, and then later. He didn't age, and neither did I; that wound from Weathertop closed too quickly and mail or no mail, that truncheon should've shattered me in Moria, so Aragorn thought. But I wasn't wearing It this time, or holding It: It was in me."
"But surely It hasn't anything good about It!" Sam protested, and Frodo shook his head.
"I'm sure It doesn't have anything good about It. But I suppose that nothing that is can be wholly without merit–even Isildur said It was beautiful, if you remember. Or would you remember? Were you there for that tale?" Frodo asked, frowning as the memory bled out into a dim impression of voices.
"Aye, and for the whole Council," Sam replied, then sighed softly. "I suppose there is that, though it don't make much sense to me. But since you are well, and we've had a bit of a rest, I suppose we ought to be on our way."
They rose, and as Frodo hastily redonned his shirt, Sam folded the old bandage and tucked it into his pack. And after a moment's thought, he shoved the mallorn leaf wrappers in with it, since there was no point in leaving any trace of their passage for enemies to find. Then, because Sam was still quicker than Frodo when it came to such things, he finished buttoning his master's shirt, while Frodo stood staring past him at the statue in whose shadow they had supped.
"Evil mars itself, and so nothing is wholly ruined," Frodo murmured, seeming to think aloud.
"Is it not strange that they would spare him, even as he is?" he asked, gesturing to the headless king. "Why not destroy all?"
"Too much work?" Sam suggested, eyeing the solid weight of stone as he finished his task.
"Perhaps," Frodo replied, but seemed unsatisfied. "It must mean something!" But he spoke no further, sighing as he turned away to look up and down the road. There was no sign of any living thing, and so, after a moment, he said, resolutely, "Let us go." Sam nodded, then grunted softly as he reshouldered his pack. But ere he left, he cast a last, thoughtful look up at the battered old king, puzzling over his master's words. However, nothing insightful came to him, and so Sam simply turned and followed, even as over the mountains there flickered a red glow, and a muted thunder marked their departure from the crossroads...
... as from the Silence of the Void there came a Soundless shuddering; the Notes scattered by Dis-chord trembled, and began to Whisper...
A/N: "Journy to the Crossroads" hurt me. Lots of heavy reliance on it, particularly for Faramir's speech. Check your copies for comparisons if you are curious.
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