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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 45. The High Road
AN: I had to change the last two paragraphs of the previous chapter, just slightly. Sorry for the long wait! It's been a hard chapter to write.
Wake up, Frodo.
It's time —
Time for breakfast, my boy...
Wake up. Wake up.
With a gasp, Frodo opened his eyes to a hazy sky, and a pale bright disc hanging in it, wavering behind thin-tattered clouds. The whispers faded in his mind, replaced by the soft hiss of wind over the desolate floor of the valley, and the murmur of the little spring of water by the roadside. He shivered, frowned faintly as he felt at his clothing – it was damp all down the front and had got stiff while he had lain witless. With an effort of will, he let his head loll to one side, back toward the road. There was no one upon it, and other than the wind and water, it was silent as the tomb.
Was it all a dream, then? he wondered. Had everything been a dream, from the moment he had fallen from the roadside? The orcs and their passage and...
"Sam?" he whispered, hoarsely.
"Here, Mr. Frodo."
Had Frodo had the strength, he would've leapt out of his skin. As it was, he only twitched feebly, and blinked as something bright moved at the corners of his eyes. Then Sam was standing there, leaning over him, brown eyes wide and anxious.
"Are you ready, sir?" Sam asked, glancing over his shoulder and down the road a moment before turning back to Frodo. "Because I don't think we ought to stay here."
"But..." he stammered weakly, staring owl-eyed at Sam, "Then the orcs, they – "
"Ought to be hiding for awhile, I suppose, until he can send another cloud of that brown muck our way. Seems funny, though, walkin' in daylight again – remember how we had to walk at night for so long, on account of them birds and the like that Mr. Gandalf and Mr. Strider feared?" Sam said, and shook his head. Then he held out his hand. "Come on, Mr. Frodo. If you're ready, we should be going. I got our water-skins all filled up."
He ought to have a thousand questions. Some dimly remembered part of him knew this, yet Frodo could muster no more than misgiving on the back of shock, as he regarded that outstretched hand. And then slowly he reached, thin fingers hanging in the air, wavering like a tree's bare twigs in a wind. Sam's hand caught his once more, but this time, nothing happened. Warm solid fingers twined with his, then the other pulled him to his feet, steadying him when he swayed. Sam flung an arm about his shoulders, nodding toward the road.
"Don't much like it, but we've got to cross it at least. Just you lean on me, sir," Sam said stoutly. "I'll get us over!"
And so he did. Frodo leaned, and Sam helped him crawl up onto the road. The two of them shuffled across it, then down again, heading into the boulders and brambles of the vale and its far slopes. Then turning once more north, they began following the road as it wended through the Morgai valley, while the sun climbed to its zenith, then began its too-swift fall towards evening.
For Frodo, even the vestiges of the morning's shock faded before the appalling toil of the day, and questions were utterly banished. In his misery, he clung simply to the fact of Sam – to the fact of his shoulder and arms, without which he would not have gone even ten yards, he felt. For ere long, the grey of earth and air leached into each other, ash and dust commingling, 'til soon naught but a dull, hard haze remained for him. His legs felt like water, and as Frodo struggled amid the weeds and rocks, leaning on Sam every step of the way, it was as if he were drowning in a river of dust – awkward limbs, made stupid with weariness, desperately sought purchase, but found none in the sand and ash. Beneath his feet, the world scraped by, long and dry as bleached bones, and the orc armor weighed him down like a millstone, a bruising, crushing torment.
The cold of the day grew quickly bitter – the dark was coming on, as only a winter's night in Mordor could: without mercy. Beneath the damp of his clothes, Frodo shivered, and not only from the invading chill. For not all in this dismal twilight of a world was ice: he could feel it in his pocket, like a brand against his flesh, like a promise of warmth he had only to reach for...
The golden voice of temptation went abruptly mute, and the fire faded, though it remained like a coy and buried ember. Frodo shook himself, looked dumbly at Sam. But Sam was squinting ahead through the lengthening shadows, lips thin and tight, nose wrinkled a bit.
"I don't think," he said after a little while, "that we ought to go much further this way. Those orcs went somewhere, and I'm thinking it couldn't be too far, even quick as they were going."
Frodo followed his gaze down the path, to where it turned a bend, running out of their sight around a hill that jutted outward, and as he stared, struggling to see something clear other than the haze itself, vision wavered, blurring at the edges. The world rippled with it – and then suddenly fell in on itself!
Frodo gasped – or tried to, but the air felt thick as water, and as stifling. Silence rushed in to fill his lungs and ears—a swift, groaning silence, like stones grinding against each other in the depths of a sea, that, in a convulsive shudder, vomited forth a strange landscape. A world turned inside out, it was as if he looked out from the bowels of the earth. And wherever he looked, things swelled forth monstrously to meet him: the road, with its cracked and dusty stones; the hills and mountains; the dried out river and its horrific skin of bloated pebbles.
And the orcs. He could see them—a swarming, writhing, misshapen brethren, grotesque beneath flickering torchlight, and near, all too near. The torchlight blazed brighter, though strangely, the world grew darker still, and the orcs seemed to retreat, collapsing back into the earth, becoming one with it in that golden light. Frodo could feel the sweat break out upon his brow then, as an overwhelming desire seized him to follow them – to sink down into the earth and its womb-like warmth and be stone to the cares of the world above, give himself up to the dusty undertow of the world that followed the light...
But it was not to be. Something bright flashed across his mind – a cool radiance, like a star come to earth. The world heaved again, and a wave of nausea swept over him, as he tumbled out of that vision and back into himself. And:
"Mr. Frodo?" Sam was asking sharply, and he staggered when Frodo swayed, clutching desperately at him. "Mr. Frodo, what is it?"
"An orc-den," he murmured into Sam's shoulder, panting, and shut his eyes swiftly, fearing to vomit. "There's an orc-den. Close... some miles… maybe two. I don't know!" He could feel Sam's eyes upon him now, and the dark behind his eyelids burned with a lurid golden heat.
"Sir?" That cool brightness brushed against his brow, and Frodo shuddered. But his stomach subsided and his thoughts cleared somewhat of that metallic fever, enough so that he risked opening his eyes once more. Sam was regarding him worriedly, but Frodo merely gazed back 'til his friend sighed. "Orcs or no, it's no good just standing here. We've got to go forward. Or else go back."
"We can't go back." The words were out of his mouth, put there by intuition that groped after memory, for the last few days were more darkness than aught else. Nevertheless, reason roused, prompting him to speak, if more slowly: "There was a hold awhile ago—I passed it, and they did not stop me. But now…"
Now they might. One could not count on wonders twice – Sam would be seen. Or they might recognize Frodo and ask after his errand – what it was, or whether it was complete, or they might want to know if he had seen the fugitives. Some of these dire thoughts must have shown in his face or communicated themselves between him and Sam, for Sam, after a few moments, nodded slowly, as if in understanding; and he looked back down that road, then up at the sky, at the mountaintops, thinking, ere he seemed to come to a decision.
"Well, no offense to Mr. Gimli and Mr. Gandalf, but I can't say as I'm eager to try another orc's lair, even just goin' past it," Sam declared. "Not when there's another way."
"Another way?" Frodo repeated dully, and his brow knit. "What other way?"
"Strider's way—up." This being said with a wave of an arm towards the steep and forbidding slopes of the Morgai. Once upon a time, Frodo might have made some clever remark concerning his desire to try another mountain pass, given how that had turned out. But Caradhras was far away, and memory dim, and in his weariness, he could say only and expressionlessly:
"But you hate heights."
"That's as may be, and they ain't no proper place for hobbits, that's certain. And so it's a way he won't expect us to go. Nobody would expect it," Sam said, with quiet force. "Isn't that a reason to try?"
Frodo stood there and stared for a time up at the dark, sharp peaks, and at the sky behind them, stained with evening. At length, he closed his eyes, feeling the eastern pulse of that malign will like a ghastly sun upon his face. But the day was fading. The orcs were near, and who knew whither they would go? And if they found him... He clenched his fist about the Ring that burned in his pocket, and said finally:
"Lead on, Sam! I will try to follow."
They did not get far in their first plodding ascent, however, for all too soon, it did grow dark, and the treachery of the slopes was too great for them to risk it, even had Frodo's strength been greater, or his pain less. For his entire body felt as one great bruise and scrape, and he lay tucked up in a rocky cleft with Sam, trembling from cold and the spasms of sore muscles. It was a misery on the slopes—as bad, perhaps, as Caradhras in its own way, for it was winter still, and the winds were cruel.
All through the night, Sam held him close, his cloak covering them both, and his hands folded over Frodo's own. For his part, Frodo clung to them as he would to the edge of the very world itself, for never had the Ring's heat tried him so sorely, it seemed, promising relief from cold and craving, both at once, in a long, merciless temptation. Frodo shut his eyes and lay in the cold darkness, and suffered his sleeplessness.
The next morning, unrested and still shivering, the two of them continued on their way, struggling up the side of the mountain, though in fact, they ended by moving farther north, too. It was Sam who noticed, near midmorning, a little ridge that led over a sharp drop down some two hundred feet. It was barely enough for a hobbit's toes to stand upon, and they had to jam their hands into the cracks that split the rock face, heedless of whatever creatures might dwell there—if, indeed, anything could live in so barren a cranny. Perhaps some fifty feet lay between them and a more secure and broader ridge, and by the time they had each made the crossing, legs and arms were all atremble with the exertion, and fingers and knuckles scraped and cut and dusty. It was some time before they could make themselves continue, especially Frodo, whose left arm throbbed with pain.
But by noon, they had climbed high enough to straddle the range. Pausing there, they looked back down the long, narrow trench stretching southwards to where the Tower of Cirith Ungol stood, a thin, hazy peak jutting from the Ephel Dúath. Then turning southeast, they gazed out over the Plain of Gorgoroth, over long, parched, and heat-withered leagues—some thirteen of them—to the towering peak of Mt. Doom, whose cone still glowed and smoked.
"We've come too far," Frodo panted weakly, gulping air, his breath a white trail though the sun was high.
"Or just far enough," Sam countered, pointing down at the plain. "Look!"
Frodo looked, and beheld an ominous sight. Below them, Mordor was on the move. The road that ran along the foot of the mountains was acrawl with armed companies, and there were vast camps pitched on the plains along the road. It was perhaps a mile straight down to the nearest company, whose thousands ran in a column twice as long as the height from which the hobbits stared. Beyond them, perhaps a league distant, there were others coming: all were marching north to the Black Gate, there to await their Master's commands.
As for the Dark Lord, his wrath still ran through the land, but it was muted now, waiting, preparing as he brought his forces north—a cunning consideration hung in the air with the fume, troubling yet quickening the hearts of his servants. Nor was Frodo immune to it, one hand jammed into his pocket, the fingers fondling that hot golden circlet...
"They get all stretched out as they go," Sam said suddenly, pointing to the armies and following their northward path. "Like an inchworm, you see: a lot of them head off, and others follow, and by the time the last ones leave, the first ones are gettin' ready to pitch another camp. And there's a couple of them: if we get down quick, we can slip right between them at night and be on our way."
"Maybe," Frodo murmured. "But we must get off these mountains first. One step at a time—I cannot look farther!"
"Well, and old Gandalf said it, didn't he? Don't look too far ahead—just far enough to mind the drop, here," Sam said, carefully easing down a little step in their path. He looked back up at Frodo. "Shouldn't we keep going, sir?"
"Yes, we should," sighed Frodo, and slowly removed his hand from his pocket, clenching and unclenching stiff and swollen fingers. Then he waved Sam onwards. "Go on, Sam. I'll come right after."
It took the rest of the afternoon to come about a quarter of the way down from the heights, for they found few ways to descend to lower ridges, and many more ledge-ways that went more in a line, or climbed again before dropping down, only to lead back up once more. At least their crooked, airy path, however much it rose and fell, made a continuous line south, rather than forcing them to double back towards the north. Nor did the winds threaten to scour the skins off them or pluck them from the heights, for, on the leeward side of the mountains, the air, though chill, at least was still.
That night, as Frodo settled onto his rocky bed, he stared out at the campfires that filled the plains, like a thousand scattered embers of some giant's hearth. A much younger hobbit, or even the one who had left Hobbiton some half a year ago, might have recalled Bilbo and his marvelous description of the view from Erebor when Thranduil and Bard had camped in the valley below. Like fireflies they had seemed.
But the hobbit who lay on the shelf overlooking Mordor had had all such interest stripped from him. Exhausted, he lay with glassy eyes fixed blankly on those lights, clutching at his left arm, rubbing the flesh raw beneath the orc-mail about that old wound. And all the while there sounded, between hearing and imagination, a thin, strange note, like brass metal ringing ceaselessly at the edges of awareness. It was not speech – there were no words in that single, unceasing tone, only a longing in it that pierced like a knife. The Ring, he knew, but could muster nothing of distance or disgust. Utterly absorbed in it, he did not know whether that note followed him into his dreams – he did not know whether he had slept at all, only that dawn found him utterly enervated, yet raw inside, raw as flesh dragged over stone.
"I'm thinking, Mr. Frodo," Sam said when he got a good look at his master in the pale morning light, "that maybe we ought to wait a spell, 'til you're a bit more rested."
Frodo simply shook his head and blinked 'til the staring horror of the night-noise had gone out of his ears, 'til the world showed itself bleak and thin and weary to him, rather than gauded in that gold.
"No," he murmured, feeling a throb of foreboding in his breast. "There's no time. There's no rest. We must go on."
"I don't know, sir. You haven't slept, I'll warrant, and you need to – "
"Sam," Frodo cut him off, and heard the twist in his voice that stopped just shy of orcish, though it had desperation aplenty in it. He swallowed hard, then drew a breath and said, more softly, though the strain thinned his voice: "It doesn't rest. It's always with me, always singing or seeing. If I stop, it goes on, and the longer we wait..."
The longer we wait, the less there is of me to go forward. He did not say it, but Sam lifted his chin just slightly, though from the look in his eyes, his heart was breaking. But he took Frodo's hand, and kissed it – dirt, blood and all – and then turned and without a word began picking his way along their lofty trail.
All that day, they continued their precarious journey, still seeking a way down, though it was slow going. For as the Morgai themselves were separated from the Ephel Dúath but by a crack that had become a valley, so on the eastern face, a narrow ridge had split from the bulk of the Morgai and slid down in a single, long sheet, like a partly sloughed old snake skin. Between it and their own shelf lay some fifty feet of void—too far, even had they rope to climb with.
But their own ridge did lead them further south, however hard the way, and since Frodo could hardly even imagine attempting to climb back up and over the other side of the mountains to follow the road, they decided to press onward as far as they could. Sam hoped thereby to get behind the armies of Mordor, which continued on their northward march, rather than having to dodge between them.
"If only we don't come all the way back to that Tower and the bridge and the road!" Sam panted, as the two of them struggled up a rise. "Then we'd have to sneak, all right!"
Frodo, exhausted, in pain, and plagued again by the metallic murmurings of the Ring, malicious in its incessancy, did not answer, but only reached half-blindly for the next handhold.
It was another day, after another long night of sleepless horror, before they found – finally! – a crossing point, where the ridges rejoined in a long, steep, stone-tumbled slope, whose loose stone and sand made of it a perilous, shifting descent. Nor for fear of falling only did they go slowly: neither wished to risk disturbing overmuch dust and garnering the attention of anyone below... or above. Though they had not made an appearance, once or twice, the hobbits had felt one of the Nazgûl pass overhead, observing the progress of the armies from on high, where their presence would be marked, but would cause no panic among the beasts in the ranks. Each time, the two travelers had frozen, and Frodo, struck dumb, had ducked his head and pressed against the rock as if to sink into it, while that thin note had sounded so high and sharp he'd thought it would shatter him.
But no piercing cry, no sudden shadow had come. The Nazgûl had passed, leaving Frodo shaking like a leaf and weak from the afterglow of agony that surged up his left arm. It was long before he could move again, and then only slowly. Nevertheless, by the afternoon, Frodo and Sam had come all the way down to the level of the plain. There they hid in the shadows of boulders, looking out over the last little slope—some twenty feet—that lay between them and the Road.
And the Road itself, so far as they could see looking north and south, was empty. They had passed behind the rearguard of the rearguard some hours ago, and no new companies had followed. It appeared that the Dark Lord's muster had all gone ahead down the road to the Black Gate, and perhaps the vanguard host had already begun the march on Gondor, for where else might it be bound?
Neither Frodo nor Sam could have known that they had passed another army in the night—one moving on the westward side of the Ephel Dúath. They could not know what token the orcs of Cirith Ungol had sent to Barad-dûr, or guess the designs of the Dark Lord in his crafty malice, or what he took from the signs of these past days.
Frodo, indeed, could hardly see anything. For pain and want of sleep, perhaps, but there was more – a thickness of nothing had settled over the world, and things... things did not appear rightly, but seemed horribly deformed. Even for Mordor, so long tortured by the Dark Lord's dwelling, things seemed sickly, invaded in every thirsty crack and crevice by that awful monotone that haunted his thoughts and dreams, so that from every corner, Frodo could 'hear' It echoing, closing in on him like a swelling. He felt frantic, yet his body was sluggish, half numb and half hurt, and in any case, poisoned, betrayed from within by that mark on his arm where the Ring had been once... that scar, that mark, was seared into his flesh, burned in the midst of his cold like the cruel imprint of that single note.
He was vaguely aware of Sam speaking to him, vaguely aware of himself answering – a 'no', he thought, a refusal. He was not certain what happened afterward – the first time in days, he realized, with sudden dread – that that had happened, but when at long last, he blinked and knew he blinked, the day was darkening. Something touched his brow, and Frodo sucked in a breath as it burned there a moment. But it was a heat without hurt, and after a moment, he shivered, then blinked again to see, dimly, Sam kneeling over him. A strange light was in his face – strange fire that came of no flame, as he said: "It's time we were getting on, Mr. Frodo."
No, a part of him recoiled at the very thought, but the other part was moving already – out of habit, or mayhap something less benign. But whatever the impulse, he struggled to his feet, stood there clutching his arm, swaying, staring at that fire-crowned mountain that loomed over the plain. Yet great as it was, near as it stood, still, it was too far – a sort of infinite weariness struck him to his depths, and drained and cold, it was all he could do not to weep.
"Mr. Frodo." Frodo dragged his eyes from the distance and saw Sam holding out his hand to him. Sam's face was unwonted grave, even in such times and trials as these, as he said: "Give me your hand."
It was then that Frodo realized his left hand was in his pocket, the Ring a molten weight in it, pressing into the flesh of his palm almost cuttingly. Yet despite horror, his fingers did not move – his fist remained clenched. Frodo could hear his own breathing, harsh in the stillness of the air, and his mouth worked soundlessly – I can't, I can't, so help me, I can't! Sam bit his lip, and after a moment, drew a breath and reached – very carefully, very slowly, watching Frodo the while – for his master's arm. Battered brown fingers touched his elbow, then slid down to grasp, loosely, his forearm.
"Please, Frodo?" Sam asked, a note of pleading entering his voice. Frodo felt his heart flutter unevenly at that, and muscle seemed to spasm with it… and then suddenly relaxed. The Ring slipped from his grip, and feeling rather as if he were moving in a dream, Frodo placed his hand limply in Sam's. Sam smiled brilliantly at him. "There now!" he said. "Just you follow me, sir, and we'll get there by and by."
"What if we don't?" The question slid past his lips, like a fish through fingers that fell to earth with a heavy, cold slap.
"We will," Sam assured him, lifting his chin.
You will, hissed the skitter of tinny echoes in his mind. Frodo shut his eyes and tried to suppress a shiver. Yes, he would – they would. And if he could not, if they could not, then It would. Swallowing hard, he opened his eyes to the towering menace that was Orodruin, and, mind filled with the tinny murmurings of the Ring, managed to nod.
"Of course," he said hollowly in reply. But when Sam turned as if to make his way down the slope, he said quickly: "Sam!"
"Sir?" Sam paused, already worriedly eying his master. Expecting the worst, Frodo thought. As well he might! His face twisted then, a tic like an animal's flinching before a hateful master, his breath coming harsh, and when he spoke, it was haltingly.
"I find... everything is so dim of late. I cannot recall – " He faltered, and teeth clenched, for it was as if there were something weighing on his tongue, robbing him of speech. Even my words, he thought, but after the horror of his flight from Cirith Ungol, he couldn't even muster astonishment. Sight, sound, touch – they lay already under the Shadow. How long could speech resist? How long could words remain him? Likely, he should save the effort of them for the journey, but...
But, he realized with dull surprise, he would miss the awful effort of these days – of these few days of wonder in a wonderless land. Dear Sam! Who should not be here, but was, and whom he could remember walking with him because Frodo had been here to stumble through the hurt of the past days, not elsewhere. And so he had to try, since it would be, perhaps, the last time.
"I… I've not been myself… of late. And I feel... I feel I may go to sleep again, Sam. Maybe for good," he said, voice cracking a little, but he pushed on. "You must be careful – It's in me, you see." He looked beseechingly at Sam, willing him to understand.
For his part, Sam but shook his head. "No fear, Mr. Frodo – I'll get you through –"
"No! You don't see. You don't understand, but you must – I don't know what It may do!" Frodo said hoarsely, reaching to clutch weakly at Sam's shoulder, twisting the cloth of his cloak. "You left once, and... I couldn't bear it if I – if It – if you were to be..."
He couldn't finish. Sam stared at him a long moment, and then suddenly, amazingly, he smiled.
"Dear Mr. Frodo," he said, gathering Frodo's hands into his own. "Now you listen to me, sir. The Enemy sent wargs and orcs and that old Shelob for us. And the wargs died, and the orcs didn't get us, and Shelob – she set us apart awhile, which was hard. But I'm here, and I don't reckon, after that," he said, eyes blazing, "that there's any weapon you've got as could hurt me."
Sam paused, and considered the darkness that was fast falling. They stood far within the shadows of the mountains, and the plain was dim. "Dawn or dusk, we'll be in some mountain's shadow," he sighed, and then suddenly released Frodo's hands to tug the cloak from his shoulders.
"Here," he said, as he flung it about Frodo's, pinned the leaf-clasp, and then drew the hood up. "We don't have the Lady's light, but if you have to walk in the dark, you should wear her cloak. Unfriendly eyes everywhere here, but especially out there, where there ain't no hiding I can see."
"But – " What about you?
"Don't you worry about me, sir," Sam said stoutly, then warned: "Just don't fall asleep!"
"I shall strive not to," Frodo whispered. Then swiftly: "Sam." And when Sam lifted his brows, said: "Thank you."
Sam just smiled once more, and took his hand again. "Time to go," he said softly. Frodo drew a pained breath, but he nodded, and with Sam leading, at last set foot upon Gorgoroth.
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