18. Much Left to Conquer
Sam was lost. He leaned tiredly against a blackened rock and breathed heavily. For a moment he could do nothing else, wearied by the traveling, confusion, and growing depression. The winded Hobbit looked ahead. A great expanse of gray rock and putrid dirt that was marked by hills and boulders stretched to the mountains. Sam winced and then turned to glance behind him. The same bleak land met his eyes. For miles he had walked upon it, making an uncertain path through the barren wasteland, running through shadows where possible, trekking ever closer to the fiery inferno he saw scorching the eastern skies.
The Hobbit sighed tiredly, staring at the bloody clouds ahead. He knew they marked the pinnacle of Mount Doom, and the ever-present sight had directed his weary feet and mind without question. He was close now; perhaps only a few more days stood between himself and the wretched volcano. Idly he had wondered what he might do when he finally came to the place, to the end of his journey, to the moment when he would destroy the Ring. With each somnolent step he had imagined what it might feel like to finally be rid of this horrible burden. The Ring had become a vicious weight dragging down his heart, heavy in its evil and loud in its soft melody. It seemed to only call more fervently to Mordor the closer he drew to Mount Doom, and Sam was tired of its plots against him. He felt the black eyes of Saurons land trace his every movement, their vigilance disturbing. This fear he could have certainly done without. He preferred absolute solitude than the company of the Rings desperate call.
Against the rock he rested. Indeed he was close to his destination, but there still seemed to be a great distance to walk, and Sam was beginning to lose the hope Gandalf had given him. The old wizards words had been of great benefit to him, driving ambition and dedication into his heart, chasing away the guilt and shame borne into him by wearing the One Ring. As time passed, though, and lonely hours became dreary, frightening days, Sam had begun to wither. He had forgotten the shear paralyzing terror of traveling alone in Mordor. Every rock and gully held a potential nightmare. The air was wretched and hot, burning his lungs and infecting his body with poison. Each step was a test of his resolve. In the hours after Gandalfs departure, he had been adamant in his quest. Success was more than a duty to himself; it was a promise to Frodo and Legolas, a responsibility to all Middle Earth, a choice he had made. To this he struggled to remain true, though maintaining faith became more of a losing battle the closer he drew to Mount Doom. Mordor laid black and desolate around him, seeking relentlessly to suffocate him and drown his meager hope in despair. He wondered how he might fare the next days.
Sam swallowed heavily and gazed numbly at his feet. They were covered in gray dust and blistered by the traveling. So far they had taken him. So far they had yet to walk. He did not want to admit to himself his doubts, as though such a profession was a betrayal of Gandalfs trust in and of itself. In stead, he sank down, pressing his back to the protective rock. He would rest only a moment to soothe his aching heels.
The clouds were dense and dark this morning. The dawn had hardly touched them, their mesh of gray too tight and intense to allow the rising sun to caress the world in oranges and gold. They were dismal and oppressive, forever threatening rain. Every so often bright bolts of lightning streaked from cloud to cloud, stabbing the darkness with hideous and wicked light. Never was there thunder. It was as though the flashes marked a storm forever approaching, soundless and deadly. Sam had watched it worriedly for days. He wondered if he ever again would see the sun.
Chubby hands massaged tired ankles. The joints were stiff and felt terribly worn and overused, but the press of his fingers into the flesh eased their ache a bit. At his breast he felt a heavy burning and knew the Ring was yet again singing to Mordor. Since Gandalfs leave his feelings towards the tiny trinket had changed remarkably. No longer did he consider it a simple matter to simply hold until the time came to be rid of it. The Ring had become to him what he supposed it had been to Frodo. In his mind now was always this sick longing. He knew it was there, weakly whining on the edge of his consciousness, wishing fervently to draw attention he was not willing to let free. The yearning disgusted him, but he was fearful that in time it would grow, devouring his resolution and morality, turning him into what it had turned so many others. Was it perhaps a slow decline? He knew so little of these sorts of matters. The thought of becoming a wretch like Gollum or a monster like Boromir frightened him into cursing his ignorance. Had wearing the Ring even once forever tainted his soul with this sordid desire? And if he should wear it again, would that perhaps expedite his descent?
No, his mind vehemently announced. You wont ever wear it again. Never! The memory of the great Eye, fierce and fiery in its evil, brought cold chills to his small form, and he shuddered despite the dry heat of the air. It had haunted him in wake and sleep, chasing him, pushing his stout body ever harder and faster in his journey. The fear had heightened his senses into a state of frenzied paranoia; every shadow seemed to resemble an Orc, and every sound was surely indicative of a pursuer. Sam disliked the terror the Eye had wrought within him, but he could do little to change it. It denied him rest and drove him tirelessly. Peace was simply unattainable. In the beginning he had been afraid as well, for he was not a Hobbit of great strength or intelligence, and he had doubted his unremarkable abilities would be sufficient to complete this task. Now, though, that skepticism was dwarfed by a greater terror. He alone was carrying the Ring to Mount Doom. He alone was trying to destroy it. His friends were not there to guide him. Frodo could not offer him reassuring smiles or silent strength. The Fellowship was gone, scraped away by the evil of the Ring, and the Eye had seen him. What a sad truth! The nightmare brought to life in Sam was a bit of madness the mellow Hobbit had never before experienced. Combined with the repulsive singing of the Ring in his mind, it drained him, stealing his will, his hope, and his vitality. He was so very tired.
Sam blankly stared at the stone ground. He felt tears burning his eyes, but these he would not release. He knew if he began to cry he would not have the strength to stop, and he could not afford to allow his depression to gain sway over his heart. If such a thing should come to pass, the opportunistic and manipulative Ring would certainly make its move and claim his spirit for its own. It spoke softly and comfortingly now, but Sam knew it was only a rouse, a ploy to coax his tired mind into relenting to its shallow promises. It was such a tricky, little thing, this evil! He could not deny its allure. Yet the fear of what he had known and seen when wearing the Ring was enough to ward away the despair and force down the inviting call, and, after a moment of breathing calmly and clearing his mind, the crushing grip of misery released him.
The Hobbit shook a moment in relief. It had been another close brush with defeat. They seemed to come faster and faster, these bouts of weakness, and each took a bit more of him to overcome. Sam grunted angrily and suddenly pushed himself up, frustrated with himself. He was no worse off than he had been when Gandalf had left him. He had neither been attacked nor followed as far as he could discern. The days since the wizards departure had been marked by monotony rather than danger. In fact, his greatest trial had been conquering his guilt, shame, and terror. These were enemies of his own making, and he could gladly do without them. He looked up again, ahead where the fires of Mount Doom burned the sky and turned the clouds red with rage. In his heart he drew together many things as a buffer against the pushing despair. He would not allow his own worries and fears to be the making of his failure!
So Sam again began to walk. The blackness all around him was hungry and decimating, but it would not dissuade or discourage him. He thought of pleasantries, concentrating on things past and things he hoped yet would come to bring him hope. He closed his eyes momentarily and breathed, and when he did, he smelled again the Shire. It was a familiar scent of pipeweed, good food, and fresh air of meadows that could only belong to the small village of Hobbiton. For a moment he could imagine himself there, and instead of hard rock punishing his feet, he felt the soft blades of grass tickle him. A cool wind swept by and picked up his hair, touching him with the caress of a mother for a son. There was the heat of the lazy afternoon sun upon his skin, and the laughter of friends and family. Would they welcome him when again he returned? What would such an occasion be like? He sank into his vivid imaginings, his feet carrying him of their own accord. Might there be a great party for returning heroes? Sam smiled faintly; he thought indeed there would be. He envisioned one not entirely unlike Bilbo Baggins last birthday celebration in the Shire before the elder had left for Rivendell. It was filled with so many familiar faces, with much food and wine, with dancing and laughter. Gandalfs fireworks lit up the sky, amazing the innocent children, bringing beauty and excitement to the clear evening. The wizard he heard chuckling, quite content to bring these simple people such joy. He imagined Merry and Pippin, jovial in their success, merry-making with their families and friends and bragging about adventures taken and dangers beaten. At a table he saw Gimli and Legolas, friendly bantering with each other over some matter of trivial importance between Dwarves and Elves, and with them was Aragorn, laughing and jesting with them both. He felt himself in the arms of Rosie, whirling about the common area in a spirited dance that he had ages ago promised her, breathing in her soft, flowery fragrance and losing himself in her laughing eyes. He knew the appreciation and pride of his father, boasting words filling his ears and heart with delight. And Frodo. His dear, dear friend! Together again, at last home in the Shire, never to be now separated, fulfilling a vow made between brothers. In Frodos blue eyes he saw tears of absolute relief and joy. In his face Sam knew peace. Friends old and new gathered to celebrate the defeat of the shadow, to rest in the company of good, hearty folk and each other.
It seemed so vivid! Sam again opened his eyes and nearly gasped, disappointed to find himself still trapped in the blackness of Mordor. He gave a wistful sigh and continued to walk, the visions slow to recede. Maybe this dream was not so impossible. Perhaps success was not so distant a thing. It was idealistic to think that destroying the Ring could restore all to what it was. He knew not how the others fared. It had been another matter of uncertainty and worry for him that had only amplified in his returning loneliness. If Gandalf had sought to contend with Saruman, then matters west were surely dark and dire. He prayed Legolas had been rescued, for his friend was far too fair and gentle a creature to suffer in the shadow. He hoped Strider had kept the others protected. The ranger was powerful and strong; Sam did not doubt he had maintained his wits about him. He wished for nothing more than he did for Frodos safety. He knew his friend had a secret mettle within him not easily broken, but Sam still feared for Frodo. Knowing now the vile call of the Ring, he marveled at Frodos strength in so long bearing it. Once again he wondered at the twist of fate that had placed him in a duty perhaps meant for his friend.
He remembered Gandalfs words. Sam was not well versed in matters of fate and destiny. Such things were beyond him, powerful but intangible, abstract and ill defined, and he had not the knowledge or wisdom to begin to understand the workings of things above the obvious. Yet what the wizard had said seemed to make a bit of sense, and even more, it offered some comfort. If indeed he was meant to now have the Ring, as Frodo was meant before to bear it, then perhaps it was no mistake that fate had chosen him. Such a strange thought!
He walked faster now. His stride grew in power and resolution. Life would find a way to correct itself, he was sure. Perhaps it would do so in him, and if that was the case, then Gandalf was right. He could do this because it had been appointed to him.
There came a scuffle ahead, and Sam abandoned his thoughts. Fear and terror chilled him, and he stood paralyzed, straining his senses. He did not have to wait long to discover what it was that had disturbed the silence.
Ahead, emerging from behind a sharp hill, rode a Nazgûl upon its stallion of black. For a moment Sam did naught but stare, frozen by his horror and alarm. Frantically his eyes scanned as the Ringwraith plodded forward, glancing about from atop the horse. Behind it appeared another, its black cape flowing like midnight as it followed. Sam forgot to breathe. Yet one more he then saw. Three. The Hobbit clenched in sheer agony and terror. Three!
They milled about, obviously searching, and Sam could not think to even hide. The first turned in his direction. He whimpered. Run, his agonized mind ordered. His numbed body did not heed the command, and the Nazgûl grew alert as it saw him. It let loose a piercing howl, immediately drawing the attention of the others. Run! The cry sliced through Sams stasis, and the Hobbit turned and fled.
Across the ground he flew, his heart beating rapidly, the rush of blood between his ears deafening. He could not think, his terror warding away all logic. Behind him was the thunder of racing hooves, and the shrieks of the demons as they pursued him. There had barely been any distance between himself and the Ringwraiths; he would never be able to outrun them! Tears streamed down his frantic face as he struggled for breath, pushing his body beyond his limits, his limbs paining him in tingling exertion. He thought he could hear the snorts of the beasts, smell the putrid breaths, feel the cold caress of undying night envelope him. Sam screamed.
There was a wall of rock ahead. Sam cursed himself frantically; he had run himself into a dead end! This was not the way he had come, and the boulders were tall. As he drew near, he noticed quickly that there were ledges and handholds in the stone. Could he climb this? He stood at the base, gazing up with teary eyes the height. The Nazgûl howled in delight as they approached rapidly. He realized he had no choice but to try.
Gripping the stone with slick, sweaty hands, he dug his toes into another grip and pulled himself up. His arms shook with the strain as he grunted, struggling to climb the surface. He had never been the most flexible or brave, and as a child he had been slow to reach the tops of trees much to his own chagrin and the amusement of his friends. Idly, as he struggled, he wished he had Pippins quick hands and feet; the young Took had always been the first to win every race to the top. Sam had never really tried overly hard, knowing his own limits and fear. He chastised himself for previously accepting his limits!
They were upon him. Sam sobbed as he hauled his body higher, each grip tenuous and dangerous. He had not the time to adequately judge the safety of each hold. The Nazgûl screamed from below him, vexed that their catch was eluding them. Hands covered in metal gauntlets ripped upward, seeking to grab the fleeing Hobbit. Sam wriggled away, shuddering at each near touch, frantically trying to put more height between himself and the threat. His sweaty fingers were shaking and poor in their grip. A hand latched onto his ankle and yanked. He howled in absolute terror.
Panicked beyond all rational thought, Sam kicked and pulled. His foot collided with hard metal, and the tight grasp opened, releasing his other leg. While the Nazgûl shrieked in anger and frustration, he pulled himself higher, scrambling on the rock. Above there was a narrow ledge. He had to reach it! There was a chorus of metallic rings behind him, and Sam made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder. Three silver, wretched blades shot upward, violent and gleaming. They sliced through the air, singing a horrible melody of sharp threat, careening towards him. Sam wasted not a moment more. With all his strength, pushing his body like he had never before, he grabbed the ledge. Though his arms quivered and ached, he would not let go. Letting loose a feral howl, the small creature pulled himself onto the ledge.
The swords slammed into the rock with a shower of sparks and shards where his legs had seconds before been. Again the Ringwraiths screamed their rage when their strikes met nothing but stone. Sam rose to his feet upon the tiny ledge, pressing his body to the hot stone, relieved and a bit euphoric. Sweat and tears blurred his eyes, but the nightmare of black and silver below him was all too starkly clear. The demons dismounted. They intended to follow.
Whatever satisfaction that had eased him fled in a new wave of terror and panic. Sam reached behind him and grasped the rock. The top was only a few feet above him. Without thinking further, Sam angled himself around and jumped. His fingers scraped along the ragged edge, tearing his skin, but he held tight. The swords whistled behind him, hacking away at more of the rock in an attempt to stab his wriggling body. With a choked sob, Sam braced his feet against the ledge and pushed. He scrambled over the top.
No sooner than he rolled to his feet did the gauntlet of the Nazgûl slam down into dirt at his toes. Sam cried out in alarm and stumbled, falling hardly, sending paralyzing pain up his back. The narrow precipice crumbled as the great demon fluidly pulled itself up, its sword shining brightly. The other Ringwraiths were close behind the first, climbing atop the outcropping with loud thuds.
Sam scrambled back and looked around frantically. The ledge was narrow; on the other side was quite a steep drop, and its decline was littered with rocks. He could afford only a cursory glance as three long blades were raised, shining dully. They screamed downward, and Sam whimpered, skittering further back. The first two slammed into the rock, slicing through the ledge. The third nearly took off his head.
Sam inhaled harshly and crawled forward. A blade crashed downward, barely missing his legs, further destroying the precipice. The rocks were crumbling. The ledge was collapsing!
The plan was obvious. There was but one course of action, despite the needling of his vow made before. Although he hated and feared it, there was no other choice. It was a risk to take, but he would never otherwise be able to escape the Nazgûl!
As the rocks shook and shuddered under the weight, Sam quickly fished out the Ring from his tunic. The Nazgûl shrieked in sadistic glee as the sick trinket glinted, and they rounded on him once more. Gathering all his wits and strength, he jabbed his finger into the band and waited for the world to melt.
It was so bright, this place inside the Ring where light bleached the world. He was prepared for the nausea, for the soundless wind pummeling him, for the strange shadows and retarded motions. The old kings, sick and twisted by evil, grabbed at him in the twilight, but Sam wasted no time. He struggled to his feet and stumbled to the edge. A hand grabbed his cloak, yanking him back. Sam screamed into the void and pulled himself free. He would not allow them to get the Ring!
The ground lurched and there was suddenly nothing beneath his feet. The Nazgûl cried again as the outcropping collapsed under their weight and the harsh treatment of the swords. They fell backwards, down whence they had all come. Propelled by energy spent in escape, Sam pin wheeled forward. There was no air to breathe as he quickly lost his balance and slipped.
Sam knew nothing as he tumbled, the world a blurry, blaring image of pain and fear. Vaguely he felt himself rolling, colliding with stones and rocks. Beneath the disorientation he knew he was hurting. But he could do nothing to stop his fall. The screams of the Nazgûl pierced the void, drowning out the infernal whispering of the Ring. They punctured the vacuum where his own howls could not.
A thought occurred to his sluggish mind as he fell. The Ring was burning his finger. Inside its seductive call became a dominating demand. He felt his strength fading. He struck something hard, felt agony pierce his back. Exhaustion was overcoming him quickly. Blearily he looked up. In this strange world, dark blobs were descending slowly upon him. It seemed a funny thing, like falling plots of mud. Sam grasped the Ring and breathlessly yanked it from his finger.
The void faded as quickly as it came,
and reality violently snapped back into motion. He felt pain. Blood. Fear. As he looked
upon the still crumbling precipice, he realized he had fallen far, down into a deep
ravine, walls of gray surrounding him. Those silly, falling blobs were hardly blobs at
all. Sam screamed in panic. The last thing he saw was a rain of rock and stone descending
There were Orcs all around them. The stinking creatures had surrounded them, cornered them against a large boulder, and there was nowhere they might run.
Frodo gulped. Behind him he felt Gollum quiver, the wretched beast shaking violently enough to rattle his own form. In one sweaty hand he held Sting, the blade glowing ethereally, brightly blaring a warning that was now too late. The other fist was clenched about Legolas long knife, and this he held defensively before his chest. The small creature shook with terror as he eyed the company trapping them against the rocks. All around the Orcs smiled gleefully. Each bore a spear or blade, leering at their catch hungrily. The sight of the passionate, animalistic violence in their beady eyes chilled Frodos blood.
Once again the Hobbit cursed himself for what now was undoubtedly a choice made in foolery. Gollum had warned him that Orc patrols were likely to be combing the lands about the army, but Frodo had not paid the grotesque creature much attention. It had been his prejudice mostly, he realized, that had made him disregard Gollums clearly sound advice. As well he had grown impatient with their slow, skulking pace. His concern for Sam had demanded a faster route. After they had cleared the flank of Saurons forces, he had quit their path of a wide berth, deciding on a more direct route east. That had been the critical mistake, for many Orc companies were indeed roaming these lands, lately joining their comrades or scouting. He cursed himself now for his impatience!
"Leave us!" hissed Gollum frantically. The tone was strangled in the most intense fear. "Horrible Orcses! Leave us be, gollum!"
Silenced by his own panic and anger, Frodo said nothing. The Orcs seemed greatly amused by Gollums insistences, and they poked and prodded at their cornered prey with their weapons. Frodo gritted his teeth. He was by no means a great fighter. His skill with the blade was severely limited, and he had not Aragorns mettle, Gimlis strength, or Legolas agility. He had quickly counted their odds. Only five Orcs had found them and surrounded them. Darkly, Frodo realized that, given his inadequacy in battle, it might as well have been fifty. Even if he could somehow best these adversaries, surely more would be alerted by the skirmish and quickly reinforce the enemy. He held his weapons tighter, squeezing the pommels until his palms ached dully.
Gollum latched his hands tightly into Frodos cloak as the Hobbit took yet another step backwards. The Orcs pressed closer, and Frodo realized in panic that there was no room left to retreat. Frustrated tears of defeat collected in his eyes and his heart pounded in fatigued agony. This was the price to pay for his prejudice, for his impulsiveness! He squeezed his eyes shut in despair. I am so sorry, Sam!
The Orcs shrieked in joy and advanced. Gollum screamed shrilly from behind him, but Frodo could not hear over the roaring of heart. Frantic, strong hands pulled and jerked at his cloak, yanking his body down, and weakly he complied. There was a flash of blinding light and a rush of a cool breeze. Frodo whimpered, dropping Sting and the knife to cover his head protectively. The monsters howled, screeching with a furious pitch that sounded almost strangled with sudden terror. A great scuffle resounded, and Frodo tucked himself tighter against the rock. Gollums form he felt quivering behind his own, the creatures sick breath warm on the back of his neck. A rumble of feet, an angry snarl, the clink of weapons poised to strike. He did not want to die like this! Oh, such a failure! Such a horrible waste! His heart quivered helplessly in need for his life.
Frodo waited what seemed to be forever for a blow that never came. The daze of sadness and anger held him captive, and he was too frightened to break free from its grasp. Only when silence came to him over the rush of blood in his ears did he begin to again hope. It was a queer emptiness, one that both relieved and alarmed him, and his curiosity began to best his terror. Slowly the Hobbit opened one eye. What he saw around him confused him enough for his panic to abate quickly. Strewn about where now the bodies of their tormentors, covered in brackish blood from wounds the small creature could not detect. Relief weakened Frodo immensely, and he felt cold tears rush from his eyes.
"No need to cry now, Frodo," came an old, familiar voice.
Frodo ripped around and blanched. Standing beside the boulder that had blocked their escape, glowing brightly in robes of the purest white and rippling with tangible power, was Gandalf. The Hobbits heart stopped momentarily in shock, and a thousand frantic questions stampeded through his numb mind. When his paralyzing alarm faded, his trembling face broke into a relieved smile.
Frodo wept in amazement and joy, forgetting his horror, despair, and pain as Gandalf stepped closer, leading a horse behind him by the reins. The Hobbit could contain himself no longer and with an ecstatic shout he threw himself into Gandalfs waiting embrace. The old wizard chuckled softly as he wrapped old, strong arms around the small creatures shaking form. Frodo buried his face into Gandalfs shoulder, astonished and exhilarated at the others appearance. "Oh, Gandalf!" he gasped, comforted greatly by this simple moment. He leaned back and smiled, feeling mirth and hope come back to his heart. His face glistened brightly with tears. "Gandalf, youre alive!"
The old wizard gave a crooked smile. It seemed a bit strained and weary, but it reached his dark eyes and brought to life in Frodo so many good, warming memories of laughter and companionship. "Indeed, young Baggins. You are quite lucky that I came upon you here!"
Frodo then bowed his head in shame. "Ive made a terrible mess of the task you gave me, Gandalf," he admitted sorrowfully. The words burned like poison, but he could not keep them inside any longer. He prayed the wizard would find no fault in him for the horrible turn of things. "Im so sorry."
Gandalf rose slowly. "You have done no wrong, Frodo, for which apologies are necessary! You and Samwise are too alike in that!"
Frodo held his breath. "You have seen Sam?"
The wizards face turned serious and his voice became quiet. "I have, Frodo. He has carried on in your stead."
The words held such finality. No longer could he question. No more could he doubt. Sam had somehow obtained the lost Ring at Amon Hen so many weeks ago. Sam had gone alone and bravely into Mordor, continuing the quest the Fellowship had been forced to abandon. Sam was facing dangers meant for himself. The thoughts brought to life in Frodo intense grief and shame. How could he have let this happen? How could he have allowed his dearest friend to suffer? Again came the horrible memories: Boromirs lust, the wretched Ring burning against his chest, the pain in his head He closed his eyes against the tears. "I have done him a great disservice."
"He said he has done the same to you, young Frodo," declared Gandalf in a calm, comforting voice. Frodo looked up, his eyes wide and blue with unresolved emotion. The wizard offered him a small grin. "Your worry for him breds an overactive conscience!"
Gollum hissed. He had recoiled from Gandalf, obviously in fear and disgust. The white of the wizards robes alone surely disturbed him. "Sméagol lead good Hobbit to the precious! Sméagol knows the way! We run!"
Anger and hate bubbled inside Frodo again abruptly, and he quickly cast the vile creature a sharp glare. "Were not looking for the Ring," he snapped angrily through clenched teeth. The tone of his voice shocked him. The vehemence was somehow misplaced, as though he was assuring himself of this fact more than Gollum. Frodo felt the color drain from his face. He had to avert his eyes from Gandalf, too ashamed to meet the wise, old gaze. "Were looking for Sam."
"Then I say this to you, Frodo. Go quickly and find him. I dreaded leaving him alone in this cursed land, but duty calls me elsewhere and I cannot ignore responsibility for all the want of my heart!" Gandalf announced remorsefully. If the wizard had noticed the strange note in Frodos previous announcement, he chose not to speak of it, and for that the alarmed and unnerved Hobbit was glad. "There is sadly no time to speak more on the matter. Things are rapidly drawing to a close, and there is much yet to be done."
Frodo regarded the wizard quizzically then. "What do you mean, Gandalf? What things?" he asked quietly, feeling worry dizzy him. "Do you mean the army? You must tell Aragorn of it!"
The wizard ripped himself from a distant reverie and looked to him. The smile he offered now was weak and disheartening. "I will do that and more, my dear Frodo. But you must find Sam and help him. He is both strong and brave, but I fear this horrible place may become too much for him." Gandalfs concerns mirrored his own and Frodo nodded. "I can offer little in the way of aid, but I will give you this."
Frodo directed his gaze to the forgotten horse behind Gandalf. The stallion was tall and majestic, standing far above his own head. A silky coat glistened brightly despite the melancholy gray of the morning. He was truly a magnificent animal, and though Frodo knew little of horses, he could appreciate the mounts power and beauty. "This is Shadowfax. He once belonged to the king of Rohan."
"Rohan " Frodos voice trailed off in confusion and concern. "How could he have found his way here, Gandalf?" The wizard seemed dismayed. "He and I have bonded together through perils, which I will not now discuss. Over the bridge at Minas Tirith he came to Mordor, sensing my call for speed. I fear trouble has come to the Rohirrim. King Théoden would not easily relinquish his prized steed, and Shadowfax is greatly perturbed," the wizard explained.
"Aragorn was there," Frodo declared, worry permeating his tone. His eyes grew distant as he pondered a moment on the friends he had left behind. When his concerns muddled his reasoning, he looked to Gandalfs for reassurance. "Do you suppose they are well?"
Gandalf was quiet a moment. Frodo felt his concern grow at the wizards hesitation. Then the other smiled, albeit slowly. "Surely," he said finally, "for Aragorn is wise and powerful. He will let no harm come to them." From behind them came a distant rumble of many feet. The Orcs were again on the move! "Quickly, now! Shadowfax will run tirelessly! He will take you to Sam!"
Breathlessly, Frodo knelt and reclaimed his fallen weapons. Sting he returned to his scabbard and the knife he scooped up from the dirt. Then he stepped to the horse. Gandalf, still gripping his staff, reached downward to grasp the small creature. Gently the great wizard placed the Hobbit upon the tall mount. Then they looked to Gollum.
The small creatures face broke in rage. "Bright horse! Horrible horse! Sméagol will not ride!" it hissed, cowering closer to the boulder. "Istar, Istar! Stay back from us, gollum!"
"If you will not ride, then be gone with you!" yelled Frodo. Shadowfax stepped impatiently below him.
Gandalf opened his mouth to speak, perhaps to chastise Frodo for his hateful words, but Gollum shouted first. "Mean Hobbit! Hateful Hobbit! We leave you now! Mean, mean Hobbit!" The wicked being gave an insane shriek, never tearing his wide, soulless eyes from Gandalf, before scrambling around the boulder. In the safety of the shadows, Gollum fled their sight, running away from them.
Gandalf stood still for a silent moment before sadly shaking his head. No longer could they detect the wiry form among the rocks. "He may in the end be ally rather than enemy, Frodo," he declared quietly. Though the words were without heat or disapproval, Frodo felt a blush of embarrassment crawl to his face. In truth, he was glad to finally be rid of Gollums greasy, disquieting presence. Suddenly he cared not if that satisfaction stemmed from prejudice or hate, though that apathy brought him a sting of shame. Gollum had surely caused them all enough pain and trouble!
He had been silent in contemplation for a few moments, for when Gandalfs hand closed over his, he nearly jumped in surprise. He turned to behold the wizard, and then followed the ancient gaze. The old, weathered hand gently took the knife from his fingers. For a moment the wizard simply examined it. A pained expression came to Gandalfs face. Frodo lowered his gaze as the ache came again. He thought he had long grown accustomed to the sting of the loss, but now he felt it anew, like a piercing in his heart. He swallowed uncomfortably. "Legolas fell at Amon Hen."
The wizard did not speak, holding the blade in his palm. Its white beauty seemed so pure in the midst of the blackness. "I feared loss had come to the Fellowship. An Elf surrounded by shadow! This greatly grieves me."
They were silent a moment. Frodo felt a sob push its way up through his throat. Looking at that knife, knowing that Legolas had fallen because of his own failure, suddenly seemed so very heavy upon his soul. Had his wielding it in his defense been wrong because of the suffering he had brought to Legolas? "Take it, Gandalf," said Frodo quietly. He looked down, feeling horrible and guilty. "Take it to Aragorn. He deserves it more than I."
Gandalf said nothing, gazing at the Elvish knife in his hands. Then he released a slow breath that ruffled his beard. He looked up and smiled gently. The wisdom of his eyes eased Frodos bleeding heart. "No, Frodo," he said tenderly. He took the Hobbits hand and returned the long hilt to the palm. Then his warm, big fingers closed over Frodos hand. "I think he would want you to have it."
Frodo smiled weakly. The words heartened him and wiped away a bit of his guilt. He gripped tightly the knife, appreciating its silent strength and protection. He was thankful anew for all Legolas had done for him. Gandalf then laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Be well, Frodo. That which separates friends shall no longer. Trust in Shadowfax; he knows the way!"
"I will," Frodo promised softly. His throat constricted and tears filled his eyes. "Will I see you again, Gandalf?"
Gandalf squeezed him and smiled. Mirth glowed in his eyes, and in that gaze, Frodo felt at ease. "Of course, my dear Frodo. All will be right in the end. There is much in Middle Earth beyond good and evil that governs the way of things. We again shall meet. Put your faith in that, my boy!" Frodo smiled weakly and nodded. "Now, go. Sam needs you."
The Hobbit drew a deep breath to calm himself. He watched as Gandalf affectionately patted Shadowfax and spoke quietly to the horse. The animal snorted and stepped lightly. Then the wizard offered Frodo one last smile. The Hobbit found faith in this new promise. He grabbed onto the reins of the mount and pressed his body tightly to Shadowfaxs great neck. "Fly, Shadowfax!" he whispered. "Fly!"
The horse happily obliged, carrying him
away from Gandalf and deeper into Mordor, closer, he knew, to Sam.
Arwen closed her eyes. All around her Lothlórien buzzed with activity. Elves rushed about, preparing for the battle that was evidently coming. It was early yet, there was much to do to ready the defense. In a few hours, the legion from Mirkwood would march east towards Gondor. Its lord was presently in private council with Celeborn; Arwen did not doubt they were sharing plans of strategy and defense. Such matters were of great importance, as were the means through which they might maintain communication. She could wait until their discussion was completed to ask Vardaithil her simple favor.
Tiredly she leaned against one of the old, wide trees of Caras Galadhon. There was a muted throb of noise all around, orders given and relayed, gossip and talk, the sound of many light feet falling quickly. She was lost to it in exhaustion. Since the council had concluded the evening before, her world had become a blur of action to which she was simply numb. The night had been long and trying; sleep had not come to her despite her weariness from traveling. Her mind had simply been too alive and aroused with thought. Much of the dark hours she had spent in mourning. Both her father and Glorfindel had attempted to comfort her, but she had respectfully turned away their condolences, opting instead for solitude. Her tears had been warm with bittersweet memories. When the grief had finally lifted a bit, worry immediately rushed into the vacancy, and no peace came to her. The morning sun had been a welcome end to the torturous night.
As the light of dawn had crept to the Golden Wood, a decision had come to her. Her father had been the first to hear of it. Elrond had been far from pleased with her choice. Though his eyes spoke volumes of his disapproval and worry, his lips did not. She was his daughter, but she was still of age; her choices were her own to make, and he would respect that. Glorfindel had been a bit harder to convince. After a rushed discussion, the Elf lord had conceded to her wishes, provided that he accompany her and her presence would not upset or interfere with the work of Vardaithil. It was the latter she was presently trying to confirm.
She waited, her body still, her heart heavy. The swirl of grief, anger, and fear inside her had grown no less powerful during the night. Memories of Legolas plagued her relentlessly, their sweet touches harsh to her sorrowing mind. Worry for Aragorn drove her from any rest, endless fears constantly denying her serenity. Arwen was frustrated and angry, and these feelings were not common to her. Much had happened since the Fellowship had left her fathers council, and she had been there to prevent none of it. It had not been her place to accompany them, she knew, but the guilt and spite remained all the same. She did not count herself a particularly skilled fighter or healer, but her abilities were commendable. Still, no matter how much her heart had wished it, there had been no place for her among the Nine. Her passionate love for Aragorn would have hindered him. She doubted he would have had the clear head and unburdened thoughts to make correct decisions. Yet it was frustrating. Perhaps if she had gone, the horrible way of things might have been altered. In battle she might have offered her hand and been maybe a deciding factor to tip the odds in the favor of the Fellowship. Arwen did not know if these thoughts held any merit; berating oneself in hindsight over choices made never did anything but infuriate, for there was no way to answer these questions. She knew as well why she truly resented her estrangement from Aragorn. Her life had now been drastically altered. She had lost Legolas, her truest friend, and Aragorn faced uncertain peril alone. When the two had been together, she had worried less for she trusted them both immensely; one would never allow the destruction of the other. But Legolas, sweet, fair Legolas, was dead, and Aragorns fate was frighteningly unclear. She sighed gently, trying to calm herself. She did indeed understand her motives, and they were purely selfish. She was silently furious that her family had been so violently and viciously ripped from her without her knowing, and she would not allow that to happen again.
There came footsteps from behind her, and she opened her bleary eyes. Arwen straightened herself and turned. Vardaithil approached, a lieutenant of his troops, who sported shining, gold plate, speaking to him quickly. The crown prince of Mirkwood seemed a bit distracted, but his deep blue eyes focused on her. She nodded respectfully, bowing her head. Vardaithil quickly finished his conversation with the Elf, bidding the other in some hushed order of preparation before the soldier skittered away. Then he turned to her. "My Lady," he began softly. His pale face looked weary, dark with fatigue and heartache. Still, it only served to make him appear more regal and powerful. The pride of his father and his position could never be denied. "You would do well with rest. The morning is yet young."
Arwen steeled herself. She could not deny that Vardaithil intimidated her. The Silvan Elf was impressive and influential. Scant times in the past had she visited the court of Thranduil, but what she knew much of the king that she found both awing and troubling. Much of Thranduil had been imprinted upon his oldest son. "I can find no peace," she admitted quietly, "but I thank you for your concern."
He nodded sadly. To her, he politely offered his arm. Arwen swallowed her hesitation and woe; so many times before had Legolas done the very same in escort during a stroll or to a dinner. It was not difficult to see the similarities between Vardaithil and his youngest brother. Together they bore the strength of their father in firm jaws and erect, proud postures. Eyes of deep blue looked to her, vigorous and expressive. She nodded her gratitude and slid her hand into the crook of his elbow.
They began to walk. Though around them rushed Elves of all sorts, they lingered in a lethargic, nervous world. Despite his potent presence, she felt his awkwardness as well. Idly she realized without a doubt this was an uncomfortable moment for him. Two Elves, united by only love for a common brother, brought together in that gentle beings death. A sad meeting if any! "I wish to apologize to you," he declared quietly, breaking a difficult silence. She narrowed her eyes upon his face as he gazed ahead blankly. "I recall now that my brother was a great friend to you. I am sure you think it a silly matter to forget and quite unbecoming of a prince as well as a sibling, and I will offer no excuse. Forgive me my lapse and the pain I have caused you."
She was surprised at his statement, but let none of shock reach her face. "It is no bother, my Lord. You as well are sick with grief. Mine must be small and trivial in comparison."
Vardaithil lowered his gaze to her. In his eyes she saw a storm of conflicting thought and mood. "I do doubt that, Undómiel, as much as I would like not to." The Elf sighed and drew to a stop on a footbridge. He stood stiffly. "There has been great dissonance in the House of Thranduil in years past. I scold myself now for letting it begin and continue as long as it did. If Legolas sought solace and comfort in your fathers kingdom, then that only further indicates my failure to ease the tension between my brothers."
Waves of his pain struck her. Her heart ached for the disgust and anger she heard in the constricted tone. She knew little of what had happened in his fathers court that had driven Legolas away. From the few times prior that she had met his other brothers, she had begun to understand a little more her friends reasons. One of his twin brothers, Astaldogald, was particularly smothering and arrogant. She would be hard pressed to live with such an Elf for so long, and she considered herself rather pliant and complacent. Legolas had been gentle and loving, but his stubbornness and pride would never have permitted his views to be trampled and besmirched by his older sibling. Love for mortals. How this tore apart brothers! Love is not meant to do such! "It was no failure of yours," Arwen assured softly, silencing her dark and angry thoughts. "Legolas was no child. He made his own choices. I cannot say that I was not glad for his company."
"As was your beloved, I am sure." Arwen immediately stiffened, but she felt no reproach or heat in his flaccid tone. "Legolas friendship with Elessar was perhaps the final wall to divide him from us. I do not fault him in his actions, but his companionship with a man was frowned upon by all, including my father. Mortals have never been friend to the Kingdom of Mirkwood." Arwens eyes narrowed angrily and Vardaithil immediately lowered his gaze. "I do not say this to anger or upset you, my Lady. I see it in your eyes. You frown upon my fathers house for its attitudes. I know not what has brought such dislike into your heart. I doubt Legolas would speak ill of our family, but he had always been an expressive Elf in posture and gaze. I apologize now for whatever false ideas he might have inadvertently imprinted upon you."
The words did not bode well with Arwen, but she did not press the matter further. It would do her well not to anger Vardaithil, else he might not consider her request. Shoving aside her disdain and steeling her composure, she spoke after a silent moment. "I shall tell why I sought you out this morning, my Lord."
Arwen drew in a deep breath. "I know this is an unusual request, but understand that I have much pondered the matter. I wish to accompany you and your army to Gondor."
For a moment, Vardaithil did not speak, and Arwen did not have the courage to raise her gaze to meet his own. The fear of rejection lingered in the emptiness, and Arwen felt her resolve teeter. "Why, if I may ask?"
The truth, she decided, was her best course of action. "Aragorn might be in danger. I cannot in good conscience remain here," she said simply, praying he would not think folly of her reasoning.
"You ask me to escort you for love?" Vardaithil questioned. There was a hint of anger in his stern voice. "Surely you realize, Undómiel, that I cannot guarantee your safety!"
"I do not ask you to," answered Arwen quietly. Her firm eyes locked upon his. "My Lord, I stayed behind in Rivendell when the Nine Walkers set forth. I watched helplessly as my love and my friend left on a quest of unparalleled danger. One of them is gone. I cannot bear to lose the other. Please, I am begging you with all my heart. Allow my company."
Her statement seemed persuasive for Vardaithil closed his eyes. "And Lord Elronds opinion of it?"
Arwen responded calmly, "My father is returning to Rivendell with permission of the Lord and Lady. There is little he can do here, and his people need him. I would be telling a falsehood if I said he approved of it, but he did agree to it." Her eyes became imploring. "My Lord, I will be no burden to you. My fathers most trusted vassal, the Elf lord Glorfindel, will ride as my guard. He will protect me."
Vardaithil offered a weak smile that most surprised her. "Undómiel, I doubt you need protection at all. You are valiant as you are strong." Arwen felt her heart pulse with embarrassed pride, but she only returned his gesture, her face thankfully remaining pale. "I can make no promises, but I will allow you to ride with us. You have been truthful with me, so I will be likewise with you." His eyes grew a shade deeper and darker. "I care little for men. They have done my kingdom much damage, whether intentionally or not, and I cannot trust so easily again. I help you not for Elessar, for he has done nothing to gain my faith. You have been a good friend to my brother; this is clear to me. If escorting you to Gondor can repay the favor you have done the House of Thranduil in befriending Legolas, then I shall see it done."
She stared at him, conflicted by anger and gratitude. Though what he said regarding men irked her, she could not truly fault him for his thinking. This made it difficult to completely renounce his attitudes, even though she deeply wanted to. Her dazed, exhausted mind registered little beyond her emotions. Numbly she thanked him.
He nodded gravely, as if sensing her uneasiness. "We move soon."
"I understand," Arwen answered. "I will be ready."
Once more the uncomfortable silence descended. Vardaithil nodded finally, turned, and walked down the bridge. Squires and messengers that had been waiting for his attention now eagerly bombarded him with information and requests. Arwen watched him walk stiffly away, speaking to each in turn, a retinue of Elves in tow. She suddenly was thankful for the time he had afforded her.
She turned, knowing the deep voice to belong to Glorfindel. The Elf lord stood behind her, appraising her with concerned eyes. She sighed slowly and gave the other a weak smile. Glorfindel spoke quietly. "He agreed?"
"Yes," she answered, "but not for the reasons I wished. He believes doing me this favor will repay a shameful debt to Legolas." She returned her gaze to the retreating back of Vardaithil. "It amazes me, Glorfindel, that a family can differ so. Vardaithil aids us now because of orders from his father and unrequited guilt. He does not act out of compassion. I cannot imagine the same blood that is now so cold to mortals ran so warmly in Legolas," she whispered sadly.
Glorfindel stepped closer. She barely detected his approach. "You cannot change the way others think, little star. It is the limit of all life. We are each entitled to believe what we will, no matter how wrong or hurtful it might be to others. Wisdom oft brings frustration over ignorance." He laid a strong hand upon her shoulder. "Now, come. I have saddled Asfaloth for you."
She smiled weakly. "I should like for you to ride your own horse."
"It would be entirely unfitting for an Elf of my duty and stature to allow you to walk to Minas Tirith. I of course mean no disrespect, but the road is long, and you will hardly do Estel any good if you are exhausted."
She could not deny the logic of his words, though she disliked his smothering concern for her well being. Would they never learn to accept her choice? Too weary to argue the point, she simply nodded. Glorfindel smiled in triumph. "Let us go. There is much yet to do." He turned and began to walk.
Arwen again closed her eyes for a moment. The warmth of the dawn was coming over Lórien. For a moment she simply basked in it, letting the rays of the sun ease away her weariness. The peace was brief, but it was enough at least to bolster her resolve. She feared she would need all the strength she could muster, for there was much left to conquer, and grief and worry only harmed her valor. On her hope she must concentrate.
Vehemently she followed Glorfindel.
She would not again lose one she loved.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.