Never and Always: 8. Trough

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8. Trough

24th March 1419 S.R. The grass is limp and brown under his feet, and beneath it, the grey earth crumbles. Afore him sprawls a thicket of thorns, and it takes Sam a blink of his dry eyes till he knows that it's the whitehorn hedge, grown and dried out to a paling of spikes. Out of the cloudless sky, the heat batters down and roars in his ears. Rows of bracken crackle round the gate that jars open with a dull rattle. Under the old beech, a brake of foxglove has shot up that rustles dry as paper about him. But the bell-shaped blossoms have withered only half-grown, and the leaves are flecked with a deadly white. In the still air, only Sam's breaths shiver through the rank grasses. Come time, there'll be naught to harvest from the kitchen garden, no carrots, turnips or taters, only thin, black shrivels as will lie bitter on the tongue. The apple tree has shed fallow leaves on the lawn where the goosegrass has taken over in bristling tangles. Between the parched bushes cluster nettles, and stalky thistles have chased out all the annuals, but those too are dried to sticks. Sam turns about to look at this ghost of a garden – his garden – run to seed and stung lifeless. The sun lies like a hard hand on his forehead, pressing inward. His steps slow further as he walks round the withered barberry shrubs, dread clutching his stomach before he's even taken a look at the patch under the turf wall. Oh, the roses weren't that easily killed. A few of them must have come to bloom, fair and white as always, before the cruel heat took them. But now the few petals as remain bear sick brown stains, and the glossy green of stem and leaf has turned to black. At their feet, a drift of fallen petals piles up like ash-flakes. Sam closes his fingers round a thick stem, but before he can feel a thorn's pricking, it's all crushed to cinder in his hand. A chill stings him through and through, and when he jolts forward, he doesn't know if it's on account of the dream or the black land, or the fact that he's slept at all. His fingers twitch against Frodo's wrist and find a weak patter under the skin. Sam's heart hammers out of step in relief, and it takes him a while to slow his gasping breaths. In his sleep, he's slumped sideways down a jut of rock, and now he's half-curled over his master. Frodo's skin is pale as the dust in this gloom, and his dry mouth parted to a black gasp. Sam strokes shaking fingers across the dirty mass of Frodo's curls, but the chill keeps crawling over him, in restless spider-threads from his back down his legs to his ankles, as if the nettles of his dream were cleaving to his skin. He drags his elbow under him to push up and lose the shivers. It were only a dream, not one of those fancies as will dance in his sight even awake, teasing him with bright, liquid shimmers. Still, a blur gathers in his eyes and pain clamps round his throat. Bag End's garden, he tells himself, the Party Field, the soft Downs beyond Overhill, and all four Farthings lie as green and growing as they ever did. He couldn't bear it otherwise. There has to be a place for Frodo to come home to, even if he can't remember it no more. Sam shakes his head and squeezes his dry eyes shut. Such thoughts of returning do more harm now than good – and hasn't he struggled long enough to admit that there won't be no going home for either of them? But it seems he still needs to hold such a far-off green spot in his mind, a place where he can fancy them together. It unrolls swift behind his lids, fair green and sun-drenched all to the horizon, and so glorious that it takes his breath. Bright fields and blossoming orchards and a swell of leas drowsing after the summer rains. But he's seen this before, a false promise grafted on his mind by the curse that burned at his throat. His empty stomach twists so hard that he's pitching forward again with a grating cough. "Sam?" His name is mashed on the heavy tongue, but a long, grateful sigh slips through Sam's chest at the sound. He slides a hand under Frodo's back to ease his rising till he's leaned against the stone. "Only a moment," Frodo mutters, "I will–" He breaks off, for his hand moves in a sudden flutter, and he stares down to it as if it's a bird thrashing about with broken bones. Sam doesn't stir. He's seen it before, how Frodo will strive with these fits, and how his eyes will clear when he's won the struggle yet again. Such a proud spark in them when he looks at Sam, out of his misery. "We should go on," he whispers and grasps a hold of Sam's shoulders to heft himself upright. It hurts to smile, but Sam can't be bothered by that when it brings even a vague flicker to Frodo's eyes, and for the moment he's between Frodo and the mountain. He's often wondered what the Ring promised Frodo, and when it stopped promising, to do aught but claim and take. "You..." Frodo is breathing harsh through his mouth. "...when you... hold me." Sam winds one arm quick about Frodo's waist, and wonders if he meant to say more, or if Frodo were trying to solve some riddle that will rouse only within his mind. "Always," Sam murmurs, his own speech dragging as if each word were fastened to a millstone. And what a word this one is, seeing as how they've taken their rest so near the mountain's feet that it's starting to blot out most of the glowering sky and all else that might be seen of this land if the vapours didn't lie so thick and hot on it. "Always... Frodo," Sam repeats, on the spur of defiance as keeps twisting inside him. But his eyes roam over Frodo's gaunt and pale face to search past his own anxious fretting for the beauty that's been burned to embers. He can find it in the smallest things, like the firming line of Frodo's jaw, or the arch of his eyebrow, beneath a thoughtful crease that's formed over years of reading and study. "Then you know," Frodo mutters, leaning nearer, and mayhap that's another sign that his sight is fading deeper into shadows. "What I don't... what It... can't–" But his voice scrapes so hoarse in his throat that Sam touches his face to stop him from trying to say more. He smoothes back a dusty tangle that's been plastered to Frodo's cheek. "I do know, Mr. Frodo." A shudder runs through the stones and the hard ground, and Frodo gasps though Sam hasn't loosed his hold by an inch. He tightens it more when Frodo turns his face away from the East and rests his forehead on Sam's shoulder for another moment, ere he stumbles to his feet. Sam follows as soon as he can drag a breath through the grinding ache in his chest. They stagger into a day that's parted from all light save a dust-filled gloom. The mountain spouts trails of smoke that leak down its broken flanks, cloaking them from view. And that might be better so, Sam thinks, Frodo's hand close in his, for that black threat won't bring naught but fear and thoughts of taking any road save the one leading straight to it. Bright flickers dazzle his sight again, with a hope of streams and pools, and if so much water came pouring into this grey trough of land, it would turn into a sea. Sam blinks hard till the dazzles are gone, and only a gloaming from the height carves through the dim. If he could, he'd tell Frodo about a garden tilled from these sorrowed stones, but the names of flowers and grass won't mean nothing to him now. Sam wraps his fingers a bit tighter around Frodo's as he thinks up a white rose blooming fierce from the barren soil. Only one such tender blossom, its soft petals blowing in a reckless breeze, and yet more of a marvel than aught as the Ring can give. He only has to take one look at Frodo's face, starved to the bones, to know that the Ring won't never grow any gardens. And even if it could – Inside his mind, Sam sees the rose wane and the petals fall, one after the other. He moves his arm round Frodo's waist. There's not a promise in the world to prise them apart now, and when Frodo sags against him, he'll breathe what he's known ever since they escaped the tower. "I'll never lose you again." * * * (continued in: Hearth)

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.

Story Information

Author: Cara Loup

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 10/03/11

Original Post: 05/30/05

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