Minas Tirith, May 1419
The wind blows through Minas Tirith. Born in the mountains, it slips over the ramparts and battlements, dives into the streets, and after a wild, singing twist around the tower, pours across the galleries that gird the citadel. It sidles into the carved arch of a window where its tail is caught into wafts and curls.
Two strange creatures inhabit the chamber, small and brown as leaves blown about by chance in autumn, to settle where they may. They lie crosswise at the foot of the large bed, wrapped in a grey cloak instead of the brocaded cover, huddled away from the cloudless rise of morning. The wind sends a breath over to them and plays with their curls.
One of the two lies in cramped rigour, hunched close against his companion. Between the dark nest of his curls and the cloak, his face is hidden, but the jags in his breathing leave no room for rest or slumber.
The other is stretched out on his back, his eyes open to the stone ceiling. He is humming, a rough meandering of melody that carries no further than the close circle of their breathing. The wind picks it up and lifts stray notes towards the window.
It is an odd melody, strange to these parts of the world, and sweet like the rolling of meadows over hills, or a winding river.
A story is laced through the sparse notes, climbing to pitch with sorrow, and to break with joy. The wind plays it within its ragged tails, sifting the song's flow.
It is a lullaby, the soft spell of a promise breathed against darkness or the burnished day, and the wind cradles it like a secret.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Emyn Muil, February/March 1419
What sort of a story would there be to tell? And who'd be the one to tell it? Not me,
Sam thought, for the words he might have given it were dried to a dull thudding in his chest. The smell of rain clung like a weight to his clothes, and round his throat clamped a remembrance of bony fingers, squeezing fast. Below the steep cliffs of the Emyn Muil, the wind mulled over a mournsome hum. Frodo stood very straight in the damp gusts, every line of his face drawn thin and clear as glass.
The Gollum creature crouched on the ground before them, one hand curled about his bound ankle, but all the mischief were gone from his eyes. They bore a cloudy shine now, and Sam didn't like it any better than the wicked glint before. It took more than Gollum's nasty looks though, to chase a chill up his chest and down his spine. It took –
"No, not on it," Mr. Frodo said in that strange, forceful voice. "All you wish is to see it and touch it if you can, though you know it would drive you mad."
Each word seemed to unloose an echo from the stony hollows, and each sound came to a harsh twisting in the pit of Sam's stomach. He glanced from Frodo back to Gollum. The bloodless lips were quivering on a word that might be promise
, while the last moon-gleams sparked in his eyes. Like a trembling of tears, Sam thought, nigh flinching when the creature crawled up closer to Frodo's feet.
"Not on it," Frodo said. "Swear by
it, if you will. For you know where it is." There was a catch in his breath, and a stranger look on his face when he pressed a hand to the spot high on his chest. "Yes, you know, Sméagol. It is before you."
Aye, and you'd be better off not seeing.
Sam blinked against a sudden, hot blur in his eyes, but it only got worse – like foggy shimmers falling awry into his sight. They stretched Frodo's form tall into shadow and wrapped him in grey like a thundercloud, with a fierce threat of lightning. An edge of it seeped out, keen as the shine on Sting's blade and cold as the bidding of his voice. Gollum grovelled before it, a miserable bundle of bones and skin, but his eyes had gone soft and sage, almost like –
Oh no, naught like him, not the least bit.
All Sam could do was keep a hold on the rope when nothing would stop such thoughts as were making him giddy. His other hand clenched hard in his pocket, grappling on a smooth pebble he'd picked up in the Emyn Muil, from an unlikely bed of stone. Gollum wanted his hands round Mr. Frodo's throat near as bad as he wanted to please him – not him, the Ring!
Sam snapped at himself – couldn't Frodo see that?
"Master!" Gollum sobbed, and his thin fingers fluttered up to paw at Frodo's knee.
"Down!" Frodo ordered, his voice cracking like a whip. "Down! Now speak your promise!"
Sam turned sideways, but he couldn't drag his eyes off, nor close his ears when all the rocks seemed to sing with –
"We promises, yes, I promise!" Gollum babbled, between wheezing, sobbing breaths. "I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Sméagol, gollum, gollum
!" And the tears started dripping from his eyes then, before he lurched forward and tried to bite at his ankle.
"Take the rope off, Sam."
Frodo's voice cut through to him from a distance, and his own breath faltered on a mumbled reply. His fingers had gone so numb, it took him an awful long time to untie the knot, too. The skin over Gollum's ankle felt like dry holly leaves, gone tough and unfeeling in the scouring of one season after the next.
Sam pulled his hand back quick, but now the creature smiled, if the twisting of his drained mouth could count for aught so familiar. Smiling like that, he watched Mr. Frodo with his large, watery eyes. The rope coiled softly between Sam's shaking fingers, warm and alive as like it were trying to make his job easier.
He bent to affix it to his pack, but his eyes drifted up the crags, filling the West with the warnings and recollections as turned and rolled in his stomach. He'd never map a path home across those tumbled rocks, but he'd always remember –
Lie here beside me, Sam.
He shut his eyes so tight that sparks still flickered black across the moon when he opened them again.
Stony peaks struck at the sunken crescent. Frodo's shoulders were slumped, his eyes fixed where shadows overran the dim lands in the East. And Gollum kept watching him with a bright, eager look. He knows,
Sam thought, oh he knows, and I can't
"Well, Gollum..." He made an effort to clear the croak from his throat, "or whatever it is we're to call you. Now for it! The moon's gone, and the night's going. We'd better start."
The creature leapt from its waiting crouch, fierce and hungry like a stirred fire. With the tail of his eye, Sam caught the small jolt that went through Frodo's limbs while Gollum chattered about the path that he'd found.
"Orcs don't cross the Marshes, they go round for miles and miles. Very lucky you came this way. Very lucky you found Sméagol, yes. Follow Sméagol!"
And he was off with one of those vicious frog-leaps, off on the path to guide them. Sam reached out a hand, but it scarce brushed the sudden swirl of Mr. Frodo's cloak. With a sharp stride, Frodo set out to follow, his head bowed. Sam swallowed a bitter rush at the back of his throat. He couldn't guess at the chills or the fires as were running through Frodo's skin. And twice the fool you are for wishing.
They trudged after Gollum, along the stone shelves skirting the Emyn Muil. Soon enough, Frodo's steps slowed to a tired stumble, as if he'd sagged back into himself. Sam could hear the laboured breath squeezing through his teeth, and at times a whispered word trailed with it, released to the dark air, not to him or Gollum.
Not but that their guide would let them fall back too far. He'd come sauntering across the flat stones and tug on Frodo's sleeve with urgent clucks of the tongue. Dark spans of soil stretched between the scattered rocks now, and on their left grew some wind-bent trees, gnarled and leafless.
"Master mustn't stop," Gollum hissed, his fingers tangled in Frodo's cloak again. "Mustn't rest, not yet, nice master."
Sam could feel it catch like a stone in his throat. But Frodo's attention was all bent on their guide, his face soft and thoughtful, till the wretched creature dropped his head and whimpered a doleful gollum
. Frodo tightened his shoulders and quickened his steps.
Sam tugged on his pack-straps though they were set as snug as might be, thinking, thinking what he shouldn't. What Gollum saw when he looked at Frodo with such a hopeless craving. Who it might be that spoke from Frodo's throat, that used his tongue and his voice, twisting those gentle hands to a fearful grip –
And then Sam staggered among the bare trees, just about catching hold of a branch ere he leaned over and coughed up a thin pulp that burned his throat.
It didn't take long, for there'd not been much in his stomach, though it kept pitching through angry heaves for a while. What a waste,
Sam thought, dizzy and gasping. What a waste when every bite they'd got left was a needful treasure. A bulge of silvery bark swam before his sight. Where a branch had ripped off, the scar looked like an eye sketched in fresh ink. When he could breathe proper again, Sam took a sip from the water bottle to clear the sour and the bitter from his mouth. He looked around for some leaves he might chew.
"Sam?" Soft steps rustled over broken twigs.
"Over here, Mr. Frodo." Sam stepped up fast, fingers aflurry in his clothing so as to make it seem that he'd merely relieved himself.
Heat flamed in his cheeks when Frodo wouldn't even look to his hands and held his eyes instead. He knows.
The shame of it rushed into Sam's breast, but it fell to naught in another moment, as if his skin knew better now that Frodo stood so near. Knew and remembered with a lifetime's wonder. His voice. His quiet, tender glance. His touch.
"I'm sorry," Sam whispered through the dry ache in his throat.
Without a word, Frodo held out his hand and wove their fingers together as they walked into the open. Gollum was waiting some paces ahead, crouched and grey like a carved stone in the starlight hovering feeble before dawn. He spat and scurried off in so vicious a twist that Sam could hear the flap of his soles and palms on the rocks.
Frodo's hand lay very cool in his grasp, like the touch of a winter morn, and Sam couldn't help but wonder if his own heat would sting as coal or warm his master soft as comfort. From the hollow of Sam's stomach quivered a guilty start. All that his fears came to were another burden, and a breach of Frodo's trust in him.
Gollum led them down the flat tail of the gully they'd not been able to cross by the mountains, and they went plodding along its course, beside a shallow, snaking river. Whenever the wind swerved into the gully, a moist reek blew about them, culled from the marshlands with a smack of rot. More than once, Sam reached a quick hand to Frodo's elbow, to steady him on the wet stones. When Gollum stopped them with a snarl at the breaking day, Sam was glad for the chance of catching their breaths.
They set their packs down by the rocky wall that still loomed taller than a Man's height. Gollum slunk off to wade into the shadowed water, but Frodo slumped to the ground as if not a bone in his body weren't drenched in tiredness.
Sam cast him a sideways look, careful not to let the worry show in his voice. From the stream came the sounds of Gollum splattering about. "You'd best sleep while you can, Mr. Frodo, and I'll keep an eye on our hungry sneak."
"No." Just that, and a glance as firm as any that the Master of Bag End might use to silence a crowd.
"You've not had a rest since–"
"Do come here, Sam."
He knelt before Frodo, struck mute when Frodo reached to wrap both hands round his neck and pull their foreheads together.
"I don't suppose that you can tell me..." Frodo's breath moved in a thready cloud against his cheek, and Sam wished only to shelter that failing warmth, draw it close into himself till it sang with his pulse and his bloodstream. Even if he'd known the question or the answer, he couldn't have urged a word past the tightness that choked his breath. One of Frodo's hands crept an inch under his collar, fingertips pressing and searching as if to seize Sam's heart through his skin. What ran through him was familiar as his own heartbeat and stranger than the wildest fancy, and the two made a living whole. Only half a day and a night had passed since –
"Close your eyes," Frodo murmured, and there was such gentle caressing in his voice, Sam could feel it to the thump in his chest.
The twilight behind his lids filled with Frodo's breathing, and from it rose the soft hum of a lullaby that Sam had known all his life. The tune pulled through him like burning silver, fraught with such a sweet edge, he had to squeeze his eyes tight to stop tears from welling. Frodo's fingers moved in small circles at the nape of his neck, steadier now, and his voice rose smooth in the wordless singing.
Sam couldn't quench the trembling as spread up from his breast. Surely it was wrong to feel such joy when his master had to be aching with weariness, and the pain of –
"Hobbits mustn't make noiseses!"
Sam whipped round to stare hard into Gollum's raw-boned face. "What with you splashing in the water, there's more than noise enough to give us away!"
Gollum shot him a look like pure poison and turned to Frodo. "The rocks listen, and the wind hears," he said in whinging tones. "Nice master understands, doesn't he? Wise master knows that his
spies don't need eyes or earses. He
never sleeps, never
"Yes, Sméagol," Frodo answered patiently. His hand had slipped to Sam's shoulder and gripped tight as if to keep him from bolting. "We must be watchful."
The bald head bobbed eagerly. "Wise master," Gollum burbled once more, before he bounded off again.
Sam bit his teeth together. Master.
A wild sputter that echoed his own stammering when every breath he had, every inch of his skin yearned to give and give. Not the filthy Ring's, you're
"My choice wasn't lightly made, Sam." Frodo's gaze rested on him, stirring up a swarm of questions.
Sam bowed his head. "You understand him, don't you, Mr. Frodo?" He swallowed to make his voice more than a rough mutter. "I – I can't."
"And you should have no cause for it." Frodo's glance dropped as he drew Sam forward and brought him near enough to embrace. "Sam, there's... a bruise on your throat."
"Oh, but that's naught to be worried about," he murmured and wrapped his arm about Frodo's waist.
"I wish..." Frodo looked over his shoulder, out West to the Emyn Muil. When he tilted his head, a fine, glistening thread showed on his cheek.
"Frodo," Sam whispered, and the feel of it on his lips were like the sting of full sunshine.
A day and a half ago, Frodo had answered him with such blessings, it tore at Sam with greater joy and grief than his body could bear and left him raw inside.
Some straggling curls grazed his cheek when Frodo leaned against him. Between his cloak and the dirty collar of his shirt gleamed the chain like wrought ice. And strapped to it, more than just a growing weight had to burn and throb. How would that feel from inside? Sam couldn't breathe for the want that clutched so hard at his innards, the fretful need to know. Hold on to me, not
"The Ring calls to him, Sam, as it does to me."
Cool fingers turned his face. He shivered at the softest brush of Frodo's lips to his, like the slip of an unknown dream. Sam pulled away quick, thinking what he must taste like with the bile still lingering on his mouth and the thick of treacherous fears alive in his stomach. He could see it in Frodo's eyes then, a swift darkening, near to a flinch when he turned aside.
"It frightens me too."
I know, Master.
Sam swallowed another useless apology and climbed heavy to his feet. He'd only fall asleep on watch if he settled in too comfortable. Away in the East, the river shimmered pale with the rise of day. Sam drew the round pebble from his pocket and rolled it slowly between his palms.
~ ~ ~
At times, Frodo still dreams of their companions. They move in and out of vapours that shift slowly, like hanging veils of pipe-smoke on a windless day.
Legolas stands poised on a stony outcrop, unblinking even when the midday sun is in his eyes. A gentle concern unclouds Aragorn's gaze as he moves past, to lay a fleeting touch on Frodo's shoulder. Resistance steels the line of Boromir's back. He casts his mutinous glance in every direction, and it will find rest only when it falls on Merry and Pippin. They are sparring, in a soundless dance that swings out from their small swords, fiercer and faster with every round. A blunt flash from Gimli's axe will join the carouse of iron gleams, and waver as he scrubs the whetstone back and forth. Gandalf never enters their circle, but his presence is like that of an ancient tree, extending a wide span of cooling shade. A smile lingers beside the glint in his eyes. Even Bill shuffles about among the shadows and the grass. His ponderous breaths ebb through nightfall until the veils draw together, in dense, soothing folds.
Then, darkness holds Frodo like an open palm, and he's stretched out alone, far from fear. Darkness cradles and calms him, full of forgetting.
He never dreams of Sam, for it seems that his flesh and blood hold their own too close to let anything stray. In his dreams, he is blind to Sam, and in waking, a slow wash of gratitude will rise on his breath.
He will lie on his back and look up at a single star that sings and burns in his sight.
~ ~ ~
Sam stirred to the scent of fennel tea, skeins of glory vine clear before his sight. The leaves flittered in a lightsome breeze, stirring rich bronze and crimson into a sun-dappled flurry. He'd have to trim the wilder shoots afore the end of autumn, Sam thought, so as to keep them from splaying all over the window of Mr. Frodo's study. But clipped back tidy, those trailing vines made a fine ornament round the glass. From inside the room, Mr. Frodo would see the light falling through in the afternoons, like a fringe of quiet flames above his desk. The tea, now...
A sudden sound brought him to full, anxious waking. So hoarse and tight a whisper, Sam might have mistook it for the hissing curse of Gollum's breaths. Save that he knew better, that he would have known this
voice anywhere, even when it were crushed to a mere thread. Frodo
When Sam raised his head, a thin reed slapped him across the face. Time to get up and plod on, it must be, for the daylight were failing into a cloudy gloom. But there was Mr. Frodo, sitting hunched on the edge of the reed-thicket, and Gollum nowhere in sight. A sullen hush lay over the Marshes, so thick that the faintest rustle of grasses made a scratching sound, and the dried seed-plumes seemed to be a'rattling. Frodo's voice strained at the quiet, as like it were a fetter.
Sam sat up slow, and the cold ache from his shoulders poured in through his breast. Mr. Frodo swayed back and forth where he sat, like a mulberry bush in a circling wind. What he whispered to himself, over and again, ripped at Sam's heart as little else could. High Elvish it was, that once used to flow so swift and glorious off Mr. Frodo's tongue, now pushed out on troubled breaths, in a broken chant of words.
Sam shoved the blanket aside and crawled forward without rising to his feet. Already the blood was pounding so hard in his temples and his ears, it was a wonder that Frodo didn't hear. But maybe he couldn't. Maybe the words made a shield around him in the silence, and that was why. He sat with his arms caught fast round his knees, as if to make himself as small as possible. Then his voice faltered into a ragged sigh, and Sam held his breath.
"Sam." Not the dash of a question in his tone.
"Mr. Frodo," Sam answered in like fashion, and came round as quick as he might without setting hand or foot onto the muck slide, to crouch before his master.
Frodo nodded and looked at him a long moment, his eyes returning from the haze where they'd roamed. "Remember this?" he whispered and started anew with what he'd been repeating.
He broke off on a high note, and Sam saw his lip quiver and struggle for the next word, before Frodo bit down on it. "Remember this, Sam," he said in harsher tones. "Remember."
Sam swallowed and shaped the words in his own mouth, as faithful as he could. The music of Frodo's voice lay hid in them, and the smooth gesturing of his hands when he sat in Bag End's parlour, an open book in his lap, more graceful and alive than the weaving candleflames. And that were all the meaning as the words had, all that were needed.
"Thank you..." Frodo bent his forehead to his knees.
"It's part of a song, isn't it?" Sam asked when he found naught else to say. "The words feel as if they did ought to be sung, leastways."
"They do." Frodo lifted his head. Under his eyes, the shadows had deepened, but while that might be on account of the falling gloom, the sharp lines of his cheekbone and jaw weren't owed to short commons alone. Something gnawed him from within, stripping all the flesh down to the slender bones.
"Like the stars," Sam murmured. He could see them now, a handful of white sprinkles bared in a ribbon of dusky sky. He raised both hands and laid them on Frodo's upper arms. Cold he was, and every nerve in his body strung tough as hemp-rope, Sam could feel it, even through layers of linen and wool. And the strength in him, clear and bright as the stars before moonrise. "They're as old as the beginning of the world, so you've told me, and there's naught as can reach them."
He didn't rightly know why he was saying that, but his hands had wandered with the thought, as if tracing a silver twine that connected earth and sky. His palms took a slow course down Frodo's arms, cradling the desperate tension till it eased a bit beneath his touch.
"He is trying to find me." Frodo tipped his head sideways, as if harking to the East. "It
is trying to find me, here." He touched curled fingers to the top of his chest and looked down into their empty circle.
Under his breath, Sam felt a slivering of ice, and he noticed a shimmer of sweat on Frodo's brow. Fearsome as a fever spell waiting to be broken, though Sam couldn't guess how.
"We'll be off again soon, I expect." He paused to clear the troubling thickness from his voice. "You should take some food ere we start, Mr. Frodo."
"We both should." Frodo's eyes took to wandering again, and the white fog over the Marshes lay in them.
"Let me get it, sir," Sam muttered, loath to leave him alone at all.
He looked at his dirty hands, and it simply wouldn't do to hasten the provender over to Mr. Frodo like that. He dipped his fingers in the stagnant waters of the mere, amid green clumps of pond-scruff, and wiped them off quick on his sleeves. As soon as he'd brought out a fresh ration, he unhooked the pan from his pack, unwrapped the mallorn leaf and spread it flat on the bottom. When he placed the lembas atop and set the pan down in front of Mr. Frodo, he'd done enough to warrant a smile, as like he'd prepared a proper breakfast. Or supper, as the case might be.
Frodo chewed the lembas slowly, as though it were a necessary labour. Surely, Sam thought, surely the burden of the Ring bedimmed the constant twinges of hunger as clawed at his own stomach, but what sort of comfort were to be taken from that? One less worry, he told himself, made less of the load that Mr. Frodo had to carry, for he didn't expect to need –
"You're not eating," Frodo said gently. He broke the wafer into several pieces, careful to make them even in size. Between one blink and the next, Sam saw his Gaffer's knotty hands, setting chunks of dark bread beside the bowls, each measured to the work as his children were doing. When he grew too stiff in the joints for his job, he kept only the loaf's dry heel for himself.
"'Twouldn't be right to start before you," Sam murmured while he watched Frodo's fingers splay out the pieces on the mallorn leaf.
When he choked down a bite, Frodo reached for his own share. During the last rest they took, he'd told Sam not to be troubling himself over food, but a tremble passed through his hand when Sam held it and let his tears fall. Their waybread might not last them across all the miles to the mountain and back, but what did it matter when Frodo had to use up so much strength for every step he took? Stray morsels pricked in Sam's throat, and his stomach seemed to be shrinking round each bite, like drying leather.
"You're right, Sam," Frodo said suddenly. "Nothing can reach the stars." He leaned his head on his shoulder to tilt a glance at the sky where the clouds had thickened in a swollen crush. "But we, we must–"
In the crowding gloom, Sam could see only the white of his eyes. "We will, Mr. Frodo."
Though his breath leapt and stumbled, he cupped his hand over Frodo's. His raw knuckles were crusted with grime, and the pale valleys between seemed all the more tender. Sam raised the dirty hand to his mouth. He pressed a kiss to the back of Frodo's fingers, and another to the cool softness of his palm, below the new ridges and calluses that had no right of being there. At his back, water gurgled and lapped at the mud – Gollum?
– but he couldn't turn to look. Not when Frodo's eyes were suddenly free of clouds, and the silence parted for a halting murmur – "Sam, would you...?" – a scarce breath away.
All Sam wanted was for Frodo to draw him as close as ever he wished, but his knee bumped against the pan, and his cloak nigh caught on it. Only the tangle of their fingers held him balanced for a moment's clumsy dithering.
"We can't know what will come of it all, Mr. Frodo." Sam strove to make his voice steady when Frodo's breath slid warm against his face, warmer than he'd expected, and a firm hand clasped his neck.
"But I could... I could
know." Frodo shook his head. His lashes swept down in a sharp flicker, such as uneasy dreams might bring. "No, I have to remember this. He
would want me to believe that the end is certain, and the end alone."
Sam heard a furtive rustling in the reeds and dipped his head, a soft, cramped movement. Not much longer in this place that were beset by creeping fogs and the pitch of night, and yet he would've given the world for this poor bit of quiet. I'll remember,
he wanted to say, always and for the both of us, if needs be,
but Frodo's breath fell so gentle on his mouth, and all that welled in him were made of fire and startled lightness. So quick and free, he couldn't move at all. How long a day since –
Sure and soundless, Frodo moved for him, as he had before, and their mouths found each other within a single breath. The cool damp melted aside in a moment's shifting, slipped with the sweetest pressure that bloomed and opened wide as a gash in Sam's breast. Comfort and relief and longing poured into him, scattering his breath. It didn't matter if he leaned or fell when Frodo clasped him in a stronger hold, his own hands already delving into folds of wool and fine Elven weave. He drank in every small movement of Frodo's lips on his own, lost to the fierce, tangled heat of Frodo's yearning when his tongue slipped in deeper. The soft stroking of Frodo's fingers along his cheek drew up the clearest ache, as if they were following the white course of tears. Sam's hands clenched tight in answer, caught to a gasp that hitched in Frodo's chest and flowed into his own. They were breathing together, as only they could when –
Frodo pulled away with a sudden wrench, as if to say enough,
just as determined as when he'd broken the lembas into even shares. Sam lowered his eyes, in a struggle to mute his jumbled breaths. Everything in him surged high as an overflowing well that he didn't know how to lock again.
"Sam, you..." Frodo's voice carried a rough edge, and only then could Sam meet his eyes again. "You feed me, and I feed–" His fingers jerked back to trap the Ring where it lay against his chest.
A frost harder than any he'd known struck Sam to the root. His knees and shoulders were aching when he sat back on his haunches.
"Please, Master, what is it doing
to you?" And he'd never have dared that question if he'd kept his wits about him.
Frodo's glance fell to the pan and the scattered crumbs of lembas, then swerved up restless to search the gloom beyond Sam's shoulder. "I would not want you to know."
When he settled back, Sam felt the cold current of air brush his chest, running wide between them. Sharp and doubtful like the protest he swallowed with an effort, the claims he couldn't make. It weren't the place – his
place – to press forth with questions, to speak the need that chafed and rooted so close under his skin.
When he cast a quick glance over his shoulder, the sight of Gollum didn't surprise him. The miserable creature squatted on the nearest bump of mud, thin and black as a branch in winter. With pale, frightened eyes, he stared back at Mr. Frodo.
Sam picked up the pan and roused himself. If they didn't set out soon, they might spend another day tramping through these foul marshes.
~ ~ ~
The clouds pile high in soft shadings of grey and hang strangely close. Frodo stops to look at them, to watch them tear at the passing of a wind that he cannot feel. He's breathing the damp, heavy air in through his mouth. The ground is treacherous, a swaying mass of soaked grasses and mud, adrift in fog that swaddles him like a blanket. He can feel the wet clay settle between his toes.
Dangerous as it may be to cross from one of these straggling islands to the next, it is more dangerous to stop. Taking another step will grow more impossible the longer he waits, until the thought slips away from him like a twist of the feeble breeze. He will be content only to breathe and watch the sky, even though the storm sets in elsewhere.
It will brew in the water and slide deep through the ground, until it is seething beneath the soles of his feet. It will rise up over his ankles, strike at the back of his knees and pierce his spine with a long-familiar chill. The tremors that wrap about his chest will lace through the windy dark, mere stirrings of what is to come. And once it has begun, there will be no end, only the mad rising that swells to the base of his skull. Very far and high overhead wheels a winged shadow, seeking to answer him with a cry.
Frodo stands on a muddy tussock and swallows the clouds that sink lower and lower. Until the ground shifts slightly under another's step, and the air beside him fills –
"Mr. Frodo? This isn't no place to stop. We may be halfways across, but it's still a deal of a distance, and those lights are moving closer."
For a moment, Frodo is puzzled. The candles burn everywhere in the mire, as if to mark the storm's path. Their quiet glow pledging a peace that will not be kept.
"Mr. Frodo," Sam says more urgently, his voice rousing like a touch. So near.
Frodo turns. There are no shadows in this mist-bound twilight, but Sam stands where his own shadow would fall. Above them, the moon sails between rent clouds, but his shape is drawn into hazy ripples. Frodo takes a slow breath.
How deep under the water are we?
~ ~ ~
It was come and gone in the space of a few breaths, but its shadow had scathed a clear enough shape across Sam's sight. Winged as a bat, but so much larger, and fast as the gales that it rode. The shrill cry that split the dark had knocked them aground in a rush of haunting wind, each of them trapped in fear. Sam had to summon all his nerve before he looked up through the bristling reeds. Memories of Weathertop scored his breast, and there couldn't be no doubt what the flying shadow were. Not with a voice like that, as black and torn as dread itself.
Some steps aside, Gollum lay gargling and whimpering even after those uncanny blasts had faltered. Through shredded clouds, the moon peeked down and cast shadows thin as blades. They shivered over Mr. Frodo's cloak when he climbed to his feet, to set a hand on Gollum's skinny shoulder. A muffled wail was his only answer, but Gollum didn't twist away neither.
Sam pushed to his knees, struggling a moment against the weight of his pack. The rife stench of the Marshes wafted thick from his clothes.
"Sméagol," Frodo was saying in a soothing tone. "It has gone – back to Mordor, I suppose – and we had better be on our way, too."
"Not safe! Never safe, no!" Gollum sobbed amid a snarl of broken sounds. "Wraiths on wings see us, they do, they see everything!"
"If this one had seen us, he would not have turned back," Frodo argued. "You feel only what he would have us believe."
Bless you, Mr. Frodo, but you're strong.
Sam stepped forward so he could see his master's face. Drawn and pale as he looked, his eyes were steady, resting with worry on Gollum's bald head.
Sam darted a glance back over the Marshes, but none of the misty shimmers swirled above the pools now. Only a short while ago, he'd found Mr. Frodo unmoving among the fens, water dripping from his sleeves and fingers. Pale faces,
he whispered, deep deep under the dark water. All foul, all rotting, all dead
... Sam shuddered, for it seemed then that all the dead things in the world had gathered in this place, and Frodo couldn't see aught but himself among them.
Silence closed about them again, thick enough to muffle Gollum's anxious babbling about the wraiths and the watchful moon.
"Get up now," Sam said gruffly. "The danger's past, as you'd see for yourself if you took a look about."
Frodo glanced up quick and shook his head. "I know..." His fingers moved softly over the sharp line of Gollum's shoulder blade. "Months ago, they wounded me, and yet I feel the cold in their presence as if the tip of the dagger still lodged inside me."
Sam averted his eyes. That Frodo should speak of it – that his fine, loving hands should draw the shivers from this vile creature –
"It is part of their power to put a spell of fear on every mind," Frodo went on, "but you must not let yourself be blinded by it."
When Sam looked back at them, Gollum quaked under Frodo's touch. But was it fright or thankful relief, or the craving that seemed to fret him all the time? Don't you remember?
Sam wanted to ask his master. How we were missing the birds in this dreadful silence, and all
he could think of were eating them?
"Wraithses will find us," Gollum sniffled. "Precious is their master."
"Aye, and they'll spot us soon enough if we don't leave this place." Sam bent to tug on one thin arm, but all it earned him was a sob of No, precious!
"Leave him be!" Frodo snapped, and gave him a look that ran scalding over Sam's skin.
He fell back a step, awkward and sluggish as if he were wading through one of those slimy pools. Gollum didn't seem to care nohow. Jabbering mindless to himself, he kept his face pressed to the soil.
Seeing as how they wouldn't move for a while, Sam shuffled the pack off his shoulders. Perhaps he should stand off and let Mr. Frodo talk sense into the frightened wretch, but instead Sam dropped to the ground on Gollum's other side. By the sounds bursting from that snarled throat, Gollum might be crying again.
at him, Sam!" Frodo reached across so quick that Sam's fingers twitched in surprise at the fierce grip round his wrist. "See for yourself."
Against his own wishing, Sam lowered his eyes to Gollum's twisted spine. It had starved the flesh off his bones, the Ring did, and all reason from his mind. Where the moonlight fell on the weathered skin, Sam could trace inky blotches, as if he'd bruised from within, or his blood had curdled. Was that the Ring's doing, too? And the croaking sputter of his voice, those hateful gurgles in his throat?
The press of Frodo's fingers lightened, and Sam turned his hand to reach back, such thoughts awhirl in his mind, they'd topple him over if he didn't seize a hold. What if the same blighting want came for Mr. Frodo, not in a day maybe, but in a week, before they could reach that cursed mountain? How much more, how much longer –
You know full well,
Sam answered himself, you're just afeared of looking the truth in the eye, that's what it is.
But it cramped like a pain in his stomach, and it would run wide like a river if he let it go free. Deep enough to drown in – and more so when he met Frodo's eyes again.
Are you ready?
his intent gaze seemed to ask. Do you understand, now?
They sat with their hands clasped above Gollum's body, as like he were the drought and the dark and the wasteland between them.
"It's already started," Sam whispered, though the grief of it crammed cold in his throat.
Frodo bowed his head, filling his eyes with the lay of those starved limbs again, it seemed. "And I must believe that the end is not certain."
Not if there's aught I can do,
Sam thought, too foolish a claim to make it out loud. But he remembered now what Frodo had said when they took their rest in the gully and Gollum near choked on the lembas he'd been offered. "Perhaps you can't even try, not yet anyway."
A thread of hope and desperate will atremble in Mr. Frodo's words. But that were what Gollum meant to him. Warning and hope, and both tied to a promise made by –
"I allow it to feed on me, as he
does–" Frodo nodded at Gollum, "–for neither of us has a choice. There is no strength great enough to resist." His voice hushed, as if a weight were hanging on each word. "He who made the One relies on this. But he cannot understand any reason not to resist, other than to claim it." Frodo withdrew his hand, seeming to ponder for a long while of silence. Shadows crowded on his dirty face, till his glance flashed up quick as flintsparks. "Sam... It can't give me what I desire. That is all I know, the secret I must keep. It is all I have to defend myself."
Sam curled his empty fingers up tight. If I could, I'd be a mountain for you. To stand between you and
– a sharp flare ached through his breast, cutting every thought like water. He could wish to wrap all his love round his master, and it wouldn't fend off the threat any more than Mr. Frodo's tattered shirt kept out the cold. But perhaps it did matter that he listened, catching what he could of Frodo's words and memories, every single drop like a rain-barrel out in –
"Is it gone now?" Gollum asked in a voice gone terse with suspicion. "Is the White Face gone?"
"Almost." But when Frodo rose to his knees, the softest brush of silver-white strayed across his curls. He swayed and rubbed hard at his temple. "Come."
They roused Gollum between them. As they trod on past the last straggling pools, a drained dark washed over the flats, and the clouds lay jammed like another mountain range afore them. Cracks ran all asunder in the parched mud, a web of spidered lines, and so deep in places that Sam's toes caught on them. The harsh press of Frodo's fingers still circled his wrist like an iron band, like a need he'd not answered in full.
For all that he'd quavered so long, Gollum hurried ahead now, his head tilting into each lonesome breeze to sniff it for hidden dangers. Sam could see wisps of pale hair trailing from Gollum's skull as he turned it left to right, and a sting of smoke seemed to pierce the air. Leastways it weren't so stifled above these dry peats, though the prickles of a storm seemed to swirl all about. Bits of thunder muttered and rumbled through the clouds, and a cold gust touched Sam's neck. He turned back with a frown, to ask –
Frodo had fallen behind more than a few paces, out of Gollum's sight, Sam reckoned. Did the dratted creature think to whip more speed from Mr. Frodo by urging their pace so? Gollum could scarce be seen in the shadows ahead, save for pale flickers of movement among the brooding greys. Sam quickened his stride ere he could vanish for good.
"Hoy, Gollum!" he called under his breath, and it still seemed to rasp loud in the quiet.
When Gollum turned, only the moony lanterns of his eyes winked through the gloom. Sam marched up fast, till he could pick out the gnarled frame, perched on a slanting rock. How did you grow to be like this? How long did it take, and what–?
"Wait a bit," he said hoarsely, once he'd come close enough. "Mr. Frodo can't keep that pace, haven't you noticed?"
"Yes, we have noticed." Gollum sniffed and slid down from the rock, his large head asway on his neck. "But hobbits must make haste. Not long, and the Yellow Face will catch us. Sméagol only tries to take Master to hiding, away from prying eyes."
"Well, it won't do no good if he
can't get there as quick as you," Sam muttered, but for once Gollum had answered short of hissing and spitting. Sam took another moment to study him close. My master has hope for you. So give him reason.
He eyed the mottled skin across Gollum's shoulders, thinking how it must feel to hide away from the sun because her warmth were turned to blazes. "It hurts. Don't it?"
Gollum bared his sharp brown teeth.
"Aye, that's a right stupid question." Sam was about to turn and dash back to Mr. Frodo when Gollum clicked his tongue in a strange, wistful manner.
"Yes, Precious hurts," he snapped, but then his voice dropped to a throaty growl, "hurts when it's there, and hurts when it's not."
The glimmer in his eyes were all of anger, Sam thought, not grief, but maybe the two had long been crushed into one. "And that's why you serve Mr. Frodo, why you can't help it. Isn't it?"
Gollum watched him with squinted eyes, as if to ask the same question, and the answer surged heated and thick in Sam's chest. I serve him because – because it's all as I can do, all I could want, and I couldn't
"I promised," Gollum hissed.
"That you did." Sam chanced another look at his bare body, so stained and bruised with hunger. Too much for Frodo's hands to undo, he couldn't help thinking, even if – "Sméagol..." He pushed on, though the words near locked in his throat. "We have to wait for our master."
Gollum cocked his head as like he'd been startled, but then his glance slid past Sam, and the old greedy glint returned.
Frodo approached them with slow, dragging steps, one hand clutched to a fist over his heart. Oh no, not his heart, it's
"Master!" Gollum bubbled, his scowl split into a smile.
A false smile, if Sam was any judge, but he couldn't bother with it right then. How often now Mr. Frodo would reach for the Ring, his face twisting in effort, and yet he wouldn't pluck his hand away. As if the thing would bury itself in his chest, 'less he kept it safe.
"I see that I am slowing us down enough for you to rest and tell tales."
Gollum cackled in glee at the joke. Frodo's hand lowered at last when he met Sam's eyes.
Clear they were, and his glance rushed all over Sam's skin till it felt like water, swift moving meltwater with the sun dancing across. Alight to the glimpse of Frodo's smile, tired and still beautiful, the twist of pain in it that splintered in his own chest – but it weren't the same and could never be. Not as long as Mr. Frodo carried that loathsome thing. Sam could mark it blind, that spot where the Ring lay touching Frodo's skin.
"Sméagol here thinks we'll find a safer place to spend the day if we keep going another while." Sam caught his breath that broke too harsh into the words and stood back. Best to let Frodo walk before him, so he'd see right away if his master stumbled. "We can tell all the tales you like on the road," he murmured.
"If you say so." A small furrow troubled Frodo's brow. Mayhap he didn't recollect what he'd only just said.
"Never you mind, Mr. Frodo." Sam put forth a reassuring look that held just long enough. Sorrow gaped to a black lurch inside him, steep as any cliff, and once he fell down that pit, he'd never stop. Between the overturning of earth and sky, he'd be lost for certain.
~ ~ ~
An invisible sun rolls behind the clouds. But even so, the pale daylight is scathing to Frodo's eyes, and he can see it fracture in the clouds, a glittering host of rain-drops that will not fall.
This is a place of no seasons, barred by the mountain wall that towers at his back. He has to make a choice before the day ends, decide on a path before the black messengers return the fear that settles like a hand out of the sky.
Through smoke and cloud, the light hardens and stings in his temples, glistening in wave after wave behind his brow. At the back of his eyes, it flares white and blind. His thoughts rise, falter and break in this hollow light.
On the grey slope, Gollum cowers, his eyes fixed a hand's breadth below the mark where their glances would cross. Sam stands at Frodo's back, between him and the gate.
One Ring to bind them all.
A truth carved in gold, in flame and flesh. It binds us too, but it cannot make us one. Only
A hand curves against the back of his shoulder. Sam's touch guides the daylight into him, a warm runnel beneath the skin. Not long ago, it has spread through Frodo's sleep, lending it colour. Rich hues of green and gold that his waking mind cannot shape into anything whole, cannot hold –
– only you.
Thoughts pass in small trickles through him, leach from him as water would from a cracked trough. The chafing of cloth on his skin crawls across a gap filled with thrumming, swelling power. His heart, breath and blood race with it. Not long now, and that pulse will grow stronger than his own, swarming and choking even the smallest hollow.
Is there a place within him that will not forget, where he can bury Sam, so that Sam won't be broken out of him?
Frodo's hand has stirred, raised as if to protect, to hurl aside or draw closer, and Sam clasps it gently before it can reach –
~ ~ ~
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.