47. What Strength Remains
What Strength Remains
Sam stifled a shout as he forced himself up the remaining slope as fast as he could climb. He reached the ridge top and crawled on top of it, sliding on his belly and clinging to the dusty, crumbling stones. Wind whistled over the top. He poked his head over the edge and looked down.
His heart nearly stopped, for despite the red glow from far away, at first he could see nothing at all! Oh, help us… Master, where are you?... Everything below him was shadowed in total blackness. His breaths came in gasps as he choked back his tears.
Stop it, Sam! You won't do him any good if you can't see for crying, or can't go on for shaking! Look! He's got to be down there!
Slowly, the hobbit's sight adjusted to the red glare and deeper darkness. Beneath the crest the land fell off into a sheer ravine. At the bottom, farther down than Sam recalled from his glimpse in the Lady's Mirror, Frodo lay sprawled on his side and motionless.
Frantically, Sam grabbed his pack and swung it forward, searching for the rope. His hands were shaking. Calm down, you ninny! You're all he's got! You've got to get down there in one piece! He looked about for anything to which he might tie the rope, but there was nothing but enormous slabs of rock, loose stones, dust and cold wind. He searched again, more urgently. But he could not see how he could secure the rope around the huge blocks on either side of him, and the smaller stones slid and bounced away when he touched them.
There's got to be a way. Think! Sam closed his eyes for a moment, and his right hand came up and grasped the small bulge at the front of his shirt. He frowned. At first all that came to him was the sight of the captive wizard being transported to the stronghold of the Enemy. Then he heard a voice within him. You need but carry it near you. It will kindle courage in you simply by its presence. He sighed, and began to feel warmth in his hand. Faint at first, the tiny spark seemed to feed on itself and grow in intensity as he focused upon it. A bold idea popped into his head. That just might work...
Sam slung his pack onto his shoulders and removed the Dúnedain dagger from his belt, sheath and all. Working quickly, he tied one end of the rope securely to the dagger, making certain that he also wrapped it several times about the hilt and the blade-guard, tugging on it to test the knots. There, that won't slip—I hope. He scrambled up to the top of the ridge, and crawling slowly on hands and knees, he searched for what he required.
Here! He had found a deep but narrow crack in one of the massive slabs that went all the way through from front to back. Lying on the narrow ridgetop, he stretched the rope and worked it down into the crack, keeping the dagger free and on the western-facing side of the stone. When he had shoved it a few inches down, he slithered on his belly in a half circle, leaned out over the east side and tugged. The dagger pulled crossways and snug against the stone, as an anchor. The rope was stretched through the crack and emerged on the opposite side. A pity to lose both knife and rope, Sam thought. But I can't see another choice, if I'm to come to Mr. Frodo in anything other than a heap of broken bones. He choked at the thought, for who knew what injuries Frodo had sustained in his fall.
Finally, Sam raised his head, and for the first time he gazed fully eastward. He cringed as his jaw dropped open with fear and awe. Beyond the straggling peaks and ridges of the Ephel Dúath, beyond the deep trough of the valley and the low rocky hills of the Morgai, Gorgoroth stretched out—the Plains of Terror, a desert of cracked fissures, giant pits and scattered stones. It looked altogether inhospitable, burned and tumbled by the violent upheavals of a tormented earth at war with itself. But more terrifying than the desolate landscape, everywhere he looked, small lights flickered: torches and campfires. The interior of Mordor was teeming with foes.
Far off, on the horizon, a cone-shaped Mountain rose, black against the sky. Glowing red rivers oozed down its sides, and smoke churned from its summit. And farther still, the blackness deepened and rose up like a vast wall. Even from more than fifty miles away, Sam felt the malevolent Power lurking behind that wall.
The hobbit's hope plummeted as he contemplated the impossible task before them. How can we ever get across this place? It… it's just not possible… How could they have asked this of us? he cried within his heart. They knew what this place was like! They knew how horrible it would be, how full of enemies… How could they send us here? He felt a cry of rage forming in his parched throat. All those wise and great people, the ones who have been here and knew what it would be like--Master Elrond, and Strider, and Gandalf... Especially Gandalf! He sent us to do this when he knew he couldn't! How could he have been so pitiless, to use us so coldheartedly? The lump of bitter fury caught and emerged as a howl of pain. The sound was blown away in the wind.
His shoulders sagged as his eyes fell from gazing at the frightful Mountain in the distance. He stared without seeing for a moment at something moving far below him. Then he frowned. A party of soldiers was marching on a road that led directly eastward, and leading them was a Rider in black. They had crossed over the Pass and the Morgai, and were already traversing the great desolate plain, the bouncing cart within their ranks trailing a curling cloud of dust.
Sam bowed his head. Another gasping sound rose up in him, this time a sob of anguish. I didn't mean it… You put yourself right in harm's way, to help us… You chose your path… And so must we, if all Middle Earth's not soon to look like this desert… He looked down into the ravine and saw his friend and Master lying there. He wiped his eyes. He's why I'm here. That's alI I know how to do. It's why I've come...to help him. I can't make sense of the rest of it.
Then Sam Gamgee did the bravest thing he had ever done, and perhaps the most foolish. He wrapped the rope around his back, gripped it tightly, and swung himself backward and off the edge of the steep ridge. Leaning outward and planting his feet on the sheer surface of the stone, he began to lower himself, step by hesitant step, down the face of the crest of the Ephel Dúath, playing the slender rope out through his hands.
At the beginning, the cliff face was not as sheer as it had seemed. He was able to scramble blindly with his toes and find small ledges and shelves to stand upon and ease his full weight off his arms. But soon his palms were chafed and the muscles of his arms began to shudder with the strain. He continued downward. The face became nearly vertical. Too afraid to lean backward, he pressed himself against the rock and slid down, his eyes squeezed shut, on the strength of his arms alone. Please let there be a ledge, he whispered, as he felt his palms blistering from the rope. Just when he was sure he could hold on no longer, his toes bumped into stone. A ledge, and wide enough to stand on!
Sam trembled as he clung to the rock. He dared not look up or down, but stood there, flat against the wall, concentrating with all his will to simply remain in place and not fall. Gradually, his wildly beating heart slowed its pace, and his breathing began to settle.
He looked up. It was difficult to judge in the light, but he thought he had come down at least fifty feet. Straining to see over his shoulder without leaning out too much, he tried to judge how far he had yet to go. The rope dangled loose beside him, swinging lightly in the wind. His heart leaped. The end of the rope lay curled on the ground, just twenty feet from Frodo! I'll make it!
But his arms were still shaking badly, and his hands stung. He looked at his palms; red, raw swaths crossed them. Doesn't matter, does it... No choice but to keep going. Sam grit his teeth, wrapped the rope around his blistered palms and tried again.
In seconds, his hands slipped as his weakening grip loosened. With a wail he felt himself sliding down the face of the cliff. The rope whipped through his fists and tore off another layer of skin. Then, with a sudden jarring bump, he landed on another ledge. He caught himself from tumbling backward, and shaking and panting, he pressed up against the wall.
Sam felt something hard pinching into his breastbone, and a moment later he felt warmth spreading outward as a voice echoed within him. If you find yourself in need of strength beyond what you know yourself to possess... Gandalf's ring! Strength! That's truly what I need now! With trembling fingers he reached into the front of his shirt, withdrew the leather pouch and opened it. It was too dark to see into the depths of the pouch, so he searched with his fingertips. The heavy gold ring with its red gem emerged. He frowned worriedly.
It's made for a Big Person! It will slide right off me... Carefully, he placed it upon the middle finger of his right hand. To his surprise, the ring fit him perfectly.
A warm glow—like a swallow of miruvor, but long-lasting—flushed through him. His hands were no less painful, but now it didn't seem to matter. The shuddering of his overly strained muscles stopped. He felt himself stand more solidly on the shelf of stone, yet he balanced more lightly. Perhaps, he thought, he might be able to leap to the next shelf without using the rope at all! He looked down again, and with keener vision than he'd ever known, he assessed the path downward. Where before he had seen nothing but a sheer wall, now he could discern a series of small ledges and hand holds. Tracing the way with his eyes, he memorized his route. He gripped the faintly glowing Elvish rope in both hands and stepped out and back.
Ledge by ledge, step by step, he made his way downward. His arms no longer shook, and though he was very much aware of the sharp stinging in both palms, it did not impede him. The stones seemed easier to grip with his toes, and the rope was somehow more yielding to his touch. Even the wind, so bitter and full of ash and smoke, now seemed to push gently against his back, supporting him. Despite how this land is ruined, beneath it all, these are still stones, and this is still air, he thought. Above those thick clouds the Sun and Stars are still shining, and somewhere there's water… He can't really destroy it, underneath...Them that made all this... Why, they're still here, and all I need to do is ask for their help.
Sam peered over his shoulder again as he paused on a shelf some thirty feet above where Frodo lay. His heart jumped. What had he just seen? Something had scuttled away, into the shadows—some sort of creeping animal, about the size of a squirrel, but much quicker. It had sped away before he could get a good look. He glanced at Frodo. What's that? A film of grey seemed to partially cover his Master, from his waist downward. His heart racing again, Sam clambered down more quickly, sliding and jumping from ledge to ledge.
Finally he was nearly there. He balanced on his toes fifteen feet above the bottom. But the cliff was undercut; there were no more ledges or hand holds. He'd have to jump, or shimmy down the rope, hand over hand. What's faster? He thought, and will hurt my poor hands less? Drawing in a breath, as if before a plunge into deep water, he turned and leaped.
He landed with a thud on his feet, tumbled and rolled to a stop. Quickly, Sam scrambled on hands and knees to where Frodo lay.
"Master!" he whispered, as he lay his hand on Frodo's pale cheek. The light from within him was much fainter than it had been so many miles back, before they had come to Morgul Vale, when Sam had first held the Ring of Fire in his hand. He shook him lightly, but his companion did not respond.
Frantic now, Sam looked up and down at his Master. How badly was he injured? He pressed his hands to his arms and held his hands between his own; nothing felt amiss, but his hands were cold, and his pulse was rapid and faint. He looked down at his legs, and saw that Frodo was covered in fuzz from his belt to his toes. Where did that stuff come from? Sam reached out to pull it off.
"Ouch!" He yanked his hand back and brought it to his mouth. The fuzz was made up of thin strings, and they had stung and burned his fingertips.
What was going on? A flicker of memory came to him, of a tale he'd heard first as a wee hobbit-lad, and then again more times than he could count: Bilbo's story, of adventure, there and back again. Mr. Bilbo had encountered stinging cords like these in Mirkwood. Spiders! And here we are, just below Spider's Pass! Recalling the scuttling black creature he had glimpsed a few minutes ago, Sam reached for the dagger at his belt. Then he remembered: it was all the way up at the top of the cliff, wedged behind a slab of rock!
He looked up and saw the rope of Lothlorien dangling down, shining faintly in the dark shadows. He stood and ran to the slender line and gazed at it longingly. I hate to leave it behind… He reached up and caressed it gently.
"I'm right sorry to leave you here," he whispered to the rope. "All alone in this barren place! If I have a chance to come back and fetch you, I will..."
Sam tugged on the rope, gazing upward. As the rope shook, he seemed to hear a sharp noise, far over his head, like something made of metal clattering and bouncing on the rocks. Then to his sudden shock, the silvery coils tumbled down loose and fell upon his upturned face.
"Hi! What's this!" he shouted, and in the next moment he cowered, for his raised voice had echoed eerily on the hard stones. Shh! Sam, be quiet! There's enemies everywhere… He gathered the rope and looped it into a coil, frowning all the while. Not frayed… My knot held through the entire climb… That noise must have been the dagger falling away… He stroked the smooth silken strands. It came for me, when I spoke to it. Nothing seemed too magical for an object woven by Elves. He swung his sack quickly from his shoulders and tucked the rope on the top of his dwindling belongings.
Hurrying now, he ran back to Frodo and looked the filmy web wound around his legs. I've lost mine, but he's got a better one--Sting. Reaching carefully around the top of the stinging cords, Sam found his Master's Elvish knife and pulled it free. The blade glowed faintly blue.
"Orcs, but not too close," he whispered. He shivered as he recalled the wizard's warning of an Orc outpost north of the pass. But there were other, more important things to worry about right now.
Swiftly, Sam sliced through the cords about his Master's legs. Wrapping a fold of his cloak over his hand, he tugged and pulled the strands away, tossing them by sticky bunches into a corner of the ravine. Then he checked Frodo's legs and pressed lightly on his midsection; nothing seemed to be broken or badly hurt. But he had not moved, and his breathing was shallow. Sam leaned close, trying to see in the dim light if Frodo had hit his head. He reached beneath him, and felt a lump in his hair, but in the darkness he could see no wound or cut.
He tried again to rouse his companion. "Mr. Frodo!" he whispered urgently. "Please, Master.... Please wake up for your Sam!"
But Frodo lay silent and still. Sam sank back onto his heels. Now what? He looked about. They were in a narrow ravine, open to the south, at the base of the tall cliff down which he'd just climbed. Eastward, before him, another wall rose up, twenty feet high, cutting off the red glow of Mount Doom. To their left—north—the walls converged until the ravine was just a crack in another, higher wall. To their right, the way grew gradually wider and sloped downward. How far down, he could not see nor guess. If he could rouse Frodo, that would be the way to escape—No: not escape, to go on.
But how to go on, with Frodo unconscious? He leaned forward again and caressed his Master's brow. I'm no healer. I don't know what to do. I can't leave him, and I can't carry him... Sam stopped. He looked down at his right hand and saw the thick gold band with its red gem on his third finger. Or could I? Gandalf had carried Frodo. Indeed, Gandalf had shown far greater strength than that required to bear the weight of a too-thin hobbit.
Sam closed his eyes for a moment as sudden hot tears started in them. I wish it weren't just me here all alone, to help him. I wish I could ask Strider if it's the right thing to move him when he's like this... His heart ached with fear and loneliness as he wondered where all his friends from the Fellowship might be. He tried to remember the last time he had seen them all. Strider, on an Elven horse, and Merry sitting before him looking frightened, yet holding his head high and proud; Legolas and Gimli, awkward together on the second steed as the four of them waved solemnly from the shore of the Silverlode as the boats were launched; Pippin and Boromir, sad and smiling bravely as they floated westward on the glittering lake. And Gandalf... He knew where Gandalf was, or soon would be. And he could not forget his last sight of him—surely the last sight any friend would ever have of him.
Sam raised his head and looked down. Frodo had not moved, nor made a sound. There was only one way. He got to his feet, leaned forward, slid his arms beneath his Master's limp form, and stood.
He drew in a breath of amazement. Frodo was as light as a hobbit-child in his arms. I hope that what part of my strength remains entangled within it will be made available for you to use, in whatever way that is most suited to you.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Sam started walking down the narrow ravine toward Mordor.
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.