49. The Choices of Master Baggins
The Choices of Master Baggins
The hobbits thrashed their way through tangled bushes as they worked their way to the bottom of the trench-like Valley of the Morgai, their feet sliding through cold muck, and every other part of them poked, snagged and jabbed by clinging thorns. Sam desperately wanted to find some spot or other—he didn't care where, just a place to fall to the ground in a heap—to rest after their final battle with the spiders and the terrifying slide down the rock face. But his Master insisted they go on and on, pushing and pulling, coaxing and cajoling, never allowing him to cease moving for a moment.
When Sam finally swayed and sank to his knees, Frodo relented for a while. But the rain continued to pelt them, making any sort of rest nearly impossible. Sam was vaguely aware of his companion holding his own cloak as sort of an awning against the worst of the downpour, sheltering his friend and servant as best he could. As Sam's eyes closed and he slipped into fitful sleep, he saw his Master leaning above him, his head turned westward toward the mountains from which they had just escaped, his brows knotted with anxiety.
After what seemed like only a few heartbeats later, Sam woke to his Master fumbling with the buttons on the front of his sopping wet shirt. The gardener of Bag End opened one eye; the rain had lessened in intensity but was still thrumming steadily.
As Frodo's cold hand brushed against Sam's bare skin he gasped and flinched. Then his Master withdrew the leather pouch that held Narya. Frodo loosened the cord and pulled out the Red Ring, displaying it upon his open palm.
"Wake up, Sam," Frodo whispered. "Put this on again…"
"Please, Master," Sam groaned. "Can't we rest a while longer?"
"No—not yet. We must get beyond the bridge, to the right of the Road…"
Sam's head throbbed; he was having difficulty making sense of what Frodo was trying to say.
"Beyond the bridge… Why?"
"Because Gandalf said to stay to the right of the Road…"
"…I dunno if I can make it any farther, Mr. Frodo…"
"Yes, you can." Frodo clutched his companion's wrist tightly. "You must. They only wait for the rain to cease before they attack again…"
At the thought of another spider attack, Sam's eyes flew open. He tried to sit up; but his head swam, and all the stings burned fiercely. He shuddered and reached up toward his neck, where the largest welt throbbed.
"I'll do my best…" Sam swallowed back the bile that was rising in his throat and forced himself to sit. "You reckon Mr. Gandalf knew about them spiders? But why didn't he warn us…"
Frodo was already shaking his head. "I do not think so. I cannot imagine he would have known of such a horror and not given us a clearer warning. Rather, I suspect he had a hunch, or a sense of something evil… He often spoke of such feelings... It was my decision to ignore his advice and cross the Road, and it has led us nearly to disaster. And this time I am unwilling to stop until we are where he advised us to be. Now put on Gandalf's Gift, Sam. You are very weak, and you need every bit of strength!"
"All right, Master…"
Sam slipped the Red Ring on his finger. Immediately the darkness seemed less dense, and his companion's inner light shone more brightly. Sam's hearing sharpened, and away to their left and above, he could hear the spiders hissing and growling—not far, but not close, either. Before them and to their right, he heard the tramp of iron-shod feet. His heart leapt into his throat until he realized that the sounds were fading; a troop of Orcs was moving away, crossing the bridge from the East and marching up toward the Pass.
"Here," Frodo whispered, as he offered Sting to Sam. "Carry this—I can just see the faint blue of the blade, and that way I'll be able to find you if we separate. Now, then: lean on me. Keep close; hang onto my arm. That's right… "
Sam remembered very little of the next few hours as he struggled to stay on his feet and push through the dense undergrowth, tugging through tough vines and suffering countless scratches and tears from the thorns. The Red Ring gave him enough strength to carry on—but only just. He was desperate to lie down, to sleep and escape from the pain of all the spider bites.
"Just a bit farther… I can see the posts and the supporting struts… Almost there, Sam… Hold on a while longer…"
They crept beside a broad pillar made of smoothly worked blocks of black stone. Above they could make out arches and braces, and the undersurface of the Road laid out upon a complex structure of cross beams. The hobbits waded across a turbulent, muddy stream in the middle of the trench—a shallow river that very likely had not flowed in that spot in a thousand years. Frodo led Sam under the bridge, and once they were beyond it he sought out some solid ground out of the rush of the murky water.
Sam was shivering and his teeth were chattering when Frodo finally found a satisfactory spot: a shelf of sandy soil several feet above and East of the stream, sheltered from the view of the bridge by a wall of rocks and tucked beneath a thick screen of vines and bushes. He grasped his companion's arm and dragged him forward, then eased Sam to the ground. Sam felt his Master grope for his hand, pull Narya from his finger and place it inside the pouch. He let his head drop back and he knew no more.
Sam opened his eyes blearily. The sky above, peeking through the overhang of vegetation, glowed faintly red. He was curled on his side beneath a twisting mat of bare branches, thick with long curved thorns. Rain dribbled steadily but slowly through the leafless bushes. He raised his head, but immediately felt too dizzy to move, and he slowly sank back down. His Master was crouched nearby, his back turned, leaning forward over a hidden task. Sam heard a dribbling, tapping sound he couldn't quite place.
"Mr. Frodo?" he croaked.
Frodo turned, his drawn face full of concern that suddenly changed to relief as he saw that his companion was awake.
"Sam! Oh, Sam, at last! I was beginning to worry that you'd never wake up. How are you feeling?"
Sam reached up and touched the side of his neck. A cloth had been placed there, tied loosely over the worst bite, which was puffy and tender, but had lost the deep throbbing ache of earlier. "I dunno… A mite better than I did before, but I'm still dizzy, and achy all over…"
Frodo crawled toward his companion on his hands and knees, his head ducked beneath the twining branches. "Those spiders stung you many more times than they stung me, Sam. Partly I was protected by my mithril coat, of course, but I think they came after you because of Sting; they seemed to hate it, or maybe they even recognized it… Or perhaps they could sense Gandalf's Gift somehow and it enraged them, or maybe they were afraid of… I don't know why. But you certainly caught the brunt of their attacks."
As his Master approached, Sam saw that his cooking pots and pans were set out on the ground. The drumming noise he'd been hearing was suddenly clear. Frodo had set his cooking gear out to catch the rainwater. Every pot was half full. Raindrops kept pattering down, splashing and dribbling on the surfaces. By the looks of things, Frodo had already filled their three water skins and the miruvor flask, and was collecting more.
Frodo crouched beside his friend and looked down at him worriedly.
"If it had been at all safe I would have lit a fire—if one could be lit, in this wet—but of course that would have been very foolish. But I did the best I could to tend your hurts, Sam, with cold water and athelas…"
"I hope you didn't use the herb up on me, Mr. Frodo," Sam said hoarsely. "You should've saved it in case you need it, later on…"
Frodo gazed at him sharply as he sat on the ground beside him. "Don't be silly, Sam Gamgee. You were—and still are—sicker than you know."
Sam swallowed hard as he saw the stern look on his Master's face. "How long have I been asleep?"
"I wouldn't call it sleep, exactly," Frodo said dryly. "Lost in a fever, more likely… A long time. Many hours… Half a day, at least…"
"Half a day! But why didn't you wake me?"
Frodo shook his head and sighed. "I tried, Sam," he said gently. "You wouldn't waken, not even when I dug all those ugly stingers out of your wounds…"
Sam's hand flew up to his neck again. "Dug out…!" he gasped. "But I don't remember any of that…"
"A good thing, I'd say. I had to pull several out of myself, and it hurt something awful. But you had over two dozen stingers in you, Sam, big ones, and some of the welts were already festering and had to be drained… I needed light to do it. I was stymied, for I knew it would not be safe to light a fire or a torch, but it became so dark I feared I would do you more harm than good if I tried to remove the stingers by feel alone. And then I remembered Lothlorien." Frodo smiled as he lightly touched the left front pocket of his shirt, patting a small bulge there. "The Lady's Gift was simply perfect. I was very careful initially. I started out by shielding It within my rucksack, for I was worried it might be too bright. But the Star Glass seemed to know just how much light was required for the task. It shone no brighter than a single candle, and using Boromir's leather healing kit, I was able to wrap the phial and focus the glow precisely where I needed it…" He sighed. "Without some sort of light, I doubt very much that I'd have been successful in removing those stingers, Sam, and who knows what would have happened… You were very ill, you know. You frightened me, if you'd like to know. I was afraid I might lose you…"
"Th…thank you, Master, for helping me," Sam whispered, his lip trembling as tears started in his eyes.
Frodo blinked a few times and forced a smile. "Now then, as you are fond of saying to me: what about a bite to eat? And it is your turn to drink every drop of the water from the miruvor flask, Sam. We've plenty, as you can see… I've steeped a bit of cold broth from some of Faramir's cured meat, and the softened bits should go down fairly easily on your stomach… Here, drink this first…"
Sam was mortified at how weak he felt as his Master raised his head and supported his shoulders so he could drink. The faint invigorating flavor of the liqueur of Rivendell still lingered in the flask, the water from it soothed his tumbling stomach and seemed to reduce the throbbing pain of all the bites. But he could not even sit without help from Frodo, and though he could force down some sips of the weak broth, he retched and was sick when he tried to swallow anything solid. In a few minutes his shivering began anew, and soon poor Sam was shuddering and shaking all over. In a quarter of an hour the dull red of the patches of sky visible between the branches grew black, and Sam drifted into fever again.
In his nightmares Sam Gamgee seemed to always be running on sharp, slippery rocks, running from something horrible and relentless. He felt breathless and afraid, and terribly weary. He knew that if he stumbled, whatever pursued him would catch him and rip him to pieces. Sometimes he could see Frodo beside him, or just ahead; other times he ran alone, lost in a desolate wilderness full of hissing, growling enemies. He had never known such pain, and the only time he could recall feeling so desperate and frightened was when his Master seemed close to death after Weathertop. But now it was he who was close to death—even in the midst of his terrible dreams he sensed how frail his grip on life had become.
He wanted to just let go, to simply lie back on the hard stones and sleep forever. He was too sick, and his weariness was too deep. He was too far gone to recover, and if he tried he'd only be a burden and a drag on his Master, who must go on, and soon. Sam couldn't remember why he and Mr. Frodo were in this miserable place, or what his Master had to do, but he felt certain that everything would work out better if he just slipped away and let his companion go on without him. He fell deeply into a chill, felt the cold seeping into the marrow of his bones, and he knew the end was near.
But then his right hand began to warm up, and the warmth slowly spread from his middle finger, to his palm and his wrist, then up his arm to his shoulder. The warmth wasn't quite enough to drive the icy coldness from his entire body, but it settled in his chest and hovered gently about his heart. Then the feeling that Mr. Frodo would be better off if he were dead faded, and Sam heard a different voice, a deep voice, speaking to him from far off. That voice said that he must never leave his Master—that he must stay by his side no matter what happened. His resolve to stay alive for Frodo roused. And for a while Sam breathed more easily, and his alarmingly erratic pulse grew steadier. For a while. And then, the whole battle began again.
Deadly weariness warred with a feeble spark of determination; frigid, shivering cold fought against stubborn, unquenchable warmth. Sam hung between the temptation to give in to glittering, gilt-edged, Black-at-the-Core Despair and to strive for the Red Heart of the Flame of Hope, always just out of reach. How long he remained in that balance he did not know, nor where he was or who sat nearby, chafing his hands, caressing his brow, murmuring softly to him, dribbling water from the miruvor flask steeped with every last dried tendril of the athelas leaves that he himself had gathered on the slopes of Amon Lhaw, so long ago it could have been in another life—so far away it might have been in another world.
* * *
Frodo shuddered as he fought to stay awake. I cannot allow myself to sleep… There is no one else to watch for danger, no one but me… And I dare not sleep, for I might dream again… He rubbed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets for the tenth time. He forced himself to kneel instead of sit, purposefully choosing to place his knees upon a row of sharp little pebbles, so that the discomfort would help keep him alert.
He'd run out of verses of Bilbo's Walking Song, and was too weary and distracted to recite more than the first few stanzas of the Lay of Luthien, or Bilbo's translation of the Song of Gil-Galad. He tried working out, again, how many days must have passed since they parted from Gandalf at the western end of the Bridge of the Morgulduin. We saw him on the road heading East at least one full day later… Another night and a day to cross the rest of the Ephel Duath, and then we encountered the spiders… Then the rainstorm came… But that ended a long time ago now.
The only other events that had marked what otherwise seemed like one long endless wait was the passage from the East of the Witch King, on horseback, galloping wildly over the all-too-nearby bridge; and then, perhaps a day and a half later, an immense lifting of the Ring-bearer's spirit, as if a great shadow that had hovered overhead had finally floated away, allowing sunlight to shine again. He could not explain his sense that the Nazgûl-Chieftain who had wounded him was no more—he knew such a thing could not be until the Wraith-King's Dark Master was destroyed. So he pushed such peculiar thoughts away as irrelevant to his predicament, here, at the edge of the Enemy's land. He had much more urgent worries.
He had hardly any appetite, as anxious as he was, but he knew that he had eaten three times, all alone, unable to do anything but dribble a bit of cold broth into Sam's mouth and hold his head so he did not choke. He had drunk two full bottles of water and refilled them from Sam's cooking pots. He had placed Narya on Sam's right middle finger four times, leaving it in place for as long as he could tolerate not being able to see his companion as he lay nearby. By whatever way Time was counted in this dreadful dark land, he knew that one complete day and half of another had passed since he had dragged Sam to this makeshift encampment just beyond the bridge over the Morgai Trench. And here they had remained, with no further progress in their journey.
He counted on mental fingertips. March 9th at the Crossroads… The 10th in Morgul Vale… late on the 11th, I think, we saw him in that hideous cage, from above… The 12th, I woke on Sam's shoulders… On the 13th, the rain dispersed the spiders… today must be the 14th, or more likely it is already the 15th… At least two days since the first drop of spider venom began to course through Sam's veins, and perhaps three full days had come and gone since Gandalf must have arrived at Barad-dûr.
Frodo stared at his companion's pale face. Sam Gamgee had never before looked thin, had never appeared weak. Frodo could hardly recall a single day that his friend and gardener had been sick, even as a hobbit-lad when every other child in the neighborhood of the Hill had caught the spotted fever, or come down with a flux. Sam had always been sturdy, reliable and uncommonly healthy.
Frodo reached out and traced his fingertips over Sam's brow. His flesh was dry and cold; not an hour ago he'd been feverish, his skin frightfully hot and sweat pouring off him. The gardener of Bag End did not respond to his Master's gentle touch. He lay still, his breath shallow, his heartbeat tenuous. Frodo swallowed hard. He's dying, and there's not a thing I can do about it…
Though he would rather think of almost anything else, Frodo's troubled thoughts took him down a well-worn path that led to a dark blind end and an unsolvable riddle. It is so unfair… Why Sam, why now? Why must he go through this misery, and why must I be forced to decide!
For it seemed to Frodo that he was faced with a heart-rending, agonizing choice. He must choose which friend to try and help, and which to abandon to a gruesome fate. If he stayed here, by Sam's side, tending him and trying to save his dwindling life, then every hour and day that passed increased the hours and days that Gandalf would suffer. And if he set out now, alone, to try to push through to the end of his journey and the fulfillment of the Quest, he might help bring a quicker end to Gandalf's misery, but he would surely seal Sam's doom.
He wasn't afraid, strangely enough, at the thought of going on into Mordor alone. I'd always thought it might be that way, in the end… Fear did not sway him. No—it was the echoes of the voices of his two dear friends that tore him in two. As surely as he could hear the distant rumbling of Mount Doom, he could hear Sam telling him to get going without him, that it was high time he carried on with the Quest. And as truly as he could hear the hiss of the wind in the tangled bushes he could hear Gandalf saying that he would be an utter fool to go on without his stoutest and most loyal companion, that the wizard's fate was out of his hands and no longer his concern.
His friends seemed at once distant and immediately present. Sam was right here, he could see him and touch him—but Sam already stood on the very threshold of the door into the next World, and Frodo could no longer reach him. And Gandalf was chained deep in the smoldering darkness to the East, enduring who knew what, out of reach of anyone but those who hated him most—but Gandalf was right here, at his side; his presence was as warm and as real to Frodo as it had been when the wizard sat by the hearth at Bag End and blew smoke rings into the rafters.
Three times, Frodo had been unable to stave off sleep. Twice he had awakened crying out. For in his dreams he saw both of his friends as they were in those distant places where he could not reach them: Sam, smiling back over one shoulder, a light in his face and his eyes full of peace; and brief but vivid glimpses of Gandalf. He never caught a full look into the wizard's face—for having been spared that, Frodo felt a wretched sort of gratitude—but he could not mistake the sight of his old friend's aged but strong hand. The horrible dream image was of that familiar hand, pinned down against a block of stone as a thick iron rod came smashing down, again and again, until the hand was mangled and bloodied. He had covered his eyes and gasped until his shaking sobs ceased, and vowed not to let himself sleep again.
But the third time his eyes closed of their own accord and sleep took him was, perhaps, the worst of all. For a Voice whispered insistently that he was going about this all wrong, that the solution to all his woes was so easy, so near at hand. Instead of a vision of Sam leaving him and letting go of life, he saw himself smiling as Sam sat up beside him and voraciously ate a dried apple and an extra portion of cured meat. Instead of Gandalf's torment he saw the wizard throwing off his shackles and tossing a lightning bolt against the cell door, bursting it open, and Orcs fleeing from him in terror. The Power to do all that and more lies within your reach… All you must do is claim It, and use It on behalf of your dear friends. To fail to use what is at hand for their benefit is as cruel and heartless as the worst Orc! Think of those friends whom you love, whose suffering is for your sake…. No one but you can help them now…
Somehow, Frodo had wrenched himself awake in time to catch his own hands before they placed the Ring upon his finger. He grabbed It and clenched It tightly in his fist, panting with terror at what had almost happened. For his waking mind knew without a doubt that the Ring was trying to trick him, and that to put It on now would draw every enemy in Mordor directly to his side and bring an abrupt and ugly end to the Quest and to everything else.
But my sleeping self is vulnerable, and I am so very weary… How can I remain vigilant against myself?
For a morsel of comfort more than because of any other more compelling need, Frodo reached into his left breast pocket and withdrew the phial of Galadriel. Carefully he placed the Star-Glass into its leather shroud and lowered it into his rucksack. He sighed and allowed the tears to stream down his face as he stared at its soft, hidden glimmer.
He had never felt so alone in his life. But he made his choice. Maybe there really hadn't been a choice after all, but he still felt as though he had betrayed someone he had always trusted, someone he had always admired—and yes, the Ring's Voice had spoken one true thing—someone he had loved.
He chose to stay at Sam's side. With his heart weighed down with grief and guilt, he chose to leave Gandalf to his terrible fate.
Another awful day passed. Sam drifted on the boundary of life and death, growing weaker and more wasted as the fever raged. Frodo searched his friend's entire body again. He found a dark nodule overlying one of the worst bites, on his shoulder, and thankful for Sam's insensible state, he pierced it with Boromir's thin knife and pushed out a mess of greenish black ooze. The stuff smelled horrible, and Frodo gagged as he wiped the foul liquid away. He was about to give it up when he found one last imbedded stinger, in the small of Sam's back. He'd missed this one, and it had worked its way in deeply. Frodo was so tired that he dug at it roughly, tearing Sam's tissues open and leaving a jagged hole—but at least he was certain now. He'd finally removed every single one of the wretched things.
He knew he could not hold off sleep for long now. Indeed, he decided he had no other option but to take the chance and get the sleep he so desperately needed. Or I won't be any good for anyone, not for Sam, nor myself, or Gandalf. If I don't sleep soon I'll do something careless and get caught, and that will be worse for everyone… He opened the folding knife with the mumâk tusk handle and threaded the Ring upon its honed blade right down to the hilt. He tore off the long strip of leather that closed the healer's kit and strapped the Ring-laden knife-blade to the flat shaft of Sting, then wrapped the whole dangerous package with the silvery scarf that Gandalf had placed in his pack and tied the ends to one another securely.
If I try to undo all that in my sleep, I'll surely slice my fingers open and wake myself up…
After wrapping the cloak of Lorien about his companion, he slid Narya onto Sam's finger and watched as his dying friend vanished, wondering as he did if it would be the last time he would see Sam Gamgee's living face. With a sigh he closed the leather pouch about the phial, clasped it to his chest and lay back, resting his head on his rucksack and lying snug against the length of Sam's inert form. The silvery scarf with its hidden blades and dangers he had carefully tucked behind Sam's shoulders. Then Frodo Baggins closed his eyes, and within half a minute he was fast asleep.
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.