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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 29. Underhill
East ran the road for some time ere it changed and plunged south towards a great spur of rock. Frodo and Sam plodded along their chosen path as it looped about that outcropping, then turned sharply east once more as the land began to rise. Frodo was staggering, and inwardly he blessed Sam's insistence at the Crossroads, for without that brief pause and meal, he doubted that he would have come so far save by crawling like a beast. It was as if the Crossroads had marked more than a mere meeting and parting of ways; it was as if beyond them, they had left the world of the West behind and entered wholly into another, where but one will ruled, and their own was an affront to the order of things.
Nevertheless, onward they trudged. The Ring burned in the hand Frodo kept fisted in his pocket about it, and his arm throbbed steadily, as if the wraith's passage had awakened the memory of flesh–ice numbed his shoulder once more, and he wondered if the world were truly so dark as it seemed, or whether, as after Weathertop, it were only his eyes that were so blind. At least it is not fire yet, Frodo reminded himself, chanting it in his mind over and over again as he plodded along beside Sam.
As they walked, that rumbling that had sounded every so often during their march through Ithilien, and again at the Crossroads, grew in volume and frequency. It was as if the very earth complained, and Frodo shivered, aware, suddenly, of its nature. The Ring, he sensed, was calling it, or else was called by it–strange as it seemed, there was an affinity between them, between the song of metal that Frodo had heard so often in his dreams of late and the distant thundering. Mount Doom. Frodo was scarcely aware of having spoken aloud, until he heard Sam's concerned voice answering:
Frodo shook his head sharply, and shuddered as he replied, "The sound. It's the mountain; it's awake." At that Sam sucked in a breath, and dragged his eyes up to the dark horizon before them, to that odd patch of luminous sky just over the mountains.
"I suppose it is. Well, that ought to make it easy to find," he muttered, glancing aside at Frodo then to see what reaction that might get. Frodo merely sighed, too tired to attempt to smile, and unwilling to tell Sam that even were Mount Doom one peak like any other, he would be unable to mistake it.
In silence they walked then, heads bent as they toiled against the heavy sense of dread that lay over the land. Weary as he was, Frodo had eyes only for the path before him, as much of it as he could see. But after a time, he became aware of light on the edges of his vision, and he glanced sideways, wondering what it might be. Even as he did so, however, Sam stopped dead before him, and Frodo collided with a gasp.
"Sorry, Mr. Frodo!" Sam hastened to apologize, reaching out to steady him with one hand even as he pointed with the other. "Look!"
This time, Frodo turned fully and so beheld the horror of Minas Morgul. The Tower of Sorcery rose high above the walls of the Dead City, at once splendid and terrible, and the more terrible because splendid. But the walls of white stone seemed dim; the tower was dark upon the heights. Nothing stirred in Morgul vale, unless it was the fume that rose from the river, and stirred the deformed petals of the pale flowers that thronged the fields. 'Twas they that gleamed mutely in the night as fallen stars, bright over the darkness of the earth, sending up a sickly illumination.
"Don't much like the look of that," Sam murmured, shifting foot to foot nervously.
"Nor I. But," Frodo replied, and frowned, eyes narrowing as he stared at the tower.
"But?" Sam asked, after a brief pause.
"I think," Frodo said slowly, "that the watchers are asleep. The tower is blind, for its master has gone to war."
"How can you tell?" Sam asked, brow knit as he glanced at Frodo.
"It is a feeling in the heart," he replied, without taking his eyes from the tower. "You feel it as well, or we'd not stand here so calmly. Besides, where else would that host have come from?" At that, Sam grunted, and nodded. After a moment more, with an effort of will, Frodo tore his gaze from the city of the wraiths, and turning to Sam, said quietly, "Still, we should not linger. Let us go on."
Past the bridge that led over the river the road ran, and along the stonework that ran beside it they went, and when they found the gap in the wall, and the little path behind it, they took it. Up they climbed, 'til the noisome light of the flowers had faded beneath the brume. Hand in hand, the hobbits walked, fearful of losing each other or making a misstep, as they trod the ledges of Morgul Vale. "Like spiders, Andy, like spiders," Sam was heard to mutter on more than one occasion, and his hand in Frodo's was slick with sweat. Frodo, for his part, clung tightly to it, and not only because the way was dark–the Ring was in his pocket, and his hand itched and tingled, hot amid the ice that deadened the rest of his arm; hot where that band of metal had lain. Ever and anon, longing so deep would well up that it pained him, almost, not to reach for it, and he thought poor Sam's fingers must be crushed within his grip, so tightly did he squeeze. But Sam said nothing, and in silence they continued, save for the occasional mutter from Sam and the seeming mournful groans of the Mountain.
They had crept and fumbled their slow way along a narrow shelf of rock when of a sudden, the way bent, and the hobbits, rounding the corner, found themselves on a flat expanse of bare rock, and the path ran away up into a crack in the stone wall before them. "What's this, then?" Sam asked in a hushed voice.
"Faramir said the way would go up into the mountains," Frodo said, thinking hard to remember that voice from the shadows.
"I don't know as it goes up," Sam declared. "I can't see a thing!"
For a time, the two hobbits stood peering helplessly into the gloom. At last, however, Sam hefted his pack with an audible clank! of shifting cooking gear, and said determinedly, "Dark or not, it's the way, and we're not gettin' no further on it by just standing here." Fingers tightened about Frodo's hand, as he said, "Let's have look, shall we Mr. Frodo?"
Wordlessly, Frodo nodded, and with a deep breath, they walked into the gap, and thus began the ascent of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol.
Sam cursed softly under his breath as the rock beneath him shifted, breaking under his weight, and a newly cracked edge dug into his knee. But his breath came so thin and fearful, the words were lost in his panting. With an effort, he lifted his head and peered up into the darkness, sniffling softly and blinking the sweat from his eyes. He could not see Frodo before him; the blood was pounding so in his ears that he could not hear him, either, and only if he reached and found a foot or the edge of a cloak had he proof, even, that he existed. Indeed, so dark was the way that the hobbits, after perhaps ten steps, had had to give up the attempt to walk them. Now, they crawled upon hands and knees, pulling themselves up that steep and ancient way; their knees were bloody, their fingers aching, and every muscle shrieked silent protest as they forced themselves to take the next crumbling stair, and then the next, and the next, in torturous repetition. The sheer walls of the stairwell seemed to close in on them, stifling and oppressive, and over all, the will of that one beat down upon them.
But at last, when it seemed to Sam that he had never known another life than the endless climbing of the stair, suddenly, he heard Frodo cry out softly. "Sir?" he gasped, and heaved himself upward... onto a sudden flat. And no matter how far he stretched his arms, he could find no stair before them. It's done! he thought, dizzy with elation. We've made it! But his elation was tempered by concern, as he felt for his master and found him lying boneless and shivering. "Mr. Frodo?" Frodo moaned in the darkness, and Sam bit his lip, fearful that his master had swooned and would now be difficult to rouse, though he dutifully began shaking him.
And perhaps Frodo had swooned, for he jerked of a sudden, and an arm swept wide, clouting Sam on the ear. Sam let out a yelp, then hastily covered his mouth, for the sound echoed. "Frodo!"
"I'm sorry! But I can't, I can't, Sam," Frodo's voice came back then, in a pathetic whimper.
"Yes, you can," Sam replied firmly, without bothering to ask what could or could not be done. "You must. We've got to keep on going, sir. You said it yourself, there's no choice!" Ignoring his own aching back, he got an arm about Frodo's shoulders and lifted, trying to get Frodo at least back on his knees. His master was a dead weight in his arms, and he thought of how feeble his grip had felt all the long way up the path before the stairs. And if it's bad now, it'll get worse later. We've got to keep moving, Sam thought desperately. Frodo was at least trying now to help, to get his legs under him, and he clutched blindly at Sam's shoulder with one hand.
"You're right," Frodo panted in his ear. "You're right, we must. It's just... it's so dark!"
"We've no wood for kindling, sir," Sam murmured, but then paused, struck by a sudden thought. "Here now, what about that Lórien glass that the Lady gave you? Have you got it still or did that Grishnákh take it?"
"The... glass?" Frodo's voice sounded uncertainly beside him for a moment, but then: "The glass. Yes, the glass. I think... I think it must be in my pack, Sam."
"Hold still a moment, then, and I'll see if I can find it." Slipping out of Frodo's grip, Sam groped in the darkness, fumbling the buckles and ties of the pack until he got the flap open. Then, by feel, he began seeking among his master's possessions. Cloth... bandages, I think, or else clothing... that's Faramir's little bundle of food for us... metal–knife, I think, yes, that's so.... In the end, he had to dig deep until he felt the cold smoothness of glass, miraculously unbroken, lying nested in among what felt like Frodo's old vest. No wonder the orcs didn't find it, Sam thought, relieved, as he carefully drew it forth and began the difficult task of refastening the flap.
But when he'd done, he crawled his careful way back around so that he was facing Frodo in the darkness. Reaching, he found his master's hand, and set the glass in it. It glittered dimly, the first light they had seen since leaving the deadly vale below. "Is that it?" Sam asked, disappointed. He could not even see Frodo's face by such light, only the outline of his fingers against the glass.
"Wait a moment, Sam," Frodo said softly, and even as he spoke, the light waxed, grew to a silvery flame that sat at the heart of the crystal phial, as if the star itself were caught within it. Frodo's eyes glinted, and in that clear and constant light, he seemed almost himself–no shadows at the hollows of his cheeks, nor about the eyes to hide and conceal; just the weary, worn face of one in pain yet with still a little hope as that starlight burned bright.
"It's a wonder!" Sam breathed, feeling his own spirits lift. The shadows that had lain across their way wavered, dissolving as Frodo held the light up, and for the first time, they saw their path. Upward it sloped, straight and narrow, plunging again into a crevice in the walls. But now they could see that what they had taken for a crevice was nothing of the sort. It was a door–a rough-hewn passage, which had seemed a crevice only because it was so high and narrow; clearly it had been made for far taller beings than hobbits. And the walls themselves were not mere walls, but a sort of door post, for there were markings upon them to either side of the gap. Old script, written top to bottom, stood neatly carved into the rock, though it was worn now with the ages that had eaten away at even stone. "Is it elvish?" Sam asked, puzzled.
"No, it's something else," Frodo replied, squinting at the runes. Rising then, he moved closer, reaching up as high as he could to touch the bottom-most letter. After a moment, he said, "I think that it must be the old language of Gondor. The old Mannish speech from Númenor, that Elendil and his people brought with them to Middle-earth. Bilbo told me about it once."
"You remember that?"
"Yes, I do recall that lesson, though little else about that day or even when it was, truly. Only I remember that the old tongue of Númenor was more stately, more ancient, and that Westron was changed by it, and that it was changed into Westron–both at once. This sounds a bit like the Common Tongue, and not at all like any elvish speech I've ever learned," Frodo murmured. "They must have made these stairs, the Exiles. A stair to run from Minas Morgul to...."
"To what?" Sam asked.
"I don't know," Frodo replied. "To whatever end a spider's pass leads, and it has spidered, that is certain. Faramir did not know how apt was the name he spoke."
A little longer, the hobbits stood there, shivering in the draft that blew in from the heights, staring at this odd and out of place sign of better times, thinking of their friends far away. When the way hardens, remember my brother. And if it spurs you, think of us who labor here, Faramir's voice sounded in Sam's memory, and he drew a deep breath as he pulled his cloak closer about him. "Well, I suppose I might think a little better of this stair, knowing who made it," he allowed. "It can't be all bad, can it? Who knows? Maybe Elendil himself used these steps. Wouldn't that be a thing to tell of, Mr. Frodo? You and me, on the very same path as Elendil all those years ago?"
"We've been on his path since Weathertop. His, and Isildur's," Frodo answered. Which was not quite as heartening, and Sam frowned. But his master seemed at least less desperate, less wounded when he turned to him, and said with an air of new determination, "Let's follow a little further, shall we?"
Up they climbed, for hours on end, and though the way was much less steep, the hobbits soon found themselves uncertain where east and west were, the road twisted so, winding its way up the mountains. They could at least see, now, and so their journey was made easier, though the chill of the winds that cut through the passage was hard to endure and would've been unbearable but for the grey elven cloaks.
But at long last, they came to the end of the passage. It opened out onto a ledge, which dropped in a cliff on their left and a sheer chasm to their right. The mountains loomed high before them, seeming to rise up to pierce the black clouds above; the clouds themselves seemed to bleed, for a red light flickered at times, casting a dull stain upon their earthward bellies. The hobbits paused there awhile, taking in this forbidding landscape, until finally Frodo said softly, "I think it is time we put the light out awhile."
"Pity," Sam muttered, even as Frodo hid the glass away in a pocket of his vest. But under this more open sky, it did seem a risk to let that light shine forth still. The world seemed very dim indeed as the hobbits made their way forward once more, carefully holding the line between cliff and chasm, picking their way (not always successfully) among loose rock and the dips in the uneven ground.
At length, they came to another wall, and another stair. Sam, standing on his toes and stretching his arm high, felt the shallow groove of lettering cut into the stone once more ere he followed Frodo in and upward. "Tall ships and tall kings," he muttered under his breath, since Mr. Bilbo's lessons were very much on his mind. Like a talisman, he repeated that line to himself, climbing in pace to its rhythm, and tried to ignore his growing feeling of dread as he and Frodo trod that narrow path as it snaked across the face of the mountain, seeming endless.
Finally, however, the stair swerved left, and then suddenly bent at an angle as it ran straight upward until it spilled out into the bottom of a cleft. "Look, Sam," Frodo whispered, reaching out to grasp his hand as he pointed. Sam stared, eyes narrowed as he tried to determine what he saw, for amid the spikes and peaks that the wind had carved and which rose up all about them, he did not at first grasp the significance of what lay before him. But the red-washed sides of the narrow spindle were, he realized, too straight.
"A tower," he breathed.
"The end of the road," Frodo said, with no uncertainty in his voice, though he was panting hard and swaying on his feet from weariness. "We must be careful as we pass."
"I'll say," Sam replied. "But first, let's have a bit of a rest, shall we?"
"No," Frodo said, and shook his head, giving Sam a desperate look. "If I stop, I shan't get up again, I feel. Let's move on a little farther at least."
"If you think it's best, then we can go on for a bit," Sam replied, though his own heart sank at the prospect of still more walking.
And so they did. Bent under their packs, they trudged onward, and soon were fairly staggering. Nevertheless, they did not stop, and each faltering step brought them closer to that tower in the distance. Blindly, they followed the path as it bent towards a great, grey horn of rock, the shadow of which lay heavy across the way. If ever there were a dawn in this darkened land, the hobbits did not see it, for the mountain put itself between the light and the lands west, malevolently denying the travelers the sun, if it were the sun that reddened the sky. A foul wind blew from its heights, and Sam's eyes watered even as he choked on the air. The road plunged onward, heedless of the hobbits' dismay, until it came at last to the wall itself, and there disappeared into yet another crevice, whence came a putrid stench so strong Sam fancied the air wavered with it.
"I thought them swamps stank," he said hoarsely, vainly fanning at the air before his face, gagging a bit.
"I don't like this at all," Frodo murmured, sinking to the ground at last. Hands sought his waterskin, moving almost frantically in the near-darkness and Frodo gulped the water.
"Careful, Mr. Frodo. We've not got much left, and I've not seen any water since we left that horrid vale behind," Sam warned. Frodo nodded, but did not speak, though after but a little while longer, he lowered the skin from his parched lips. Yet he made no move as if to stand, and with a sigh, Sam joined him on the ground before the mouth of the cave. And he allowed himself a drink as well, though far less than thirst demanded. In an effort to fool his abused senses, Sam rolled the water about in his mouth, swallowing only a little at a time. That did seem to help a little, though even water sat uneasily in his stomach thanks to the fume.
For a time, the hobbits sat in silence, utterly exhausted. Indeed, Sam could feel his eyelids drooping, and he struggled with himself, for despite his weariness, his unease was growing steadily with the waning of the hour. The air was still and leaden, as if it, too, were immobilized by some elemental terror, and the stench, too heavy for air, sank into the very earth. All was quiet, as if the very mountains held their breath in awful anticipation.
And so you shouldn't be sleeping, Sam, my lad, Sam told himself sternly. No telling what might happen if you close your eyes. But it had been so long since they had slept–since the gnarled old tree and the passage of the fell army–that he couldn't help it. Though he put his knuckles in his eyes, his eyes drifted inexorably shut, and darkness of a less sinister kind than Mordor's reek crept over him. So it was that it was some hours later Sam awoke, suddenly and with heart pounding, to find that the darkness seemed to have grow more oppressive, the shadows deeper, and the air colder. Is it night, I wonder? Have we missed day, or does it ever happen in this accursed place? he wondered, even as he, groaning softly, rose to his feet. Oi, my aching back! But sore back or no, there was still a long walk before them, and so Sam stooped and shook his master, calling softly, "Wake up, Mr. Frodo. It's time."
With a soft moan of his own, Frodo stirred, and a hand clutched at Sam's arm. "'S always time," Frodo muttered, but he sat up, and with Sam's help, rose to his feet. Together, they turned towards the rock face, and after a moment, a dim light flickered in the darkness as Frodo brought out the star-glass once more. The maw of the cave lay before them, and Sam blinked in surprise, for it was clearly a tunnel, much more carefully hewn than the other passages. "Let's go, before the starlight gets too bright for this place," Frodo murmured, and stepped forward, Sam trailing in his wake. Just ere Sam passed within, he glanced up at the walls once more, at the lettering on the stone. Following Elendil, he told himself firmly, and tried not to think of where Elendil's path had led him.
The tunnel wound through the heart of the mountain. Forged long ago, it had been reforged and remade, riddled through with new paths by those who used it after the great days of Gondor, and most especially by the one who dwelt within it. Sam and Frodo could not have known this, of course, but they knew enough to stay upon the main path, which was broad and straight, and to avoid the mouths of branching passages that led to who knew what fate. The star-glass blazed bright, illuminating the way, but even it could not pierce all darkness, and beyond the circle of its radiance, there the shadows held sway, inky and seeming impenetrable. The noisome stench grew, if possible, worse, and the hobbits walked with a bunch of their cloaks pressed over noses and mouths. That helped somewhat, or at least, it kept them from gagging with every breath, but Sam felt sick nonetheless.
The path began to slope upward, and the hobbits bent their heads and toiled along it, chests heaving, and hoping their stomachs would not. Indeed, the scent of putrefaction grew so strong, it seemed that even the light wavered before it, though Sam was willing to admit it might simply be the tears blurring his vision that made it seem so. What is it? he wondered, and then staggered suddenly as Frodo reeled sideways into him.
"Fro...?" he began, but his voice died, as he saw beyond his master a great, gaping void. Larger than any of the other side-passages, the opening seemed, as another once had told it, to be a patch of midnight never cleared away, and a horror came over Sam. For hanging at its entryway, by thick strands of deadly silk, was a mass–a mannish shape it had, and an arm freed from the webbing that wrapped about the legs and body dangled freely. Yes, a body it was, of some nameless unfortunate, yet it was oddly misshapen, as if what should have given it shape and solidity from within had been quite literally eaten out.
Few things hold such horror for the speaking peoples of the earth, whatever their oath or allegiance, as the fear of being devoured, and the mangled mass of flesh that hung before that "door" spoke to that most primitive of terrors.
"Spider's pass," Sam whispered in sudden comprehension. Frodo was quivering beside him, glass in one hand, the other thrust deep into his pocket, and a look of sheer revulsion played upon his face.
"Move! Hurry!" Frodo whispered harshly, and the pair of them ran forward, fleeing the web-shrouded nest of she for whom the pass was named. Forth they staggered, pursued by the shadow of horror, the blood pounding so in their ears they could not hear aught else.
And so it was, as they climbed and scratched their way up the sloping path of the tunnel, that they did not notice until too late the sound of steel-shod feet approaching. Perhaps even had they not been so blinded by panic, they would have been unable to avoid the patrol that came marching, for the echoes in the caverns were deceptive, there being many ways carved throughout the pass–more than Sam and Frodo possibly could know. They knew only that behind them lurked Menace itself, and somewhere ahead lay freedom.
It was only when Frodo was torn suddenly and violently from his side that Sam realized their peril, and he had barely time to turn himself ere hard hands caught hold of him. With a wordless cry, Sam struggled, fighting against the orcs who cursed and clutched at him, even as they ducked and tried to avoid the brilliance of the star-light. "Put it out! Put it out!" one of them howled, and a knot of bodies closed in around Frodo who shouted, inspiring more curses. But the light faded suddenly, and Sam heard the chink! as the glass dropped to the floor. Whether it shattered or not, he couldn't say in the commotion that followed.
For even as the light died, a shriek rose up, and a boil of activity with it. "Frodo!" Sam shouted, wrenching free of his captors, who seemed to be suddenly more fearful of what lay behind them than of what would happen should they allow a prisoner to escape. But Sam, bent on the single thought that he must get his master free and out, plunged heedlessly back towards where he knew Frodo must be, and since the orcs had not had time yet to despoil him of his weapon, he drew it. For despite the danger of perhaps wounding Frodo in the darkness and uncertainty, he was stricken by the conviction that the horror of the pit had come forth at last. And indeed, a hissing, rattling shriek rose up above the dismayed shouts of the orcs, and a hot, foul scent like decay itself stole about the tunnel.
"Frodo!" Sam cried out, feeling his heart hammering in his chest. "Frodo!"
"Sam!" the shout came from his left, and Sam, on impulse, dropped to the floor and crawled towards it. All was confusion. Orcs were running–he could hear them. Others seemed to be fighting, and there was a scrabbling and hissing beyond them to his right that set a chill in Sam's bones. An orc tripped over him, cursing, and Sam whimpered as steel-toed shoes bruised his ribs. His knees, cut and sore from the ascent of the stairs, were an agony to him, yet he hurried towards his master as swiftly as he could.
"Frodo!" he shouted, and cowered as another shriek rang out, along with a hideous orcish cry, burbling and wet. "Frodo!" he cried desperately, seeking his master.
A moment later, he was helped in that task as a bright light flared suddenly to life. The star-glass! he thought, relieved, and hurried to where Frodo sat backed against a wall, glass held high as he stared up in horror. "We've got to go, sir!" Sam said, reaching him at last, and seizing hold of an arm. "Up!"
"Sam!" Frodo breathed, aghast, even as Sam stood and hauled him to his feet. Sam turned at that, and immediately wished he hadn't. The remaining orcs stood huddled together, swords and spears out against the hideous creature above them. A huge, bulbous body on eight monstrous legs stood before them, and clusters of eyes glinted malevolently, even as the spider recoiled from the light.
"Bless me," Sam whimpered, and then turned to Frodo once more. "RUN!"
And so they did, turning and dashing up the tunnel whence the orcs had come upon them unseen. For despite the danger of meeting more of them, at least they could be certain that an exit lay that way, somewhere. But though they fled swift as they could, it seemed fortune ran against them. For with another shriek, the great spider scuttled after them, knocking aside the orcs as a child might thrust aside toy soldiers. For she was no mere hatchling of Mirkwood, but they were hers, who was the last of Ungoliant's brood, she who had sought to devour even the Silmarils. This was Shelob, faithless, heartless, insatiable, and yet as caught as they in webs not their making. For though fearful of the light, lust consumed her, and as it ever had, the Ring called out to it... called through Frodo.
Frodo and Sam dashed headlong up the path, given strength by fear of the slither and shriek of scrabbling claw-tipped legs behind them. Frodo, for his part, felt as if the world had ceased to turn, as if time had slowed to an agonizing pace, and every movement extended itself in time. No, he thought desperately, feeling the pull of the Ring in this distention. No! His ears were ringing–a dissonance that seemed to break upon the world and then... and then. Time unfolded, and yet in Frodo's mind it stood still even as flesh continued its blind path through seconds and minutes, though he felt himself beginning to slow, beginning, perhaps, to think of turning as the world went gold...
What happened next was not entirely clear to him, even afterwards. It seemed to him that he must have tripped. Once more, the light went out, as the glass tumbled from his hand, but Frodo scarcely noticed, for his world was aflame in a blinding golden light. He heard the terrible cry of triumph, as Shelob overtook them in a rush of foul air and heat; a voice cried out, speaking a language that Mordor had not heard since the ending of an Age; and the world itself seemed to shudder in its foundations as Sound broke out. Frodo cried out in pain, clutching his head and curling round himself in a vain effort to block the noise, and then suddenly, all was plunged into darkness.
Consciousness trickled slowly back to life. At first in feeling–a sense of pressure and heat, as Frodo groaned softly. Then came the scent, like sickness on the tongue, which made him cough painfully, and struggle to open his eyes. Blackness at first greeted him, but as he lay there, panting, he became aware of a red light that lifted the darkness to a dim, murderous grey, and of free air that wafted down from above. "Sam?" he croaked softly, as he dizzily lifted his head... and then froze.
Across his path lay the bloated form of Shelob. Fear struck him dumb, rooted him to the spot, as for a seeming eternity, he waited for the beast to turn on him. But as heartbeats counted out the measure of an anxious time, and still nothing happened, realization dawned slowly on him. Shelob did not move. Her great legs were all akimbo, a tumble of armor and joints and claws. All was silent. All was still save the draught from the tunnel's end some ways ahead. She's... dead, he though, amazed. Yet even so, he needed another minute or two before he could bring himself to edge closer, to pick his way carefully about her carcass, ducking under legs and crawling over claw-tips. "Sam?" Frodo swallowed hard, then tried again, a little more loudly, "Sam?"
A soft groan sounded, and Frodo hurried forward, slipping in a puddle of yellow-green, stubbing a toe on a rock and cursing the pain though he did not let it slow him. The great, faceted eyes were still and dark as Frodo passed them by in his haste. For from beneath the head, there stuck an arm, and a curly head as well. "Sam!" Frodo stooped and grasped that arm, putting his shoulder to the monstrous head, and he pushed with all his might, straining to move his enemy just that space enough to free his friend. He felt a shift, and shoved the harder, walking into the spider's bulk, struggling to straighten his knees... .
The head lifted, and Frodo heaved it to one side, then bent to grasp Sam's arms and pull. It was an effort, for still, Shelob half-covered him, but slowly, he began walking backwards, pulling Sam with him from beneath the body of the beast. As soon as they were free, Frodo went to his knees, panting, as he rolled Sam onto his back. And he gasped at the blood staining the other's shirt. "Wake up, Sam! Sam!" he hissed fearfully, lightly slapping the other's face.
Sam twitched, then moaned, and brown eyes blinked open. A moment, they stared, and then Sam said hoarsely, "Thought I'd lost you."
"Oh Sam... no, never yet that," Frodo replied.
"'Twas close, though. The light just... just went out..."
"I'm afraid I dropped it. I don't know what happened," Frodo murmured, taking one of Sam's hands in his and chafing it anxiously. "It was calling to her, calling, and I couldn't–I'm not sure what happened...."
"'S'all right," Sam assured him, and squeezed his hand a bit, though weakly, as he shivered. "You can walk?"
"Then it's all right."
"No, no it isn't. You're bleeding," Frodo said, and began to shrug his pack off, but Sam stopped him.
"Don't bother yourself about it, Frodo dear. Got me with her stinger, she did, as she passed over.... Don't think she even meant it, really–just trying to stop. Got her back, though," he said frowning as he let loll his head towards the spider's still bulk. He shivered again, more strongly, as Frodo scowled anxiously.
"Sam, don't be silly, I've got to–"
"Aye, you've got to get on about things, sir," Sam said then, gripping his hand more tightly turning his head back to Frodo again. And he smiled slightly, a tremulously little smile that was marred by a tic, as Sam shuddered and twitched, panting hard. "Least there's no sting this time," he said, much to Frodo's confusion. "Might be good. She got me good.... Never... never liked spiders. Never liked–"
"Sam!" Frodo cried in horror, gathering Sam into his arms as his friend convulsed, violently, though without a sound while Frodo clung helplessly to him. And then suddenly, he went limp. Frodo remained as he was, holding Sam tightly as if to still the tremors that had so recently racked him, but unable to do anything about his own trembling. Oh no. No, no....
But that denial changed nothing. Sam did not move again. And perhaps Frodo had grown used to accepting unacceptable things, as Gandalf's face flashed in his mind, and Boromir's. This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will, murmured a voice in his mind that would evermore seem as Sam's. Frodo drew a deep breath, and freed an arm to wipe at his curiously dry eyes as he considered what must be done. The star-light was gone, lost somewhere in the darkness behind him, and though the orcs might be awhile before they dared follow Shelob to see what had become of her, they would come eventually. Time to get on about this thing.
Frodo laid Sam gently down. He straightened his limbs, crossing his hands upon his breast, and on impulse, kissed each eyelid shut before pulling the grey hood over his face. Bowing low, he said softly, "Thank you, Sam. Sleep well."
And then, he turned towards the red light, and began climbing. He did not look back.
And beyond him, the Whispers joined the Sounding Note, that had sung in the emptiness, and began to weave anew....
A/N: Wow. Next up: AU!RotK.
Like spiders, Andy, like spiders–reference is to Fellowship of the Ring, "Lothlórien"
Tall ships and tall kings–The Two Towers, "The Palantír"
A patch of midnight never cleared away–The Hobbit, "Flies and Spiders"
This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will–The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"
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