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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 46. The Fires of Orodruin
Night lay over Mordor. To the West of its Shadow Mounts, a little light lay flickering beneath Ithilien's eaves, guarded by ring upon ring of steel and the fearful eyes of Gondor's army. North of them the Dark Lord's orcs and allies spread out, questing south and west to meet them, while on the killing grounds, Mordor's twisted creatures crawled over the slags, snapping maws and hooked claws taking their reward in the dead, save where the Nazgûl walked. Uncloaked, they passed as terror over the field and the mounds, seeking the Ring there amid the entrails, to ensure it should not go to anyone's gullet, whether by error or ambition.
But two nights had yielded naught, and in his tower of Barad-dûr, the Dark Lord brooded, and his land trembled. Suspicion ran deep as Ages in the Lord of Mordor, and fear, twin to self-concern, ran deeper still, and he took thought therefore to secure himself and all that was his against the strangeness of the days, coiling about his vitals like a dragon.
And he sent his lusty thought out into the depths of the earth, calling, summoning, seeking as doubt fed the fires of wrath:
Where art thou? Sing!
... and on the plains of Gorgoroth, Samwise Gamgee stared up at the mountain, feeling its heat beneath his feet, and he reached and carefully drew the folds of the grey cloak over a sleeping Frodo's breast and down over his eyes.
Frodo woke suddenly to darkness. His heart raced, hammering in his chest, but exhausted and disoriented, he could find nothing in the night for fear to light upon. Nothing, save for the malice that made the eastern sky waver – and the singing. He held up a futile hand against it, against the harp-wire skitter of a voice that scratched at the inside of his skull. Be silent! Be silent – !
A hand clasped his, cool heat, and Frodo started.
"I'm here, Mr. Frodo." Sam's voice sounded above him as the Ring-song recoiled, retreating to a resentful golden whispering. Yet that other call remained, like sunburn on the side of his face, and all along his body. Lying on Gorgoroth's shattered stone, Frodo could feel it – the very pulse of Mordor. The Ring gibbered quiet counterpoint, and the tremor in the hollow of his breast threatened to sing once more with it. He felt as a lute-string in a concert, stretched so taut he must either sing or snap...
"Nightfall's coming on," Sam observed. "'Tis nearly time to go."
"Go?" Frodo croaked, and winced slightly when his tongue stung.
"To the mountain, sir – don't you remember?" A pause, then: "You don't, do you?"
Frodo said nothing. What could he say, after all? Of the journey across the blasted plain, he could conjure but few blurred images that would not have let him name a single rock or dusty step. But he felt that passage in his bones and in every inch of bruised, bleeding flesh. Were it not for Sam, he might have remembered nothing beyond that, but along the way, he had heard Sam's voice, and felt the gentle heat of his hand against his brow, or holding Frodo's poor, nerveless fingers, and for a little while, the darkness had lifted, leaving only the night beneath the mountain.
For it was always night beneath Mount Doom. Its shadow stretched long at dawn, and from its mouth, a red-lit, cindery plume rose. Nothing so thick as before, yet it was there, a shade from the sun. The mountain's wrath ran beneath the earth, came up in hot fumes to burn eyes and nose, mouth and throat and lungs. Sometimes, Frodo had roused from his somnamublant stupor to find himself inexplicably on hands and knees, racked by coughing spasms that had made every sore muscle scream in agony, and he had thought he should die of it, of the breathlessness of it.
It had but got worse, as they had neared the mountain. By the tumbled hollow that some vast stone had made, Frodo had coughed so hard, he had spat out blood before Sam had relented and forced him to drink just a little swallow of water. And then a little more, and a little more, as slowly, the coughing had ceased, and Frodo, spent and dizzy, had lain panting in his arms.
"You just bit your tongue a little, Mr. Frodo," Sam had soothed, though for the little life left in him, Frodo had not been able to tell. His throat had felt as though he had swallowed gravel, and his tongue had been so numb and parched that despite the water, he had felt some doubt whether Sam was right.
That must have happened not long ago – perhaps just before his latest sleep, Frodo realized, and felt a faint surprise, for now he could feel that tender spot, as he gently ran his tongue about the inside of his mouth. He cracked his eyes open to a dimly-lit world that spun dizzily, reeling in a shimmer of deadly golden fire.
"Where are we, Sam?" he asked, voice cracking.
"Right under the mountain. See there? All that light and ore, like a smithy's forge in the sky?"
Frodo let loll his head and saw the mountaintop sliding in a haze of scarlet heat. It merged with the gold and everything seemed to tremble... "It sings," he whispered, mesmerized.
Sam bowed his head, and he pressed Frodo's hand more tightly. But then he shook himself and asked: "Can you sit up? There's a little water left – you should have some before we go."
Frodo shut his eyes again. Lassitude lay in every limb like infection. Could he sit up? Was there truly a reason to sit up? What am I doing here? He had known once, he felt, he knew – once upon a time, he had had a reason....
"Do you remember the Shire, Sam?" Or at least, so he meant to ask. What slipped raw off his tongue, stinging as it went, was merely a weak-voiced: "... th' Shire, Sam?"
Sam said nothing, and after a moment, even waiting grew too wearisome. The little desire that had moved him to ask began to slip like the words, like the mountaintop, and –
"I do." Sam paused a moment. "What should I tell you?"
Something to make him move, to give him a shred of a reason to stir, surely. Yet Frodo could but stare listlessly at him, helpless to speak. Even had he had his voice in that moment, there was simply nothing left where the Shire had been, save the name – surely Sam understood this! Surely he knew why Frodo had asked! Sam, however, sighed, bowed his head, and Frodo found himself unable even to muster much by way of despair, as the Ring sang once more softly, gleefully:
Mine, mine, thou art mine and we shall go –
"I remember," Sam said suddenly, and Frodo twitched at the interruption, plucked from the Ring-song that had begun to rise about his ears, "how the Hill stands, and the road. I remember how it winds up to the gate at Bag End, where the rosebushes bloom." He paused, and a hand came to rest then upon Frodo's brow. "I remember that there would be these great red blossoms sticking through the slats and looking over them at you," he said, and faintly into Frodo's mind came the impression of red petals against white.
"It's springtime somewhere in the world," Sam's voice continued, painting flickering little pieces of pictures. "In the Shire, the flowers will be pushing up their beds, and folk will be out in the fields, making hay. I remember the smell of the fields under the new spring sun. It'll be warm for once, and everyone will stop and look up at her sometimes, just as they ought. Just as everything ought to be back home."
Home! Desire so sharp it hurt surged to life, drowning out the word itself. In answer, as if of themselves, aching, rubbery arms clenched and fists dug into the earth. Frodo gasped in surprise. But Sam caught him and helped him to sit up, leaning him, panting, against the rocky wall of their cratered shelter.
"Here, Frodo, dear," he murmured, unstoppering the waterskin for him, and holding it to Frodo's lips. Water slid down his throat, rolled over the dust in his mouth with just a hint of salt and copper. Then Sam was restoppering the skin.
"Now, I reckon we're not a half night's walk from that great flaming pile of rocks," Sam said. "But it'll be slow going. Those hellhawks are out there somewhere – I've felt them passing over while you were asleep. We've got to be extra careful, so you just take my hand, master. And if you start to get the urge to wear It, you squeeze hard, and don't let go, and keep your head down and your hood up."
In the dim, fiery light, Sam's face seemed to waver, and the golden cast of the other fire lent it a sick sheen that seemed to show a decomposing flesh. But there burned in his eyes a clear, cool light that steadied the world in that moment.
"Today's the day," Sam murmured softly, and even smiled a little. "Now, let's go!"
Through the indifferent-deadly night they crawled: across the pock-marked, ashy plain. Up the boulder-strewn feet of the mountain. The malicious heart of the kingdom was their guide, drawing them ever east, ever on. They dragged across the mountain's flanks, choking on fume, sweating from the heat 'til it seemed salt alone remained in them. And, twin fire to the rage that was their lodestone, the Ring in Frodo's pocket burned.
It burned in the fumes that seeped through the earth.
It weighed with the miles.
It leaned hatefully upon every bruise, bearing down with the very air.
And it sang.
It sang inside a soul already lacerated. It sang, now like tin and iron, now like gold and steel – take, claim, own, hard, hard, and sharp, like teeth, like swords sinking deeper, ever deeper, into the softness of flesh, like poisoned ice – !
But Frodo could not hear. He lay where he had fallen, curled up about himself, fingers clawing at his ears – digging into them, like some wild creature that, maddened by terror and the pain of the trap, gnaws its own limb off to try to save itself. For, something called – deep, icy-hot, hateful... and the Ring turned upon him!
A single, sharp and shrill note it sang, and to Frodo's horror, others answered – like a symphony of gongs. The whole world seemed to shiver, 'til he thought it must split, and him with it, as everything harmonized, crystalized in a single demand:
Into his mind flashed the image of eyes in a shadowed face, beneath an iron crown, and then – !
Unthinking, he reached, but another hand took his, and fire met fire. A misty veil seemed to draw across the world and through his mind. That golden, brassy voice shrieked, whimpered, then quieted, as Frodo ceased his thrashing and went limp. His breath whistled dully, and his fingers were bloody, and when he opened his eyes, he saw stars fit to blind a body. He blinked, and they faded from view, leaving him staring up at Samwise Gamgee.
"Who are you?" he gasped – or tried to. His poor sore throat rebelled at the effort, and his tongue was so numb, he could not even tell if it moved. Sam, however, seemed to need no words.
"Your servant, master," he said, kindly. "I am here to help you." Dully Frodo stared at him, and then, to his own vast surprise, he laughed – a weak wheeze of a laugh, bereft of humor and hope alike.
"There's no help for me," he croaked, voice cracking. Sam gave him a smile fit to break the heart. He reached out, laid a hand to the side of Frodo's head, heedless of the blood.
"Your poor ears," he murmured. "He's taken you one bit at a time, but you're not his yet. Not yet."
I wish I were! The thought welled up uncontrollably, borne by the sudden, overwhelming desire to rest – to have it all done with, one way or another, just so he would not have to contend any longer.
"No, you don't," Sam said, and Frodo blinked. But Sam merely caught a hand and brought it to his lips, ere he warned: "We've still a ways to go yet."
It was on the tip of Frodo's tongue to protest that he could not – that even a crawl was beyond him. Instead: "How?" he mouthed. Sam took both his hands, then, squeezing tightly.
"I'll carry you," he said, simply. "And you hold tight to me when It starts singing again."
So saying, Sam drew Frodo's arms about his neck and turned about, hoisting him up on his back. But ere he could even get to his feet, Frodo, in a last effort, leaned his face against the nape of Sam's neck, and whispered:
"He comes... the pale king!"
Sam grunted, hefting his burden slightly. "I know it," he said. "Hold fast!"
Frodo knew nothing of the last leg of the journey, save for Sam struggling along the slopes, sliding at times with the ash that lay in drifts about the mountain, at other times nearly crawling amid rocks. He was aware only of the dread that deepened, and that seemed to give the Ring back its voice. Unable to quiet it, or to still that other song that beckoned, he simply lay crushed under its golden weight, clinging to Sam as tightly as he could, and tighter still when the Ring-song swelled.
Finally, however, after he knew not how long, Sam slowed, came to a stop and knelt down. "Look there, Mr. Frodo," he whispered. "Can you see it? Lift your head – try!"
Like a drunkard, Frodo managed to raise his head and look – and so he beheld at last a great door that stood gaping in the side of the mountain. An ominous firelight flickered in its shadows, and from its threshold ran a road. It wound its way down the mountain and thence, surely, straight east to Barad-dûr.
And it was absolutely empty.
"We'll try to go up as close as we can without the road," Sam murmured after a moment. "Try to lie flat on me – I'm going to crawl."
So saying, Sam leaned forward onto his hands, and coaxed Frodo's hands from about his chest to about his neck, gripping them firmly with one of his own.
"Slow and steady, that's the way," he breathed, and then began creeping awkwardly forward, staying as much in the shadows of the boulders as he could. Sam put one knee forward and then his hand, then the other knee forward, then the hand again, like a three-legged mule.
Only a three-legged mule might have gone more quickly – they crept forward at what seemed a snail's very pace. Sometimes, Sam had to stand up to get them over gaps and across little ridges, but mostly he kept to his desperate crawl, pace by pace.
They might have managed ten yards or two hundred – it was all one to Frodo's darkened senses – when suddenly, something shrieked on high. Fire ran up his arm; the sound of it pierced deep, and Frodo's face twisted in soundless agony. He nearly let go of Sam, desperate to cover his ears, but it was not the cry of the fell beast that deafened – the Nazgûl was calling, and the Ring answered, singing a glory of riches.
In that moment, Sam abandoned caution. He lurched to his feet, hefted Frodo pig-a-back, and with more speed and surety than Frodo – had he been able to muster astonishment or calculation – would have thought him to possess at this desperate last gasp, dashed for the road and the looming door. The uneven stones gave way to the smooth path, which passed in a grey blur beneath Sam's feet – a grey that darkened with a spreading darkness. Dim as the light was, it still cast shadows, and the shadow of the winged terror fell over them on a foul and roiling wind.
In a last burst, Sam was up that path and he threw himself across that threshold, beneath the shelter of the lintel. Frodo went tumbling free, and skidded painfully to a stop. There he lay, facing back toward the door, just as, with a shriek and a scaly, fleshy thud!, and a great draft of heat, the fell beast landed heavily upon the very stoop. Robbed of its prey, it cried out again, seeming in pain now as a leg buckled, and then it seemed to trip on the narrowness of the elevated little way, its claws scrabbling against the paving stones, chipping them.
Its rider, however, leapt down from his seat, and Frodo, sight sharpened by his Burden, saw through the seeming-emptiness of the robes. A bone-white face beneath a dead-grey helm confronted him, and a flaming sword in a withered fist. One gauntleted hand stretched forth – Give it to me! – and something hot and hard and fearful stirred in Frodo, sending a sudden rush of warmth through numb and aching limbs. With a hoarse cry, he wove to his feet, scrambling desperately, clumsily backward, clutching at the Ring in his pocket.
It was useless. They were at the very heart of Mordor, and Frodo worn thinner than a wire. With a laughing hiss, the Nazgûl cast aside its cloak, and rent its robes. Unveiled in its terror, it advanced upon him; its twisted Song surged to meet the Ring's –
– and then Samwise Gamgee stood up in its path. The Nazgûl stopped dead, for, a fire burned within that small figure, and made its outline waver. Or perhaps that was a trick of overweary, much abused eyes. Frodo blinked, rubbed at them, looked again. But yes, there stood Sam, and a Light was upon him such as Frodo had seen only once and dimly reflected in the face of her who guarded Lórien's secret ways. Cool and hot at once, that radiance burned away at the darkness, and the Nazgûl hissed, retreating a pace, the fire of its sword dimmed.
"Sam?" Frodo whispered.
"Your servant," his companion called back with a joyfulness all out of place in this hopeless hall, but he did not look back. Instead, he raised up his arms and with that gesture, the semblance of Sam simply dissolved in a brilliant radiance.
Frodo was not sure what happened then. His eyes were dazzled by that Light, which rippled and whipped now like silver fire. The wraith-song keened in harsh dismay, but its jangling notes fell before the surge of the bold melody that sang in the heart of that cleansing flame. A great wind came swirling up, as Light exploded in every direction and struck the Nazgûl full to the core of its being.
The wraith's shriek was a death-knell and it seemed to Frodo that something had come very suddenly Undone. The Ring in his clenched fist seemed to cool and it rang with fear: Run! Flee! Blinded, Frodo flinched, turning away as legs moved of their own volition, carrying him from the battle behind him, propelling him further down the hall. As the dazzle-spots faded from view, Frodo found himself confronted with a less wholesome light that grew as his stumbling steps brought him through a fissure and into the Sammath Naur itself, at long last.
The Chambers of Fire opened suddenly, vaulting upward in a vast hollow, filled with sulfurous fume. From the little ledge where he stood now, the earth fell away to reveal a sea of molten rock that bubbled and hissed. The air rippled with heat, buffeting him as he staggered to a halt.
And at the very edge of the precipice, terrible in his dark armor, there stood one in shape of a Man, who turned from contemplation of the mountain's fiery heart. Frodo felt himself paralyzed, like a troll in daylight. For, there were but four ringed fingers upon the hand that that hideous figure raised, and when he spoke, Frodo staggered back as if struck a blow. Overwhelmed, went to his knees.
For, it was as if with that Word, the world trembled. Stone, heat, fire, flesh – their semblance shimmered and fell away. All the world dissolved, became nothing but Sound: a storied, towering vastness of Notes swirling all about.
The last veil had been stripped away. The Great Music, in all its tattered desperation, fell into his mind.
Frodo must have screamed. No mortal creature, nor even the immortal Elder Children of Arda, could have borne such naked Truth, an exposure without mercy. Frodo could not. Hide! Hide! cried the little sanity in him. Clumsy hands were sure in this moment – he slipped the Ring on...
... and everything disappeared, save the grey and the Ring's own melody that crafted visions:
In the hazy green depths, it sang, and hands hot with blood grasped, fought, slew for it - "My precious!"
Amid the carrion and glory of war, there rose one in his grief and strength to look and love – "This I will keep – "
And somewhere in the darkness, one stood chanting:
"Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul!"
Frodo recoiled, but that Fire-song refrain remained, terrible and relentless, an unclean and monstrous Flame.
Yet something – the little corner that held forgotten memories – stirred in him, then. Perhaps the virtue of that other Fire that had touched him and sent him to the very Cracks of Doom worked yet in him. He drew himself painfully up, and a little, thin light gleamed about him, cleared the ashiness of the world, the darkness of the Fire before him. And Frodo perceived, then, that despite the power and might of the Dark Lord, that he was afraid – for, the heart of his kingdom lay open to the forge-fires on all sides but one, and it would be but a few steps to the long way down...
That knowledge roused a spark of something Frodo had not felt in long – something that might be hope, or else hate. Shakily, he held up his hand and pulled the Ring free. Its image wavered in the heat, but its voice held steady, a malign monotone, as the Dark Lord bore down upon Frodo like a crescendo. Defiance spoke in him then: I do not yield to you! From on his knees, Frodo lunged toward the hungry sea of molten fire.
He could not have said, in that moment, what moved him more: the desire to deny the Dark Lord, or the desire to lay down all burdens in a final rest. He knew only that there was no will in him that could have cast the Ring away, and so his path was clear.
But a Ring of Power has its own will, and does not go quietly into the dark. The Ring and the Dark Lord cried out as one: their twin cry pierced like a sword, and the worse for tearing aside, in that moment, a little of the cobwebbed darkness that had clotted Frodo's mind. Memories of green and blue slipped through the gap, wrapped in the silence of a summer's day...
Home! Longing welled up, but not his alone: the Ring keened. Yes, it sang, yes, take us there – take us home! We want to go home – !
The Song-world shimmered once more, and Frodo found himself face down upon Mordor's sweltering hearthstones, battered and exhausted, his fist clenched – and he knew, then, that he had failed. The Dark Lord stood over him even now, and the ledge, he knew, lay just a little beyond his outstretched hand. He had fallen too far short of it, and there was nothing left but despair.
A little, wispy silver something flickered then, lighting upon his brow to chime softly: Not yet, not yet! Let it go! But he couldn't – not to save his life.
I'm sorry, he thought faintly, as an immense, hard hand that burned grasped his arm. Frodo moaned – a raw, wordless noise he almost did not recognize as his. More akin to a wounded ewe's bleating it seemed. For, that grip crushed – it broke bone with hardly a thought, and seared through flesh. Dizzy with pain, Frodo felt himself lifted and he hung there, suspended, blood running down his arm.
The Dark Lord, it had been said, had learned all the measures of the forces of the world – all those fit to measure him, spirit of fire, who had never cared to learn the frailty of other beings, unless to use them. What matter to him, if bones in their weakness could break or blood boil?
Yet the world is neither fire or spirit, and nerveless fingers obeyed no will, nor any law but frailty's: Frodo's hand went limp in that cruel, crushing grip.
A small, golden circlet gleamed once as it slipped through his fingers and then fell. Its little ringing was lost in the roar of the flames – and the horror of the Dark Lord, who threw aside his victim like a rag doll...
The Great Music is over all, but not all is sung or seen. Beyond the eyes even of the soul it sings on, and shifts as voices rise and fall silent.
From the heart of the Dark Land, heart-notes rise – one clear, one high, and a dreadful dark descending shriek, as a golden note falls, strikes rock.
The earth trembles: in Gondor, the towers of Minas Tirith sway, and the orcs in Moria cry out in alarm. The seas overrun the quays of Mithlond. In Lórien, Galadriel's Mirror cracks.
And then? What future in that ringing? In the scattered notes that gather now, seeking a new measure on a swell of what might be chance?
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