15. Black Tidings
Deep in the belly of Minas Tirith, Aragorn smoldered. The reason for his anger was painfully obvious. The cell into which the fractured Fellowship had been placed was hardly bigger than a cellar. It was a dank and cold place, for here the light could not reach and the sun could not dry the moisture that seeped up into the ground and collected upon the floor. Black iron bars, thick and unbreakable, blocked the only exit, too evenly and tightly spaced for more than perhaps a hand to fit between. The ranger paced the small length of the cell darkly. When he pivoted, his heel ground with crushing power into the floor. Had he not been so involved in his irate musings, he might have noticed the winces of the silent Hobbits with each step.
It had taken them more than a week to reach the White City. He had urged them onward despite exhaustion and hunger, feeling time press upon him and his guilt chase him. It seemed a wretched thing to him to have abandoned Legolas for a greater duty and then have to wait still to act. The passage of days had tortured him, and he hated what he was becoming. His rage forever now seemed his companion. Though he tried to stifle his anger and make peace of the conflict inside his heart, he only failed and grew more frustrated still. His fury had driven him from Isengard, with the remains of the Fellowship forever in tow. Hasufels stride had been mighty indeed, and he might have made excellent time if not for the sluggish pace of the Hobbits especially. He did not wish to blame Merry and Pippin for their at times irritatingly slow wit and movement, but he found himself doing so regardless. Gimli seemed to drag his feet as well, and with the Dwarf, though the ranger would not admit it, he sympathized. Gimli had no business in Minas Tirith, and this quest was depriving him of means to find Legolas. Only loyalty had pushed the stout warriors rough heart into the journey. Aragorn wondered if perhaps that devotion was misplaced.
Only Haldir remained silent and quick. The Lórien Elf led Arod at Hasufels side. For once Aragorn was glad for the aloof creatures steadfast resilience in this task that had been laid upon them. Together they had blazed the ancient trail from Isengard to Minas Tirith once more, clinging close to the old road. It was the most direct route and by far the safest. As they had drawn closer to Minas Tirith and deeper into Gondor, Aragorn had pulled the hood of his cloak over his head and instructed the others to do the same. Remaining inconspicuous at the time benefited them greatly, for the road became busy with merchants and common folk milling about in daily chores as they passed through town after town. Some ogled and stared at the company upon such fine horses, but most thankfully ignored the trail-worn bunch. Still, their attempts at secrecy had not prevented what occurred at the gate to the White City. Aragorn had been completely baffled and then miffed that the kings guards had awaited their arrival and without struggle or even clear reason apprehended them. He had demanded answers that they refused haughtily to give, and the man, the Elf, the Dwarf, and the two Hobbits had been thrown into the dungeon most unceremoniously.
This disgrace was the memory of a few hours passed, and in that time Aragorns anger had turned from a mild annoyance and impatience at a likely misunderstanding to a burning irritation and concern. Long had he yearned to return to the White City. Though for him it meant recognition of a duty he had denied and a birthright he had tried to forget, he could not deny the pride that pulsed inside him when finally a day prior he saw the peak of the magnificent Tower of Ecthelion puncture the clouds. Minas Tirith was truly a glorious place, and as its pearly beauty was unveiled beneath the rays of the morning sun, he remembered a conversation shared not long ago with Boromir. Though now he detested the son of Denethor, he could not refute the truth of Boromirs words. The last stronghold of men was beautiful and great. The castle and its banners stood tall and intimidating. He had not imagined his homecoming to the place he hoped to one day rule would be so strange and infuriating!
Rest your feet and our minds, son of Arathorn, admonished Gimli. The Dwarf sat against the wall, his eyes closed but his expression taut in anger. Your pacing is truly trying upon me.
The ranger looked to the son of Glóin, but said naught, biting back a sharp retort. It would do no good to take out his annoyance upon one as undeserving and endearing as Gimli. So he simply abandoned his repeating walking and instead stood near the prison door. Dirty hands wrapped around the bars, testing once again the strength of their making. The door would not budge, study and securely locked. He had known it to be a futile undertaking; the prisons of Gondor were among the strongest ever built. Regardless he felt his boiling rage rise again within him. What was the meaning of this? Would no one unravel this mystery?
Pippin sniffled. In the narrow room the sound was unduly amplified. Why do they keep us here? What wrong have we done them? he asked despondently, looking to the ranger for answers. It must be past noon now, and we havent even had second breakfast!
Merry clapped his cousin on the arm. I think there are other matters a bit more important than second breakfast, Pip, declared the Hobbit quietly. His wide eyes turned as well to Aragorn. Dont they know youre their king?
The matter perplexed Aragorn. To the captain of the guard he had announced his presence, his business, and his intention to seek an audience with the steward of Gondor, Denethor. Yet to this information the soldier had but snorted and told him to keep his arrogance to himself; in Gondor, blood and loyalties must be proven, not assumed. It was not the reception Aragorn had expected. Surely they do, he muttered quietly, unable to rid his voice of venom. I know as much as you, Merry. If more was clear to me, I would not hide it.
Perhaps they perceive you as a threat, offered Pippin dismally, though that seems silly. I thought the men of Gondor were a wise lot!
I suggest you revise your attitude, muttered Merry disdainfully. After a beat, he went on. Even if they did think Strider a menace, why then take the Elf? His voice held much fear and worry.
Aragorn stiffened. It had been a troubling thing. When led to the dungeons, they had been split from Haldir. The Lórien Elf had not made much a scuff or struggle as guards directed him elsewhere, though Aragorn had demanded a reason for their cleaving of his group. He had only been awarded a blow to his head that left the room reeling and even now dully throbbed. The event unnerved him. Though he counted Haldir perfectly able of protecting himself and their purpose in Minas Tirith, why they had singled out the Elf for their enigmatic plan remained shrouded in suspicion and puzzlement.
He did not answer the Hobbit, instead sighing slowly to draw together his composure. It was constantly eluding him, his calm, but he must remain resolute. He must not falter. Surely there was a logical explanation for this! Yet no matter how he twisted and turned the problem, no solution revealed itself. He could not imagine what could have so sourly turned Denethors opinion against him. The ranger did not doubt that the steward was aware of his arrest; the guards at the gate had obviously been expecting them. The entire episode reeked of premeditation. Yet, why?
Time passed, and Aragorn could not conjure responses to his swirling thoughts or to Merrys unanswered question. Sighing in vexed exhaustion, the ranger settled his worn and worried body to the ground beside the Dwarf. Confounded men, grumbled Gimli quietly. They are too quick to act and too slow to think. Aragorn knew the insult to be made in desperate indignation and frustration, so he let it slide without retort. A deep, heavy silence then came over them, one as laden with shadow and melancholy as the air was with chill and moisture. Frustrated thoughts were directed elsewhere, perhaps on what was and what might have been, perhaps on loyalties voided and promises broken. Most certainly on hearts betrayed. Why now were they treated like prisoners and not even alerted of their crime, if there was one to be had at all?
Then some time later came footsteps down the hall. Aragorns heart leapt and he jumped to his feet. Springing to the gate, he again grabbed the cold bars and peered down the corridor into the shadows. Behind him he heard the Hobbits shuffle and Pippin moan a fearful question that Gimli quickly shushed. The sound grew louder, closer, and from the darkness emerged men wearing heavy plate mail and bearing long swords. They flanked another man dressed in regal attire, though his crest seemed heavy upon his shoulders and his crown weighed his brow. He was an aging being of great stature; a face strong though weathered was covered in a graying beard, and he walked tall, though the work of time was clearly pushing upon him quite forcefully. Dark eyes were set deep into the pale face. Such a shadow added only more malice and suspicion in the gaze. As well, there was a tinge of what Aragorn thought to be grief.
Denethor approached stiffly. He stood before the ranger, eyeing the other with contempt, and Aragorn nearly recoiled. Instead the ranger forced mettle into his heart and respectfully dropped his hands from the bars. He bowed low before the Steward of Gondor. Lord Denethor, he said quietly, keeping his eyes upon the dark ground though his mind was reeling, I know not the meaning of this treatment. Please, good sir, explain why you have imprisoned us as such!
Rise, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. I wish to look into your eyes while I levy upon you my accusations.
Cold dismay and confusion prickled Aragorns gooseflesh, and despite himself he swallowed uncomfortably. He felt his submissive respect dwindling as he righted himself and met the others stony gaze. Accusations? Of what nature?
Denethors face seemed tight with anger and mistrust. You are in this cell by no accident. Serious reports of a great crime have come to my attention, and I could not allow you to roam about Gondor without first determining their validity.
If you wish to lay blame, then do so clearly, barked Gimli from beside the ranger. Aragorn cringed inwardly. The matters of men do not concern Dwarves, and you ought to release us, lest you make an enemy of the House of Glóin!
Though Gimli had no cause to be respectful of Denethor, Aragorn prayed he would stay his frustration. It would not help their situation for the riled Dwarf to further anger Denethor, and Aragorn could not afford to complicate this matter. You keep company with a man now, son of Glóin. If you concern yourself with him, then you must as well concern yourself with his crimes.
What crimes? Aragorn asked, trying to be calm and feeling incredibly perplexed. What could he have possibly done to so anger the Steward of Gondor?
Denethors gaze turned piercing. It seems that you meddled into the affairs of the Rohirrim. Aragorn blanched. His heart stopped. Further, I have heard that King Théoden, both wise and brave, has died because of your ill advice! This is black news to all of Gondor, for long has the House of Eorl been an ally to the House of Ecthelion.
Spite burned in Aragorns throat. My Lord, he began, King Théoden fell courageously in battle leading his men against the dark forces of Isengard! Yes, I did advise him in that action, but there was no other choice! The power of Saruman had grown black and great. Had not Rohan moved against him, they surely would have fallen!
Truly, son of Arathorn? said Denethor coolly. I have heard otherwise. I have heard a strange tale that you turned into a cold fury that used the Rohirrim for personal gains. The ranger stood still in disbelief of what was happening. You lost a friend to Saruman, did you not?
Aragorn nodded blankly and then declared, Though that moved me, it did not control me! Nor did I use it to manipulate King Théoden to my own ends! You soil my loss and misery with such an accusation!
Gimlis fury was undeniable and blazing. Do not speak ill of Aragorn, snapped the Dwarf, or our captured comrade. It is an open sore that still bleeds. Aragorn did nothing of the sort. To suggest as much, you surely must be daft!
Denethors eyes flashed coldly. Watch your tongue, Master Dwarf. You too easily forget who is lord of this land. The sharp gaze returned to Aragorn, and suddenly the ranger felt a sinking sensation chill him. Obviously this matter with Rohan was but a small grievance. Something far greater angered the old man. I cannot validate this rumor, though it most disturbs me. You are not mine to command or reprimand, son of Arathorn. Isildurs heir you may be, but remember that you hold no sway here. Anger coursed over Aragorn at Denethors proclamation, but he held still his tongue. Submitting to his irritation and rage would do him no good. What truly vexes me is another story come to me in days past. A glint of rage and sorrow passed in the lords eyes. It is a shameful thing, to learn of a childs death! Yet more troubles me than simply Boromirs passing, for I loved him greatly, and I seek to punish those responsible.
Pippin gasped. Gimli grew stiff. Aragorns heart ceased its thundering pace in shock. For a moment, he could not think to object. His mind and mouth were numb with confusion and denial. His passing? he finally whispered hoarsely. The ranger shook his head. Boromir is dead?
You of all people should know, hissed Denethor icily, for it is said that you killed him.
Silence. Denial. How could this be? Certainly it was impossible! Aragorns mind spun with the words, with the outrageous accusation leveled against him, and his stomach churned painfully. A dizzy plight came to him, sucking the strength from his limbs. For a moment he thought he might faint. What? he stammered. His voice sounded weak and empty.
You jest! cried Pippin suddenly. The Hobbit clambered forward gracelessly to the door. The small creature stood beside Aragorn, his chubby hands grasping the bars. Boromir isnt dead! He was well when we parted with him! Hes alive!
Silence, little one, and let Aragorn defend himself if he will! Denethor cried, glancing to the Hobbit. Pippins face broke in shame and anger, but he said nothing more, biting his lower lip and looking to the ranger.
Aragorn did not know what to say, but his anger was great and dark and his pain was consuming. As the shock faded, he began to wonder spitefully. What gave Denethor the right to imprison him unjustly based on mere gossip? Where had the lord found such gall? I admit that Boromir tested my control days past, but I did not harm him. I would not seek to hurt a comrade. Aragorn narrowed his gaze dangerously. He was not about to simply stand idle as Denethor spouted such filth to mar his name! Do tell me, Lord, where is your proof?
Denethor sighed slowly, his great chest moving with the sound, and his angry glare loosened a bit. Be thankful I have none, ere already you would be feeling the executioners blade. Though it is but a rumor, it is very convincing. For the heir of Elendil to murder the next to inherit this city would be a sick twist of fate, but in these black times, I doubt nothing simply because it disturbs me.
Who has said such vile lies to influence your opinion of me such, may I ask?
You may not.
Aragorn bristled. It is hardly fair to accuse me of this crime and then deny me the right to confront he who besmirches my name! he declared heatedly.
His anger was lost on Denethor. Where this another time, perhaps. Yet black stirrings come from Mordor, and the shadow spreads west from Minas Morgul. I cannot afford to trust freely, the Steward of Gondor explained simply. I know little of you beyond these treacherous tales, and I will not so blindly place my faith in you now.
Gimli growled. Aragorn knew what the Dwarf was about to say. He feared what the words might create. From mess to monster this situation would transform, and it then would be beyond salvation. Yet he was too hurt to intercede, and he simply let Gimli vent his wrath. Perhaps you placed your trust in error before, hissed the warrior. Perhaps you were in the wrong to hold in high regard your son!
The old man flared. You disrespect me with your tone!
I would disrespect you with nothing more than the truth! Gimli shouted. It was Boromir that betrayed us to Saruman. It was your own blood that allowed our comrade taken into the shadow! And it was his greed and weakness that gave evil its advantage!
Still your rubbish! I shall not listen to the words of traitors! Denethor roared. Gimli glared at the lord with such burning hate that Aragorn did not doubt, had the prison door not divided them, the Dwarf would have throttled the Steward of Gondor. After a long, tense moment, the shouts receding painfully slowly, Denethor again spoke. This time his voice was subdued in grief and confusion. Clearly Gimlis words had upset him. Aragorn could not help but sympathize; it was no easy matter to lose a first-born and then stand to have his good name sullied. You will stay here as I determine the validity of what I have heard.
There was nothing more to say. Aragorn could not defend himself with anything more than the truth, but he sadly realized that without proof, his story was just as unbelievable and unsubstantiated as Denethors. It would have to momentarily end in a stalemate, as much as it worried him. There was not the time to waste! Still, the ranger resigned himself. He must have patience. If you wish it, he said quietly, resolutely. I have nothing to fear, for I know myself to be innocent.
The words sounded bold. Denethor suddenly looked greatly aged and worn, as if plagued by the difficulties of leading a lost people for far too long. If I come to know such a thing as well, I will see you released with my sincerest apologies.
Surely, replied Aragorn coolly.
Then the lord turned. He was a great man, but the shadow of his waning power was heavy upon him. Aragorn thought of Haldir then, and spoke of his concern. I have but one small request of you, ventured the ranger. Denethor pivoted to look upon him again. We came to Minas Tirith in the company of an Elf. Hours ago he was taken from us, for reasons we cannot deduce. Please return him to us, for the little ones worry. Aragorn laid a comforting hand upon Pippins head, but did not break his gaze with the lord.
After a moment, Denethor slowly nodded. I know not what has become of him, but I will have him found and brought here. Then he resumed his walk, his honor guards following him closely. He faded into the shadow like a ghost, and Aragorn watched him in both anger and pain.
Gimli huffed angrily as soon as they were again alone. Wretched creature! To think that you of all men would betray his son The Dwarf grunted and shook his head, his red hair and beard dark and bloody in the weak light. Curse him! Curse him and Boromir as well!
Master Gimli, please, hold Boromir in better esteem. He came free from the evil. He went to find Legolas! He came back to us! Pippin declared quietly. The Hobbit seemed flushed with uncertainty, but, despite the glares from the Dwarf and his cousin, he continued on in his defense of Boromir. He did what he did only for his people!
That is no excuse, grumbled the Dwarf. His face cracked in grief. Ai, my heart does ache for Legolas! Those we left to help him are hardly worthy or reliable!
They grew quiet with that, and Aragorn laid his head tiredly upon his hands. In truth, Denethors words had greatly injured him, and he did not know what to make of his heart. He felt the strangest bit of shame for how he had acted towards Boromir. He could not deny that when he had discovered the other had abandoned Legolas to Sarumans whims he had wanted Boromirs life to end by his own hand. Now the murderous rage and spite felt sick and wrong. He had nearly become the monster Denethor implied. Had he as well pushed Théoden and his army into attacking Isengard in the vain hope that there they might find Legolas? Had his intentions been borne from grief and shame rather than from logic and valor? Had he indeed manipulated Rohan for his own vengeance?
Aragorn muddled over this, and as he did, his shame and doubt became loud and pronounced. Only when again footsteps shuffled down the hall did he emerge from his dark musings. He stood, ignoring the stiff complaints of his body, as once more the guards approached. Between them stood Haldir. The door was opened and the Elf was pushed inside the cell. Then, with a whining creak and a slam, it was closed.
Haldir stumbled and glared at the retreating backs of the men. Insolent mortals, he hissed angrily in Elvish. The Elf looked unusually mussed, his typically pristine appearance riled. With long fingers he dabbed at the blood leaking from his nose. Clearly he had been cuffed.
What happened? Aragorn immediately asked, reaching out to steady Haldir.
The other shook away his supporting grasp and inspected the bright blood on his fingertips in disgust. Then Haldir took a deep breath. Merry and Pippin had both risen at his entrance, and he surprisingly gave them a quick nod, as if to reassure them that, aside from the bloody nose, he was uninjured. This seemed to relieve the Hobbits, and both returned to their seats upon the cold, wet floor.
Gimli grunted in anticipation. Do speak, Elf. Why did they seek to separate you from us?
Haldir shook his head. His eyes glinted in ire. Great usury is afoot here. I erred before in my prediction that the corrupted Boromir would fight you here for power, Aragorn. The guards took me aside and led me to an interrogation. I thought it odd indeed until it became clear who meant to question me. That little snake from King Théodens court, Gríma, has apparently slithered his way into Denethors esteem.
Surprised, Aragorn asked, Wormtongue here? Are you certain?
Quite, replied Haldir. The Elf raised an eyebrow. Yet it was odd. He spoke to me not of you, but rather of Lórien. I had nearly forgotten that these men consider the Lady of the Wood to be little more than a witch.
Merry shook his head in confusion and regarded the archer with narrowed eyes. Why would this Wormtongue care about the Golden Wood?
Haldir pondered a moment. That I could not discern. He thought it convenient that I happened to come upon you immediately in Edoras before Aragorn decided to unveil his true identity. He surmised I bore some greater message or hidden agenda. Of course he was correct, but I did not validate his assumptions. The Elf looked concerned. It worries me that one so cunning and vile has turned his eye upon my home. Surely he means ill will, yet I cannot uncover why.
This information brought more questions than answers, and they filled Aragorn incessantly. How would Wormtongue know, though, that this was our intention? he asked.
I cannot say, responded Haldir, almost apologetically.
I can, declared Gimli angrily, because it is obvious. He as well is aligned with the dark powers of Saruman.
The thought astounded Aragorn, but as he pondered it, it began to make an angering sort of sense. Wormtongue had fled Rohan the night Théoden had decided to ride against Isengard when the advisor had lost his argument and the kings respect. At the time, Aragorn really had not considered the implications of Wormtongues disappearance. He might have indeed gone to Isengard. It explained why Wormtongue had so vehemently sought to dissuade Théoden from the attack. Also it might account for why Théoden had been so indecisive over the matter for so long.
Yet it did not make clearer Denethors accusations. It was not a stretch to assume it was Wormtongue that had corrupted the Steward of Gondors opinion of Aragorn. The twisted little man undoubtedly had fabricated the lies concerning Boromir. Why was Wormtongue sabotaging his reputation in Gondor? Saruman might have decreed that he do such, but how had the wizard known of his intent?
There were many spies and dark powers afoot, and Saruman was wise and cunning. Logic, Aragorn supposed, dictated that the rangers coming to Gondor was inevitable. Perhaps he had too easily trusted the ears of Rohan.
Haldir released a slow breath. You make a great assumption, Dwarf, but a valid one. Gimli nodded, obviously grateful and reassured that the Elf was not only safe, but for once had simply agreed with him. Tell me, what has come to pass for you while I was absent? Haldir asked, looking to Aragorn.
The ranger steeled himself and briefly relayed to the Elf all that had transpired between himself and Denethor. When he was finished, Haldir seemed dismayed and angered, but clear in his purpose. It makes good sense, declared the Lórien Elf, for Gríma is a devious, twisted man, and he would use anything available to best you. Whether his intentions stem from Sarumans orders, we do not know.
Aragorn said, Though I detest the man, I dearly hope it is not under Sarumans hand that he plots here in Gondor. I doubt that Denethor fully trusts him. The lord seemed riddled with strife and worry. This does infuriate me! he admitted, feeling his anger gnaw at him. In this prison, I cannot justly defend myself and time is a commodity we do not have!
Haldir appeared sympathetic, for the Elf dropped his voice and rested upon Aragorns shoulder a comforting hand. We have no choice but to allow other forces to resolve this. Denethor seeks evidence, but we know he will find none. The wait will be aggravating indeed. Then Haldir lowered his eyes. I worry as well for Lórien, and for my brother, Rúmil, sent riding north to Mirkwood. Clearly the evil forces are stirring, and I fear, unless we succeed here, that man will turn upon Elf in a final battle, and all will come to ruin.
Nay, Haldir, said Merry sympathetically, well stop that!
The standoffish Elf looked to the Hobbit but said nothing. Merry offered him a smile and a nod, which his cousin mirrored. Well think of something! Pippin declared resolutely.
Gimli grunted. No harm will come to the wondrous Lady, he said in a gruff voice. The words were almost comforting. I will not allow it. Her allies are many and great. It will take more than one scheming worm to defeat her!
Then they became silent, and though the oaths and promises were meant to hearten, to the ranger they seemed horridly shallow. He settled to the floor and dove into his own contemplations. Aragorn turned the problem over and over in his mind, considering all angles and options, but he could discover no solution. The way of things continually sought to trouble him! If the forces of Sauron were indeed awakening in Gondor as Denethor feared, then time was of the essence. He could not afford this delay! Yet Haldir spoke truly; he had no other choice. He had no power to simply will himself free of this cell and these accusations. As he thought, the ranger grew cold and frustrated. He loathed waiting. His shame and anxiety would drive him to madness!
He was beginning to regret his decision to embrace his fate. Now faced with heavy shame of which he could not absolve himself, he could only wallow in hate and fear. How many things he had abandoned to meet his destiny! How much he had forsaken only to have fate forsake him! He cursed himself.
For a long time Aragorn thought. Many things flitted across his rambling mind. Some were a comfort and others a distress. Yet none held the answers he sought. When finally his heart grew weary with pain and depression, the heir of Isildur shrugged the world from his shoulders and lapsed into a troubled sleep.
Through the black, muddy lands of the Dead Marshes walked Frodo and Gollum. They traveled in silence, the cold air too heavy and rank for any gaiety, even if such a thing could ever exist between them. Trees sick with decay rose from the murky water like old, decrepit soldiers, forever trudging through the swamp but never gaining any ground. Everything was rank and dark; a thin layer of mist covered the water like a ghostly shawl. The spirit of the place seemed powerful and pressing with a sorrow and depression almost gleeful in its intensity.
Frodo shuddered as he trudged. The thick mud sucked him down with every step, pulling his feet into the ground deeply and hungrily, as if seeking to devour him. It made each movement a trial. They had worked to keep to a drier trail, sticking to land where possible and avoiding the sumps themselves. Now they had not been so fortunate, and the swamp through which they presently trudged seemed vast. The water came to the Hobbits waist, and it was a cold, oily sort that smelled foul and turned his stomach. Yet he did not slow. He had a sad premonition that these sinking woods, though frightening and sickening, were the least of the troubles they had yet to face.
Gollum seemed unperturbed by their surroundings. Without fail the twisted creature led them through the winding marsh, unfazed by the heavy, oppressive air and undeterred by the maze of bent trunks. Sometimes Frodo wondered if Gollum had lost awareness of the Hobbits company. They never spoke, and the creature slithered through the swamp, murmuring to himself in a determined moan, following the Ring as though tracking a sense. It was most unnerving to see. Frodo detested Gollum and still would not trust him. Legolas knife the Hobbit at all times bore, and his reflexes remained quick enough to use the blade should the need arise. But Gollum simply ignored him, driving onward through the swamp with energy unmatched, and Frodo found it difficult to keep up. He wondered once more why he was. His reasoning had seemed sound enough. The eastern shore had given him no clue as to Sams direction. As much as he had despised it, he had no choice but to follow Gollum. The twisted being at least was making a path to Mordor.
Frodo could not shake the thought that his quest was one and the same with Gollums. Surely Sam did not have the Ring! How could he have obtained it? It made no obvious sense, but as the small, inquisitive Hobbit pondered, he began to realize it might indeed be the truth. Why else would Sam have continued alone into Mordor if not for this burden of the Ring suddenly shoved upon him? If the Ring had come to Saruman, why then was Gollum tracking it so vigilantly into the black lands, effectively heading in the opposite direction from Isengard? Frodo did not want to believe that the quest to destroy cursed Ring had fallen to the small hands of his dear friend, but he found that he could not deny no matter how vehemently he sought. It was a dark conclusion, for it meant that Sam alone had taken a great responsibility and would face horrible dangers. Frodo ached for Sam, desperate to again see his friends slow, skeptical smile and sheepish, wide eyes. Brothers torn by fate are not easily kept apart! He would not rest until he found his friend, even if it meant walking deep into the heart of evil.
It was a strange thing, really, and as Frodo considered it, he grew more perplexed. In these days that had passed, he had grown nearly appreciative at times for Gollums presence. Though the little demon cast upon him hungry eyes and traveled with sick energy, Frodo found himself grateful that another spirit accompanied him on this hazardous trail. When they had come to the swamp, he had been less than enthused about traveling through it. Gollums silent pace had been a boon to him. Long ago, as the shriveled creature had explained, a war had been fought in the marsh. The conflict was known as the Battle of Bagorland. Many had died. This sad, gruesome tale had greatly unnerved Frodo, and when they had actually come upon the corpses decomposing in the muddy water, he had nearly lost his composure. These floating bodies only added to the ghostly spirit of the marshes, the silence of the air and water haunting the Hobbit in sleep and wake. But Gollum had not faltered, resolutely stepping around the floating skeletons in rusted armor as though he were avoiding a trunk, bush, or rock. His silent serenity at once disgusted and calmed Frodo. Whatever Gollum was, whatever he wanted, he was now the only thing Frodo had that could be called an ally. No matter how much he disliked the prospect, Frodo knew he needed to simply accept that. If Sam indeed had the Ring, there was no escaping Gollums companionship for the duration of the journey.
Imagining Sam facing such a dark and scary place alone distressed him, so he diverted his thoughts elsewhere. During the long, silent hours, Frodo wondered and thought without end. He pondered what the others were doing and how Aragorn might be faring in his new quest to gain the throne of Gondor. Supposing the Ring had never arrived at Isengard eased him somewhat, for it both meant that there could yet be hope in their quest and that the mistakes he had made had not been so damning as he had previously assumed. Perhaps Sam could destroy the Ring. Perhaps Aragorn would defeat Saruman and unite men under his rule. Perhaps all was not so lost. These thoughts were dangerous though, for they seduced him with an uncertain hope that he could neither confirm nor discredit. Yet he had to allow himself this small luxury. He let himself believe that it all was possible.
So they trudged in silence. The swamp was thick and long, and the march was extremely tiresome. It took the better part of two days to reach its other side, and when again solid land came beneath his wearied feet, Frodo nearly collapsed in relief. Gollum did not stop, through, pressing onward to Mordor. In place of the swamp was a dry land, harshly deprived of greenery and unforgiving to his plodding feet. The further they journeyed, the blacker the terrain became, with great, sharp jutting hills and rock precipices that seemed narrow and dangerous. Behind them faded away moisture and clean air, and Frodo wrinkled his nose as they came to an outcropping. These lands were rank and putrid with a stench he could not quite place yet knew was malodorous and evil. Though the spirit of the Dead Marshes had been sad and foul with doldrums Frodo had never before so acutely experienced, the heart of Mordor ran dark with vile blood, and all the land reveled in the evil aura.
Frodo squinted and looked ahead. The sun was beginning to set, but the dark, gray clouds hid most of the rays. It appeared most dismal. There in the distance the sky bled as though into it an angry wound was constantly being ripped. Surely that bloody hue indicated the location of Mount Doom. The Hobbit stared at it, trapped in thought a moment. That was where Middle Earth had been marked by Sauron, where the One Ring had been forged and hence the only place it could be destroyed. That was where the Deceiver had played his cruel trick upon the free peoples of Middle Earth and grew in his power. There Sauron would bind them all through the other rings and rule with a cruel hand of destruction. On its slopes the Last Alliance had bravely fought and conquered. And, in the heat of that inferno, the heart of men had supposedly cracked under the temptation of the Ring. The fate of Middle Earth, it seemed, was forever tied to the flames and smoke of that mountain.
Gollum shifted and hissed from beside him. Look down, good Hobbit. Sméagol sees something awful, gollum! Look!
Surprised, Frodo glanced to the lands below them. He gasped, suddenly chilled with terror and shock, and dropped to hide himself upon the rock. Gollum shrieked and mimicked him. When again Frodos heart conjured the courage, he peered tentatively over the edge of the precipice.
There below was a great army of Orcs. Across the barren, rocky fields it stretched infinitely like a horde of countless spiders. From their vantage Frodo fearfully tried to trace the outlines of the troops, but the shadows enveloped them before he could see their end. There were thousands upon thousands of the vile beasts. Frodo felt dizzy simply trying to estimate their number. Faint shouts filled the still, hot air, and there was a muted cacophony of stamping feet and clanking armor.
Beside him, Gollum clasped his grimy hands over his eyes. Bad Orcses! Bad Orcses! Save us, gollum! Bad! he wailed softly.
Frodo glanced to him and remembered to breathe. The lump in his throat hurt to swallow, and his mouth felt dry. Keep your wits about you, he murmured. He returned his gaze to the army. What were they doing? After a moment the answer came clearly to his numbed and frightened mind. They were preparing to invade Gondor. They would march west, across Minas Morgul to destroy Minas Tirith. Oh, black tidings! This was very distressing. Frodos heart pulsed in worry. Aragorn and the men of Gondor and Rohan would surely be caught surprised by the attack. Saurons innumerable forces would make short work of their opposition in a bloody and torturous battle. The nation of men would fall!
There is nothing you can do. He did not want to admit that to himself. Painful worry raced in his heart and caused his body to shake. He wanted no harm to come to his friends! He could not stand to lose Aragorn. The ranger had long been such a good listener and strong protector. He did not wish to see Gimli slain or Haldir lost. And Merry and Pippin jokes shared in the past now seemed a painful reminder of how he would hurt if they should die. Yet the unforgiving logic of his mind beat his heart into submission. He could do little. Never would he be able to race back to Minas Tirith with speed enough to reach the men before the army of Orcs, and he did not even know the way.
Frodo felt frustrated tears burn his eyes. Releasing a long, shaking breath, he rolled to his back and looked up to the sky. The mesh of dark clouds held no relief. He could not turn back. Sam needed him surely. The black forces were rousing, building, and preparing. Simple danger no longer threatened Sam as he carried the Ring to its home. These were the sights of unfathomable menace, of unspeakable terror. How long could Sam protect that horrible Ring from the ears and eyes of Mordor? Frodo stifled a sob. He would not leave Sam. He would bring forth his strength for the sake of his friend. He must leave this information where he had found it. He could not go back. Forward he must go and faith he must have that the others could care for themselves. Sadly, this was the path he had chosen, and it did not allow him to retreat even for the good of Middle Earth.
To this he remained committed. Frodo inhaled deeply to calm his rattled nerves. Then he spoke quietly. We shall go around them, quickly and quietly. If we make a wide arc, we can avoid them.
Yes! hissed Gollum. Good Hobbit! Bad Orcses! We go around! Yes!
Hush, now, Frodo snapped, climbing quickly to his feet, and stay close to me!
They crept down the rocks stealthily. Frodo kept his senses divided between the army as they approached it and the perilous stones upon which they tread. Yet his thoughts were elsewhere. His mind was resolute in his quest. His heart was worried. How could he hope to do this? Mordor would kill him with its oppressive terror. Without the Ring, Im nothing remarkable. But Im still his friend. He remembered his own words that he shared with Aragorn on the night he had decided to leave. They chased away his despair. Hold on, Sam. This was his calling, his duty. I will find you. I will help you.
Sam had assumed a terrible burden, after all, and Frodo knew that that burden had been meant for himself. Fate had changed everything. Still, for a friend, for his brother, this was the least he could do.
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.