26. The Promised Moment
Quiet. Peace. The cool gale swept across the field, and in its arms blew the banners of justice and good. Flags rose to bright sky, spreading color and pride. Atop this hill, there was no sound but the soft whisper of the breeze and the chirping of crickets, and it was a soothing song in which he let himself go. He was sure there was a great cacophony on the field of men chatting, of armor clanking, of orders and replies and prayers. Yet he was glad for the quiet. He was glad for this tenuous separation, this one moment perhaps where he might have serenity. Where there was no loud noise, no pressure, no nation to protect and defend. Just a moment with the rainbow of color, the splendor of banners flown high on a midday wind.
The Last Alliance seemed so very strong as the soldiers took the field, the standards of Mirkwood and Gondor meshed in their common defense. To Aragorns eyes, it was but a mess of Elf and man, and the troops were only winks of glinting armor as they marched to the northern border. It was a wide force, indeed. By his rough estimate, it seemed more than ten thousand strong. He hoped it would be enough.
Only a few minutes had passed since Arwen had departed Gondor. It seemed the whole of Aragorns world had radically changed. He idly mused now that such a thought was silly; he had for months been separated from his love. Having her back for even those few hours had smashed down the barricades he had built against her intoxicating presence, and he missed her terribly. His emotions were a storm that made little sense, but it was a black maelstrom of despair and fear. He could not believe that he had simply let her leave on such a dangerous journey! He cursed himself for his stupidity. It was not the case that he did not trust her, or that he thought her a weakling. But she was not as strong as others of her kind, and that frailty was borne from her devotion to him. A horrible guilt, if any! And if she should fall now
No! Do not think it! He diverted his thoughts, but there was little else to which he might attend other than troubles. From his mind he could not expunge the sight of his dearest friends battered body. The fight on the very field over which he now watched seemed an unreal nightmare centuries past. But it had been horribly and undeniably true, and Legolas was dying. He had tried to have hope in weeks past that Legolas lived, that Saruman had left him unscathed. Such a dream was idealistic, but hope was wasted on pessimists. It was clear that Legolas had not been unsoiled by the dark forces. It enraged Aragorn that he could not tell the extent of the damage done his friend. That anger, though, paled in comparison to the fury he felt at his own helplessness. Legolas had been taken captive at Amon Hen, and he had done nothing. Legolas had been marched to Isengard and tortured, and he had done nothing. Legolas had been whisked away from him, dragged to a darkness more violent and dangerous than any should ever have to face. And I did nothing! Aragorn clenched a fist. Even during that fight It has been his life at stake, yet Legolas had been wounded, and he had stood by uselessly. Frustrated tears blurred that pristine scene of the field, marring the pretty colors and the powerful armies.
He was a fool, a horrible, weak fool. He had murdered an Elf prince. He had not had the time to wash the blood from his hands after caring for Legolas, and they were stained a disgusting red. The blood of the House of Thranduil. Perhaps Astaldogald had been right to blame. Perhaps he had been right to hate.
They are gone now. They are gone and I can do nothing to help them. The two people he cared most for in his life lingered in peril, and he was trapped by this burdensome birthright. He thought he might scream his aggravation simply to break a peaceful silence that had suddenly become unbearable. Its emptiness was far too symbolic.
But he could not. Arwen was wise beyond him. He was king, and as much as those duties seemed revolting and inappropriate to him in that moment, he could not shun them any more than he could shun his blood. Too much depended on his strength as a ruler. He could not falter, no matter how much it pained him.
So now he stood, ready to restore the world of men, ready to defend Middle Earth against the Dark Lord. Ready to amend a mistake made an age prior. It seemed so unfair.
Brodderband huffed as he trudged up the hill. The clanking of his armor and heavy breathing distracted Aragorn, filling the quiet and breaking the ranger from his reverie. The older mans face was reddened by the time he reached his king. "My Lord," he gasped breathlessly as he pulled in a crisp salute. "All is well. We shall be in position momentarily."
Aragorn nodded. After Arwen had departed, he had immediately sought out Brodderband. His legs had really directed him of their own accord, his mind numb with grief and his body exhausted and pained from the fight. He had found the old soldier in the barracks, ushering the last of the troops and supplies to the main army. Aragorn had feared that Faramir had for reasons he could not fathom never relayed to Brodderband his orders, and he was relieved to find his friend had done as he had asked. He tried not to worry about what had become of Faramir after his meeting with the general, as Brodderband himself had little information about his whereabouts.
What had happened thence was but a blur to the hurting Aragorn. Brodderband insisted that he don some plate for his own protection, and he had quickly been fitted for the lightest mail possible. He generally disliked armor, finding it restrictive in fighting and heavy in traveling, both of which skills the ranger valued greatly. Still, he had not argued, numb perhaps from the flurry of emotions pounding in his head, tired from feeling and thinking and hurting. After he had ridden to the field to oversee the army take its position, but his attention had been elsewhere. The peaceful moment come to him had for the longest time been an empty rest. Until his despair and anger brought to him guilt and thought, he had lingered in a cool breeze. How he wished to return!
He did not know which matter was most worthy of his concern. The latest scout reports indicated that they had far less time than they had anticipated. Some soldiers reported a fire on the field, others a storm that was strangely and intensely localized. He had never found Gandalf, and Faramir was missing. His love was lost to him. Legolas was fading from life. Was there any spot of hope in this dark night of eminent peril?
"Sir," Aragorn said suddenly, narrowing his eyes blankly upon the field. Brodderband was silent, waiting patiently for his liege to continue. "Do you think we stand a chance as thus?"
The other did not answer, as if judging his words carefully. The wind spoke in their stead. Then Brodderband folded his arms across his chest, his chain mail clinking with the motion, and breathed softly. "It would be wrong of me to lie, so I must speak plainly. I believe we face a dire situation, and even with the aid of the Elves, we are likely outnumbered. That wall is old and weakened. It will topple given enough strain. I have fought against the Orcs of Mordor before. They do not easily give up their fight. They smell blood, the animals, and they hunt until they have their prize." Aragorn cringed inwardly. "No, sir. I do not think that any man faced with disaster can honestly say that he believes he has a chance. I do not think any man that calls himself true and valorous can deny doubt or fear. Yet, my Lord, there is this as well, and if I neglected to say it I would be as much a liar." The king turned to face his general. The old mans kind face was taut with seriousness, and his gruff tone held firm resolution. "Odds mean little to a courageous man who knows he cannot fail."
For a moment, Aragorn felt he could believe in that. The mans words were heartening and encouraging, a gentle exchange held in trust between a king and his general. He tried to smile his thanks, but the pain was simply too much, and he only nodded. Brodderband excused himself then, taking leave to join his troops upon the field.
From across the field was the thunder of horse hooves. Aragorn turned towards the sound. A train of five or so horses screamed across the plain, trampling the grasses with ferocious speed. From the saddles waved the banners of the royal family of Mirkwood. The group approached and slowed their gallop.
Aragorn stiffened. It was only folly to have not expected this encounter. Still, he felt his stomach clench in anxiety and his heart thunder in fear. He could think of nothing to say as Vardaithil dismounted his great black stallion. The Elf princes face was dark and malignant. His narrowed eyes swam in anger and sorrow. Behind him Aratadarion gracefully slid from his own horse. His own gaze was lowered, though not in fear or shame, but in melancholy. The breeze pulled at his dark hair.
Aragorn had not the time to feel guilt or pain at the sight of the decimated twin, for the Elfs older brother had come to stop before him. "Elessar," he said coldly.
His mind was blank, so much so that only the business of the day came to him. He was glad at least for that chilly apathy. "My Lord," he answered, his tone void of emotion.
Vardaithil did not speak immediately, but his tense eyes were gauging him, Aragorn knew. He had before seen the analytical stare of opponents, judging strengths and weaknesses, supposing truths and lies. Determining worth as an enemy or ally. "My forces stand ready," the Elf prince finally spoke. Aragorn stared at him in turn. Surely he knew of Astaldogalds death! Yet this nonchalance was not something he expected. He had known Vardaithil was a calm Elf, a stately, pristine prince to whom appearance mattered much. Legolas was much the same. Yet to calm a rage directed at a brothers murderer? And that two-fold, for he undoubtedly blames me for Legolas fall as well! The Elf grew irritated at his silence, and looked to the field. "The latest reports from my scouts indicate that Saurons forces are very close."
The ranger brushed aside his thoughts and concentrated on the matter at hand. "Yes," he declared, "a few hours if that."
"Earlier, I suspect. Orcs do not tire."
Aragorn decided not to press the matter, too intimidated by Vardaithil to question him momentarily. Instead he nodded, folding his arms across his chest. He followed the Elf princes gaze, staring into the mesh of color again. For a long time no one spoke, as if each was waiting for the other to break the awkward silence. Somehow Aragorn knew the duty fell to him. Whatever anger or frustrated he had felt before seemed now improper and rude. What right did he have to think lowly of Vardaithil? Given all that had happened, the ranger could hardly expect the lord to trust him, much less respect him. I killed his brother. I killed Astaldogald. There was no rationale in that moment, no reason that was true or absolving. No excuse. I killed him!
The wind brushed by them, blowing away his words as he spoke. "I I must apologize for-"
"Stop." Vardaithil did not turn to look at him. His tone was seething venom, causing Aragorns flesh to crawl. "I wish not to hear your condolences. They mean nothing."
He bristled. The anger was quick to return. He felt so emotionally worn and battered that he simply could not control it. The words fled his mouth of their own accord. "Your hatred of me may be strong, son of Thranduil, and perhaps warranted." He turned a cold glare upon the Elf. "But you are quick to judge without understanding all sides."
Vardaithil actually laughed. It was short sound of incredulity, of pain and anger. "And what would you wish of me, son of Arathorn? That I hear out your explanation? That I accept your shallow commiseration? That I absolve you?" The Elf prince dropped his voice to a low, harsh murmur. "It will not happen! My brother is dead. He has died for your fool cause." Confusion burst inside Aragorn. What did Vardaithil mean? Yet he had not the time to question, for the Elf warrior charged on in his pained accusations. "Another of the House of Thranduil falls so that you may amend a crime cast by your ancestor so many years ago. Another Elf is lost so that man may make right what he has wronged! My brother fell in your battle! You cannot make that right!"
Aragorn was astounded. This was obviously a great misunderstanding. "It was not my battle," he countered, his expression puzzled. "You know not who you defend! Astaldogald was not himself!"
"You did not know him. You knew nothing of his valor! Of his strength! He fell to protect your people! Never claim that you knew him!"
I knew he was about to kill Legolas! I knew it! But he did not say this, for he felt the gaze of another upon him. Aratadarion stood silently and stiffly behind his older brother. His eyes were firm and restraining, asking him to keep silent. Aragorn slowly began to understand. It seemed impossible and grotesquely wrong, but there was no other conclusion. Aratadarion had lied to his brother about Astaldogalds death. This explained Vardaithils contained rage, his ignorance of Aragorns guilt in his brothers demise. He was not aware of it. He did not know that Aragorn had murdered Astaldogald!
The realization left him speechless. He could not fathom why Aratadarion would do such a thing, but it unnerved him. He felt relieved and enraged at once. Relieved that his bloodied hands would remain hidden. Enraged that he could not repent, that he could not ask for forgiveness. Whatever the reason, it was not his place to speak the truth. And this angered him greatly.
His stubborn pride would not allow him to smartly keep his mouth shut. "Legolas trusts me," he hissed. "Legolas found this cause right and worthy enough to make his own!"
Vardaithil hissed, "Legolas is dead."
"Legolas is-" But he could not finish. From the corner of his eye, he saw Aratadarion grimace and weakly shake his head. The frustration boiled in his blood and pounded in his heart, and the tense moment went on forever. He felt his body shake. Certainly Vardaithil had a right to know that Legolas was alive! He could not believe that Aratadarion had lied about this fact! His rage jolted and fired through him, and he balled his hands into fists. Still, how could he say anything? After a couple of seconds, he felt he could breathe again. The fire of his rage abated, leaving him weak and sorrowful. He sighed gently. "There is nothing I can say to change the way you feel, or to ease your pain. Know that I am sorry, and that I never meant to cause you harm." How shallow! How worthless! He began to wonder if Vardaithil was not right to blame him for all that had happened to Astaldogald and Legolas.
Vardaithil did not answer. Aragorn could not tell what the Elf thought of his words, for the others face was blank and dark. The tense emptiness returned. Finally Vardaithil spoke. "I cannot make sense of this now. There is not the time. As much as we may dislike one another, we must nurture this alliance. Let us put this matter aside for the sake of our peoples."
Aragorn closed his eyes briefly. This was the last thing he wanted, to simply push this painful matter away once more, to ignore it and let it fester and torment. But he nodded, unable to argue the point. He simply did not know if he had the strength to face the eldest son of Thranduil, perhaps the most intimidating Elf yet on Middle Earth. Vardaithil stood a moment more, as if seeking to torture the defeated Aragorn with his mere presence, before turning and stalking away. Perhaps a truce had been offered, but the cold discomfort had shattered it, and the ranger despaired.
Aratadarion remained, standing still as the wind blew around him. The Elfs pale face was withdrawn and torn between anger and sorrow. There was still blood on his clothes. As Vardaithil mounted his horse and spurred the animal into a rushed gallop, Aratadarion lifted his gaze. Deep eyes glazed with pain sought his gaze, and then turned away.
Aragorn would not accept this. Some part of his mind reminded his brutalized heart that it was not his place to question, but this weak voice of logic was ignored, and he jumped forward and grabbed Aratadarions retreating arm. He pulled the Elf prince back, forcing their confrontation. "What have you done?" he hissed in barely controlled fury. "Have you no sense? Why have you lied to your own kin?!"
Aratadarions eyes glowed with a warm anger, like an ember slow to die. "I did what I thought best," he retorted, his voice low and strong.
"What you thought best," repeated the king incredulously. "You cannot hide this from him forever! He will discover the truth eventually and fault you for your deceit!" Aragorn shook his head helplessly. "He must know Legolas lives. He must be told!"
"So that this too destroys him?" Aratadarion narrowed his eyes. "My brother is strong. He is my fathers crown prince and the commander of this army. But even he cannot do what he must when distracted by sorrow and turmoil. He would kill you, Elessar, if he knew what you have done. Do not doubt this. He would avenge Astaldogald and Legolas, and the Last Alliance would fall. All Middle Earth would suffer for his grief and anger." The Elf curtly shook his head. "There may indeed be consequences later for my lies, but I will gladly face them than sacrifice all for which we have fought."
"You may be able to perpetuate such a falsehood, but it makes my soul black with guilt," Aragorn declared.
"I do not do this to hurt him, and I am terrified for Legolas." Aratadarions eyes flashed with fear and anger. "The pain I feel inside is so strong at times that I cannot bear to breathe. Do not think that I do not care for him, or for Vardaithil. I know that Lord Elronds daughter has taken Legolas to Rivendell, but I think no more of it than this, because I as well cannot be hampered by worry." The Elf shook his head and lowered his voice to a calming tone. "You must let Legolas go now. He would not want you to suffer such shame and worry."
His heart bled. "I cannot let him go!"
Aratadarion pulled away from him. His voice turned sharp. "Then you are selfish, Lord, selfish and a fool because of it. This fight between good and evil is more important than any one man or Elf. Legolas knew this." The breeze made the grass sing. "Why are you so blind?" Then he pivoted again and walked quickly to his horse. With a graceful leap he was upon the animal and riding away.
Aragorn felt tears burn his eyes, and he closed them to keep the weakness locked within. It made such sad sense, such cold logic, that he could not find it within himself to argue. He clenched and unclenched his fists and bowed his head. He felt so angry, so used and foolish.
Another thunder of galloping horses approached. He had no wish to face anything else!
"My Lord," came a familiar, breathless voice. The ranger opened his eyes and turned, blinking away the tears, as Faramir dismounted a horse. The young man was red-faced and winded as he bowed. "I apologize for my delay."
Aragorn was about to vent the horrible anger poisoning him, but he held his harsh words as he spotted Gandalf. The wizard appeared disheveled, his robe bloody and dirty, his face caked in sweaty muck. Blood marred his brow from a wound upon his temple. Confusion prickled through the ranger, and he momentarily abandoned his frustration. Upon a second inspection, he realized Faramir was as unkempt. "What has happened?" he asked, puzzled.
Gandalf gripped his staff. He seemed tired. "Saruman is dead," he announced simply, solemnly.
"Dead?" Surely not! Could this be true? Could this wonderful turn of events possibly be real? Faramir only nodded, regaining his breath and straightening his rumpled attire. For a moment Aragorn lingered, trying to make sense of the stupendous news. Saruman had been such a powerful enemy, one that had pursued and tormented. The ranger was euphoric and satisfied. This was certainly a good thing! The relief was nearly overwhelming, and Aragorn released a heavy sigh as his exhausted body shuddered. Saruman was dead! Dead! A great victory for their cause! Now the demented Istar had paid for all he had done, especially for the torture he had put upon Legolas!
Aragorn recovered then from his shock and contained his joy. He did not question the matter further. There were more pressing concerns. He looked to Gandalf, his worry breaking free once more and bringing an imploring tone to his voice. "Legolas is alive," he breathed, feeling weak and shaky. Gandalf watched him with sympathetic but urgent eyes. "He was wounded terribly and I cannot explain it, Gandalf. Saruman brutalized him in ways that turn my stomach and break my heart. There was a black aura about him, a shadow strong enough to crush his light."
Gandalfs face wrinkled in uncertainty. "A shadow?"
"I know of no other way to explain it. Arwen sensed it as plain as I. He was cold and dull. His eyes had no life, no vigor! It was as though the glowing vitality of his kind had utterly abandoned him "
"How does he fare?" inquired Faramir, his tone low and his eyes open in concern.
Aragorn shook his head. "Not well. My Lady Arwen bravely took it upon herself to deliver him into the skilled hands of Lord Elrond, but I fear the journey long and treacherous." He returned his gaze to Gandalf, wistful and frightened. A part of him was disgusted at acting as such, but he was frantic with fear and dismay. He had to ask, no matter how selfish and childish! He had to! "Please, is there something you might do? I had hoped you might be able to tend Legolas when the healer mended his wounds, but it is too late now. Perhaps you could-"
"Do not ask it of me, Aragorn," Gandalf interrupted, his eyes pained and his voice tight. A wince twisted his face. "I might find the idea far too alluring, and I am needed here." Aragorn felt his hopes crash disastrously. He felt his temper fray and his guilty anguish grow. He thought he might suffocate. Gandalf grasped his shoulder tightly, the large, old hand strong and comforting. "You know as well as I that Legolas is stronger than most. If he wishes yet to live, he will. Lord Elrond will know how to help him, I am sure."
There was something more Aragorn thought to say, but he did not, for at that moment loud yelling from the front lines filled the air. The king snapped his attention to the northern parapet, scanning the line of the army for the source of the sound. The distance was too great to discern any particular movement. He stood still, his heart pulsing in a strange and anxious beat, and watched. The men became silent then, though there was a great blur of motion.
Faramir stepped up beside him, shaking his head. "Surely it cannot be-"
"It is," Aragorn declared in a harsh whisper. His eyes grew wide in shock, and though he tried to question, somehow he could not doubt the veracity of the awful realization. "They have come."
Like a horde of dark spiders, the Orc army flooded from the horizon. It stretched for miles, a black line of horrid warriors great and devastating. At this great distance it seemed an impenetrable wall of evil rushing forth, seeking to crush them, to surround and demolish. Aragorn watched, unsure of how to feel and uncertain of what to do. Were these the horrible odds that Elendil and Isildur faced upon the slopes of Mount Doom? Where had they found the strength to defy, the courage to raise their swords against the Dark Lord, the faith to lead their men? That endless line of enemies was undeniably his destiny, and here on this battlefield the fate of all Middle Earth would be decided. Such an immense responsibility! Yet Aragorn was surprisingly cool and numb now, lingering in this promised moment. As the thoughtless calm slowed his heart and eased his mind, he began to understand. His ancestors had not needed to look at all for the strength, courage, and faith. It was a simple matter of duty.
Knowing this was a balm to his battered soul, and he slipped into a clear state where thought was untroubled by emotion or turmoil. "Let us go," he stated simply, turning to his companions. "It is time." He looked to Faramir, saying nothing more but offering all his strength and bravery. The young man returned his gaze, his eyes valorous yet filled with an unspoken but wise sorrow. Then he nodded firmly, accepting what Aragorn promised without question.
The ranger then glanced to Gandalf. The ancient wizards eyes were closed and his face pensive. "Gandalf?" asked he quizzically. The Istar did not respond, but in the silent moment that followed, a quiet murmuring filled Aragorns ears. It took a moment for him to realize that the foreign chant came from his dear friend. He did not interrupt again, watching the wizard in awe as he spoke to the wind. The breeze carried his words. Then Gandalf was silent, and in his stead the crickets sang an amazing and loud chorus of chirps and whistles. Sweeping by them, the cool breeze brushed the grass, and from the reeds exploded a flurry of small insects. Fireflies rose, fluttering in the gale, winking in a stunning show of lights. They flew off, trailing a glow that seemed almost ethereal. Then it was silent.
Gandalf opened his eyes after a quiet instance, and focused upon his comrades. He offered a weak grin that belied the urgency of the situation. "A call for help," he declared. "Hopefully it will be of use to your Lady Arwen."
The king did not understand, but he did not speak of the matter. There was no time. Instead he jogged back to his horse. The page holding the reins was skittish, dancing about on nervous feet. He was glad to be rid of them, handing the sweaty leather to Aragorn. The ranger was atop his horse in a graceful and fluid leap. He did not turn to see if Faramir and Gandalf had followed his lead before kicking the stallion into a gallop.
He flew across the field, the horse running in the wind. In a matter of minutes he reached the parapet. It was a scene of controlled pandemonium for soldiers rushed about in every which way, scrambling to assume their posts. Along the ramparts a shoddy platform had quickly been constructed. The carpenters had obviously not had the time to reinforce the wooden planks used in its building, for the structure looked a bit unstable. Ladders were tipped against the platform, and archers raced up them with all possible speed. On the creaking platform they took their spot, hiding behind the old stonewall as they notched arrows to their bows. Behind this, captains and lieutenants ordered their companys men to form the defensive line as quietly as possible, and the men obeyed the soft orders. Some were praying. Some were weeping. Most were white-faced, terrified of the demonic force racing towards them.
Aragorn jumped from his horse. He did not pause for Faramir, but the young lords voice he heard as he jogged forward. He grabbed the arm of a messenger. "Send word to Lord Vardaithil," he ordered, winded and frantic, to the frightened young man. "The enemy is near. Tell him to place his best archers on that wall. They must hold back the advance! They are to keep low and fire in volleys, as well timed as possible. A heavy, constant fire. If one falls, he must plug the hole in the line immediately! Do you understand?" The lads face was ashen and his lip quivered, but he nodded in a jerked motion. Aragorn released his arm, and he ran off down the line of troops. Had the ranger not been beside himself with frenzy, he might have thought such a thing as ordering about a seasoned warrior and prince such as Vardaithil ludicrous. As it was, it seemed as mundane as commanding his own men.
Then he was moving again. His steady feet carried him up the shaking ladder, and he climbed one handed, the other coming to draw Andúril from its sheath. The archers on the platform awkwardly made space for him, darting to the side and pressing together to create room upon the narrow platform. The wood creaked and moaned under the weight. Aragorn prayed it would hold.
He crouched and peered over the rocks. They were about at the level of his shoulders. The wall would provide excellent cover. A moment later, Faramir was beside him. Together they spied upon the approaching menace.
They were close. Barely a few thousand feet separated the forces of good and evil upon this field. Faramirs rushed breathing was horribly loud, and Aragorn wiped the sweat from his face as he scanned the army. He could now see the features of the front line of Orcs, their hideous faces gleeful and mouths open in a jovial snarl. Twisted and gruesome weapons glinted in the sun. The sound of their stampede was more a roar as it neared.
Aragorn pressed his back to the stone then and closed his eyes. He cursed himself. His estimate was rough indeed, but it was accurate enough to be crushing and frightening. Saurons army appeared significantly larger than what they had mustered. He swallowed, feeling his heart thunder and his stomach clench. His blood felt cold.
"Aragorn." It was Gandalf. The old wizard knelt beside him. In his depression, the ranger had not even noticed his approach. The soldiers watched the Istar in amazement. Aragorn met Gandalfs gaze, the old eyes comforting and glowing in affectionate encouragement. "Do not forget all who have suffered to bring you here, but do not be fettered by their memory. You stand because you are strong. You were meant to face this battle, and fate does not choose lightly."
He closed his eyes. In that moment, he saw them all, clear and vivid. Those that had died. Those that had sacrificed so that this battle could be won. Merry and Pippin. Gimli. Sam and Frodo. Boromir. Legolas.
I will not fail any of you.
He turned his hard gaze forward and stood, lifting Andúril. The Orc army was nearing, their shouts of rage and anticipation poisoning the air. They were within the archers ranges now, and the men and Elves took their aim, followed his lead in rising. The Orcs were spread far and wide, like a blanket of terrible evil. They would not ravage this land!
He felt hope. He knew courage. He was strength.
It was time.
Sam was exhausted. With the back of his chubby hand he wiped the sweat from his brow. He looked up and felt his spirits sink. They had traversed what seemed an impossible distance, fighting to climb the rocky slope of Mount Doom for most of the day. The path was steep and barely passable. Every step was a trial of loose rock and uncertain footing. His broken leg helped matters none, for the pain lamed him and his good leg was weary from the strain of added weight. It was difficult to hobble along, and it certainly added unneeded time and stress to their journey. Had he not been terrified of the very situation, he would have been furious.
Frodo sensed his need for a respite and stopped. Sams arm was draped over his neck. They had halted in a crevice, in the shade of a large rock formation. It was not much, but the Hobbits were still grateful for the relief of the cooler temperature. The day was scorching, and as they approached the summit of Mount Doom, the heat increased two-fold. The land was rumbling, growling in anxiety and nervousness. Every so often the ground would shift and moan. It was as if the volcanic mountain sensed their approach and what they intended and was as worried about it as they.
Mordor was silent. It was an eerie trek, filled with nothing but the grumbling of the mountain and their own rushed breathing. The emptiness was chilling, for it signified something grave indeed. Since Frodo had found him, they had encountered no other resistance. The black land was empty, without Orc or ghoul, without demon or guard. That made their quest surprisingly and disturbingly easy, and Sam grew worried. Though it eased their own journey, it implied that Sauron had turned his dangerous attention to other matters. Days ago Frodo had spoke of a great menace marching west to Gondor. This barren and empty land was surely evidence of it, and every force the Dark Lord could spare had been deployed to destroy the nation of men. The thought alarmed Sam. He prayed the others were well. Surely Gandalf would do all he could to protect them!
He sagged in Frodos arms, leaning back against the rock. He grimaced as his wounded leg pulsed and pounded. The limb felt numb with dull agony, and he wished for nothing more than to simply lie down and relieve the pressure from his back and other leg. But he could not. They were far too close now to give up!
He looked into the distance. There was perhaps another hundred feet or so between them and the pinnacle of the mountain. Hot air slammed against his face, and he squinted, watching Mount Doom belch black, putrid smoke furiously into sky. With any luck, they could reach their destination in another half an hour or so.
Silence. Sam shuddered. More frightening than the emptiness, than the unguarded roads and the immensity of what they were about to do, was Frodo. The Hobbit had changed, and his cold silence troubled his dearest friend. Sam saw it clearly in the others misted, blue eyes. Something horrible had grabbed Frodo, had twisted him and hurt him. The once gentle and loving being was lost in a storm, drowning under a burden with which Sam knew he could not help. Frodo had not spoken a word since the night before when he had tried to take the Ring. Sam knew what was happening, and it terrified and panicked him. His dear friend, his brother, was weakening, crumbling under a strain of emotion so intense and powerful that it was swallowing his will. Sam felt foolish and inadequate. He had said nothing the previous night when his sleep had been shattered by Frodos corruption. Truth be told, he had not known what to say or how to act. He had been torn between disgust and pity, fear and worry. Paralyzed by surprise, he had simply ignored Frodos sickness and brushed aside what it meant.
Now the pain was nearly unbearable. There was wall between them, built from awkward pain and uncertain brotherly love. Frodo was slipping away from him, drifting into a misery that was borne from despair and desire for the Ring. What could Sam do to aid in this? He had pondered the matter in the silence for many hours, using his worries to distract his mind from the crushing weight of the Ring tucked away in his pocket. Worse still, he felt Frodos burning gaze locked upon his jacket, staring as though unable to look away, watching as a dog watches a meal. He tried not to notice the hungry glances and stares, but they distressed him. As his mind swirled and churned, he realized there was only one way to rid Frodo of his illness. He had to end this.
So they had rode past Barad-Dûr, lurking in the blackness. Shadowfax drove through the haze, keeping close to the protection of ridges and crevices. They avoided the road, although it became clear that, though the fortress was dark and menacing, its inhabitants were away on errands of evil in the West. Sam remembered the fear he had felt as they passed and shuddered; his flesh crawled as he saw the black clouds swirl and fester around its tower. The Dark Lord was calling to the Ring, and the Ring answered, singing its foul chorus inside him. He wondered if Frodo had heard it as well, but his friend remained in glazed stupor of listless despair.
At the base of the mountain they had left Shadowfax. Sam had whispered to the great horse, promising the Halflings would soon return and asking for patience while they were gone. The animal had snorted and nodded, nuzzling Sam him before trotting behind a rock. And from there, Sam leaning heavily upon Frodos cold body, they began their ascent.
They had little food and water left. They were tired, worn, and beaten. This was the promised moment, and he would not fail.
With a groan, he straightened his body. His muscles were cramped and tired, but he ignored their painful protest. He had almost wanted to shirk the responsibility of destroying the Ring. For a moment, he again pondered asking Frodo to take back the burden. But he immediately brushed it aside as folly and selfish. It was insane to offer such an alluring prospect to the ailing Frodo, and he knew, deep down inside where he could admit it, that he was terrified that he too would sink into the Rings seductive comfort and lose his strength to do what was needed.
There was no time, and he was frightened and full of dread. They needed to press on.
Onward they trudged, struggling over loose, hard rock, fighting with the uneven and barely passable terrain. Sweat clung to Sam, sticking to his scalp and plastering his hair to his brow. His heart pounded, and with each step he felt he might collapse. He had no strength left. All that drove him was a need to be rid of this terrible burden, was a wish to hear silence in his heart where the Rings song had taken root. He heard Gandalfs words, and it brought him valor. "We are meant to undertake the tasks we do, Sam, no matter how unlikely or unfair it may seem. That is an encouraging thought, after all. It means that we each have the power to do what is asked of us." He took a deep breath and swallowed his hurt. "Nearly there, now!" he gasped quietly.
And so, breathless, dirty, bloody, and beaten, they reached the very path that had carried Isildur to the fiery pit of Mount Doom. The trail was worn by time and tragedy. They hobbled along it, wheezing. As they neared the entrance, a blast of heat assailed them, and Sam grimaced. Inside was a light bright with fire and fury, and hot air singed his lungs as he breathed. The ground quaked, nearly spilling them, but they only stumbled. The air was foul with smoke, a vicious plume that seared the lungs. Sam grasped the burning rock of the ledge and looked down, wincing at the blaze.
Below was a vat of molten rock, churning and pulsing with incredible heat and power. Sam had never felt anything so potent and dangerous, and he could barely bring himself to look into it. Was this the source of Saurons evil? Did it have the power to destroy his Ring?
He stood still then, lingering, wondering so many things yet unable to make sense of anything. What was he to do now? Take the Ring. You must destroy it! Numb, quivering fingers found their way into his inner coat pocket. He touched the Ring. It burned his fingertips. Sam closed his eyes and pulled it free, closing it tight in his palm.
A great turmoil erupted inside him. He did not want to look at it, frightened he would not find the will to part with it. Was this the same sick obsession that drove so many to hold tight to this Ring? Could he do now what so many had failed to accomplish in the past? Isildur had stood in this very place, and he had faltered. What made him sure that he could succeed? The song inside him was so loud, and he could not think. He could not think!
"Your first duty is to the Ring and to Frodo." Legolas words cut through the barrage of voices blasting his resolve. "You must do this, Sam!"
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. Suddenly there was peace, and everything made simple sense. The Ring was silent, and he was free. He would do this. For Gandalf and Legolas. For Frodo.
He chuckled then. "Well, this is it," he said softly. He felt tears of elation burn his eyes. He opened his clenched hand, looking down upon the Ring. Such a simple thing! Such a lie! "Weve done it, Mister Frodo!" No response. The fine hairs on the back of Sams neck prickled. "Mister Frodo?"
There was a ring of metal on metal, and something cool and sharp fell against the side of his neck. Sam jerked, his heart stopping painfully, and he could not breathe. The edge of Sting was dangerously close to slitting his throat. He swallowed uncomfortably, shaking in terror and sorrow, and he looked slowly to his side.
Frodo glared at him, his arm dreadfully steady as he held his sword to his friends neck. Sam gasped. In the others eyes there was no soul, no life. Only the glint of corruption, the sick desire. The very same malicious glow he had seen in Boromir that fateful afternoon so many days ago at Amon Hen.
"Give me the Ring, Sam," Frodo said slowly. "Now."
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.