Dawn shimmers, rising against the White Tower. Brilliant and hard, it makes the promise that no matter what, the sun is a constant. It will always rise.
Though that promise is empty. For, not too long ago, there was a dawnless day.
That is the last thing I remember with any sort of clarity. Everything is so scattered, my sensibilities lying about me in fragments. I pick up one, then the other, like shards of a broken, twisted mirror, ghostly mnemonics of things I can hardly bear to remember. The dawn illuminates them, piece by piece: darkling flashes, blinding sparks. Blinding.
I turn from the light with weakened, watering eyes and take shelter in the gloom of the chamber, in the faint illumination of one bare candle. The light can no longer sustain me, and I am now both in awe and terror of the darkness-instead I almost frantically turn my gaze to the only source of comfort I have come to know. But even that eludes me. I watch Sam as he sleeps, yet the normal solace of his presence does not fill me. I watch him breathe, softly deep, and my own seizes in my breast. I watch him drift through tranquil, liquid dreams while I lean, crippled and heavy against the window frame, my back to the light, the morning breeze lifting my scorched hair, my nonexistent finger throbbing from a fatal blow, my soul lying stillborn in my maimed hand.
There is such lovely, careless ease in your face, Sam. Such peace. It belies the physical truths: your sunken, thin face, your wheaten curls lying bleached and lank along your skull, your body wasted and your skin sallowed, mottled with cuts, gashes, bruises. All of it healing, fading. I don't think I gave you any of those. I hope I didn't. If so, you've never said, and never will. You've spent your strength in a righteous battle, and there is nothing more to speak of. Nothing more to think upon. Only rest, and recovery. The journey done, the Ring undone, nothing but the homeward return ahead.
Keep your innocence. I don't wish that you should also lose that for me. Sleep, now. Just sleep.
I cannot sleep. When I fall sleep the darkness comes and with it comes the spiraling down into the void left within my mind, a gaping, shattered chasm that once held my will. Then the tremors come, so fierce that they rattle me awake-my body's denial, survival instinct beyond sense, nothing more. Then, as I waken, the sickness of mental and physical at odds claims me. It happens, again and again. Sleep is no refuge for me, not any more.
The healers all nod knowingly as this ague weakens me down. They try to argue me into taking medications to help me sleep-they do not seem to understand when I tell them I don't want to be rendered so helpless within my own mind. They think I'm still in shock. To lose part of one's body is a massive stress to the system, you must understand.
And what of it when you lose part of your soul? They have no answer for that, do they?
They all think you had to take it from me, you know. They see the marks upon us both and their eyes fall to my mangled hand and their thoughts are plain: that you were forced to strike it from me. I went mad and would not cast it in. I tried to strangle you, left marks upon your throat. A choked cry for forgiveness, the rise upward and glitter downward of Sting, a ragged wound left behind because I struggled and you had to overpower me, hold me down, sever it uncleanly. There is no blame in their gazes, no. Only awe. Only pity. They wrap my hand gently and speak softly.
I can hardly bear to have them touch me.
For at the heart of it they're right. I did go mad. That shard of memory holds hard and bright, the dawn exposing it with radiant clarity. I remember standing on the edge of the Sammath Naur and sanity snapping within me like too-taut wire. I remember some remaining part of my soul screaming denial, cast and flung aside like an empty, tattered garment as my mind and body refused to deny the Ring, as I held it up and placed it on my finger and...
For a moment, it was all I had ever wanted. All I'd ever dreamed. Can you understand, Sam? Would you understand if I tried to explain, or would revulsion fill you, turn you from me?
Imagine it, holding the world in the palm of your hand. To feel everything. *Everything*. To have senses sharper than any wild beast, to have such promise and power take you, to be filled with starlight so brilliant and darkness so vast that you choke and stagger and nearly explode with it.
Then to be ripped from it; to be blinded, deafened and maimed, all in one razored blow of Gollum's vengeful teeth. The ripping of flesh, the crunching of bone, the stretch and snap of sinew and tendons. The rending of my mind, the tearing away of... *something* which my hand only thinly echoes. The screams-mine, or the Ring's?-as I felt it fall, felt it flare. Felt it *die*.
The indescribable benediction as I was dropped back into myself. Past madness, from hell, into a barren cocoon of nothingness, pure relief.
Had Gollum not taken it from me, had you been forced to use your sword to take it from me-indeed had you been forced to chop off my whole hand to save me and yourself and the entirety of Middle Earth I would not have begrudged it of you. I only wish that within this imagined scenario, the blade would have slipped higher, snagged the thickness of an artery and I could have fallen to the ground, stinging and weary and weakened and just gone to sleep...
Or that Gollum would have dragged me with him into the fires of Doom.
I can still feel it, the despair as it died. The exhilaration as I was set free. Now, however I realize that too was a lie. I am not free. I no longer have it... but it still has me.
But you cannot know this and I will never tell you.
Pippin knows. I see his eyes searching mine, looking for answers I do not have, looking for hope that I cannot give. My wild, little cousin-little no more but nigh unto the height of old Bullroarer!-with his brilliant, golden gaze and his tangled, bronze mop softening a clever, passionate face gone slightly wrong, somehow. He still limps from his own brush with death; occasionally pain is still behind those shining eyes: pain, and fear. He is afraid when he looks at me. He sees what I've become. I want to tell him it's all right, tell him a shining story of happy endings and love regained just as I used to when he was little and bedtime was imminent. But it is far too late for that. Pippin may still be a child by Shire law, but by any other rule he is no longer that. He now knows a world vaster than he had ever dreamed of seeing. He has seen his youthful gods and idols betray themselves, and the knowledge may bring a taste of bitterness, yet his heart is too great to fail him. He is so strong, stronger than he himself knows. He will not merely survive, he will *live*.
Merry knows. He too has grown taller than any Bucklander in memory. He has far surpassed me, this cousin of mine with his hard frame and his quicksilver presence and the vastdeep of his gaze. At first those unfathomable eyes stared with agonizing disquiet at my hand, but Sam must have told him what truly transpired and he now looks at me with an understanding that is even more haunting. Once I was the older cousin, the stronger, the one who protected him; now he thinks to raise a shelter for all of us to cling to but I cannot. I shall not. For he too has had his own bleak night, my serene, outrageous Meriadoc-he has outlasted his own struggle against a darkling current that would have drowned anyone else. I tangled with the Wraiths' liege with much less success, and the fact that Merry survived to walk and breathe normally speaks of what he has become. He is a warrior, now, a knight, and the deep despair that nearly killed him has instead taken him within and stilled him.
My two younger cousins. I saw you both born-when did you get so much older than I? I envy you your strength. And when I feel anything, I feel shame. What you've endured, you've borne for me. The Ring has not only shattered me, but also bent your malleable hearts nigh to breaking.
Gandalf knows. It was two nights ago now, long after the festivities had ended and Merry and Pippin had left us and you had fallen asleep, he sat with me. Another shard that flickers with intolerable light is the memory of him taking me down from the eagle's back, murmuring my name, tears glistening whiter than the diamond radiance that surrounded him. I remember clinging to him dizzily, thinking that it must be a dream or I must be dead until I saw how my hand left a swath of blood along the brilliant whiteness of his robe. And I realized that we were both alive and I started to sob and couldn't stop and I understand that they had to drug me insensate to pry me away from him.
My blood no longer stains his robe, yet I still find it hard to meet his eyes. He knows why. He understands. He senses my mind unraveling, skein by skein, even as I sense his undying sorrow that he gave cause for my fragile world to be destroyed.
He knows that I still walk in the black lands. That I most likely always will, now.
I never meant for it to go this far. I never mean that life's taste, once so hotly sweet, would turn to bile and ashes. I only meant to stay a while in this penumbra of pain, not to be swallowed and suborned. I never thought that I would actually have the strength to survive this journey. But our will, even broken, betrays us-and it seems dying is all too easy when you've spent nearly an entire year of your life both besieged by and defending the battlements of your own selfhood.
In living is the paradox, living with this shattered mosaic of remembrance...
And the fingers of my unmaimed hand clench into the wooden sill, staying me when I want to run over, shake you, wake you. Ask you *why*...
It would have been so easy, Sam. You're the one who knows the logical necessity of pruning branches, of picking away dead buds, of pulling up weeds from the soft dirt and making sure that nothing remains of their roots so they don't sprout elsewhere and begin anew their silent work of choking what's been chosen to inhabit that ground.
Couldn't you see it was happening to me? The Ring wrapped itself about my mind and even now I can still feel it there, phantom and shade. Yes, the plant is hacked away and destroyed, burned to slag, yet the tendrils and underground growth still lie there, still burrowing, still displacing what I would choose to have there.
Your gardener's instincts failed you and betrayed me.
It would have been so easy. To have just left me lying in the caverns of Shelob and never returned. To have just left me lying senseless along the road. A quick, merciful snap of your strong hands and it would have been done, my neck wilting sideways like a broken-stemmed flower and the blight that claimed my growth forever stilled. You could have taken the Ring the rest of the way. You had but held it a while. It would not have taken you as it did with me. You would have freed our world with one capable hand...
Not nearly destroyed it, as I did.
How many more times will I wish the fires had claimed me? That the scars I'll bear for the rest of my existence were truly of lasting power? Instead I have only glimmers of memories, a mirror shattered and falling about my feet and reflecting a world I once knew-a world of love, and laughter, and light. A world that does not exist any more for me.
But you? The shadows lift from all of you, and you turn into the light. Your innocence is bruised, but unbroken and stronger for the testing while my own innocence has yielded, lies blooded and irredeemable in the aftermath of Mordor. The world has been preserved for you, Sam. For Merry and Pippin. For the rest of our beloved, sundered Fellowship. All of you turn with hope to this new world.
But I cannot, don't you see? I see no way out. No haven to take shelter in. No small, shallow burrow to cower away from the light yet back away from the totality of darkness. I can't bear the light. I can't smell the roses beneath our window. I can't hear the sea.
I'm empty. I'm hollow. I'm *dead*.
You'll never understand this, Sam, and I can never tell you. I will protect you now, as tenaciously as you protected me. Even as I hate you for it, as fiercely and as undeniably as I love you.
My journey has ended, yet I have somehow survived. I am still here, and I no longer know where to turn...