Never and Always: 4. On Watch

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4. On Watch

9th January 1419 S.R. Daybreak is a mere shiver on the air. They have stopped where a holly thicket gives sparse shelter, and Frodo offers to take the first watch. He sits close to where Sam sleeps, as if the rest Sam takes were his own, a gentle, sinking weight through his body, while his mind stays alert. Away in the south lies the mountain range that has brought such yearning to Gimli's eyes. Like clouds, these mountains glisten with a pale gleam of their own, yet at each forward step, they yield into the distance. Frodo links his hands over the hour's crawling frost. Some steps away, on his right, the shapes of Merry and Pippin are a single huddle under the blankets, their curls tousled together as if a playful wind had sifted through them. In the dim, nothing divides darker from sun-sprinkled brown. From somewhere beyond the thicket, the smoke of Aragorn's pipe blows over. A veil of it hangs on the air, twirled and twisting in delicate creases that fan the tart scent across – and there's an edge of sweetness to it that brings his murmured singing alive in Frodo's mind. On the other side of the hollies, Aragorn will set his watchful gaze against the silence that hangs so close about these lands. Silence that fills with a breath... Sam's breaths are slow and even, easing their cadence into Frodo's wandering thoughts. Unrelenting, like the steady presence of Sam awake, an invisible shield at his side. Frodo sends his glance to the mountains, a jagged border that they have yet to cross. A red glint lit the tip of Caradhras when they first set eyes on it. And you thought we'd finally gained sight of the fiery mountain, Sam. Maps mean nothing to him, nor the count of miles that Gandalf will offer from time to time. Yet time and again it startles Frodo that Sam can face their march like this: always expecting to see their journey's end at the close of a day; undaunted when another vastness of untrod land opens before them instead. He follows, no matter how long the road, the months, or how far the hope of returning home. Frodo cups his hands around a shivery breath of his own. Many nights, they have lain close together, and here in the wild he has taken warmth from Sam's body that seeps into him and lingers, like a coal's core netted in a crumbling crust. Night after night, he follows the beat of Sam's heart into sleep, and he would know that rhythm anywhere, a strong, certain measure that seems to run through the earth itself. Frodo's breath slows to trace it inward, down to the bottom where there seems to be none. Scattered on the ground are the twigs and the dry leaves of another season, tumbled into chance patterns that have long been undisturbed, save for the wind's fitful raking. Only spare tufts of grass grow in the dell, among the clustered trees. Frodo picks up a leaf and remembers what Legolas told them: that the rocks remember and mourn those who lived here, in a distant age. They sought the Havens long ago. A lament in the ground, walled in stone against the weight of silence. No birds sail this stretch of sky, even though the holly's berries peek red and inviting from the prickly foliage. Frodo turns the leaf in his fingers. Most of what it once was has been worn away from the curled sides and spines, and its ribs shimmer in a pearly grey. Sam would know how long it must have lain here, bared to the soil and the weather, to wane into such a beautiful ghost of a leaf. Sam would read this at the tips of his fingers, and more. A low drift of whispers slides across, sharpens Frodo's vigilance before he hears Aragorn's thoughtful tones. Perhaps he's conversing with Gandalf about the next day's march – but no, the faint steel jangle points to Boromir, seeking refuge from harried questions. Frodo looks down at his hands – twisted together in resistance, in mindless longing to hold – then his glance slips to the side. A weak breeze ruffles the curls against Sam's forehead, in a cradle of shadows. What are the dreams that pass behind his brow? In Rivendell, there were nightmares, broken words and anguished movement snapping fear into Frodo's mind, and he would reach blindly across to draw Sam back. But since they set out, Sam's sleep has been quiet, as if it knew how to guard his secrets. Unless your only fear was to be left behind. Frodo shakes his head. How could it be? Not long ago, a wisp of shadow tore across the moon, too high and swift to see clearly, yet the chill that fell into his heart was enough – His thumb stirs along the chain at his throat with a rasp that runs too deep in the still air. His finger slips along the cool golden surface, deceitful in its tranquil waiting. It's underneath where the battle has begun, a constant rumour that errs through his chest, that flickers behind his thoughts, where its pressure is rising, rising... What do you want? He snaps his hand away, and it sways, hovers, before he can let it settle against Sam's open palm that rests on a corner of the blanket. Must I lead you into this? The questions will not cease, even if Frodo no longer lends them voice, and not a day passes without an answer from Sam, wordless as the query. A glance, a hummed swell of song, a touch to Frodo's elbow. Alive and aware, pitted against the dark so that he can be safe, if only for another hour, another breath. You'd give everything, Sam, and that is why. Under his hand lies the plane of Sam's palm, calm as homeland. Never holding, but almost – But now, from the middle of his sleep, Sam will reach out in his turn, and his fingers describe a soft, stumbling pattern against Frodo's wrist that could be a caress before they settle into a loose clasp. So many places, Sam. If there is a map Sam would recognise, it's drawn on his skin. Even if they never – But we are... we are. Frodo's breath flees in startlement. A second claim has found room within, sharp and welcome, enmeshed with his fears. Shadows linger in the dell and cast their soft weave over Sam's face and chest. All of this, Frodo takes deep into his memory, for as long as he can hold it there: The holly's wind-stripped twigs like wrinkles in the twilight. The bristling clumps of leaves where the thicket defends it own. The glow of red berries in cold air, bolder than the dawn. Embedded in these minute sights is the dreaming warmth of Sam's hand, and deeper still the certainty that this touch will guide him. But where, Sam? Frodo closes his eyes, for there are answers that he cannot know. Somewhere at his back, Bill snorts and plucks stubbornly at the wire-thin grasses. Morning has come, and it is Sam's turn to watch it rise while Frodo will take his place under the blanket. He leans over until his sight fills with the ruffled line of Sam's eyebrow, the thick bow of his lashes, bathed in a last lap of twilight. Frodo's breath skims across like an improbable wind, and Sam's lids twitch, crinkling at the corners. A quicker breath leaves his open lips and settles softly on Frodo's mouth. "Sam..." he whispers, unable to move further or to urge sound into his voice. The air between them fills with a tender cloud of breath, with his name drifting vague and content on a sigh as Sam stirs. Their eyes meet – out of sleep, out of waking – then Sam's head lifts from the curl of shadows and Frodo shifts to the side. One motion, the rising, slipping brush of a wish, but not – Past. He will lie where the imprint of Sam's body has left warmth and shelter for him. The blanket rustles from Sam's shoulders and settles around his own. A touch completes the movement, parting his thoughts soft as feathers, piercing with sweet, unbearable knowledge. Almost. * * * (continued in: Circling)

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.

Story Information

Author: Cara Loup

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 10/03/11

Original Post: 05/30/05

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