Rohan, August 1419
The wind slides through the grass of Rohan, parting it into languid ripples that run from one edge of sky to the other. On its back, summer rides across the fields, skirring over brown and black where ripe gold should sway. Away in the North, scorched poles mark the bare slopes. Curled among them, the wind lifts cinder on its mild breath. The sprinkles of ash float easily and scatter like the voices that ring from afar.
On this coarse, cloudless day, the wind finds the two walking beside a burnt field. Two others of their strange kind follow at a distance, and their voices fly swift and lively as swallows. Not so with the first two, whose names are woven into songs that the wind has picked up and tumbles about them. They speak in murmurs, in short snatches of phrase, but mostly with the movement of their hands.
Here they do not touch, but they stand close enough for the wind to mingle their curls, a lighter and a deeper shade of brown autumn.
The dark one turns to watch the gale rip a single cloud into feathers. He stretches his arms, and his cloak flaps over his shoulders before the wind billows it wide into laughter that they cannot hear. It strokes the tilted face, the translucent skin that belongs to winter, and swerves to snatch at the wanderer's breath.
His companion has crossed over the edge of the field where he squats on the ground. The wind sends out a puff to sprinkle earth across the hands that sift through a cluster of tiny green leaves. Small creature that he is, he must be wrapped in a hundred dust-bound smells. He lifts the soil in handfuls to his face and his voice murmurs in song, searching and drifting.
High on the wind's shoulder sails a hawk, and the two heads snap around at its hunting call. For a breath they stand frozen, and when they walk again, their strides match each other with a rare and curious grace.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Henneth Annûn, 7-8 March 1419
Sam tugged the curtain aside by a hand's breadth and peered out into the larger cavern. Torches burned steady in several corners, shedding their patchy glow on the Men as were taking their rest on pallets, or mending bits of armour and cleaning their weapons. What few words they traded in their outlandish brogue told of naught but unworried ease, and maybe a dash of curiosity.
Sam thought, a slow breath reaching deep through his limbs. Safe.
Like a stone plunged in a river. The weight of wholesome food lay warm and strange in his belly, and the flow of Frodo's sleeping breaths filled the small space behind him.
He turned, padding over to the large bed where Captain Faramir had carried his master. Thin shadows and blurred streaks of light rippled over Frodo's face as the curtain blew from a movement outside. The shadows nestled too thick under his eyes and his jaw, but his mouth was relaxed in a soft curl and his left hand rested loose atop the quilted blanket.
What a blessing,
Sam thought. At a passing glance, Frodo might have been asleep in Bag End, washed clean and tucked between fine linen sheets. Sam smoothed out a fold in the blanket beside Frodo's shoulder. So tired he'd been that he fell asleep minutes after they'd reached this place, amid a troop of grim-looking Men, no less. He'd leaned against Sam, sagging with a single long breath, and nodded off faster than Sam could slide his arms round Frodo's chest to make him more comfortable, not caring one whit what these Men would think. But after that bit of relief came worrisome hours of questioning and debating that drained all ease away like water from a jug. Frodo hadn't slept his fill yet, and for the first time since crossing the river, Sam could bear leaving his side for a while.
He returned to the curtain, brushing the rough seam aside, and filled his chest till his ribs could stretch no more. From the window that looked out West, through the glitters of falling water, the damp smell of growing things reached him clear as a trumpet-call.
When Sam crossed the cave, a couple of eyes swept over to him, but the soldiers didn't mind him strolling about, seemingly. He didn't stop till the fine spray tingled on his face. Inside those liquid ripples, the lick of flames danced with a moon-beam or two, orange and silver, but fair as the sight might be, there were greater marvels still. Sam closed his eyes.
Just beyond the water curtain lay wide ranges of wet and green, and a hundred mixed smells that roused their shapes to his mind. Plush swells of moss on stone and bark, the proud sway of firs above bay-trees and junipers, sage sprinkling the softer shade in blue and red. Lily and iris were perking fresh from the grass, already abloom in this mild weather, and the rose-brambles sprawled out as they would. All these wild shrubs, vines, flowers and herbs – and so many more that he couldn't have named – grew and twined through each other, without tending or care.
Sam blinked at the hanging water. The clean air pricked in his chest, and the weave of scents lay about him so thick and beautiful, it filled him of fervent wishing. He stretched his fingers into the drizzles as if he might capture spring itself. After the sick emptiness outside the Black Gate, he'd wondered if they'd see the turn of season at all, when it came.
The Gate now... It wrapped him in the memory of Frodo's free and unexpected laugh – when Sam spoke that silly verse of the oliphaunt – right there, under the Enemy's own walls.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South
He turned about slow, though a fretful notion wanted to wheel him round and make him reach for the sword-grip, too. From a mere pace away, Faramir watched with a look as said, why aren't you tending to your master?
Sam drew himself upright. It didn't take Captain Faramir reminding him of his place among all these proud Men – and his own Mr. Frodo matching them in word and bearing, as fair as any.
But then Faramir came to stand beside him and asked, in a kind voice, "Do you fear for your safety still?"
Startled, Sam shook his head. "It's your own bed that my master sleeps in."
"I have no need for it this night."
Sam tipped his head to catch a glance of the Man's face, past the dusty leather of his jerkin. "You do look tired, sir, if you don't mind me saying so."
Faramir clasped a hand over his elbow, rubbing at a worn spot on his sleeve, and looked to the water. "That is a weariness sleep will not cure, for our enemies are untiring. Even as we speak, war storms these lands. Gondor has not yet seen its worst."
Aye, that may be so, but I warrant you have,
Sam thought. There'd been such a strain in Faramir's voice when he spoke of his waking dream and Boromir, taken seawards in one of the Elven boats.
"What strength and hope we once held is slipping through our fingers." Faramir's tone dropped, mingling with the rush of water. "Even the grief of our losses, even that." He turned sideways again to meet Sam's eyes, and his own were very clear in the dim. "I shall be truthful with you. It is the errand appointed to your master that weighs upon me tonight."
"He's stronger'n he looks, sir. If you could've seen him..." Sam swallowed against a thick and troubled rush wanting to claim his voice.
"I doubt it not." Faramir closed a hand on his shoulder, and Sam paused in his breathing. He could feel each of the Man's long fingers sink in like a caution. "Let not your grief become your only counsel."
"I wouldn't," Sam answered, as steadfast as he could, "no more than I'd take a rainfall for aught but harm and ill, to put it plain."
Faramir's smile passed quick as the glimpse of a bird, high in the sky. "May my rash judgement of your wit be forgiven." He withdrew his hand, but his gaze lingered on Sam with pondering intent. "The rhyme that troubled my dreams spoke of one Halfling, yet your master named you both in answer to this riddle."[*]
"Aye, that he did." Sam shifted under the keen look. "But my master's bound to the burden and the pains of it, and what little I can do for him won't mend it none." He'd scarce finished when he wished he could catch the words back and stem their sour taste behind his teeth.
Faramir shook his head. "There is an old pledge still spoken in the North when the knights of the Mark ride into battle:
"Stand brother to brother,
in bonds of bone and fast of flesh;
swift as steel falls the night,
but in blood given for your blood's own
wells the seeded life."
Blunt silence closed about Sam like armour. He breathed out slow, thankful when the quiet eased with the spatter of water on stone, the faint iron clinks at their back. "Grim words, sir," he said finally, "and grand, but none too hopeful-sounding."
"Grim they may be, but these words seem more fitting now than the subtler verses wrought by Gondor's poets," Faramir returned. "Peril will either break the bonds once forged, or temper them to greater endurance, and thus one may become two, and two one – is that not so?"
A startled warmth washed up Sam's face. It seemed that those mild grey eyes could pierce to the bottom of his mind, stirring the most secret thoughts to a fluster. "We've got no such rhymes in the Shire, nor the custom for them," he murmured. "And... well, there's such matters as don't need words, if you understand me."
"I do indeed." Though it didn't touch his mouth again, the hint of a smile passed through Faramir's eyes.
Sam bowed. "I'll go to him now."
He spared a last glance for the waterfall and took another breath of the good air, wishing only that he could gather all the green out there in his hands and carry it back to Mr. Frodo, to spread on his skin.
As he turned to the back of the cave, a dim flicker showed through the curtain. Sam hurried across and slipped inside, all abustle with unease. On a stone outcropping above the bed burned a small earthenware lamp. Frodo was sitting up, the blanket dropped in a thick ruffle to his waist.
"Where were you, Sam?" he asked, and his face seemed blank of expression.
"Not far, Mr. Frodo. I just..." Sam shook his head; there weren't any call to waste time on such trifles. "Won't you lie back and sleep? You've not had more than an hour's rest."
But Frodo shook his head. "Not yet." He paused again, as if tracing some puzzling question or a dream, perhaps. "I think – I think I should like to wash."
Sam cast a glance about. On a stool in the corner, a basin full of heated water had been placed for their comfort. He'd made use of it earlier, as quick and quiet as he could, while Frodo lay asleep. "Let me fetch some fresh–"
"It will do," Frodo stopped him. The blanket rustled over the pelts on the bed as he let himself down to the floor. A cramped stiffness slowed his movements, as though he'd been sitting up for a while, getting chilled by the stones' damp breath. He glanced down thoughtful at his chest before raising his hands to the shirt-buttons.
Sam turned away fast to bring the basin and the unused wash-cloth. "Still warm enough, I reckon," he muttered, after dipping his fingers in the water. "If you'll let me–"
He faltered at a touch to his arm, so soft and swiftly gone, it might have been a brush of air.
"Yes." As Frodo moved nearer, the lamp's small flame made a ripple over the side of his face and his bare chest, pooling a drop of bronze in the hollow of his throat. Fierce gold stung below, and only a thumb's length from it lay the lifeless white knot, high on his chest.
And too near his heart, too.
Sam wrung out the wash-cloth, but now he didn't know where to set his eyes, between the Ring and the scar and the remembrance of his own touching – "Let's start with your back, sir," he murmured. "That's where you must feel the most sore."
Frodo turned without a word. The lamp eased a gentler glow on his skin, a smooth, bright stretch between his breeches and his curls and the shadows all about.
Sam ran the cloth over his shoulders, dabbing gently at first, then setting to work with firmer strokes. He could feel Frodo straighten and press back into his touch, as if to assure that he were steady on his feet.
"That's very pleasant," Frodo said over his shoulder. "Better than a hot bath, though I can't say that I even recall..."
"Oh, there's no compare." Sam rubbed the cloth in long sweeps down his spine and up again, pleased enough that his hand carried on steadier than his voice. "Once we're back in places where folk take baths, you'll see." When Frodo moved his arm out of the way, the lamp-glow etched the bent shadow of a rib where there shouldn't be none.
"I suppose," Frodo agreed, too slow to be a reassurance.
Sam clamped his teeth down on his lip, no more than a sting next to the scald in his breast. His idle chatter came to naught but anguish for the both of them. As if he'd forgotten Mr. Frodo's own words, not an hour since: I must find the Mountain of Fire and cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. I do not think I shall ever get there.
Between the sound of their breathing and the trickling of the water each time Sam rinsed the cloth, a watchful silence stretched and widened, 'less it were but his own fancy. And that might well be, for he couldn't seem to curb what all rose inside him, tangling ragged and sharp in his chest, stabbing hot in his eyes with every swipe of the wash-cloth over Frodo's back. Here, where the shoulder blade curved out a bit as if to meet his hand. There, at the small of his back, above the bumps of bone that Sam's fingers knew like a hold long kept, for dear life. Too close to the skin they lay, and too little of the healthy padding lingered at Frodo's waist.
Sam bit his lip somewhat harder. He reached for Frodo's arm, lifting it to run the cloth along the underside, from his elbow back up to the patch of dark hair where he swirled it gently till all the clotting of sweat and dust were removed.
"Where did you go while I slept?" Frodo asked suddenly, while Sam tended to his other arm.
"Over to the waterfall, Mr. Frodo, for a breath of fresh air." Sam paused to let the tightness clear from his voice. "It's spring out there, and it's so... so wholesome
just to know it."
"Tell me about it, Sam."
But you saw yourself – only this morning you saw...
Sam wrung out the cloth again with a fierce wrench. Maybe that wasn't what Mr. Frodo were asking.
"It's such a joy and cheer... maybe like you'd feel when you open up a book full of tales you never knew. I reckon I could put names to half the trees, but not more, and some of them give off scents as the finest flowers." He stopped again, for he'd well and truly finished washing Frodo's back now, and should ask him to turn.
"And all the herbs, sir," he went on, reaching over Frodo's shoulder to swab at his chest, "there's some I recognise, though they seem to grow richer and stronger to the taste here, whether it's the soil or the weather nursing them so."
"Yes, I noticed," Frodo said in musing tones. "The herbs in your stew gave it a very distinctive flavour."
"So they did." Sam kept his touch well away from the Ring and chain and slid the cloth lower down Frodo's chest, but it seemed an easier task so long as he spoke. "I'd say it's the sun growing strong so early in the year."
He stood a bit closer to wash the tender flesh from Frodo's stomach down to the waist of his breeches. Matted curls brushed their ends to his face, and at his throat gathered the fine warmth rising from Frodo's skin.
"It would have to be the sun," Frodo answered, sending Sam's thoughts into a shuffle till he'd remembered his last remark. He reached for Frodo's hand, raising it to continue the cleaning from wrist to elbow, but the wash-cloth slipped at Frodo's tug and dropped to the floor, and the reaching became a tangle between their fingers. In a faint glow like embers, Sam saw them linked and locked, fair skin and brown, the bows of Frodo's knuckles shining pale as pearls in a river.
"Thank you, Sam." Such a hush took Frodo's voice, it shrank to a whisper, but hard by his chest Sam felt how his back stiffened. Frodo pressed his fingers tightly before letting them go.
"'Tis nothing, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, through a clutch of tears, glad for the moment's distraction when Frodo turned to plunge his hands into the basin and dash water into his face.
He straightened, wiping his palms on his breeches, but a thin trickle down his chest caught Sam's eye as it slowed just a bit over his waned belly. "Oh, but now I've got naught to dry you with!"
"Here..." Frodo reached for his discarded shirt and dabbed it at his face. "Use this. It will be dry again before morning."
"I'd rather use my own, if you don't mind," Sam answered ere he'd half thought.
"I would–" Frodo tossed the shirt back with a sudden twist of his hand, but then he said nothing more.
Through the curtain's loose weave bled the flickers of a torch as one of the soldiers went past. It turned Frodo's face to a mass of strange lines and angles, fetching wild shadows from his curls that clawed at his face. Sam reached up to brush them back with a shaky hand.
"Why yours, and not mine?" Frodo asked softly, frowning as Sam's touch faltered.
He might say that it wouldn't be proper to use such a good garment as a drying-cloth, but in all truth he longed only to wrap Frodo in himself, in every way that he could. Sam dropped his glance and found it trapped to that filthy bit of gold, so familiar to the tender skin. His own crawled in a rebellious shiver. For all the pretence that he were simply helping his master settle in for the night, as he had of times in Bag End, he'd never known such beauty, or such fright for it, nor the sear that it set to his heart.
"Tell me..." Frodo's fingers reached under his chin and tipped it up firm, reading all what he'd tried to hide. "Do I look so pitiful to you?"
"Oh no!" Sam burst out, and he might have glanced away again for shame, but Frodo's fingers gripped tight on his chin.
"What do you see, that I can't–?" A vein curled dark in Frodo's temple, and he held Sam in a look nigh as stern as when he'd threatened Gollum with the Precious, out there by the Gate. If I were to command you, you'd cast yourself into
"Frodo." A plea or a claim, Sam didn't know what, only that it took all his breath. You're fair as daybreak, it hurts to look at you, and it hurts not to
"I ask too much of you, I know it, Sam, but..." A long breath drained from Frodo's chest, his hand fell away, and he stood there straight and lonely, in the dawn of his skin. "Will you come to me?"
"But I'm here!" With his own choked protest still in his ears, Sam knew suddenly what he meant, or thought he did. When he stepped up closer, he could see the goosebumps and the wet glitters stirring on Frodo's chest. Sam caught a single drop with his fingertip, shivering just there, beside the scar. "You can ask all you wish, and I'd mean for the sky to fall if I'm not there answering."
No-one ever called his name in such a tone, soft as a half-slipped dream, and firm with such faith as he'd yet to earn. "I'd only wish for you to ask more," he added, "and be dearly glad of it."
When Frodo bent his head, all Sam could see was the twitch at the corners of his mouth, but then he set a hand on the first button of Sam's shirt. "Dry me with your skin."
Sam breathed in, and couldn't seem to breathe aught but silence, or manage more than a nod. In the mute twilight shimmered the poor lamp, and its light pricked through air like glass.
Frodo loosed each one of Sam's buttons with careful patience. Through the coarse-worn linen, every brush of his fingers quickened sheer amazement, and it held Sam still as stone till Frodo tugged the shirt down his arms, letting it fall in a heap. His thumbs stroked lightly over the bruising on Sam's shoulders where the pack straps had wedged their tracks. Sam meant to say it weren't cause for worry, or meant to shrug perhaps, but he was enclosed left and right in the clasp of Frodo's hands, and in the middle, Frodo's breathing broke to fall with the softest caress on Sam's shoulder. His mouth raised a burning from the raw spot as no chafing weight ever could.
"Remember this," Frodo murmured between the kisses he trailed in an awry line down to Sam's collarbone. "And this."
Sam's senses spun nigh dizzy at each touch, and it took him a moment and another ere he could lift his arms and close them round Frodo's back – cool and smooth and unknown as a first drift of snow – but Frodo leaned to the quick stumbling of his heart. Close against him, with a lithe shift and a rustle, into a new learning of each other's skin.
"What a gift this is." Frodo's face came to rest against his shoulder. "I didn't dare to hope..."
Sam drew breath past a sudden chill, for the hard shape of gold pressed up against his breastbone, and its weight caught his stomach in a cold lump. Every inch of him wanted it gone, gone and dropped into the deepest pit as could be found – and if only it would do less harm, kept between them like this. He locked his arms round Frodo's back, cradling the shivers that ran from the prickling wet on Frodo's chest to his own – and the Ring couldn't stop none of it, nor the heartbeats rising swift and strong to take up every bit of space, inside and out.
"Don't never leave me," he whispered against the dark curls.
Frodo pulled away to look at him, his fingers clutched to a fist over Sam's back. "Are you still afraid of that?" Such a question didn't need answering, Sam could tell. The lamp dipped a shadow over Frodo's eyes. "Sam, please try to understand. What I would wish for, and what you–"
"'Tis the same, Mr. Frodo." Sam splayed his fingers over the cool damp on Frodo's back, gathering it up in a slow, uneven stroke. "And if I might – I'd want for you to know, as sure as daylight."
"Forgive me. I ought to trust..." Frodo bit his lip, but his hand opened and his grip eased a little. "You carry so much for me already. All the fear, all the grief that I cannot allow myself. I can't be afraid for myself."
Sam shook his head, though his thoughts staggered to catch all the meaning in that, mired in sore and seething regret. "I'd carry more if you'd let me, if–"
Frodo touched his mouth with a fingertip and shook his head in turn, sealing the quiet anew.
If I could.
Sam reached a hand up to the nape of his neck, where the downy damp tickled his palm like a secret only his touch could recover. With a slight shifting of his shoulders, Frodo leaned near, and a quiver rushed his breath against Sam's mouth. Halting, waiting, in a hope as fleet as the glow from that swimming wick, captured between blinks in flaming splinters.
Sam bent closer, into the path Frodo's hands drew up his back. What brushed his lips might have been a gust of flame, a quick and weightless welcome he could barely believe, but he couldn't stop himself neither.
The softness of Frodo's mouth under his own gave a way and haven to his breath. Softer than velvet, easing back from the smooth ridge of teeth – Sam's eyes closed as fast as his heartbeat scrambled to well in his throat. His chest and arms warmed everywhere with Frodo's skin drying against his own, and memories leapt like needles in all his veins. Of the only time they'd held so close, of Frodo's touch seeking his skin as shelter from the wind and the rocks, from a long night's confounded wandering. His hands moved where the last dribs of dampness were melting aside, less from the touching than the blood's warming surge, and the joining of their mouths no more than the crest of it, only the brightest point in a sparking flurry. It seized his breath and filled him anew, this open caress of Frodo's lips and tongue to his own, the inside of his mouth still spiced warm with wine and herbs.
Frodo tipped his head back, and beneath the rise of a quick breath, Sam felt a soft heat uncurl as could fast grow to be blinding. A helpless sound murmured from him, stirred into the flicker of Frodo's lashes against his cheek. Sam caught him closer about the waist and leaned into the kiss, his fingers tangling into thick curls as Frodo tightened the grasp on his shoulders. They were wound together like vines, in a soft sway and bend, and all the air between the bare rock and the curtain seemed to reel about them.
At the close of it, there was a short, wrenching gasp, and Frodo's questioning glance, the strong grip of his fingers. "Lie with me, Sam."
His own hands were slow to release, but Frodo's fingertips took a quick road from the centre of his chest and sent a shiver skittering down, in the wake of that tender searching, till it caught on a sharp jolt.
Sam gasped at the trembling glimpse of a smile, the new shadow of colour in Frodo's cheeks when his hand settled on the front of Sam's breeches. Cupped him so light and curious that he swayed forward without meaning to. The same heat brushed his hip, but Frodo's touch didn't linger and went to the fastenings instead, undoing them on either side.
A whisper curled below Sam's throat and fled past. "Let me give you this."
Tugged down Sam's hips, his breeches rumpled and tangled about his knees while Frodo was quick to take off his own trousers in a flight of breath and fingers. Then he stood there waiting, offering in a kind of stillness that robbed Sam of all thought – that, and the smile starting only in Frodo's eyes, like a memory of stepping out into the garden for a first glimpse of the sun. Sam found his sense finally, and kicked the crumpled breeches off his ankles.
In all his life, he'd never left his clothes strewn about the floor, where the night's chill would leave them clammy and stiff, but Frodo had turned to climb up on the bed, and now he was holding the blanket up for Sam. The lamp's shine glazed his arm and shoulder in polished copper. Sam could nigh feel that vivid sheen crawl on his own chest as he hefted himself up, or perhaps it was the keen attention in Frodo's eyes, setting his skin alight.
With a shaky breath, Sam lay down beside him, amid the shifting layers of soft pelts and the large blanket's folds, tucked into the curve of Frodo's arm over his middle. A haze of warmth closed its blessing about him, and it was enough only to fill his chest of air –
There was such startled relief in Frodo's voice that a gasp burst from Sam's throat. He leaned up and over, to trace Frodo's cheek with his lips, down the edge of his jaw and past that, to the soft hollow under his ear, to cover as much of him in the clumsy caressing as he could.
A long breath shivered against his throat. Frodo sagged into the bedding, tired out from the day's twists and turns.
"You did ought to rest." Sam stroked a hand down his arm, breathless and thankful for every moment, every span of skin that was warm and whole.
"I am weary only of... this rent within myself. With my left hand I would reach for you, and with my right–" Frodo stopped himself with a flick of his fingers. "You must be tired yourself."
"Not too tired to watch over you, Mr. Frodo." Sam cradled his face between both hands, cupping that treasure of a moment's calm, the cloudless dark in Frodo's eyes. Just to look on you, when there's time to look and not worry what might lurk in the shadow, or what mischief that Gollum's up to.
Bronze shimmers crept along Frodo's temple and brow, bolder and more solid than the secret glow that could line his face in spun silver and split a heart in two. I saw it this morning,
Sam almost said, or thought I did, and there's naught more fair or hopeful.
"All the choices that I made," Frodo said softly, "and yet that will not stop me from wondering what could have been, if we–" He broke off again, raising his hand from Sam's side to his shoulder where his fingers drew circling, restless patterns. "It is quite useless."
And it might be, by all accounts of good sense, but Sam couldn't answer for the stumbling heartbeats that followed Frodo's touch and the stubborn wishing – "You shouldn't burden yourself with wondering over things as can't be changed," he said thickly, setting his hands on Frodo's shoulders.
Frodo tilted his head up to brush his lips over Sam's chin and paused, his eyes astray in the dim. "The spring out there... I barely know it any more, Sam. If I should falter before..."
He'd said it twice now, twice in a day, naming the doubt and fear as must be rising to the height of a mountain. The words grappled cold in Sam's chest and clutched with a hopeless misery that he had to fight, no matter how.
"You're strong in the way of a birch..." He gathered his breath, as much as he could, and firmed his clasp of Frodo's shoulders. "You know how they are, slender and always stretching as if they'd dance with the wind, and the fairy look of their bark in the moonshine..." Frodo's eyes were fixed on him, and Sam lost himself to the watchful silence, for it seemed to sink inside him and seek out a place where naught else would ever reach. "But still," he went on, "they've got a clear sense in them to grow roots in any ground, even where oaks won't thrive, and other trees that seem much hardier to look on."
Frodo said nothing, but his arm drew tight over Sam's waist, his breath adrift with a sound that might be Sam's name or just a plea to hold close.
"'Tis true." A tremor unwound from Sam's middle as he lowered his mouth to the parted lips, tasting their shape with his tongue, from the moist corner to the curve and bow, to the smooth fold between lip and teeth. A soft moan called him closer, into a mingling of breath and heedless yearning, till Frodo's hand gripped into his curls.
"We have so little time..." His voice was hoarse, scarce above a whisper, "and I'm starving, I'm starved for – for everything, Sam."
Such a desperate chill flew all over his skin, Sam found naught to say but, "This is now
But Frodo took the rest of his answer into his mouth and clung fast as if he'd drink the whole of a life from Sam's lips, or give it over to him. Sam's throat burned as it might from a swallow of starshine, and a reckless heat rose anew, so quick and hungry it struck as a lightning jab that slivered his breath. All the while Frodo pulled him near, till Sam lay half-tangled across him, as Frodo had lain when they were –
The memory roused like a claim, with a need sprung from the very root. There'd been awkward tangles of clothing between them and a bed of pebbles underneath, not this strange softness, but it mattered none to the joy and ache crowding Sam's chest, or the longing to answer with every bit of himself, with more than he had or could ever hope to give. His heart hammered up in his throat at such a boundless beauty skimming all over him, this living marvel of Frodo's skin sliding soft between thigh and hip, against his belly, this restless searching of Frodo's fingers, gripping his waist, running over the small of his back and down in a needful haste.
Sam bent his head into the curve of Frodo's neck and stifled a moan there, for more than a murmur of sound would surely be heard outside. Under his mouth hurried pulsebeats like words running too wild to be understood, near drowned in the rush that brought a hard gasp from Frodo's lips. Sam opened his mouth to them and swirled his tongue over the heated skin, to nurture the soft tunes of pleasure from a body grown lean with hardship, the trembling starts that flew to call up their like from his own flesh. A ragged moan stirred his curls as Frodo turned his face, turned closer into him, his thigh angled up and sliding till their ankles locked. He buried another thick breath in Sam's hair, and Sam could feel him rub against his hip, taut and full. A vast hollow bloomed inside himself, needing to widen and merge –
"Sam..." Frodo tugged his head up.
He found shaky support on an elbow and looked down into his master's face, where the lamp-shine had kindled a fever of burning bronze and cutting shadow. As if he'd dissolve in the light, Sam thought. Hard as he tried not to heed it, the fear drove between the aching pull in his body and the anguished squeeze of his heart – and only this touch, only Frodo's hand reaching to lie over his breast could mend it, and the frank look in his eyes, the one word –
He moved till his body covered Frodo like a blanket, and then he couldn't move at all, cradled tight between Frodo's thighs, clasped to a heartbeat that surged and broke. Frodo took a cry off his lips and wrapped it into his own breathing, both hands gliding strong and sure down the length of Sam's back.
," he gasped between snatched, uneven kisses, the mere trembling of a wish, but it opened wide from the pit of his stomach and stuttered in the heartbeats that graved themselves on Frodo's chest. Frodo pulled his head down once more and pressed up against him, urging for a match that took all of Sam's breath and wound it into a silent music. Between the weaving of their tongues, the fretful surge and press of hips, a rhythm swelled slow and tight like a staunched river, and tighter still. Shivers slid down Sam's arms and up his legs, as like he were folded in the naked light on Frodo's skin.
He kept his eyes open – he wouldn't lose a moment of this – open to the glistening trail of sweat along the line of Frodo's throat where he set his lips, to the breathless flutters just above that spot. Here he could taste the whimpered sounds that fled with each writhing motion, in stings of salt on the skin, and each a gift of its own. But something prickled at the tail of his eye, and it seemed his sight were turned backward, shackled fearful to the glint of gold – or maybe it
Sam reached without thinking and clasped his hand over the thing. No unnatural heat branded his palm as he might have hoped, it felt cool as any bit of metal. Cooler than it ought, in truth, when it rested so close –
"Sam, don't–" It sliced sharp through Frodo's teeth, and he stilled completely, save for the heave and fall of his chest.
"But how–" Sam swallowed to stop himself from stammering witlessly. "How can I..."
Frodo's eyes were shut tight, a tense fold drawn between his brows. Lost for words, for aught but this helpless need, Sam leaned over to press a kiss to his frown, to the corners of Frodo's eyes where a dry trace of salt lingered, and could think nothing save please, please I must
The stillness fell apart then, with Frodo's whisper against his cheek. "As you wish."
He laid one hand to Sam's face and with the other reached down between them, to join them in a single clasp, stroking one desperate pulse to the other till their measure was one, here
With you and for you and if... only... this...
Sam held a groan caged in his breast, but a simpler heat overran him in one fast rise after another, and when he looked up again, Frodo's eyes were on him, dark as a shadow lit from inside. A wildness there, wanting to burst free without knowing a danger in the world.
"Only... you..." And each word a conquest, borne on a sharp breath. "Sam... if I could..."
Sam kissed the fingers cradling his cheek, and a smile touched Frodo's mouth, clear and free as a soaring wind. If Frodo could find this
in his skin, in the promise Sam laid to his lips –
"Master," he breathed, fingers wrapped tight in his curls, "Frodo... you're still – always–" But what he might have said went under in a broken sound when Frodo thrust up hard against him. And everything that always
could be was –
Frodo's hand tightened for a quick, begging stroke, and Sam followed, deeper into the claiming heat that filled him and pushed outward, against a fierce shudder that made a taut arch of Frodo's back. A dreaming joy flamed on his face, for a moment that stretched and thinned like the sun's passing on the horizon, flaring to sink and spend.
What seared in his own limbs seemed a shadow to that brightness, blind and ablaze in its ebbing rush. Maybe he dreamed his name crushed in a gasp to his cheek while spurts of hard breath wrenched from him, but not a sound, not a word when the pounding of his blood rose so strong, strong enough to melt through his skin. No dream had ever torn like this or took so much, so much that he couldn't find his breath or any sense of his limbs, or any thought other than –
"Here... I have you." Frodo wound both arms around his back, and another shiver spilled between their chests, like a fraying thread. Pillowed on a cadence of fitful breathing, Sam fought the sobs as were near choking him, but he had to stop them, had to –
"I know," Frodo murmured, breathless between the damp tangles of Sam's hair and his cheek, "I know, my love."
His hand took a slow, uncertain path up to Sam's shoulder, releasing the rough gasp that stuck crosswise in Sam's throat. He swallowed back the rest and what no amount of wishing could cure, and told himself, here, this, what more do you need to go on, for him...
It took another while till he remembered to move his hand away, off the cloudy gold that cleared too quick, shedding the damp trace of his touch. Shadows hid the bruise underneath where the thing slapped back and forth in the walking, a mere ghost of the true harm it did.
Frodo's fingers scrabbled for it now, slid over the smooth curve, and his eyes squeezed shut tightly. "I... hate it so."
Such a high anguish ripped at his voice, Sam near snatched his hand away, to prise his fingers open and warm them again with a kiss, but he couldn't dare more than – "Frodo..." He brushed his mouth against Frodo's temple.
"Hatred and anger bind me to it, Sam. There is nothing that will not–" His fingers jerked back and closed fast on the chain. "I shouldn't."
What could he say to that? Sam closed his eyes, but that wouldn't help him weed out what grew like thistle and thorn in his own mind. The churning need to know
what passed between Gollum and Mr. Frodo, during those silent moments when the very air seemed to bloat with misgiving.
And what if that was the Ring's doing? Was it nettling these restless questions from him, that constant wondering – but what would it want with
you, Sam Gamgee?
Frodo pulled him back from that fool's maze with a touch to his wrist. "The more I listen to it," he said, "the more I learn. And the more my knowledge grows, the more I lose." Thin lines carved into the corners of his eyes. "You have bound yourself to me as I am bound to the Ring. There is no fairness in this, Sam..."
Sam leaned over and brushed a kiss to each of Frodo's closed lids, breathing in as if he could seal the scent of Frodo's skin on his brow.
"Never mind that, Mr. Frodo," he said when his voice would carry again, "for I've made my choices as much as you have, and there's naught as can change them."
Frodo's hand pressed his so hard, it jarred bones and knuckles together before he let go. It was a grip ending the scant safety such as Frodo could trust himself to, and Sam felt its loss like a strike to the marrow. From the outer cavern, he could hear soft snores, and the measured steps of a Man on watch.
"I'd best get us cleaned up now, sir." There, that had a steady ring as was almost reassuring – and what could he do besides offering small comforts, small shreds of familiar things?
"I suppose..." A hazy unease flickered in Frodo's eyes when they opened again.
"I'll be quick about it," Sam promised.
Cold air poured over his chest as he climbed from the high bed, to gather up their shed clothes and heap them on the blanket. The water in the basin had cooled enough to be chilly, so after dabbing himself down, he warmed the wash-cloth between his palms. Frodo lay with his eyes closed while Sam cleaned him, tracing the soft movement of breath through his belly.
"I reckon we ought to put our clothes back on as well," Sam muttered when he was done. "We don't rightly know when someone will come in to wake us."
"Yes, Sam." Frodo sat up to reach for his garments, slow and wearied now. Sam untangled the shirt sleeves for him, to keep a secret from all other eyes and knowledge, so that it would be their own.
"Do you remember Cerin Amroth, in Lórien?" Frodo asked suddenly. "There are places in the world..."
"Places as seem to be outside of it too," Sam ventured when he trailed off. "There's hope in that, Mr. Frodo."
"Maybe." Frodo's eyes held his for a lonely spell, then he lay back down.
Sam knelt up to blow out the light and fancied he could still feel Frodo's glance on his back till the lamp flickered out, folding them in shadow. The blanket settled over them with a heavy rustle, into the whispers of Frodo's quieter breaths. Through the dark, he reached a hand over Sam's side, easing them close together as if they'd always slept in such a comforting tangle. A gentle hum spread in Sam's chest, but he kept his eyes open, against sleep.
Amid the scents of pitch and damp stone and burnt linseed oil hung the cheerful whiff of spring. Sam breathed in long swallows to plant it as deep as he could.
~ ~ ~
The water fans out to fall in sliced ribbons from every side. Under the full moon, every drop is caught in brilliant white, a dazzling host of thousands leaping down the steep cliff. The sound comes to Frodo in billows – a clashing surge, then silence – measured to the pounding of blood in his temples.
There are moments such as this, that splinter out of time with crystal sharpness. That hang isolated, pierced by a thread that may be sewn through his skin but strains far into darkness.
Frodo steps out further on the ledge than Sam dares, and if the half-guessed motion at his back is not a hand reached out, it must be a muted gasp or the sheer intent. A split impulse that joins the falling drops, brushing him like a touch to wake a thousand others.
The memory is alive under his skin, but it may not last long – not for him, and not for Sam. It can't even be called a gift when everything given is at once taken. Taken and shaped into the very substance that feeds the One.
You keep me alive, Sam. So that I can carry it further to destruction, to my destruction as much as
It fractures cold under his breastbone, freezing his breath before he can catch the truth like the spray on his fingers. Yours.
And pretend not to know, insist that Sam's choices are his own, that this balance they have gained between them also holds them apart. But what breaks them apart is –
Frodo's glance holds a single drop suspended in its fall. Already he can feel it spun out in a thread between himself and Sméagol, oblivious in the pool below. The same unrest. But Frodo cannot call it his own, any more than Sméagol can. He knows the source at least and the battering surge, if not the paths that it carves through his mind.
He climbs down to the bottom where the water rings sharp on stone and greyed strands of moonlight sink across random sights. The slick, pale gleam of a fish's torn belly. The trust in Sméagol's eyes, never quite expected and about to be broken by a greater justice. Frodo stands very still.
All around them, bowstrings quiver in the dark, ready to release a rain of arrows at a flick of the hand. Above, at the back of the rock-shelf, Sam is trapped within the same circle, and Frodo doesn't need to glance up over his shoulder to find him there. His chosen companion. And here, his chosen guide. Betrayal strings them together in their small hopes.
The servant has a claim on the master for service, even service in fear,
Frodo repeats to himself.
All around them, the water falls. Frodo holds out his hand.
~ ~ ~
[*] "Aragorn whom I named is the bearer of the Sword that was Broken," said Frodo. "And we are the Halflings that the rhyme spoke of." (The Two Towers: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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.