Rivendell, September 1419
The wind dives with the foam that shrouds the valley of Rivendell. At its tail hovers a crisp breath of winter, drawn from the Misty Mountains' edge, but all along the dark river range the colours of autumn. The wind rakes eddies through the changeful waters and gusts white froth towards the mellow lights above. Falling leaves dance down the slopes, messengers between the homely fires and the river. But a stealthier movement slips between the trees, hidden in blue and grey and the pale silver of a waning night. The wind fans along the river banks to lie in wait for the travellers, its tail twitching through the foam.
These two move more quietly than all other creatures as they climb to the bottom of the valley, and they take a slow path that wends past many stops. The wind quiets and slides low among the ferns, to find them melted together in the shadow of birch or alder, to cradle the sound of a gasp or a whispered word above the water's voice.
Then the two will move on again, each keeping a firm grasp on the other's hand, while the wind lifts twigs and boughs out of their way. As it lightens towards morning, the night grows restless in the deep, between the spray and the leaves that float on the wind's breath. The travellers follow it down to an alcove of flat, weather-scoured rocks.
Though they sit very still beneath the waterfall, it is a stillness of moments, braced in the clasp of their arms around each other. They have yet to reach their home. The wind slides curious tendrils around their toes that dangle above the water and cools the scarred feet.
The stouter of the two lifts a hand to the stars and the wind fills it with water. More than spray glitters on his cheeks while his companion sings in the old tongue, fine droplets dazzling in his curls. His husky voice strains at some notes as if unaccustomed, almost drowned by the water's clash and surge, but when the melody rings free, it sounds rich and sweet.
Through it runs the strange pull of tides, and the wind carries it up on a swift breeze, so that it soars.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cirith Ungol, 12-15 March 1419
It didn't last longer than a moment. A moment swept away clear from the blind dark as choked every footfall, every rustle of sound, and swallowed it down some awful deep.
Sam backed away from the dead end of the tunnel where there wasn't a crack wide enough to let a rat pass through. Without the stirs of Frodo's breathing, high and taut beside him, he wouldn't have known where to turn. Only the feeble warmth curling into the space between them kept the blackness at bay.
But from it crawled a sound that froze Sam short of his stride, fear prickling numb all over his skin. The dark lay hard about them, swelling with the hiss and rattle of slow breaths and scraping noises along the tunnel wall at their back. Everything drowned within that unseen coming, and then Frodo's breaths were gone, truly gone, as he'd always feared. Sam couldn't make a sound in his throat for the cold burst in his chest.
If only I could see you...
In that moment, he thought he was falling again, down a bottomless blank, but in the falling swirled a spark, gold and green like a far glimpse of the Shire. As if he'd breathed it to flame, it surged and bloomed wide into silver, and then he knew well enough what it was – he'd seen this light on Frodo's face of times, keen and soft all through him.
"Master!" Sam's whisper dropped into the dead gloom. "The Lady's gift! The star-glass!"
More to his left than he'd deemed, Frodo's voice answered him, near and warm and hazed with confusion. His sharp intake of breath spread into the silver that shaped his face out of the dark. Surprise smoothed back from Frodo's brow and left it clear, and none of the dirt-smears could cloud the graceful line running from the soft dip at his temple to the angle of his jaw. His mouth set firm, and his eyes were just as calm, the colour of juniper berries washed in a mild rain.
Sam drank in the sight as the light roused to piercing vigour like the blaze of his wish. Then a white brilliance sprang from Frodo's hand and burst shape and shadow alike into wild splinters. But the slivers settled, louring across the tunnel, each spiked with a hard and hateful intent.
They ran. Whatever the creature were that tried to stare them helpless, it had caught up nigh to their heels when the white flash swung about. Folded in this light, Frodo raised the glass in one hand and Sting in the other, a star descending on those hideous eyes. And they couldn't bear this brightness neither. One by one, like glisters sinking in a murky pool, Sam watched them waver and wink to black. Oh, and if this is the last I ever see
For a moment longer, Frodo stood, lost in his own light, but he spun backward at Sam's call.
When they took off again, a new vigour trickled into Sam's limbs, from one stride to the next. He could hear Frodo's quick breaths beside him, the rhythm of Frodo's steps drumming through his own, and on his right, the hopeful shimmer dashed along with them. It leapt and flickered in flurried grey on the walls, like a crest of lightning-clouds running before nightfall.
They stumbled up the passage where the ground was uneven with bumps of rock and sudden cracks. A faint draught seeped from somewhere ahead, closer and closer, but where the tunnel should have opened, something sticky and solid flung them back.
Sam let an angry shout fly ere he could help it. It scattered into gasps as he hacked his sword at those clinging ropes, but each blow only drove a hard strain up his arm and tossed it back with a hopeless quiver. His breath rasped like a dust-whirl in his chest. Curse that miserable Gollum who'd taken off when they needed a guide worse than ever before, just as he'd suspected all along. But when he turned to look at Frodo, the same fearless will showed on his face.
"Let us see what Sting can do."
The ring of his voice stopped Sam's fretting and blew his senseless anger aside, into the strangest thrill.
"Here, take the star-glass. Do not be afraid." Frodo's hand folded round his own with soft care as he passed the precious thing into Sam's grasp. "Hold it up and watch!"
Damp as they were, Sam's fingers nigh slipped on the fine glass, and for a space he wondered if it might go out, but it burned on steady. His own blood pulsed round its fair shine as he watched Frodo strike at the web, and the ropes parted and spilled loose.
There... A cold wind gushed in and swept the sweat-drenched curls away from Frodo's face. He tossed his head back, and one touch of that free gust brought a smile as clear as day, all else forgotten. It lasted only a moment, but Sam could feel it settle on him, this smile that he'd not seen in so long, till he was hollowed out by the joy of it.
"Come!" Frodo called as he leapt through the mouth of the tunnel. "On! On!"
Sam's heartbeat sprang into a race of furious hammer-blows. The dim crags out there weren't safe, not for a yard's wishing, but all he could think was: Run, my love.
~ ~ ~
He's humming against darkness, though it's a mere scratch of sound, but it carries his breath and keeps it aflight, not steady but going, in and out. He's humming snatches from an old tune that the lasses used to sing on washdays, when sheets would float pale on the Bywater pool, to billow and sink. The tune's broken now, for the sounds rasp in his dry throat and echo the notes in thready whimpers. One by one, the words stumble and drag from the back of his head, and rise up like bubbles popping in muddy water.
Long have I sought thee,
Laddie, lie near me...
But when he recollects that much, he has to stop humming, and he's plunged back into loneliness, so fast the dark near closes to black again. His knees are caught so tight to his chest that it hurts, but it won't stop the cold from eating its way out through his skin. He has to get up now and leave – but how oft has he thought that and lost himself in the thinking?
He looks at the hand that he's clutching, pale beneath the dirt and soft only at the heart of the palm. But cold, so cold, seized in a winter smothering all the world – and him, too, from inside. It's come burrowing under his skin and lulls him in endless shivers, one after the next, till his blood and heartbeat are all fraught with frost.
It takes much willing and a yank to lift his head. To make his eyes crawl the short, thornful space from the hand he holds to Frodo's chest, to his bared throat and his face. Still no flicker of air above his mouth, not a hitch in his breast. How many hours have gone by?
There's a point in crying where each sob turns a knife in the chest, and each breath bears down hard as a rock. It's working down, down, blunt and relentless; his legs have turned cold and unfeeling as stone already. If he can't gain his feet now, he won't never leave, and he must, or he won't deserve to lie near.
Sam stumbles up, and a sudden gasp cracks the ice in his chest, and for a spell he can't breathe at all. Not fear now, it's a different kind of cold as he lays Frodo's hand back against his chest. A last chill trickles out from his own fingers, to pool thick as blood and drain him dry.
Here's where the crying stops then, for the end's come, hovering like a breath, and it won't matter none when it's going to fall, just that it will, for there's naught else left in the world. Thoughts shift like breezes above the squeeze and roll of fogs, the aching through every limb. But the thread between the two's grown thinner and thinner. He'll stay alive in this manner, afloat in the knowing of what he's got to do, dragging his limbs behind. Just long enough to make it to the Fire and back again. And then the thread will snap and he'll crash back into bones of pain and quivers of crying, and the sky will come falling down after all when he lays himself beside Frodo, stilling a breath on those quiet lips, to let the life go out of him too, as it ought. That's all as he needs to know.
Once he unbends, there's a new weight hung round his neck, and the cold links slide raw against his skin, like a chain rattling off the winch to hurl a bucket to the bottom of the well. He sets his feet apart and squares his shoulders to it. The reeling weight won't settle, but it swings inward as like it's going to delve through the numbness in his breast and make a place there. Sam's fingers wander by rote, from pack straps to sword-hilt to the brooch holding his cloak, and when his hand drops back empty to his chest, it means that he's ready. But he can't leave Frodo in the dark like this, even now, not when there's a moment's light to be had and a last memory clothed in it.
This light, whiter than snow and unbroken, pouring through fine glass, through his dirty, shaking fingers, to cradle Frodo's face in the softest of dreams. Mayhap it's another wrong choice that he's made, raising the star-glass like this when even the stones gloat all about, but its shine runs so clear and seals the promise between them. Another snarled sound splinters out of Sam's throat as he closes his eyes on the sight and drowns the light in folds of threadbare cloth. His only wish is hooked in deep, its twine strung through every part of his body, catching him to this place in a last silver thread.
He can turn now, and set one foot in front of the other. There's an old rut in the ground, carving deeper among the rocks to swallow him up like a trough. He's asway in the walking, out of his balance between one weight and the other, but he's going forward along the bounds of the Black Land. The tune drifts through his mind again, scattered as leaves trundling on a river, though he won't never sing again, not when –
The Ring scoops up what rattles in his chest like a bucket hauling water. It won't stop him from plodding along, leastways. While the trough narrows and cliffs rise on either side, Sam walks with fitful memories as lurch through his head, like rags flapping in the wind, blown off somebody else's life. The peels of days aswim in a bleared and scalding glare, of idle tales as would catch his fancy. He has an odd notion that he's trailing those remembrances in his footsteps, and they're sloughed off him so he can bear this weight round his neck. Up ahead hangs a ruddy glint, in the eye of the tower. His feet have brought him to a run of worn steps, under that dark horn. Shadows slide about him as he climbs the stairs, but with each step a no winds up tighter inside him, till he's pulled to it on a short leash, dizzied and breathless.
He clamps his hand over the star-glass, till its edge bites his skin and sinks the hasp of another tale into his mind. He thinks of Beren holding the moon-jewel in his fist, still holding on fast even when the wolf bit off the hand entire, and the light burned on to scald a hole through the wolf's belly, like a wish.
If only I could have... my one wish...
When Sam turns near the top of the stairs, a damp waft scrabbles at the back of his neck, but in the cloud of tears lies a lonely shimmer. To go back and find him.
Around his neck, the chain seems strung out to its grating limit, ready to snap his spine if he takes a single step further, but that isn't what holds him here. There's only one place for him in the world, and the truth of it balls so tight in his breast that everything falls to silence, squeezed about him in the crush of stone. And then, through the mute charcoal and black bursts the harsh sound of voices.
~ ~ ~
Deep marks crossed the stone – two, one and three
– broke off between breaths, and took up again below. Thinner than before – here and alone
– above a black band wedged into the cold and damp.
"Sam...?" That whisper again, escaping into dead air that never changed, never stirred. Between the jagged scores and the black lay a hand, his hand, clutched close on nothing. Under his cheek, a sharp bump in the stone pressed up, a mutinous part of the wall that guarded nothing, always... nothing. What had made those scratches in the wall?
Roses, roses and thorns
... He shook his head slowly. The watery sound of his breaths rolled against the stone, hollow in the depth of this well. With it came the smells – sour, bitter and rot – and a chill bled from high above him. But at his back crowded – not air nor shadow, the only shadow gathered here by the wall, a dank wedge of quiet. And if he turned –
... The hand moved again, from its empty hold over his chest to the wall, to follow the scars in the stone and count them to nothing. Stone piled on stone, endless and unmoving. If he could stop his breathing, all would be silence, here in the dwindling black between the wall and the floor. But his stomach twisted at the smells. Too much had been poured into him, he remembered – bitter down his throat to churn in his stomach, and frozen at the back of his neck, spilling weakness between his shoulder blades.
He swayed with the flush of it, to and fro, into cooling darkness. His hand slithered down and fell on his leg, a pale span of skin where the shadow gave no cover. But no, that couldn't be, his skin had been stripped off, hadn't they told him so? They know their job in Lugbúrz, little maggot, they'll take your hide off in ribbons, do you hear?
He kept his breath in. Sounds would follow the smells, and more would follow the sounds from the space that lay behind him, but he could stave them in the cage of his chest. To stay unbreathing among these rough blocks, and press his thumb against a crack, here. But these stones trapped noise, caught it and spilled it – a screech like bursting iron – and his breath rushed out, too loud and sobbing, a mad ringing in his ears that would bring –
Roses and thorns, run while I count...
Coarse rags brushed his forehead. With the smells came the sounds – trampling now, and bellows and shrieks below – till the space at his back crawled and surged with dreams. There were voices in the stones, welling from the deep.
Roses and thorns
won't hide you a bit
the first to turn
falls in the pit.
The other children spun in a circle about him, crowing, shrieking with glee, but there were gaps in their smiles, between their teeth, and their eyes –
It didn't seem like a memory he could own, but he could see their teeth very clearly, sharp and brown and broken. He could hear the breaths that wheezed through the gaps and ruffled his hair, their hoarse, ragged voices. The noise staggered in tighter circles through his chest, borne on drumbeats of blood and a warm, gagging smell.
I have no skin.
They'd told him so, among questions hurtled like gravel, grinding their way inward with the glint of claws and knives. The heaves of his stomach couldn't bring up anything but thin, wretched gasps. What had been poured into him wasn't enough to fill –
Surge and fall, from one blackness to another. But what carried him up brought him to reeling clarity, splinter-sharp in his mind, and thrust forward into questions. If Sam isn't with me then he's'
Two, one and three, run while I count...
The scratches slid away under his fingers. Nothing held the stones together, and now there was only silence. It gorged the space behind him, rushed him in cold, relentless waves that sluiced over his back, one after the other – here and alone and alone and here
– till it crept under his hair and he pushed his hand into it, pulled tight into a fist, as if it could be torn out.
Only the wall could ward off the silence now. He laid his face against it, breathing the stone, the cool mindless damp. Without skin to stop him he could melt into it and hear what the stones themselves might be dreaming.
A faint hum trembled through them. A thread of singing clasped them together, like a fevered memory of the place where his own voice lay buried. But that wasn't what answered him now.
A hum rose out of that well, a voice, and the wall dreamed up a song, dreamed –
A steady rising warmed the rock under his cheek. Note by note, the song strung itself together, through scratch and ridge and blunt edge. What he croaked in answer was wordless, feeble against the heavy creak of wood on stone, and it brought –
"Keep your trap shut, see?" Through the space at his back lashed a shout, and it struck him with fire across the side.
He angled his arm sharply over his head and could smell the fear there, stronger than before. A hot flash traced the blow from hip to shoulder and seared into his head. Drunken sounds stumbled about him, rose to another cry that faltered over his spine.
He could not give in to this dream, let it claim him away from his shred of shelter by the stones, but there was a scent now –
– of grass, grass freshly mown and drying in the sun, a dream he could sink into, till he felt the earth thrum warm underneath. Held and cradled to this heartbeat, he could dare –
"Sam..." Murky light inched through his lids, blurred as the words that staggered from the weight of his tongue, "...but the other dreams were horrible."
"You're not dreaming at all, Master." A shudder heaved through Sam's chest, against the side of Frodo's face, ragged with tears and – "It's real. It's me. I've come."
Real: a wet streak over Sam's cheek that his fingers traced, warm as blood in the gleam from the chamber's low roof.
"I can... hardly believe it." The ruddy light spread smoothly on Sam's face, hiding the tender lines Frodo longed to see. Fine traces of laughter, of squinting at moody weather or a storm-burned sunset. His hand dropped to Sam's shoulder, clutching at the strength that held him like the earth itself. "Then... I wasn't dreaming after all when I heard that singing down below, and I tried to answer? Was it you?"
A small, crooked smile slipped through the tears and stirred them to glitters on Sam's cheeks. Even this dirty glow spilled rich and pure around him. Frodo filled his chest with it, with the first free measure of air.
"I'd given up hope, almost," Sam whispered. "I couldn't find you."
"Well, you have now, Sam... dear Sam." Frodo couldn't seem to clear the slur from his voice, but it didn't matter. He nestled his fingers into the seams of Sam's shirt, tugged clumsily and met a hand no steadier than his own. With a quick wrench, Sam unfastened a button for him, right there, over the middle of his chest. Frodo pushed his hand inside to press it against Sam's skin, to the rise of uneven breaths, the heartbeats that slowed out of a whirl.
A long sigh eased him into twilight, but he could hear it and touch it still, the stumbling notes of a song gathered under his fingers, wound through the gentle rhythm at the side of Sam's throat. It spread out and out in widening ripples, a hum that passed unhindered through the stones, releasing them from their laboured silence. Out, and in, towards this grain of brightness, travelling along the path of Sam's hand, from his elbow up his arm to his shoulder, and he wanted this touch to fall on him everywhere, that and nothing else – so close now, yes, clothing him in skin, in glistening waves that reached farther and farther – till a damp caress brushed his forehead.
"Wake up, Mr. Frodo."
Sam's voice was rough with a joy that roused shivers through him, and he blinked against the dimness that surrounded them. The chamber seemed shrunken and distant at the same time, fogged in uncertain red while he fumbled through the memories to tell Sam "–they were standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I'll never forget their claws and eyes."
From rigid silence, a huff of breath pushed through Sam's teeth. "You won't, if you talk about them, Mr. Frodo." His voice lowered to a gruff reassurance, but his grip on Frodo's side eased only after a long moment. "And if we don't want to see them again, the sooner we get going the better." His hands stroked up slowly, a steadying force against Frodo's back. "Can you walk?"
When Sam released his elbow, Frodo swayed for a moment, poised to reach back. But the crowded twilight yielded before him, opened – "Yes, I–I can walk..."
The air slipped in faint currents against him, and he felt adrift with it as if he'd shed all weight between those last moments in the pass and waking. Could this be–? The light-headed ease of pacing back and forth while he spoke of the past hours, while Sam's answers surrounded him with a familiar calm. In the wake of Sam's voice spread the leisure of a sunny afternoon in the Shire, filled with the swish of scythes that dipped through the grass.
"Now what's to be done?" Sam asked. "You can't go walking in the Black Land in naught but your skin, Mr. Frodo."
But my skin...
He stared into the shadow wedge by the wall, and it seemed like the mouth of a pit where he would have flung himself. But now he knew why – why there could be no refuge among these stones, these walls, and the silence reared to crush –
"They've taken everything. Do you understand? Everything!" He crouched where the pit gaped suddenly wide, where the black had swallowed a scream, a hope – we can't escape, we will never
– "Only Elves can escape, far away over the Sea. If even that is wide enough..."
A dizzy pounding swelled into his temples, filled his ears with a drowning rush. There was no escape save in this thin ooze of shadow where nothing was remembered, nowhere to turn but –
"I took it, Mr. Frodo, begging your pardon," a pleading voice pulled at him, and pulled him back. "And I've kept it safe. It's round my neck now, and a terrible burden it is, too."
No, not you, not
– He rose and turned back so quickly that the room swam in red and grey slivers before his eyes. "Give it to me. Give it to me at once! You can't have it!"
He fought for breath through his own stammering. Safe? How could it be? All the shadows rankled with memory, with claws and broken teeth and thorns to pry skin loose from –
"...I could share it with you, maybe?"
A sharp glint stabbed towards him, thrust out from a soiled hand. Another "no!"
rushed through his teeth, the hiss of a blinding fear – you can't have it – it can't have you
A chill rippled between his fingers and dazzled his sight. From the greedy clasp of the chain swung a false light that he buried in his fist, though the glare and ache in his temples remained. Betrayed, again, as he should have known. Sickened, panting breaths shook him as he looked down at Sam, not the misformed threat sprung from stone and shadow. No, mine – please, you can't touch – you can't take...
"What have I done?" Was it his voice, this remote wheeze of sound? In the dull, yielding glow, he could suddenly see everything. Sam knelt on the floor, black spatters on the front of his shirt and jacket, dusty white daubed across his cloak, his hands clenched into a tight knot before him. Pale tracks streaked the grime on his face, and the cumbrous pack was still strapped to shoulders that must be aching.
"Forgive me..." Frodo searched the familiar face – this face, stripped to the stark grip of pain, "...after all you have done." But this empty patter couldn't span the gap between them, and how could he move with this thing in his hand? How could he dare – "I must carry the burden to the end," Frodo said, shaping words that jarred like stones in his chest. Behind his breastbone rose a keening that threatened every draw of breath. "It can't be altered. You can't come between me and this doom."
"That's all right, Mr. Frodo, I understand." Sam glanced to the floor and didn't meet his eyes again as he climbed heavily to his feet. "But I can still help, can't I? I've got to get you out of here."
He cast about, his voice filling the chamber as it had before, chasing the dead quiet away with practical concerns for clothes and gear. Offering comforts Frodo longed to pull to him like tatters of clothing, though they wouldn't cover even the worst of his needs. In Sam's voice he heard the dragging weariness, the bite of loss, but at least Sam was free, free of this burden, the only thing that seemed unbreakable. Frodo turned his face to the wall. How thin the chain felt in his hands, and how deceptively tranquil.
"If we go together, we'd best match," Sam said at his back. "Now put this round you."
The grey cloak slipped with a rustle around Frodo's shoulders and settled light as a breeze on his skin. An endless breeze rippling the grass, he thought, light, sound and scent as clear as the trembling of Sam's hands through the cloth. A star between his fingers. The leaf-shaped brooch shimmered faintly, and Frodo could still smell the grass when Sam's touch fell away. The Shire. How long had it been since he last remembered so clearly, the spread of fields and meadows, and the drone of bees lacing the mid-day air?
He breathed, full and deep, steadied to the slow turning of one moment. When he found Sam's eyes again, Sam stood by the trap-door, Sting in his hand, his shoulders set hard.
"You stay here. Walk about a bit and ease your legs. I shan't be long." Sam ducked his head, but his glance didn't falter again.
When the trap-door fell shut after him, Frodo looked down at the chain wound around his fingers. He would wait here for Sam and remember the song that still hummed faintly on his skin. And then they would leave this prison.
~ ~ ~
The stairs wound down and down and down in the dark. Every step on these worn stones could end in a headlong fall, and any one daring them had best keep their wits about them, and their eyes skinned. Sam wasn't too certain of either by the time he lost count of the steps again. Some of the torches still hissed in their brackets, tearing patches out of the pitch black, though that were hindrance as much as help. Giddy sparks would dance in the air for moments after they'd passed such a bright splash, and he'd blink hard not to lose sight of Frodo, toes scrambling for a hold on each step as like a steep nothing might yawn right afore them. They continued on down, wrapped in the ragged echoes of their breathing.
And then it was all he had for steer, the sound of Frodo's thin breaths and his footfalls – confounded as they rang among the stones – and at times a brush of the cloak when he'd caught up too close. Sam tried to keep off by a step or two, and match his own tread to Mr. Frodo's uneven pace. If he stumbled, Sam would still be close enough to catch hold, and better that than his master toppling into him from behind, to send them both flying. Though it seemed his own fingers didn't possess an inch of that faith, for they kept up a fretful clenching in the foul, clammy air.
Light again, from a torch sputtering on its last clump of pitch. The flare swam so dizzy in Sam's eyes, it gave him fair warning. Round and round they'd gone for so long, he'd soon lose all sense of direction. Before him, Frodo's head flicked sideways, as if he might have thrown an anxious glance over his shoulder ere another dip in the stone warned him to mind his steps. His left hand scrabbled pale on the wall where there wasn't a proper handhold amid the rugged stones, the orc shield dangling awkward from his other arm.
"Go on, Mr. Frodo," Sam said softly, "it can't be too far now. I'm right behind you."
Frodo's answer wasn't more than a lonesome sound, a break in his thready breathing. Likely a mutter of disbelief, too, at the promise that this would soon be over – and what then, Sam couldn't let himself think on yet – for the stair just tunneled and spiraled away as if to delve into the heart of the mountain. And what if it did, what if they'd missed the doorway Sam took on his way in? He'd stormed up then in such a desperate race, never wondering if there were more stairs plunging into deep caverns on the other side. He bit down on the inside of his cheek, telling himself no, it ain't that dark out, and the air's chill, there would have been a draught,
but the fear slid up his back, between the sweat and the chafing of his pack through the crumpled, stinking cloak.
The next torch they passed had gone out, though Sam could trace it by a bitter whiff. Further down they went, and it seemed every bit like being pulled into a cold well at their feet. The dreadful weight round his neck might be gone, but when Sam stared into the blackness, searching for a hopeful slip of grey among the floating snatches of Frodo's breathing, the feel of falling crept through his bones again, as if he'd done naught else for days. Plunged into the deepest well there ever was, till the memory of sky above and perhaps a branch weaving in free air were fully drownded in stone and dank – and next the glum creepers of moss on the inside walls would seem like rich and promising things where the greyest bit of light still reached – till that, too, were gone and swallowed up in black, and no hope of water in the depth below, only the reeling, clenching heartbeat that thundered in his ears. So tight he could scarce breathe.
"Sam?" Though Frodo's voice quivered in the gloom, the sound soared jubilant as song and freed a sob from Sam's throat.
"Sam..." Closer and turned towards him, Frodo's voice slid between him and the blackness.
"It's – I'm all right, Mr. Frodo," he rasped, waving a hand about to reach for the wall again. It fell on cloth instead, the coarse and stiff weave of that ugly cloak, but beneath it lay Frodo's shoulder, firm and too thin, the only hold in the world. Oh, to know him here, alive
... Sam clutched on blind as he steadied his breaths. There were so many things he wanted to say, hard on his heels from the long dark before – I thought I'd lost you, and I thought I'd found you, and now I don't, I can't
"Don't... don't be afraid, Sam." Mr. Frodo mightn't sound any more certain than he was, but the warmth of his voice, his breath, cleared a space in the dark and gave better guidance than those guttering torches ever would. "Can you go on?"
"Yes, sir, if you can," Sam muttered, releasing his shoulder in a faint afterthought. By a soft stir in the air, he knew that Frodo had turned, and his footfalls picked up again, drawing patters along the walls.
Sam raised his hand to the stone once more. His palm scraped over rough bumps and slick dribbles as gave him shivers up his arm. Oh, his fingers might want to dig into Frodo's shoulder and not let go till the very end of things, but he wouldn't let them. He'd seen a sharper need by the gloom on the rooftop, when Frodo gulped air through his open mouth and looked over the walls as if he'd not set foot outdoors in a lifetime. Sam had to let him walk by his own strength, for more than anything his master needed to know this: that he could.
And he'd been proved right, too, Sam thought as his fingers trailed through dust and damp along the wall. Slow and unsure as Frodo might be descending the stairs, he'd not faltered or stumbled once. No small marvel, when the first steps he took up in the tower were so weak and miserable that Sam ached to reach out –
"I see... something," Frodo whispered from below.
And soon there came the pale shine of a torch still gloaming, and not ten steps afterwards, a thin spill of firelight stretched across the stone.
"Sam, there..." It was a mere gasp, not hope as such, but some small relief, and Sam filled his chest with the same. Yes, a cooler draught, just as he'd expected, wafted up towards them from the archway.
"Down along this passage," he said as they stepped through. The run of stones seemed to tunnel on for miles, and a fresh chill fell on his shoulders. At his back stood the brazen undergate where he'd lost his hope and sense all over again.
"You had better lead now," Frodo murmured, his breaths coming faster, from tiredness or fright or both.
"It's the straight road out," Sam answered with all the cheer he could muster. "We can't get lost here." But this open route also laid them bare to whatever might lurk out of view, and his own voice scraped harsh against the brooding silence.
There's not a body left alive in this place,
Sam repeated to himself, save only us,
but that roused a memory of crouching among the corpses, out on the roof, grappling and tugging for usable gear, not wanting to look or to think...
He peered into dark arches and chambers left and right, each smothered in a hateful silence. The sheer weight of stone all around seemed to lean in on them, breaking their footsteps into fearful slaps on the walls. Frodo walked close behind, the ring-mail rattling with every tired step. That disgusting orc gear. It vexed Sam's own skin to think of Frodo walking about in fretted leather and clotted pelt, but perhaps he didn't quite notice such discomforts now. And there was still the need for food and refilling their water bottles; Sam told himself to keep his mind fixed on that.
"There's the door up ahead, Mr. Frodo." He pointed towards it, and slowed his step to push between Frodo and the two dead orcs lying in a heap by the wall. There'd been so many on the rooftop, but Frodo hadn't paid them any heed as he stood swaying in the smoky twilight, while the mountain flickered dull and angry in the Northeast.
They'd almost reached the end of the passage when Sam paused again to look into a chamber on his left. A rim of paler stone encircled what could only be a water-hole of some sort.
"Wait, here's..." He stepped inside and cast a look down the hole. Aye, a cistern it was, and the oily shimmer deep below might be water, but no bucket had been left to hand, as he ought to have guessed.
"Sam." Though it was less than a whisper, it spun him back in a heartbeat and whipped his hand to Sting at his belt.
But the passage lay silent as before, and Frodo stood rooted by the doorway, an ell from the big orc sprawled across the threshold. Sam moved up close till he could whisper in his ear. "Don't look. Here – 'tis just another step, and we're out."
When he slipped a hand under Frodo's elbow, he felt the stiff dismay ease just a bit, a tremor unlacing into the shaky step Frodo took, his cloak tangling in the dead orc's armour. With a gasp, he pulled free and sagged into the shadow of a pillar beside the arch. Sam followed in a quick leap and stopped in front of him, blocking the outer court from his master's view. How they'd get across, he couldn't imagine.
The dead lay scattered all about the paved court, and he needn't take another look at them either. When he'd crossed the first time, there'd been aught but anger, anger that surged and seethed so thick through every limb, it swept him past fear and every thought save one. But now all of it seemed to be crowding in from the back of his eyes. Hideous shapes wound together in their death-tangles, the bloodied holes where –
Frodo dropped the shield against the wall with a clatter, and his shoulders fell on a hitching gasp.
"You'll have to breathe through your mouth, Mr. Frodo, then the foul stench won't seem so bad." Sam almost bit his tongue a moment later for saying something so useless, but it had been the only protection he knew when he crawled among the dead on the roof, to find cloaks as weren't too stained or slick with –
Sam stared down into his hands, not wanting to think what still clung to his fingers, and if there'd ever be a chance to wash it off.
"Please," Frodo said again.
He had to look up then and was seized by the same quiver – alive
– that made him feel light as a feather. Not a single star pierced the gloom overhead, though Sam wished there could be, if only a scrap of one, just to see its living silver mirrored in Frodo's eyes.
"How... how did you manage to get in here?" Frodo asked.
"Through the gate, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, "on the other side of the court." But he thought of the place where they'd found each other again, so far-off now, high and distant as a bird's nest among the crags.
Frodo shook his head, brief and tired, before he leaned back into the wall. "That isn't what I meant."
Some limp curls straggled from the leather cap he was wearing, and the gloom brushed dirty shadows and hollows across his face, but his eyes held fast. Such a clear shade they were, even here, more so than any sky, and Sam's sight filled with a heating dazzle as he stepped nearer.
to come." Oh, but he couldn't bear this – it split him sharp like a crack that sprang from deep in the ground, and through it he pulled a hard breath – "I didn't ought to have left you, not for a moment!"
He turned aside, to the dark stretch beneath the tower's wall, and the court lying dim and dazed under the weight of all the dead.
"Sam, think about it." A stubborn urgency strung Frodo's voice now, pulling at him. "If you hadn't..."
With the tail of his eye, Sam caught a small movement. One of Frodo's hands raising up in a confused flutter, till he trapped his own wrist in a fast grip. "Only you would sing in a place like this."
A song splintered into a thousand pieces – thief!
– and put together again, here, in the softness of Frodo's tone, the look of him now that burned to such brightness in Sam's heart. But he had no voice to carry even a single note, only a shattering in the middle of his breast, amid jagged, stumbling beats. "I didn't know what to do."
If he was leaning forward, it felt more like falling, falling till he'd clutched hold of Frodo's shoulders and buried his face in coarse, black folds. He wasn't breathing, either, till he felt the trembling of Frodo's fingers through the curls at his nape, and then it rushed from him in a sobbing gasp. Only a moment,
he warned himself, we have to leave
"Sam..." Warm and unsteady against his jaw, while Frodo's fingers fumbled for a path to his skin past the edge of the orc-helm. "Can you even bear–"
But just the start of that question wrung a sound near to a moan from him, and he raised his head to look at Frodo. "There's but one thing as I can't bear, and that... it's over and past. I'll not lose you again."
From all around rose the sick smells, even from the clothes as they wore, but they seemed less than a wisp of fog next to the breaths that cradled his face. Taut and anxious, holding him to the hope, the questions that brimmed from the liquid glitter in Frodo's eyes. "If we go together, Sam? You said if
"Oh, but not – it's your choice to make, Mr. Frodo, it always is." Sheer urgency drove the words out ere Sam could untangle them into reason. If only Frodo could see himself, then he would know – "There's aught in the world as can take it from you."
And not this, neither,
Sam thought, his neck nigh itching from the memory of the chain. Let the foul thing try what it will, it can't take me from you.
is a choice I have long made." Frodo's tone was all of surprise, before it dropped again, and so did his glance, lowering to the the spot where the Ring lay buried under leather and orc-mail. "I only would have wished..."
Recollections crawled down Sam's throat, thick with loathing. How bearing the Ring had stretched his own skin into some hunched sort of shadow, hollow and dragged down by its weight, the lying promises.
"You should never have had to carry it." Frodo's eyes flashed when they met his again. But if there was anger in them, it burned off all the doubt and opened a breathless understanding that tightened Sam's grasp on his shoulders.
"It destroys," Frodo said hoarsely, "it pulls apart and shapes anew – but not you, Sam, not you."
"Why not me?" he whispered. "Frodo..." Who else but me?
A shiver struck him at the thought and wound into the clumsy stroking of Frodo's fingers on the back of his neck. And that tenderness gave him all the answer, a surety that blazed so fierce and whole, it shook him through the bone. Alive and here
– and not a single question more to waver between them.
For another moment, he held Frodo against him as if he could crush whatever strength he'd got left into him, their stiff cloaks rubbing together like folds of pitch. Then he let his hands drift down Frodo's arms till only their fingers were touching. "I know what it does, now."
Frodo pressed his lips together, watching him. But then his fingers reached back, and he raised their hands up between them. "Yes... we will go together." Each word was blown warm against Sam's knuckles, waking a tingle on his skin underneath all the dirt. "To the end, Sam."
The small tug on Frodo's mouth couldn't rightly be called a smile, and yet it was more, as if a sudden light had fallen on his face. He unlaced their fingers to breathe a kiss against Sam's palm, and Sam could feel it then, all the will as was needed joining between them. He nodded. "We must leave now, Mr. Frodo."
The first glance he threw over his shoulder brought back all the dangers, as if they were crowding in through the gate. Hereafter, they'd be lucky if they didn't run into worse than ash-heaps and barren rock. Oh, he wouldn't fool himself believing they'd lost Gollum on the pass. The old villain had to be lurking out there, too, but the thought brought only a weary sense of warning, not a single pricking of anger. Sam took his own advice and breathed in through his mouth. There was the glowering watch by the gate to face first, and another menace still hovered somewhere amidst swollen clouds and black sky. And then –
Frodo clasped his hand firmly. "Lead me."
~ ~ ~
With every step, Frodo is sinking. The very air seems to thwart his purpose, beating him against an unknown limit, without or within himself. The walls of this stronghold may have been built by the Men of Gondor, but when his eyes struggle along the harsh lines of towers and battlements, they find no relief. He stumbles as if these walls and the crags from which they rise were tied around his neck. And beyond these walls, the mountain waits. The glimpse he caught from the rooftop lies frozen in his mind's eye, a sullen wink of fire. Underneath the rock flanks moves a force like giant bellows that suck the breath out of this land and drag it from his own chest.
He remembers his last wild run, and its echoes are pounding up through the ground, shaking it apart until it turns into a mire. These echoes trap his feet, and what should be clear space stems him backward, surging up in a tide of stone.
He finds himself clinging to the pavement where black runnels seep into the cracks. "I can't go on, Sam... I don't know what's come over me."
"I do, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmurs and sinks into a crouch behind him. "Hold up now!"
The sound of his voice draws shape and direction out of the shadows that wheel around them, that rear ahead of them. Frodo looks up to follow Sam's gaze forward, to the waiting arch.
"It can't be more dangerous than before," Sam tells him.
Though neither of them can be sure of this, there is no other choice. Frodo folds himself into Sam's hands, his arms, wrapped about him and tangling so that for the moment he doesn't know whose fingers press to his forehead and pass over his eyes. And the breath thrumming against his back breaks in a soft shock from his mouth that's almost laughter.
"You're right, Sam."
The touch retreats to his shoulder and remains there, a soothing hold hinged upon this darkness. From it unwinds movement, without effort, so that Frodo, too, can rise. He no longer moves by his own will. What moves him is lighter than air and spins out between them, cast loose from the finest glass that kindles at a touch.
"Now for it!"
The light pours through Sam's fingers and envelops them both in the whole of a startled moment. With the flare comes Sam's smile, and on this sudden brink of hope, their voices are joined.
Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!
Aiya elenion ancalima!
Now they are both running, through the black arch, past the scathing silence of the Watchers. One more step, and then –
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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.